Differing success: How four ranchers approach herd management

John Moes of Moes Feedlot in Watertown, S.D., right, was joined by Tylor Braden, cattle manager at King Ranch, Kingsville, Texas, John Maddux owner of Maddux Cattle Co. in Wauneta, Neb., and Trey Patterson, CEO of Padlock Ranch in Ranchester, Wyo., at the Beef Improvement Federation Conference on June 19.

Herd management isn’t black and white. There are no silver bullets to managing cattle, just like there are no silver bullets to managing crops. But for some ranchers, their management style has become the key to sustained growth.

At the Beef Improvement Federation Research Symposium and Convention June 19 in Brookings, S.D., four ranchers from across the nation gathered to talk about how what they do has influenced their herds. John Moes of Moes Feedlot in Watertown, S.D. was joined by Trey Patterson, CEO of Padlock Ranch in Ranchester, Wyo., Tylor Braden, cattle manager at King Ranch, Kingsville, Texas; and John Maddux owner of Maddux Cattle Co. in Wauneta, Neb.

In a question and answer style panel, the four producers discussed how each of their different managing techniques has led to success.

Moes said his operation relies heavily on synchronization of the herd. Moes Feedlot is a 300-350 cow-calf operation with 2,000 head of cattle in the feedlot.

“We go start to finish with these cows,” Moes said.

Through stewardship and conservation, he earned the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Region 7 Environmental Stewardship Award in 2018. His main focus, however, has been integrating artificial insemination to make sure everything is synchronized in the herd.

“If you don’t use technologies, you’re going to lose them,” he said. “We used to synchronize the heifers because it was the easiest to do but now we synchronize everything.”

On top of artificially inseminating his heifers and cows, Moes has begun work on genetics to map out his entire herd. His focus will be on maternal traits rather than production traits to make sure their longevity in the herd is profitable. Because of this shift, Moes said he’s taken several hundred head of his herd routinely.

“It’s just like clockwork the last few years,” he said. “We’re taking them out in the middle of April. It’s all because of genetics.”

Braden of King Ranch in Texas has a different approach to herd management, but one he said came directly because of the size of their herd and the climate of south Texas. King Ranch is roughly 825,000 acres and has a herd of 15,000 purebread cattle with about 23,000 breeding females, and 16,000 mixed cattle on a feedyard. Braden their motto has become sustaining the business for the family that owns it.

“It’s economically and ecologically, and therefore multi-generationally, sustainable,” he said.

Rather than focus on anything from a carcass standpoint, Braden said they first focus on cost-effectiveness and improvements.

“Our model focuses heavily on cost control,” he said. “There is more opportunity to control cost than to add value. Unfortunately, that model just isn’t sexy.”

Braden said King Ranch is using genetics to focus on longevity in the herd. The herd was already breeding in the 90 percentile, so Braden said it wasn’t worth improving further because of diminishing returns.

“The biggest opportunity is the sustainability of those commercial cows,” he said. “Our average cow isn’t 8 or 9 years old, we are in that 5 and 6 range.”

Maddux has an entirely different operation than the other three speakers, he said. As a fourth generation rancher on an operation started in 1886, Maddux said he has focused on keeping the herd stress free rather than overly productive. The Maddux herd is roughly 2,500 head of cattle.

“We don’t want to put pressure and focus on production traits,” he said. “That profit function for that cow is heavily, heavily driven by just the ability to raise a calf. It really makes production traits trivial by comparison.”

As the fifth generation on his operation, Patterson said keeping his Wyoming herd stable has been his focus as Padlock Ranch expands. His main approach has been to remain hands off with many of the cattle.

“There (shouldn’t be) intensity to that scenario of calving,” he said. “They’ll have to make a living on their own.”

Being in expansion mode, Patterson said he has begun to see things as integrated parts of the business rather than separate entities to be micro-managed.

“Everything is integrated in this business,” he said. “If you’re looking at everything in a singular aspect, you’re already missing something.”

These four managing philosophies don’t compete, Maddux said, but they are influenced by the region they operate in and how big the operation has become.

The first question posed to the group asked how each ranch deals with replacement heifers, since all four said they keep a pretty closed herd. For Maddux, this is where his philosophies differ from common, accepted practices. Maddux Cattle keeps roughly 1,100 to 1,200 heifers, Maddux said, and each is exposed in that first year to be naturally selected.

“Those heifers that get bred are the most valuable heifers,” he said. “The bulls make that decision, not us.”

After that, Maddux said they keep only heifers that breed in the first year and sell the rest. For the cows, only two cycles are allowed before they are sold as well. After adopting this method, fertility rates skyrocketed because there were no late calving heifers or cows.

For Braden, the two sides of the King Ranch operation have different priorities. The commercial side has focused solely on numbers while the purebred side has strict genetic criteria for heifers.

The big question for the group came when asked about how they handle genetics on the ranch. While Braden and Moes have begun work into genetic testing, and King Ranch’s purebred herd is entirely genotyped, Patterson and Maddux have laid off the testing.

“I’m afraid our genetic program is more biblical in its nature,” Maddux said. “I can’t quote you the verse, but it goes back to ‘like begets like.”

“I guess ours is more New Testament anyways,” Patterson joked in reply.

The reason King Ranch uses such heavy genetic testing, Braden said, is because they ran out of ways to improve before that.

“To continue the rate improvement, we needed to have new steps and strategies and genomics became that step for us,” he said.

For Moes, the decision came when South Dakota State University professors approached him to be part of their research. While he has been slow to adopt a use for the data, Moes said embracing technology has to be part of his lexicon.

“If we don’t use technology, we’ll just be behind everybody,” he said. “We need to be on the same page.”

“All technology that can improve your generation intervals is important,” Braden added. “It’s been our Achilles’ heel compared to the pork and poultry industries.”

The leadership panel’s last bit of advice came in the form of a longevity question. The panel was split on how important longevity was to their individual herds, but each agreed that depreciation of cow value is a big sticking point for every operation.

“The largest cost of a cowherd is the annual depreciation of a cow that is losing value,” Maddux said. “I’d rather harvest those cows before that depreciation happens and we’ve found an excellent market for them.”

Maddux’s philosophy on longevity traits involves the phrase “up to a point.” While he believes keeping cows in the herd until they are seven or eight makes sense, he has been lucky enough to replace older cows so they that they don’t depreciate too far in value.

Braden, on the other hand, said longevity has become one of their top priorities as they maintain a massive herd in south Texas.

“Longevity is imperative in commercial cow-calf operations,” he said. “There is nothing that is a higher leverage point for controlling costs.”

For Moes, longevity came as a byproduct of trying to stay in business 16 years ago during a tough time. As he focused on making sure his cows stayed in the herd longer, they have naturally become efficient animals.

Jager Robinson can be reached at jager.robinson@lee.net.