“It made me mad!”

Stan Pelton, Absarokee, Mont.

Stan Pelton, Absarokee, Mont.

That’s what a Montana rancher told me when talking about the first carcass data he ever got back.

“I got tired of trying to sell them. I wasn’t willing to accept generic price when I thought I had something better,” Stan Pelton said. “I soon learned.”

Those first calves graded 20% Choice, and motivated him to continue feeding cattle for the next two decades. It also spurred the rancher to adopt an AI plan to infuse the best genetics more quickly. Today he sells loads above 90% Choice, with more than half of those reaching the upper two-thirds of that grade.

Dee Johnson, Edgerton, Wyo.

Dee Johnson, Edgerton, Wyo.

A visit to a Wyoming ranch earlier this summer illustrated the other end of the surprise spectrum. When the Dee Johnson decided to retain ownership 5 years ago, he knew it was a risk. He’d been buying “top dollar” bulls, but had no way of knowing how those genetics performed beyond weaning. And then he got the call from his cattle feeder.

“You can’t believe what you’ve got,” the yard manager told him. The inaugural retained ownership load went better than 90% Choice and earned branded premiums. “Don’t change a thing.”

The bulls were working, the cows were working, but that producer didn’t want them in a holding pattern. His first data just served as benchmark that he’s been building on ever since. And yes, they’re still getting better.

Lyle Gossling, Decorah, Iowa

Lyle Gossling, Decorah, Iowa

Not all surprises are apparent right away. When an Iowa cattleman got his first carcass report on cattle finished with a local farmer-feeder, it was interesting, but not all that informative.

“Under the marbling, we had all the different scores and, well, I didn’t understand them,” Lyle Gossling told me. Denotations like “AB10” and “AB20” could have just as well been a product code or carcass locator number.

So months down the road when the producer asked a custom feedyard manager to explain the packer data, he got quite a shock.

“He broke it down and said, ‘Those are exceptional cattle and that’s Prime on the carcasses.’”

2013_06_03_mr_Pelton Ranch-87His goal now? To move the whole herd into the “AB” (abundant marbling) category.

I’m lucky to chat with cow-calf producers all across the country, and many of them followed in the tradition of selling weaned calves before transitioning to retained ownership at some point. Rarely do I hear, “That’s exactly what I expected my data to look like.”

But they almost always tell me—regardless of how positive or negative the surprise—it was worth it.

Gossling said, “If I’m going to pay that kind of money for genetics, I wanted to make sure ‘it’ was in there. And it was in there in spades.”

There is power in knowing how your product performs. Why do you think companies beg for online reviews or restaurants incentivize you to complete post-visit surveys? The information they learn from feedback helps them make systems improvements, marketing tweaks and generally get better at giving their customers what they expect.

Most cattlemen I know want to do just that. Maybe it’s time to get a little vulnerable and try feeding some cattle. Just brace yourself for a few surprises along the way.

May your bottom line be filled with black ink,



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Fewer fires to fight

A deliciously UNburnt roast that still sent a poorly placed smoke alarm into fits.

A deliciously UNburnt roast that still sent a poorly placed smoke alarm into fits.

In my book of comfort food, it’s really hard to beat a good pot roast, so when cooler temps dipping into the 50s hit eastern Kansas this week, I jumped at the opportunity to pull out my Dutch oven. As I slid my Certified Angus Beef® roast into the pot for a good braising last night, I almost instantly found myself standing on a chair in the middle of my kitchen feverishly trying to disengage the smoke alarm. That’s the fourth time this week I’ve had the same episode. Shaking my head I wondered, who in their right mind puts a smoke detector that close to a stove top where any kind of searing, sautéing or general cast iron magic is sure to send the kitchen into audible chaos?!

Earlier this summer we had the opportunity to move into a new place to call home. We chose our very modest farmstead because we knew it had a lot of potential, but the truth is, from smoke detector placement to landscape to fencing – we’ve more than once thought, “I sure wouldn’t have done it that way.”

As I was cleaning up the kitchen last night and simultaneously discussing veterinarian preg-checking appointments and planning upcoming weaning logistics with my husband, I couldn’t help but think about feedlots and wonder how often they’ve felt the way I did standing on that chair in my kitchen thinking, “I sure wouldn’t have done it that way.”

