Following the Calves: High quality from the high desert
I have never met a career educator quite so eager to learn. We first exchanged emails in the 2006-07 era, a couple of years after Chuck Backus, PhD nuclear engineer and solar energy pioneer, had retired as provost at Arizona State University to devote full time to his 40,000-acre cow-calf enterprise.
The Quarter Circle U Ranch winter base is just east of Phoenix, in a cactus and rattlesnake canyon I visited in March 2013. This July I returned to see the 40-section summer ranch near Show Low in northeastern Arizona, where the herd rotates to fresh range every week or two.
Chuck doesn’t go about anything with less than full commitment. When he saw his future in ranching, he wanted to produce the best. Unlike many in Arizona, he aimed for a premium beef target.
It was only logical.
“Eleven years ago, it was obvious that calf buyers paid more for some calves than others, figuring they could sell to feedlots at a higher price. Packers had been buying more and more fed cattle on the grid,” Chuck relates.
If two or more other buyers can make money on better calves, the rancher should be able to beat that—if the cattle perform and grade. He retained ownership on a load of steers at a leading CAB partner feedlot in Texas in ’06 to get a benchmark: 50% low Choice, 0% CAB. Disappointed but not surprised, Chuck decided to Aim High.
Production logistics fit that plan. Mortality risk was so great to bring in premium bulls that he turned to artificial insemination (AI) to get half of the 400 cows bred to registered Angus bulls that marble and do it all. That cut his need for locally raised bulls in half, but he could afford to pay twice as much.
“We could only go so far toward quality at our original base ranch, partly because it gets so hot in the summer,” he explains. Fifteen years ago they started trucking cows between the two locations, avoiding that heat as well as the six feet of snow that can fall up north.
For the last four years, calves have been finished at Dale Moore’s Cattleman’s Choice Feedyard near Gage, Okla., and last year 150 of them born in 2013 made 100% Choice and 44% Prime, with the marbling to go 80% CAB. Granted, there were more YG4s than ideal, but that’s what the market encouraged.
Has this herd “arrived,” met all goals for high quality? Not yet, in the rancher’s opinion.
To keep progressing, Chuck bred 310 females to one multi-trait-leading Angus AI sire to ramp up uniformity in what is already far above most herds that face far less environmental pressure.
Now he’s ramping up feed efficiency and leaner yield, without backing down on marbling.
“If I can develop a herd that needs 20-40% less natural forage out here, I will be more able to establish a sustainable herd through climatic variations,” he says. Recent bull purchases include some with feed-to-gain (F/G) ratios near 4, and part ownership in an Angus bull with F/G that starts with a 3.
In a few weeks, we’ll learn how the 2014 calves turned out, but an early draft already turned in 89% CAB. We’ll check in on the full report and look at weaning this fall when the Quarter Circle U herd heads south.
Don’t miss out on what happens next — be sure to Follow the Calves
Let’s keep building tomorrow together,
P.S. To read more of our Following the Calves series, follow these links: