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Abbey builds top herd with help from friends

From a modest start of three donated Angus cows, Subiaco Abbey has created a cattle herd that is the envy of many cattle producers.

Logan County (Ark.) Extension agent Steven Sheets credits the abbey's success to the generosity of friends and former students at Subiaco Academy, the hard work of abbey personnel and help from the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service through its Arkansas Beef Improvement Program (ABIP).

“Most of their herd, which consists of 275 head, has been donated,” Sheets said. “A lot of people have gone through the school over the years. Some of them have become prominent farmers across the country.”

The abbey hasn't always been so fortunate. It sold its mixed commercial herd in 1998, because aging abbey brothers were no longer able to care for them.

Tom Troxel, head of Arkansas Extension's animal science department, said, “The leadership of the abbey recognized that the farm and cattle had been neglected for a number of years. Five years ago, if you had driven past the abbey in the spring, you would have noticed the best crop of buttercup weeds in their front pastures.”

Fortunately for the abbey, David McMahon, who owned an Angus ranch at Lavaca, Ark., took an interest in the abbey's situation and asked the monks if they would be interested in establishing a registered Angus herd. The monks agreed, and McMahon donated three cows. They calved in March 1999.

That June, Butch Geels, a retired dairy producer and former abbey student, was hired as farm manager.

Geels said McMahon took the cows back to Iowa where embryos were removed. The embryos were transplanted to the cows, and 42 calves were born. In November, a farm in Missouri donated 38 pedigreed cows. Twenty more cows were donated by two farms in Georgia.

“That was our foundation,” Geels said.

He said the Extension service became involved shortly before he was hired. He said Larry Campbell, then the county Extension agent, discussed the ABIP program with the abbey, which agreed to enroll.

Under the ABIP program, a participant agrees to follow Extension's research-based recommendations. The recommendations are designed to fine-tune farm operations to reduce costs and maximize profits.

Troxel said the Extension team discussed goals with abbey personnel. The abbey's main goals were to provide quality beef cattle genetics for local producers and to efficiently use and properly manage forages and other farm resources.

“Two additional goals were set,” Troxel said. “They were for the beef operation to provide funds for the abbey and provide educational opportunities for the students and public. With these goals in mind, we developed a five-year plan.”

The first year of the program, Extension specialists worked solely on the pastures. Geels said the pasture not only had weed problems, but fescue toxicity was a problem.

“With timely weed control and fertilizer, the pasture responded remarkably well,” Troxel recalled.

Geels said Campbell and Extension specialists visited the farm regularly over the years to advise him how to revive the rundown pastures

“The best help we got was advice on pastures and spraying and how to establish different forages. John Jennings, forages specialist, helped us a lot.

“ABIP supported soil and hay testing. We sample all our hay cuttings so we know what we're feeding, and if we need supplements. Our cows don't need any supplements unless they're breeding. We're trying to produce high quality hay so that additional supplements aren't necessary. They seldom need any grain.”

Reducing winter feed costs for beef cattle is a major focus of the Extension service, according to Jennings.

Geels said the abbey is now doing its own embryo work.

“We have some really good calf-weight numbers and gains. We only use proven AI bulls. We'd like to get up to about 175 cows. We have 140 now with 70 heifers coming in the spring that were sired by top bulls.”

Sheets said the abbey is doing other innovative things.

“They have one of the better working facilities in the county. They have a big covered area to work with animals. And they put their bulls for sale in a pasture alongside the highway. A lot of people stop and walk up and down the fence to check the bulls out.”

Geels said the abbey has been concentrating on creating a top-notch herd while building numbers which influence profits.

“We would be making quite a bit of money if we were selling heifers, but we're keeping them to build the herd. We're about to break even. When we start selling heifers in about a year, it should be pretty profitable.”

Meanwhile, he said, the abbey is making a lot of friends.

“People really like our bulls. We try to sell the bulls when they're 15 to 20 months of age. We're proud of the herd we've built, and we get a lot of good comments from visitors. We're trying to take good care of them and breed the best to the best.”

Lamar James is an Extension communications specialist with the University of Arkansas.

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