2011_11_02_mr_Eagle Hills Ranch Tour-22It’s no secret that high-risk cattle aren’t attractive for any feedyard buyer, mainly because no one needs an extra fire to put out. Generally, cattle that have been on some kind of a program, especially one with good documentation are worth more. Most cow-calf herds have a health and nutrition plan in place when it comes to weaning. When was the last time you reevaluated yours? Going through the same motions each fall is fine, if it works, but it’s always a great idea to evaluate your strategy annually and see where you can make improvements.

While it’s always best to consult your veterinarian on health management, I’d also recommend reviewing our Best Practices Manual for ways to fine-tune your weaning strategies. When your weaning and backgrounding management are on the same wavelength as your feedlot, you have more room for market negotiation and your feeder is less likely to have a need for putting out fires. The foundation for good cattle marketing is set in good management. Make sure the one you’re laying is one that the feeder can build on for a profitable, high-quality end product.


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Back to school, part II

Yesterday Kara talked about seeing the familiar with a different perspective. Read on today as she discusses other valuable takeaways from her involvement in the Young Cattlemen’s Conference.

IMG_7809New Classmates & Professors

The networking and relationship-building I took home from YCC was one of the most valuable pieces. It made me stop and wonder: how many other seminars have I attended where I flock to the people in the audience I know and go home with very few (if any) new contacts? Since YCC, I have reached out to at least one classmate or presenter – who I never knew prior to the conference – at least once a week. It’s been a great way to build mentors and have industry peers for idea sharing.

My challenge: The next seminar you go to, seek out at least one new face. Find out what they do and try to find a way that you can learn from them and make your business better. Listen to a session with a speaker you’ve never heard (or heard of), and approach them afterwards with questions. You might want to reach out to that person in the future and they are more likely to remember the person that came up to talk to them afterwards.

Make Time

DSC_0454I know it’s easy for cattlemen to neglect off-site learning opportunities because you just don’t have time. Make time. It’s as simple as that. I am certain the workload I left behind for my 10 days at YCC was very light compared to many of my classmates and it’s easy to worry about what’s going on back home, but the long-term benefits for your business are counting on your professional development.

My challenge: Keep your eyes peeled for opportunities to make yourself better. Each summer the American Angus Association hosts their Beef Leaders’ Institute, which is a great week-long opportunity to broaden your horizons on high-quality beef production. Heading to San Antonio for the annual Cattle Industry Convention & Trade Show next February? Check in a day early and take in the Cattlemen’s College sessions. Find a new educational opportunity and take hold of it! For some, it may be as simple as formally completely a BQA certification that you never finished. Set a goal – maybe you think in semesters and choose two a year, but identify your opportunities and start today.


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Back to school

Brooklyns First Day of Big Presschol (1 of 1)

I enjoyed seeing many pictures in my newsfeed the past few weeks, including this one of Miranda’s oldest daughter.

Around our house the changing of the summer season is usually commemorated by the turning of crops, preparations for weaning, and a little relief from sweltering humidity. When you don’t live in a world that runs on semesters, it’s easy to forget that the end of summer also means back to school for so many families.

For the last few weeks it’s been impossible to overlook all the signs that school is back in session. Parents post photos of their kids, college students have moved back to campus, and my mother, a high school math teacher on Eastern Time, tends to be a little grumpier when I call her at 10:00 p.m. on a school night from my Central Time zone (Sorry, Mom!). It’s enough to make a person just a bit nostalgic about the days when you could dedicate the majority of your time to formal learning.

As cattlemen and women, it’s sure easy enough to get caught up in all of the chores and responsibilities around the farm and ranch. We try to keep up with the news and research articles as best we can. Although, if your coffee table is anything like ours, it carefully cradles every Ag magazine and newspaper published between the start of planting and the end of hay season. You know you’ll get to them eventually after you get those spring calves weaned.

photoSometimes there’s a lot of value in geographically removing yourself from your cattle business to take time and enhance your own learning. This summer, I had the opportunity to do just that through NCBA’s Young Cattlemen’s Conference (YCC).

It’s a big commitment to spend 10 days jet-setting between three different time zones, but the value was ten-fold the sacrifices to be there. Not every learning excursion can be so in-depth, but there are several fundamental lessons from off-the-ranch training beyond just the new material.

Reviewing Current

It’s true. Some of the material we covered in YCC wasn’t all that new to me. I had a relatively decent grasp on some of the consumer beef demand topics, but it was not a waste of my time to hear it again. It’s valuable to see someone new present familiar information. I learned new ways to explain answers to common questions, and likewise heard questions I’d never considered.

My challenge: Don’t let an old familiar topic deter you from attending a cattlemen’s meeting. You may have a great vaccination program in place for your herd. A public forum on herd health might have new research to make it even better. Never become complacent about the things you’re already really good at.


