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; now Senior Editor, Producer Communications. And so help me, I care.
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Hot topics

Every number has a story: 11/13

That could be a fraction, but it means in 11 years out of 13, a 1993 CattleFax report said you could have made money retaining ownership of home-raised calves through the finishing phase and selling to a packer.

Yes, I know, that was a long time ago – seems like only yesterday though. I got started in the cattle business in the early 1980s, when only a few pioneers tried to improve herd genetics based on how their calves finished. Fewer still had any idea how they graded. I was more clueless than most.

Economists and market analysts were trying to assess the risk/reward for this and related options because astute cattlemen, unlike me, were trying to learn about their calves by feeding them. Of course, they hoped to make money, too.

Weaning in SeptemberAn average weaning weight in the 1980s was 475 pounds (mine shown at right beat that by nearly 100 pounds in mid-September 2015), so that’s the weight entered into the CattleFax model that showed the best year returning $213 per head and the worst losing $32 for an average profit of $67/head from 1980 through 1992.

An earlier North Dakota study showed that it paid to retain ownership by backgrounding and then finishing home-raised calves EVERY year from 1958 through 1974. That string was only broken by the political turmoil of embargo and price freezing, but the charm was broken and only 4 of the next 10 years showed a profit in that retained ownership strategy.

OK, this was really a long time ago: in those days we looked at calves only as commodities, and the only plan for feeding was trying to reach a profitable finished weight of perhaps 1,000 pounds (on the hoof, not carcass weight as today).

A few weeks ago I was rummaging around online, trying to find an update to that “11 out of 13” or about 85% profit likelihood study, but now realize too much has changed to make such analysis worth doing. A 2005 summary from Iowa State University still provides useful discussion however.

More cow-calf producers retain ownership these days (including those who share ownership with a feedlot), but virtually none of us consider our calves a commodity. Many began feeding in the late 1990s – me in 2000 – as a way to learn more about our herds, and to use that information to improve.

Weaned 6 weeksMaybe I should not have sold on a grid that first year, because discounts cost me about $100 per head when the cattle could have at least broke even on the cash market. But I wanted individual data so much, I reasoned that loss was going to be tuition in this school.

The harvest sheet, my first report card, said 10% had qualified for the Certified Angus Beef® (CAB) brand, whose team I had joined a couple of years earlier. The national average was 18%, so I had far to go. Worse, another 10% were Standard grade, which is lower than Select. One of those was a Yield Grade 4.

I knew some cooperators in sire evaluation programs with the American Angus Association were already getting 60% CAB, and many of those guys said they had signed up for that program to get the data and improve.

If I tracked numbers as much as I track words, I could tell you exactly how many years I made money retaining ownership, which I have done 14 out of 15 years. I know I made my cattle better and better by culling from the bottom and using A.I. on the rest.

All I can say for sure is that first year and last year stand out as two that fell noticeably short of breaking even, and at least two other years made noticeably large profits per head. I figure I am slightly ahead on dollars, before I get to the added value in my herd, with three years of harvest sheets showing better than 70% CAB and a few Primes.

Retaining ownership opens your eyes and new doors to herd improvement. That’s why my steers are headed off to my feedlot partner again next week.

Let’s keep building tomorrow together,


PS—We’re on a month-long quest called, “Every number has a story.” Follow along—it’ll be fun.

PS-Have you been following along this month? “Every number has a story,” and we’re telling them all 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%


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Following the Calves, On the ranch

Following the Calves: 86% CAB and Prime: “still OK”

Next week, trucks will rumble down U.S. 60 to start bringing nearly 300 Quarter Circle U Ranch calves home from Show Low, Ariz., to backgrounding pens – and cows and bred heifers to winter pastures in that cactus canyon – east of Phoenix, Ariz. Owner-manager Chuck Backus will get a closer look at this year’s heifers, but he’s already ranking them on data.

And woe to the mom of that one Select calf. It had been a couple of years since there were any of those, and the ones that produced four Selects in 2012 are no longer with the herd…Print

In October, the last of last year’s 150 calves finished at Cattleman’s Choice Feedyard, near Gage, Okla., went to harvest at National Beef. The “tail-ender” load of 38 went 100% Choice or better but only 24% Prime. Chuck knew the last load would bring down his average of 34% Prime and 52% others qualifying for the Certified Angus Beef brand, or 86% for that combination.

Let’s note that these are fed for a Natural program, and that generally boosts quality grade. But the fall-outs that required treatments of some kind still made 74% CAB and Prime. And look at their native environment!343x

Chuck had faint praise for his record 86% high mark for a combination overall. Last year’s data on the 2013 calves showed no Select graders with 44% Prime and 36% other CAB for 80% combined. By comparison, noting fewer Prime and that one Select on the Class of 2014, he said, “I guess that is still OK.”DSC_8689

I know he said it with a smile, even if it was an email remark and he left out the emoticon. That’s because I know he’s about to wean those calves and half of them are progeny of one leading Angus sire. Chuck will pick eligible replacements on size and looks, pretty much guaranteeing they are all from AI stock. Then he will rule out any related to Select producers or showing disposition problems before DNA testing again.

