Author Archives: blackinklaura

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Born and raised in the Sunshine State, I grew up surrounded by more livestock than people on my family’s working cattle ranch. A willingness to address a crowd and an eagerness to ask questions led to my passion for spreading the word of agriculture. A lover of words, cattle and those who produce them, I couldn't ask for a better job. A Gator grad, blessed by years of learning and Tebow football, I’m a firm believer that people should be honest, lyrics should be moving and tea should be sweet. I love music, my family, my God, and of course writing for CAB.
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On the ranch, On the road
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Answers out the window

I expected a typical interview. If I’m being honest, maybe even a rushed one.

I’d called Jordan Willis on the fly just a week earlier, asked him if I could snag an early morning on his Wyoming ranch.

“North of Randolph you’ll come to a junction,” he started. “From there I’m just a couple miles on the right.”

I turned my music down and drove the dirt road, thinking of questions I’d like to ask the young cattleman, and feeling pretty far from home.

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Jordan, alongside his brothers, James and Jed, grow their own feed for the herd for 150 days of the year.

Jordan met me near the front drive. His brood was still waking up so we decided to chat life and cattle outside with the sunrise.

“In our valley, the younger generation aren’t all taking over,” he explains. What could support a family in the ’60s and ’70s isn’t sustainable today, and neighbors and friends have sold out; some work day jobs.

For Jordan, that wasn’t an option – driven simply by the fact that he wouldn’t allow it.

Instead he’d expand. The leases, cattle and farming.

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To improve the herd, the Willisses run GeneMax® Advantage™ tests to on 500 females each year. About 250 will be kept as replacements.

“It’s always different,” he admits, “and there’re always challenges, but just about when you get discouraged, and don’t think anything’s going to go right, something positive comes out of it.”

Like the time he looked out his kitchen window.

“It was all in native grass,” he says. Originally from Laketown, Utah, it was Jordan’s grandfather who bought the place across the border in the early 1950s. Back then it sustained the cattle but Jordan needed more from the land. His passion was in place and his family was growing.

“We couldn’t find any pasture we liked that was reasonably priced, so we said, ‘Why don’t we just graze them here?’”

So the family plowed and planted.

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The larger herd still summers on state and federal land to the north but replacement heifers spend their time in that backyard, as do bulls in the fall.

Alfalfa up to my knees, pivots keeping it a vibrant green, that “here” is 50 feet from Jordan’s front door. Nineteen pivots cover nearly 2,000 acres of flood-irrigated soil and 1,800 Angus surround it.

“We graze around 250 head in the summer and it still grows enough for fall feed,” Jordan says.

By now his kids are up with the sun, we share a breakfast before taking a walk in that field and I feel like we’ve all been friends for years.

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Quite the view out of a kitchen window if I do say so myself.

“We probably put too much emphasis on data,” he says, acknowledging they don’t retain ownership through the feedyard right now.

We laugh and agree there’s no such thing.

“We’ve outbid registered guys our whole lives to get the bulls we want,” he says. In a sale, he’ll look for growth, uniformity and a frame score of 6 or higher.

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A family of five and growing. There’s a new Willis due in 2018!

“We’re kind of where we want to be,” he says. “Now we’ve gotta fine tune and move our herd forward.”

I’d say he has the generation to get it done.

Thanks for allowing me to tell your story,

Laura

PS – To learn more about the Willises and the technology they use to grow a successful herd, check out this month’s Angus Beef Bulletin or February’s Angus Journal.

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Hot topics, On the ranch, On the road
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Seven in ’17

“Do you have a blog?” they’ll inquisitively ask.

Strangers on airplanes, friends at Christmas parties – it’s a strong assumption given the writing gig.

“I don’t,” I’ll smile and say, “but my team does and it’s better than anything I’d do on my own.”

Steve, Miranda, Nicole and I, Katrina, Lauren Nelson, and some interns, too. We’re states apart and decades different but share a love for good cattle, even better people and the ability to tell you all about both.

So as we tip our hats to 2017 – a year of tragedy and triumph, of rebuilding and reevaluating what’s most important – here’s a look back at your favorite stories we’ve told.

