Author Archives: blackinksteve

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A dreamer, lucky enough to see some come true. Rooted in these Kansas hills, I married schoolmate Anne, hunter, fisher, cook, mom, teacher and coach, fellow K-Stater. We make homemade wine and better Angus calves each year. Two daughters are grown now, the eldest in Ireland. Unique son a teacher, too; we’re legal guardians now. Introspective, I love words (pictures, too); trying to avoid groaners, but puns are intended. Obscure Reference Man who likes historical ballads. Well, most music except – pardon my gap – rap. Since 1998, Director of Industry Information for CAB. And so help me, I care.
calving season sil
On the ranch, The Purpose Driven Herd

It’s all good

I love calving season each year, but this one will be hard to beat. I used to do this in the winter on my northeast Kansas farm, starting in February. With heifers due on pasture leases the first of May, we couldn’t wait too long for synchronized artificial insemination (AI) early that month.

There’s been no change in breeding date over the last 20 years, but winter here has retreated. This year, the short month was so mild we didn’t exaggerate to call it spring calving. As one result, we calved the first quarter of our herd a month before the first day of spring with no losses till this morning. We went to 39/40 when a bull calf came backwards to a mature cow and unfortunately inhaled fluids; the streak had to end, but so far the weather is holding.

Our calves should be the healthiest ever. Each has been up and nursing within minutes, getting a full dose of immunizing colostrum and then dozing in comfort.

bull calf nursing

Twenty years ago, we wanted more male calves because we could sell more pounds. Now we have the data to know this #583 steer calf had a sibling that not only gained well but qualified for the Certified Angus Beef(R) brand.

I have to think back 36 years to my first calving season here with a couple dozen registered Continental cows. Winter was an obvious challenge in February and March, and even mature cows could have problems.

We watched them all, helping when necessary and couldn’t wait to see each new calf as soon as possible. Did I want “a boy or a girl?” It didn’t matter then because one could become a sale bull and the other could build the herd.

I didn’t know how much culling and “wholesale herd changing” lay ahead, mostly in search of calving ease and lower-input cows. As the cattle cycle turned and the family grew, we were running a random-quality, mostly black herd. I wanted male calves because steers weighed more and brought more money per pound.

With the start of AI in this commercial herd – first heifers and then the better half of cows 15 years ago – I always felt more elation from early-born heifers than bulls that would become steers on day one. I learned from the steers though, as their gain and carcass data came back to sire groups, cows and keep-or-cull decisions.

The whole idea behind AI was faster genetic improvement, so heifer calves were the most welcome. There were exceptions of course. Some bred heifers were kept only to see if a very docile sire could tame some of the too-hot maternal fire in otherwise productive cow families.

For the last 15 years, we lit up a little brighter when AI-sired calves were heifers, like Miss 664, with 3 generations of AI. Now we have enough great cows to just enjoy each one as it comes.

For the last 15 years, we lit up a little brighter when AI-sired calves were heifers, like Miss 664, with 3 generations of AI. Now we have enough great cows to just enjoy each one as it comes.

Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. After all this time, we are finally ending those trials and no longer giving the chance to scions of questionable disposition lines.

It’s a good feeling to get disposition more nearly under control.

There are still a few proddy old cows, some that could win an Oscar for attempted assault, but given a decade of chances, they have always stopped short of trying to hurt anyone tagging their calves. There are a few that grow suspicious as they get old and become too smart to fall for the traps management requires. If they have to be escorted in as singles, they’ll have to leave the farm.

For the most part, when docility is even and adequate, I can be just as happy to have a steer for the feedlot and premium beef production as to raise a potential replacement heifer backed by the decades of focus and culling toward an ideal.

Since calf sex is still random here, that brings peace of mind.

Let’s keep building tomorrow together!