All our tours were at operations that were “all in” for their segment of beef production. As it turns out, there’s a lot that ranchers can learn from burger processors, farm equipment developers can learn from legislators, and feedyard managers can learn from meat scientists. Spending time with people who are some of the best in their business is a great way to gain perspective. Even though we all have different jobs along the way, there are a lot of strategies that aren’t that different. While visiting with the JBS corporate team, one leader said the packing industry used to look at everything as one big pie and everyone was trying to get a bigger piece. He said today we need to challenge that thinking by figuring out how we can make the pie bigger. We can all put that logic to work.

My challenge: Chances are all your focus lies in whatever segment you’re in. If you’re a cow-calf operator, you spend the minimal amount of time necessary understanding the world of cattle feeding. When you head to a conference, take in a session that is targeted towards a different arm of the beef business.

New faces and making time—tune in tomorrow to read the rest of Kara’s lessons learned from YCC.


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Feed prices down, risk ever apparent

Dan Basse, AgResource Company

Dan Basse, AgResource Company 


“You must manage your risk.”

Dan Basse, president of AgResource Company, has headlined the Feeding Quality Forum for the past six or seven years. He’s covered $2 corn to $8 corn, but that message remains constant. Sure, the risk changes, but it’s important to manage it.

This year he told us the “bio boom” is over, exports are down and supplies are up. That all boils down to corn prices decidedly down, around $3.60 he predicts, with poor basis in the north due to infrastructure challenges.

“We’re back to waiting for a significant climatic event to cause a rally,” he says. We’ve spent so much time worrying about feed prices. Now they’re in check, so what’s the risk now?

Scott Brown, of the University of Missouri, told us about the real danger (makes economics sound fairly dramatic, doesn’t it?) that comes in producing low-quality beef.


Scott Brown, University of Missouri 


“Statistically pork and chicken make better substitutions in the Select market,” he says. “We don’t see the same substitution competition for Choice and Prime.”

A 10% increase in Prime prices equates to very little change in consumption, but that same 10% increase in Select price moves the consumption down at a much quicker pace.

Lately the Choice-Select spread fluctuates wildly, but the Prime-Choice spread remains wide and fairly constant. Looking at demand curves and economics, Brown says the message is clear.

“Quality can become a risk management tool for the industry in the long run,” he says.

At the university-run Thompson Farm, the Angus-based herd provides an example. “The most profitable cows were those whose offspring graded Prime.”

Brown was almost urgent in pleading with the feeder-centric audience to take this message to their suppliers.

“If we don’t do it now, we never will,” he said. Drought has broken in many parts and herd rebuilding needs to include a focus on animals that will gain and grade. “Investment in the genetics of that herd will pay dividends.”

May your bottom line be filled with black ink,


PS—Thanks to all the forum co-sponsors (Purina, Feedlot Magazine, Zoetis and Roto-Mix) who helped us bring this great set of experts to cattle feeding country.

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Bovine babies grow up fast

They’re not quite babies anymore.

If you were with us back in April you likely caught a glimpse of this cute calf post by Miranda. #Calfwatch14 was in full swing and the CAB staffers who dedicate before and after work hours to caring for their own herds kept quite the busy schedule.

With summer nearly behind us and fall on the horizon, I thought it only right to check in with those bovine babies and see if they’d show off their good side for the camera once again. They didn’t disappoint. What divas!

Like any growing youngin’ Paul’s Nebraska (half) pair preferred to be photographed without mom this time.

Kara’s calves spent their summer grazing the tall Kansas grass,


while Barb’s Ohio babies were just thankful to be out of the snow.

Barb_3Erin’s Maryland cutie is prepping for show season,


and Christy’s is too.


(Hey, wait a minute…not again, you sneaky ovine!)

Steve’s beauties are still walkin’ on sunshine in Kansas,

Steve_2and resting in the shade after a long day of grazing.


As for my gals in Florida, they’re getting by just fine, one summer shower at a time.

IMG_0628So while babies get bigger,


and seasons come and go,


it’s good to know that some things never change…


like this one’s love for the camera. (Get me with your best shot!)


Thanks for allowing me to tell your story,


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Lessons learned

We’ve been told time after time that we can’t have our cake and eat it, too. But it turns out that sometimes we CAN! Don’t believe me? Let me introduce you to Tim Adams, a commercial Angus producer I visited near Wakefield, Kan.