Neill and Patti Sweeney and grandson Riley Bock, Belt Creek, Mont.

Neill and Patti Sweeney and grandson Riley Bock, near Belt Creek, Mont.

7. The golden rule in the golden triangle

“We don’t crossbreed anymore – it just seems like if it has a black hide, it has more value,” Neill Sweeney says, “plus, we feel like we can get enough growth out of those black calves and not worry about it. The breed has come a long way, and we know that’s what the Losekes (Nebraska cattle feeders) want.”

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Steve Suther, Onaga, Kan., and part of our Black Ink team

6. Turning point

The words should make a lasting impression on people who raise beef cattle. That was my goal: to make their commercial herds more profitable by producing better beef each year. My practical experience was as a part-time cattleman with 100 mostly black cows. The people I wrote for (not the editors, the readers) mostly had much more experience, so I never saw the mission as promotion or trying to tell anyone else what to do.

We had time. I would find examples of successful Angus producers to share their stories about turning to Angus genetics, and their realization that they needed to include carcass traits.

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Ty, Terry, Becky, Katelyn and Trevor Walter, Hudson, Colo.

5. The herd that calmed my nerves

The Walters will tell you they raise “working cattle that pay the bills.” On top of using handpicked, quality and performance-focused genetics through AI, they provide their commercial and registered herds with all they need to be successful. Then they expect the cattle to do their part.

“When you come up to a cow and see snow on her, well that is a wonderful cow,” Terry says of the grit his Angus show. Like their owner, they deliver on a promise. Never fake, you see what you get.

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Tom and Sally Donati, Oroville, Calif.

4. When Tom met Sally

“I think because Tom’s family had the cattle there, that’s why I got through college,” Sally Donati says.

We’re sitting at the couple’s kitchen table near Oroville, Calif., and it’s quotes like this one that remind me that cattle do so much more than pay the bills.

They drive people, challenge them, at times can cause great stress, but they bring families together and draw their keepers back to the basics of life.

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Jim and Melissa Moore, Charleston, Ark.

3. One-man show, part I

“The thing about the Moores is, it’s them, it’s their deal,” Jerry Jackson says. The manager of Stampede Feeders, Scott City, Kan., where the family sends two pens of cattle every fall, has seen it firsthand. “They don’t sit inside the office and tell everybody else to go to work.”

To the contrary, Jim asks for critique before getting up and fixing the problem himself.

“We have to be critical of ourselves if we want to improve,” he says. “What I want to hear is the truth.”

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Mark Sebranek, Garden City, Kan.

2. Following the Calves: Not in South Dakota anymore

On paper, Mark Sebranek doesn’t own very many of the 28,000 head of cattle on feed at his Garden City, Kan., yard … but don’t tell his heart.

“That’s my feeling – every animal out here is mine. How do I make the most money I possibly can?” says the 20-year manager of Irsik and Doll Feed Yard.

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Braden Schaal, Burlington, Colo.

1. Winning in extra innings

DNA testing lets him see on paper how his cattle are performing. Artificial insemination gives him freedom to correct problem areas by custom mating. Being able to collect data is a priority at Schaal Cattle Company.

“I’ve seen results,” Braden says. “It’s not all on paper, I’ve actually seen results with some kill data, average daily gain and weaning weights,” which can all be found at the click of a button, thanks to electronic (EID) tags.

No, I realized at the end of our visit. It wasn’t just luck. This guy has worked his butt off for this.

These are snapshots. Just seven from a year that left our friends list longer and our hearts fuller. From our family to yours, we wish you a Merry Christmas and all the best in 2018!

Thanks for allowing us to tell your stories,

Laura

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On the ranch, On the road
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A hardware salesman and a hand surgeon walk into a bar…

Replace that last part with pasture and you’re in my boots a few months back.

But for Phillip Smith and Dr. David Taylor, there’s no need for a punch line. Talking with the cousins from Ozark, Ark., it’s just a typical Tuesday afternoon.

“Some of our skills overlap and some of them don’t,” Dr. Taylor says. His comment is matter of fact, as if there’s nothing unique about the producer pairing. But I prod a bit more.

