499 Ranch is located in what is known as the “Sink Hole Capital of the World”. The Highland Rim of the Cumberland Plateau of Middle Tennessee and Southern Kentucky is very old and lies on top of thousands of caves of which there are many that extend for miles. Quite frequently a new sink hole falls out and hopefully appears and is identified before a calf, cow, tractor, coon hunter, or pick-up truck falls in. Several years ago I had a client doing some Spring tractor work and went into a new sink hole hidden by tall forage. He held on to the steering wheel and walked away with a broken arm and left behind a tractor minus a front axle.
It hasn’t been far back that I was stuck in a fresh sink hole. Cell phones can be handy and my good buddy showed up in 20 minutes. We drove a 1” white PVC pipe next to the new hole as a marker after he pulled my truck out. He left $20 to the better and I left blessed to still be among the living.
Deep holes exist in the cattle business and new ones that are camouflaged with promised goodies appear on a regular basis.
It has not been all that long since several of us used to ask and wonder what the new “breed of the month” would be. The vast majority of the ‘magic’ cattle resulted in an expensive learning experience for the investors and producers that jumped in amid promises that were almost too good to be true. They were.
Walt Davis makes the statement in his book ‘How Not to Go Broke Ranching’ that feed yards and packers are not in the cattle business. I agree with Walt (by the way the book is much more than a worthwhile read). Feed yards sell corn, bean meal, and water and lot space. Packers harvest purchased animals and process and market. They have little to zero interest in the longevity or sustainability of our lives or operations.
A very large number of cattlemen in the U.S. have invested huge amounts of money that left the ranch and went into sink holes to have never been seen again. This truth is nothing new and has been going on for many years. From the prices I have heard from bull sales this past fall you sure wouldn’t think that calves, yearlings, bred heifers, young cows and cull cows have been getting cheaper every week. Bull prices at many bull sales have been as good as or higher than they were a year ago (2014).
Health has a lot to do with economics. When you are sick I doubt that your performance is very profitable. Healthy cattle are a necessity if we are to remain in business. Purchasing problems is a common reason for my phone ringing.
In the midst of taking a history of reproductive failure there is very often one or several purchased animals that are involved. The price paid seems to have a multiplying effect on the amount of money lost. Vibrio (campylobacter), Trich (trichomoniasis), and BVD are three diseases that many pure bred operations are testing for and with tested, virgin bulls should not be a problem at least initially.
Breeding soundness exams have been performed and indicate that bulls have good guns and live equipment. This is good work and has helped the cattlemen.
For some reason many of us have forgotten or failed to learn the basics in bovine husbandry, health, breeding, genetics, and profitability.
A list of important considerations for cow/calf operations that I consider imperative include:
Feet and legs – With consideration to bulls, heifers, and young and older cows we need to start with the feet and proceed from there. The animal needs to move easy, not stiff. Feet need to be near perfect with 8 claws that are the same size and appear shiny without rings, cracks, or rolls. Pay extra attention to the lateral claw (outside claw) on the hind feet. If they appear to roll under stop looking and remove the animal from your list. Do not purchase an animal that does not walk perfect. Remember that bulls need four really good feet and legs to graze, locate cows to service, and make a rewarding mount. I’ve been called to drive a lot of miles to examine bulls that would have never been purchased if anyone with some knowledge and ethics had spent 45 seconds viewing the feet, legs, and movement. Look at more than EPD’s.
Cow age, weight and size – I have a reputation of being a little cow guy and for good reason. 800 lb. to 900 lb. cows are much more profitable, cheaper to keep, easier to get bred, and hang around a lot longer than bigger cows weighing 1100 pounds plus. Big cows and bulls from big cows will help you break the ranch. I consistently keep seeing bulls from 1500 lb. cows selling for major dollars.
Calving ease – This is one area that most of the breeds have made substantial improvement in the past 25 years. There are still 100 pound calves out there and they are deadly to heifers, cows, and themselves. I don’t have a market for “deads” or “downers”.
Milk – Most cows in North America now have too much milking genetics. A cow needs to give a gallon of high fat colostrum and milk when the calf is born and go up to peak lactation in 30-40 days. After 90 days of age the calf can do well on a quart of high fat milk daily. More milk is not healthy and is very expensive.
Rib Eye Area and Carcass Traits –If you are a beef producer then you are NOT in the rib eye business. Big long cattle have big rib eye areas. The same cattle are “hard keepers” and have an increased number of back problems that result in zero marketing or a short life. Cows take 3 to 5 live calves to become profitable on most operations. Long bodied cows and bulls are hard keeping and ‘short lived’.
Hair shedding and Sheen of the Hair – Slick is healthy. Slick cattle that have already shed by mid-April work. We can force cattle to shed with corn. I want cattle that are slick and shed without feed.
Location, location, location – The best place to pick and purchase your bulls is likely the closest location to your ranch/farm. ‘Never go west or north to buy cattle’. That’s an old rule and not some idea that I had. But it works against us every time we break it.
If you have been in the cattle business for 3 or more years and have in excess of 17 cows there is a good probability that you have a couple of small frame score, good footed, moderate milking, easy keeping, functional cows. They are where I would look for new bulls and replacement heifers (see Beef Producer Feb 15’ Genetic Herd Improvement).
Animal health is likely to be more important in the days and years ahead than what the market paid the past five years. We may be dropped quickly from markets where everybody is making money; to markets where a special hard headed few cow men are left standing. A good place to make money is to not spend it on paper pipe dreams.
Beware new sink holes are opening up in our business quite rapidly. Think about it, plan and execute. Without consideration and movement toward the truth, the fun will end.