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Chuck and Judy Backus accept the 2016 CAB Progressive Partner Award Sept. 24 in Tucson. With CAB Supply Development Director Justin Sexten, left, and President John Stika, right.
Award/contest winners, Following the Calves, On Target, On the ranch

Progressive quality

I first “met” Chuck Backus in the early 2000s. It was before we had a blog so we used the email list then called BLACK-INK. I still have the exchanges but of course can’t find them… Anyway (as he and I both say a lot) the retired Arizona State University provost with a 40,000-acre ranch wanted to convert his desert-based herd to high-quality, high-percentage Angus.

Few believed he could do that, even before we saw how tough the environment is. “It’s 22 square miles of rocks, cactus and mountains that we call pastures, but we have animals that do well in these conditions,” he says, noting the frequent day-long rides to monitor that.


Chuck often hosts groups for educational presentations on the Quarter Circle U.

We all admired the drive. By the time Angus Media President Eric Grant and I stopped in to capture his story in 2013, nobody could doubt the success. But Chuck wasn’t done, still isn’t.

A couple of days ago, capping off a year of cooperation in our Following the Calves series, Chuck and Judy, his wife and partner of 59 years, accepted one of the highest honors from the Certified Angus Beef brand: Progressive Partner. Click that link to read all about it.

Their Quarter Circle U Ranch near Apache Junction is the home of highly focused and applied innovation. They keep their eyes on a vision of ideal cattle, using science and technology to keep getting better each year. As a benchmark 10 years ago, the first load of ranch calves finished in Texas made 50% low Choice but only one made CAB, and by 1% of a marbling score.

In March, we wrote about the steers he sent to Oklahoma, promising a report later: well, 95.4% of them qualified for CAB, and most of them Prime.

That seems hard to beat, but the moving target now includes much greater efficiency. I’m sure there’s going to be more to write about and learn from on the Quarter Circle U.

The Quarter Circle U has been 100% solar only for several decades.

The Quarter Circle U has been 100% solar only for several decades.

At the CAB Annual Conference in Tucson this past weekend, the 650 other partners from around the world applauded Chuck’s video comments.

“Ranching relates the person in all of our complexity to the real world, animal and earth kingdom that we live in. We have come from a million years of gathering tribes to farmers and sustaining communities and civilization.”

Though evolution has distanced humans from their food suppliers, he aims to close the gap.

At the end of the day, I enjoyed refreshments with Chuck, Judy and manager Dean Harris in 2013.

At the end of the day, I enjoyed refreshments with Chuck, Judy and manager Dean Harris in 2013.

“I have a personal drive to leave the world a little better than I found it. Ranching combines improving mother earth with the quality of the products that come from it. That quality is much better, either because of my direct contribution or setting an example that others could use to pursue goals.”

We call that a progressive attitude from a friend of the brand, the planet and everything on it.

Let’s keep building tomorrow together!


PS–That opening shot shows Chuck and Judy Backus accepting the 2016 CAB Progressive Partner Award Sept. 24 in Tucson, with CAB Supply Development Director Justin Sexten, left, and President John Stika, right.


Catch up on Chuck’s whole story with these posts:

Our “Following the Calves” series also takes you to Florida and Nebraska in these installments:

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On the ranch, On the road

High quality is the BIG picture

Pulling into the expansive yard at the 80,000-head-capacity Poky Feeders south of Scott City, Kan., a few months ago, I wondered how a giant feedyard like this can be famous for high-quality beef. Clearly, this was not the image of family farming cultivated by mainstream media.

But it didn’t take more than a few minutes with manager Joe Morgan (or later with his son, Grant) to realize it’s all about people and a shared vision of doing things right from start to finish.

pokysmilesYou feel a kinship when you hear their story. First of all, the Poky name comes from an endearing nickname for Pocahontas, Iowa. Founding partners are from the Hawkeye State. Morgan, too.