Adams with his hydraulic shoot that he saved five years to buy.  This is a great tool for him and his family during the artificial insemination season.

Adams with his hydraulic chute that he saved five years to buy. This is a great tool for him and his family during the artificial insemination season.

More than 20 years ago, when Tim started his cowherd from scratch it was what he describes as, “a gigantic failure.”

In college he “got hooked” on Limousin cattle because of their growth performance and phenotype. So he bought nine head and everything was good until he got his first calf crop.

The weight of the calves was disappointing and when breeding season came they were difficult to breed back. Luckily a neighbor gave him some advice: switch the breed.

Now Tim has 250 commercial Angus cows, an impressive artificial insemination (AI) program, good friends in the industry and knowledge he wouldn’t trade for anything. And he’s raking in the premiums with calf crops that make 65% to 84% Certified Angus Beef ® (CAB®) or Prime.

But what he is most proud of is getting 75% of his herd to conceive via AI, with very few stragglers after using a good clean up bull.

"Make a cow first and the carcass will come," is the motto at TA Ranch.

“Make a cow first and the carcass will come,” is the motto at TA Ranch.

“Fertility is still the number one deal—if you can’t get them bred what good does it do if they can grade well? You’ll be out of business if they aren’t bred,” says Adams.

Angus cattle have “just flat worked” for him because of their maternal ability and reproductive efficiency. As for the carcass traits, he credits those who helped him throughout the years, especially Tom and Matt Perrier from Dalebanks Angus.

For years Tim bred away from what he considered to be “carcass bulls,” disregarding Matt Perrier’s encouragement to include a focus on marbling.

Like many other producers, both registered and commercial, Adams thought it was impossible for his herd to excel in both maternal and feedlot traits. But Matt was able to break through and now, thanks to proven genetics, Tim’s herd is proof that his theory of simultaneous selection works.

Milking ability is another trait selected by Adams.  I'd say this calf approves!

Milking ability is another trait selected by Adams. I’d say this calf approves!

Learning from his past, Tim is now smarter about his breeding decisions, trusting the numbers and selecting for balance. To him, the cake is his fertile Angus cows and the icing on top is the calves’ high-quality carcasses.

“You never stop learning in this business,” he says. “Sometimes the lessons you learn the hard way are the most important because those are the ones you never forget.”

At the bold age of 21, it is often hard for me to remember that I actually do not hold the answers needed to solve all the world’s problems. My way isn’t always the best way and in life I’m going to make mistakes. But that’s okay because like this producer, learning from them is how we find success.


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From homestretch to home stretch

Hay, fellow seekers –

We are starting to feed a little bit of that to give calves a taste, even though a few weeks ago their grass was so lush they would not have been interested.

Calves doing well in early July

Calves doing well in early July


As we get ready for preweaning shots and deworming, I think these calves are in the homestretch. They’re starting to get a little hay and grain to supplement the fading grass and prepare them for independent life in September.

The homestretch is a term borrowed from horse racetracks in the 1800s to describe the final phase of any endeavor. Applying it to calves now suggests weaning is the finish line, although in the big picture we have to realize this is just one of several laps on the track of beef production.

It’s critically important, a matter of life and death for some calves, but consider the other laps, some with no clear beginning.

We’re always out there starting the herd on some “endeavor” while another is in the backstretch or rounding a curve.

You might say it starts with selecting genetics, but those are passed down through generations in a marathon, yet decisions are made quickly. Developing heifers and getting them bred is more like one of the laps.

Another starts as we prepare for calving, with the homestretch taking in the last few calving events of the season as they near the pasture gate for the season of nursing and grazing. That’s the one now heading for the wire, where we’ll check the score on our scales and start them on the bridge to success and realizing their full potential.

While momma goes after a pesky fly, daughter contemplates drier grass.

While momma goes after a pesky fly, daughter contemplates the drier grass.

After weaning, the calves will move on to local backgrounding on hay and silage top-dressed with grain. The first weeks in the drylot can make us wonder why we ever thought the calves were in a homestretch a few weeks earlier, but frequent monitoring helps us get acclimated.

Soon the first corner is behind us and we’re making arrangements for the handoff to a custom finishing yard for the steers after 60 days. A round of culling will send some calves to auction then, but most heifers will stay for more growing and development as replacements for the herd or later sales as bred.

Are the steers really in the homestretch at the finishing yard? As on every other step along the way, that’s a qualified yes.

The absolute homestretch is on the beef product side, when success is so close we can almost taste it.