“We work together,” he adds, and I watch it in action.

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Cattle have always been in the cards for these cousins. Their grandfather, John Jacob Taylor, settled in the Cecil community after the Civil War and brought cows soon after.

It is obvious, the shorthand the cousins share. A year apart in school, they grew up friends, stayed in touch as David sold his herd and left for medical school and Phillip took charge of his father’s store downtown.

Decades later, an opportunity to purchase land that connected the two families meant a chance for the men to run cattle together, Phillip on site, David traveling to and from Dallas as he approaches retirement.

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Of leaving and coming back to the ranch, David (right) says, “I guess, to bring to life The Grateful Dead, what a long, strange trip it has been.”

“I’m here about every two weeks, or say four out of every 14 days,” David says.

I can tell. What could seem like an ideal situation for a silent partner is anything but. David knows his cattle well. As we walk he studies them intently and I wonder how he makes time to heal hands.

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The commercial pairs grazing both sides of the road reflect a commitment to pride and precision.

“I just believe there’s likely no one else in America that puts the detail into selection that he [Taylor] does,” Tom Williams says. The Chappell (Neb.) Feedlot manager feeds four or five groups of STP cattle through the spring and fall. A recent closeout shows 79% achieved CAB® and Prime.

Tom credits the cousins’ use of technology and genetics as reason for improvement. David says it came down to this simple fact: there are economic opportunities and additional profit to be made for those willing to produce high-quality cattle.

So they started doing it.

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Discouraged by the cost of replacement heifers that met their strict standards, they began selecting for and breeding their own.

In the seven years they’ve fed at Chappell, STP cattle have improved in marbling, cutability and performance, now setting the curve for what Tom feeds.

“And we feed the good ones,” he says.

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“Is there anything you would suggest we improve,” David asks visitors observing the herd. No matter the information he holds from hours of research, he knows there’s always more to learn, something he and Phillip can do better.

“We want to grow something Phillip and I wouldn’t hesitate to eat ourselves,” David says.

It’s a simple statement but one that carries much weight when you know what it takes to get there.

Thanks for allowing me to tell your story,

Laura

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Hot topics, On the ranch, On the road
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Angus way out there

“You better just let us come to you,” Anjie McConnell told me over the phone.

Honestly, I was surprised I even had cell reception on my way to their Wyoming ranch, so I pulled alongside the road and waited.

Her husband Mike’s cowboy hat gave them away.

“Little Siberia.” That’s what the truck drivers call the desolate route that runs along the family’s land 45 miles outside of their home base in Lander. The Oregon Trail runs through it.

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Cattle production–no matter the spot–comes with a handbook of hardships, but west-central Wyoming is its own beast.

A rodeo family and cattle people to boot, Anjie’s parents, Gary and Diane Frank, had to make a choice.

“There weren’t enough days in the week to make either successful,” Diane says, “so we had to decide: we’re either going to be rodeo stock contractors or we’re going to be cattle people, but we can’t be both.”

With a push from Gary’s father, Bill, who laid down money for additional ground, the family brought cows up here to summer grass that first year and decided they were done with the bucking horses after that.

That was 1969 and plenty has changed since then.

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“We wean off the mountain here,” Anjie says, to avoid potential dust storms at home. They keep the heifers back for replacements, while their steer mates go straight to Miller Cattle & Feedyards, a 20-year tradition.

For starters, the Frank children grew up, got married and made lives of their own. The cattle went from “a rainbow herd” to Angus, and Gary passed away.

“He wasn’t old enough,” Angie says. Her husband died six months short of their 50th wedding anniversary.

Gary and Diane’s second child and oldest daughter, Anjie, had always been her father’s helper. After graduating college and marrying Mike, the local agriculture teacher, the couple committed to joining Frank Ranches Inc. – Anjie, full time.

“Sometimes I wish I had Mike’s job, when the weather’s crappy,” Anjie says with a smirk.

“She wants mine and I want hers someday,” Mike quips.

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It’s a wonderful thing to see generations working together. From L to R: Mike, Anjie and Kiley McConnell and Diane Frank.