Then it turns out Morgan and friends were a driving force in founding U.S. Premium Beef in the 1990s, because they wanted to find a way to reward higher quality in customer cattle.

pokyridersNot surprisingly, the Poky crew developed a knack for getting high-quality cattle in the pens. They spent more than 30 years building a people-focused business and cultivating relationships with hundreds of like-minded families in a dozen states.

Most people don’t think of a huge feedyard being a family business, but Grant Morgan started doing odd jobs around the yard his dad managed when he was just eight years old. Ten years later, he saw a degree in airline science from the Salina, Kan., campus of Kansas State University as an escape.

But agriculture kept calling him back. Rather than American Airlines or United, he worked in Denver for ag data company IMI Global for years before returning to the feedyard in 2008.

Now an heir apparent to manage the enterprise that includes leases and partnerships from Oklahoma to Montana, Grant recalls the disconnect he saw in Denver friends a few years ago. Friends who did not believe “big agriculture” could really care for animals.pokytrucks

“I always told them to come out on Sundays, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, when we’re all out here feeding the cattle,” Grant says. “Most people don’t hear our story properly, they don’t know only 5 or 6% of our cattle are ever treated with an antibiotic, or that we have our consulting veterinarian out here every week for a full day.”

pokybizTalk to Joe, who devoted his career to building a big company that cares about people and quality. Talk to his son, who’s committed to carrying on a family tradition. If you listen, you can’t help but see it’s a good thing these folks have cast a wide net to include many thousands of cattle from across the country into a common vision and commitment to excellence.

Let’s keep building tomorrow together!


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Following the Calves, On the ranch

Following the Calves: Gearing up for Spring in AZ

PrintSpring comes early in the deserts of California and Arizona. You may have seen the pictures of a rare floral bloom in Death Valley last month.

On the Quarter Circle U Ranch in the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix, Angus calves were up before the flowers. By March they were munching on opportunity grasses next to their mamas, who show by example what is safe to eat.

Today, they’re all in the central pens for branding and AI (artificial insemination for the 168 mamas) as family and friends on horseback gathered the herd this week. That’s daughter Amy Doyle with Chuck in the lead photo above.inpenAZ_2361

Eighty-eight replacement heifers, sisters from last year chosen with the help of genomic test results, are in a developing paddock a couple of miles away. “They are there to mature rather than gain more weight,” Chuck says. And they will soon get their turn for AI to a standout sire for calving ease and efficiency.

But 30 cull heifers and 119 steers made the 850-mile trip to Oklahoma in December.

Ranch owner-manager Chuck Backus sent an email to his feeding partner at Cattleman’s Choice Feed Yard, near Gage, Okla., shortly after those loads hit the trail:

“Dale [Moore],

The two trucks left the ranch at 1 PM, AZ time (MST). They should probably arrive at the Feedyard about 8 AM [Dec. 16]. All of the inspection papers and certificates are in the envelope with them.

One of the steers for your truck (ranch tag #181) was limping so we sorted him out. Today his knee was swollen and it looked like he had a puncture wound under the knee so I decided we shouldn’t ship him to you. That’s why there will be 149 instead of 150 total.”????????????????????????????????????

He retained full ownership in 67 steers with this highest Angus percentage genetics, up to 15/16 and carrying above-average potential for marbling. The “cull” load that Dale bought included some smaller and non-black calves, but still better than most.

Rancher has been to the feedyard and feeder has been to the ranch, but email and phone calls have served well this year as the calves grow and gain condition for summer marketing to National Beef.

Meanwhile, Chuck and his crew at the Quarter Circle U focus on details for the 2016 crop. Longtime trucker and cattle manager Dean Harris sees to it that the hundreds of calves across the cactus valleys are tagged with sex, dam and date recorded.IMG_2301

They will be weighed at the branding roundup when a first round of shots and electronic ID go in. No corral work this summer when trucks take the herd to Show Low pastures, but come October the detail work resumes with booster shots and weights recorded on arrival and three to four weeks later.