When high-quality beef meets with great cuisine and cookery knowledge in a positive environment—our kitchen or dining room, backyard picnic or steakhouse with attentive waitstaff—that’s when the race is won for beef demand.

That’s when another positive eating experience generates the spark that ensures someone will buy beef again and signal us to keep producing more of the right stuff.

Let’s keep building tomorrow together,


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Risking it

“He loves it here….and I love him,” Gaye Johnson told me when I greeted her and her husband Dee at their northeastern Wyoming place earlier this summer.

I have yet to visit a ranch that I didn’t find beautiful, but Dry Fork Land and Cattle has to rank right up there with the prettiest, so that opening line seemed misplaced.

2014_06_12_mr_Johnson-102Then I heard the rest of the story. The one that involved Dee and his father purchasing the foreclosed on land with “lots of borrowed money.” The general condition, including water resources, made it only fit to run 500 pairs. His wife and kids stayed near their home base at Laketown, Utah, because the accommodations were nothing more than an old sheep barn that they turned into a bunkhouse.

“You fought with the rats at night to see who got the bed,” Dee laughed. (I don’t think he chuckled so much because of the joke, but because it’s one of those details you can only laugh about after the fact.)

2014_06_12_mr_Johnson-23When they built a 1,100-square foot cabin in 2000, it was another 5 years before they had electricity. (Yes, you read that right. Even with a permanent dwelling, that was FIVE years of fetching water from the stock tank to flush the toilet.) But the hard work, sweat and sacrifice has paid off.

As coalbed methane took off the place got a little busier, as Johnsons do not have the mineral rights, but there was one happy side-effect.

“I said to myself, ‘I can’t stop them from doing that, but I can control what they do with the water,” Dee said, so he insisted that it didn’t leave his land. They developed a reservoir system that now allows them to move water to different parts of the ranch, as well as operate five pivots to build feed resources.

It paid off. Now they run 1,600 cows, yearlings and replacements. They retain the best heifers and the rest join the steers at Darnall Feedlot at Harisburg, Neb., where five years of carcass data show his cattle at nearly 60% Certified Angus Beef ® brand acceptance.

2014_06_12_mr_Johnson-158Dee thought his cattle better than commodity cattle, but deciding to retain ownership still caused some anxiety.

“It was risky what we were going to do. We decided to forgo a sure thing,” Dee said. “We didn’t know how they would perform. And we didn’t know they would do that well when they got graded. It was risky but I thought well worth it.

Kind of like moving out of a familiar but increasingly developed area of Utah with no room to expand the herd to a rugged and isolated Wyoming expanse; it took risk, and a devoted wife I might add, but Dee took the leap. He saw the potential and made it productive.

May your bottom line be filled with black ink,



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Acres, not hours

It rained a lot last night.

Storm clouds rolled in around 6 o’clock and just as I was unplugging my computer to get on the tractor, I knew it would be a race for time.

DSCN8693I checked my clock to make sure the time was right.

This summer I’ve become quite familiar with the “sky going dark at six” look so I shrugged, accepting it was a battle I was about to lose. There was thunder and lightning, blinding rain and wind, everything you would need for a good excuse to curl up on the couch with your favorite book (or if you’re me, a hammock overlooking the pastures, but that’s another post for another time).

I dashed for cover, proud that I got a few tasks done before the lightning threw a wrench in my routine. I stood and watched it wash away all the signs of the day.

Now here’s the part where I want to make myself clear: I like rain. I would go as far as to say I love it. I like to write about it, how it’s metaphorically used in songs, I like to watch it and I definitely like what it means for cattlemen. I’m just saying that it sometimes messes with a girl’s plans.

So with cattle standing in pastures, and rain falling down all around me, I paused. I ran to my truck, drove through the puddles and just as I was pulling onto the road, I had to stop. A cattle hauler was pulling in. I let him go, admiring the freshly-cleaned trailer glistening in the light of dusk. There was another one, too. Already backed up and ready to load.


And that’s when I thought about this quote I read yesterday.


So simple, perhaps even a bit warm and fuzzy, but I share it with you, nonetheless. Because as it rained and as they loaded, I thought it was a perfect fit.

Because sometimes it rains, sometimes the market drops, sometimes the prices of our inputs seem almost unbearable. But through it all, we don’t waiver. There is no clocking out, no time for rain delays. Through the good and the bad, the new challenges and the ones we’ve learned to live with, it’s worth it.

In the cattle world, the show must go on, but I bet we would all agree that it’s a good view from the front row.


So, to those who work in acres, not hours, we say thank you.


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