DSC_8620xLast fall the GeneMax Focus genomics test left him with 79 keepers, so he could get 20 AI-sired heifers from those girls next year. This fall, Chuck will either move up to GeneMax Advantage or a competitive GeneSeek test that fits his aims for tracking feed efficiency.

We’ll check in again this winter as a couple of loads go to the feedyard, and we’ll learn more about the heifers, including those about to calve. Don’t miss out on what happens next — be sure to Follow the Calves!

Let’s keep building tomorrow together,


 Our “Following the Calves” series also takes you from Arizona to Nebraska and Florida, too.

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On the ranch, The Purpose Driven Herd

An end to stonewalling

There’s a stone wall of sorts near the top of our country lane. People don’t know if it’s coming or going unless they visited here 10 years ago.

That was about the time we returned from a vacation trip and decided to build a dry-stacked wall like the thousands we’d seen. We live on a rocky hill with an old foundation at its north base, so it seemed plausible.

But today, there is only a partial wall, a poor start to a section of limestone fence. Mostly it’s a metaphor to show what happens if you spend time and effort on something when you don’t have a complete plan.

Stephen Covey famously advised “beginning with the end in mind,” which turns out to be applicable to everything from a life’s work to a side project.

In the fall harvest season, celebrated since the dawn of time, it’s easy to think about the planning that went into growing crops. Machinery had to be fine-tuned, soil tested and worked, seed planted and seedlings nurtured in their fields as they grew to maturity.

Harvest brings a sense of closure, though marketing issues likely remain.

weanedMany of us are weaning spring calves, which is a kind of harvest, especially if we’re selling. Of course, this year the price fell faster than the leaves on pasture trees, and made many of us wish we had put a floor under the market. That crash brought a realization that such a steep price decline was not the end we had in mind.

But there may yet be options not directly tied to the futures market, thanks to the flexible nature of the cattle business. We might be able to wean and precondition calves or retain ownership at a custom feedlot, now that most analysts see little additional downside risk.

Meanwhile, the fall brings other management chores that bring us back to the plan. Pregnancy exams, booster shots and scours vaccines remind us of the bulls we used and when next year’s calves will arrive.

Bull sale catalogs have us shopping for genetics that can help put the capstone on our herd, which has come along pretty much according to plan while the stone-pile wall languished. We’ve built in calving ease and quality as we added growth, always with the end in mind.

We operate a commercial cowherd in a business that has evolved over centuries but only recently became more consumer focused, conscious of its “end product.”

This beef cattle production and supply chain grew into an industry of interconnected communities, with a few less operators now, but more of them getting herds in line to build demand as strong and lasting as a well-planned stone wall. As it expands now, its component parts are more intent on the end product than ever before.

stonewall windmillWe’ve worked according to plan with our cow herd, if not the would-be wall. That’s only because we judged one endeavor much more important and worthy of focus. But another proverb says anything worth doing is worth doing right.

So this fall, with calves in the backgrounding lot and the keeper cows on fall pasture, we’ll set and plumb the batter boards where the ideal wall should be, tie on some guidelines and follow a plan to build something else that will last.

As always, we’ll keep building tomorrow together,



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Learning by doing: Chuck Backus, Quarter Circle U
Following the Calves

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.Print

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.250 rotate

“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.

365 loadThe Show Low ranch, set up on a National Forest Service permit with open vistas between the pine and juniper, is a critical key to making the quality goals work, Chuck says.358 loaded

“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.

????????????????????????????????????“Dale buys a percentage interest in them,” Chuck says. “I like it when he has some skin in the game.”

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:

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Warm milk keeps the chill away fine, but the first few hours can be critical.
Hot topics, The Purpose Driven Herd

Getting ahead of chills

Warm milk keeps the chill away fine, but the first few hours can be critical.A month ago, I saw the February calving date approaching and thought about all the times I’d seen heifers decide on just the wrong place for the wind and weather, despite ample shelter.

I always tried to right the wrong and at least once each year I brought a chilled calf into my basement office to attempt saving it with towels, hair dryer and space heater. Even tried the bathtub last year when we were about to get a new bathtub. Those various attempts were sometimes disappointing and never easy to attempt, so I looked into buying a calf warming hut.

image3People have built some good ones, and others say they use the pickup heater on the floorboard, but they may have more experience. I decided to go with something proven; I need an automatic calf-sitter when business hours come around and I have to get on a conference call or write or edit something.

There were four contenders we could have for $50 either side of $700, delivered; not knowing enough to differentiate, we went with the lower end and have been happy with it.

Three calves from the heifers have spent a couple of hours each within the thermostatically image2controlled 100-degree hut and enjoyed the momma-and-calf reunions.

A 15-day-early calf was born to the nearby AI cow herd on a 10-degree night, but he was a big and robust calf in no need of extra help.

image4Amazingly, no calves in the last day with the cold and snow, but I do have a waterer to thaw before the rest of the day gets started. Just for the contrast, I’m going to cross-reference this under “hot topics.”

Hope all your calves do well today and everybody enjoys some creature comforts.

Let’s keep building tomorrow together.


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