Of the 2015 crop that left the Superstitions in December, Chuck noted they were approved by IMI Global as age-and-source verified, Natural, NE-3 (Never Ever given antibiotics, hormones or animal-derived feeds), and non-hormone-treated cattle.

“This was the best set of calves I have ever raised – to date,” Chuck says. “That, of course, is the plan.”

We’ll check in again as this year’s calves hit the road for Show Low. Don’t miss out on what happens next — be sure to Follow the Calves!

Let’s keep building tomorrow together,


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Hot topics, Research

Every number has a story: .53

Decades of data from Certified Angus Beef ® brand licensed packers show a typical pen-average fat thickness for finished cattle of 0.53 inch, with a range in those averages of less than .25 to more than 1 inch. Although 0.4 was long considered the target, data across the last 20 years points to barely finished cattle that may not have realized their marbling potential.

Grid marketing simply moved the target. Recent evidence suggests cattle can be fed to .6 inch of fat cover before yield grade (YG) 4 discounts start overtaking quality premiums.

“Quality grade improves dramatically as weight and fat cover increase beyond last century’s targets, according to the cattle currently going through our packinghouses,” says Larry Corah, who retired as CAB vice president this year. “The share of Choice and Prime increased 10.9 percentage points and CAB acceptance rates moved up 7.5 points when fat cover increased from an average of .4 to .6 inches.”

He tells of packing data that says each increase in YG score can add 25 pounds of carcass weight while increasing marbling score up to 40 points. In the data, that moved Choice from 65% at YG2 to 92% at YG4, on average. Last year, a YG3 was most profitable, but a YG4 was much more profitable than a YG2 after all discounts and premiums.

Here is the chart from that consist study:


Strange that cattle feeders estimate marbling in the ribeye by guessing fat thickness just under the hide, because according to the American Angus Association database, there’s virtually no correlation between the traits. Yet grid marketing of finished cattle is largely based on this acquired skill.

A couple of white papers at our website address the dichotomy. Robert Maddock, meat scientist at North Dakota State University, wrote, “The relationship between subcutaneous fat and marbling” in 2013, noting it’s not much of a genetic relationship, but undeniably linked in feeding.

It is possible to manage both or even enhance marbling while keeping back fat in check if you know the genetics. Speaking of which, American Angus Association data shows the greatest marbling growth occurs while 12th-rib fat is increasing from 0.3 to 0.5 inches, with little added marbling after 0.6 inches, he notes.

Andy Herring, Texas A&M University geneticist and beef science section leader, wrote a white paper, “Genetic Aspects of Marbling in Beef Carcasses,” in 2009. He noted wide variations in marbling heritability estimates to arrive at the .45 average, but estimates for the heritability of fat thickness are MUCH more variable. Those are somewhere between 0.02 (useless to try selection) and 0.86 (this should work in no time flat). That range has many concluding it’s not about selection, but Herring thinks it is.

“There are significant genetic differences when cattle are subjected to the same environment,” he says. Across all breeds, Herring found studies that estimated a phenotypic correlation between marbling and fat thickness from slightly negative to moderately positive. But don’t get your hopes up that anyone will suggest selection for marbling will increase or decrease back fat.

“Fat thickness phenotype alone may only describe 0.64% to 9% of the variation in marbling,” the Texas geneticist explains.

Let’s keep building tomorrow together.


PS-Have you noticed that, “Every number has a story”? Catch up on our month-long series right here:

Day one: $6.93

Day two: 2.5 million

Day three: $204.10

Day four: 12.1 million

Day five: 11/13

Day six: 8 million

Day seven: 139

Day eight: $39

Day nine: 30.1%

Day 10: 120 million

Day 11: -2.26

Day 12: 12 to 15 minutes 

Day 13: 30%

Day 14: 32 million

Day 15: $154,000

Day 16: 118

Day 17: .51

Day 18: 105

Day 19: 1650

Day 20: 36,575

Day 21: 603

Day 22: 23%

Day 23: 31

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