Together and through the years they’ve brought ideas and research, pushed her parents to try new things and experienced successes along the way – which can be hard to come by way out here.

“There was one snowstorm where we got 54 inches,” Mike tells me. It was time to AI and Gary and him were worried whether they’d show. It ended up being the easiest heat detection they’ve ever had because the ones that weren’t covered in snow were in heat.

“I remember standing out there in cowboy hats, just drooped down to our chins, laughing and having fun breeding cows.”

Bumping along the property in the back of their old Jeep, three generations have just as much fun, share just as many laughs as they ever have.

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In addition to performance and avoiding elevation impacts, the Franks want cattle that satisfy the consumer. They look at the dollar beef ($B) and marbling EPD (expected progeny difference), as well as other traits.

“We don’t go on vacation much, but our family’s together,” Anjie says.

“Every day’s a vacation here,” Mike adds.

I’d tend to agree.

Thanks for allowing me to tell your story,

Laura

PS – To learn what brought New Jersey native Diane to Wyoming in the first place and why the family’s invested in raising quality Angus cattle, look for their upcoming story in the Angus Journal.

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On the ranch
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One-man show, part II

There’s a saying, “If you think you’ve got good cattle, put your money where your mouth is and feed ’em. You’ll find out pretty quick how good they are.”

Jim Moore’s full of these. Life lessons, advice not taken, anecdotes of who said ‘what,’ when and why.

I ask him what it’s been like – to grow up here, come back and partner with his dad, to turn the herd Angus and do most of the work alone now.

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If it’s possible, Jim Moore’s an optimist and a realist all in one.

“This lifestyle, it teaches you about staring adversity straight in the eye and not flinching,” he says.

Then he smiles. It’s a half smile, with a shoulder shrug on the side.

He’ll reflect a bit but the Arkansas rancher’s more interested in what’s ahead. He’s always been that way.

“I’m not one of those people who thinks status quo is OK,” he tells me. It’s another as if I couldn’t tell moment.

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An educator and principal at a nearby school, Missy helps in the afternoon hours and in the decision making at home.

But it’s true. Jim and Missy, they take responsibility for all of it. The things they say, the children and cattle they’ve raised. They want their output to be good, helpful, of the highest value.

“As commercial producers, we feel like it’s our obligation to raise as high quality beef as we can possibly raise,” he says, “and we feel like that’s Certified Angus Beef.”

They aim for that through retained ownership at the feedyard, something Moore Cattle Co. has committed to for decades. But it wasn’t until they started selling cattle on a grid that, “we learned more about our cow herd in one year than we had in the previous 10.”

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With all the technological opportunities available through the Angus breed nowadays, Missy says, “we actually have ways of validating the product we’re selling.”

2007 carcass data showed 20% CAB, 0% Prime. Unsatisfied, Jim started buying bulls with marbling EPDs of no less than 1.00.

“Jimmy brings to the forefront an example of a rancher who’s not willing to single-trait select,” our own Paul Dykstra says. “He doesn’t want to make a premium over here just so he can give it up somewhere else.”

That’s not Jim Moore’s way.

“If you’re trying to hit 80% to 90% CAB and Prime, you’ve got to up the ante a little bit,” he’ll say. “If you don’t have the carcass side, what does the maternal side matter, and vice versa? It’s about balance. You’ve got to be willing to give and take.”

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Charleston, Arkansas is a small town but the local grocer carries CAB and Jim is proud.

The cowman’s just not willing to give up very much for fear of shortchanging the consumer and the commitment he’s made.

His most recent closeout of 136 head went 85% CAB, including 28% Prime.

It’s a process, he says, of taking data and applying it to the herd – keeping and breeding heifers out of dams with top GMX scores, dams that produced steers with strong feedlot data, breeding them to high-marbling bulls.

“We’ll keep pushing,” he assures me. Like I don’t already know it’s true.

Thanks for allowing me to tell your story,

Laura

PS – To learn what led Jim back to the ranch and drove his commitment to quality, check out yesterday’s post. To read more about the Moores’ Arkansas Angus cattle, grab a copy of the October issue of the Angus Journal.

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