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Ranchers boost profits by fitting cows to their environment

Robert Waggenner Sims family with cattle
Cattle gather behind Scott Sims and his wife, April, ( left) and their son Shanon Sims and his wife, Melinda, who are among a growing number of ranchers across the country working to fit their cows to the environment.
Fitting cows to environment, weaning heifers later and dramatically reducing supplemental feed costs worth $100,000.

“Profitability leads to happy families and the desire for the next generations to see a place and a future in the business.”

So says southeast Wyoming rancher Scott Sims, whose family is striving to maintain the lifestyle they love by taking care of their land and boosting income. They are achieving the latter by fitting cows to their harsh environment, weaning heifers much later and dramatically reducing supplemental feed costs.

Collectively, the changes have increased profits for this small family operation by nearly $100,000 annually.

“Too often, ranchers will not change. They are resigned to find ways to supplement income instead of trying to learn what the financial pitfalls are,” Scott says. “I learned through Dad to be open to new ideas, and now I am giving plenty of support to our son, Shanon, to explore new and innovative ways.”

During a tour of their family ranch on a beautiful late-summer morning, Scott and Shanon, along with their wives, April and Melinda, walked through lush grass as content cattle followed close behind.

But when winter closes in, this is one tough place to ranch. Elevations range from 7,000 to 8,000 feet, winds are typically fierce, snow piles up in deep, crusty drifts and wind chill factors can be brutal. A nearby section of Interstate 80 is infamously dubbed the Snow Chi Minh Trail.

Like many ranchers around the country, the Sims family steadily built a herd of big cows, fed large amounts of expensive hay and calved in late winter. Mother Nature finally convinced them—by way of their pocketbooks—that it was time to change.

“We are allowing the environment to cull poorly adapted cows,” Shanon says. “The most fertile females are those that efficiently convert forage to flesh. This allows them to quickly reach puberty and maintain proper body condition in order to breed on a one-year cycle the rest of their productive lives.”

Selecting efficiency

Detailed recordkeeping has proven that the most efficient cows for their ranch weigh around 1,100 to 1,150 pounds—not the 1,250-pounders that were consuming tons of supplemental hay a decade ago. This means that they are able to run more cow-calf pairs and yearlings, which has ultimately led to more pounds of beef leaving the ranch.

Over the years, they have slowly moved calving from late winter to May. So instead of calving in frozen, muddy or dusty corrals and barns, which led to sickness and mortality, Shanon says, “We are pasture-calving on high-quality spring forage, which matches the cows’ peak lactation.”

This has allowed the family to nearly eliminate supplemental feeding, which is annually saving about $20,000 in feed alone. That figure is much higher when factoring in labor, fuel and equipment.

Really late weaning

In their latest big move to cut costs and bolster profits, the family in 2014 decided to keep all heifers on their mothers through winter instead of sending them to a feeder. Thus far, results have been extremely promising.

Initially, they were concerned that pregnancy rates, body condition scores and weights of cows that weaned heifers in February compared to the October-weaning steer group would be negatively affected, but the differences were minimal.

Cows from the traditionally weaned steer group, on average, weighed 1,116 pounds, had a body condition score (BCS) of 4.45 and were 87.1% pregnant, while numbers for cows from the late-weaned heifer group were 1,107 pounds, BCS 4.43 and 85.8%, respectively.

Shanon says that these differences are more than offset by the late-weaning profit of nearly $60 per head.

“And instead of having only half the heifers to pick from for possible replacements, we now have all of them,” he says. “We’re confident this will lead to more efficient cows that are better equipped for our environment.”

Scott adds “There is a whole new generation of ranchers and farmers out there willing to try new and innovative things. Open minds and creative thinking can help all of us run more profitable operations, which helps make this a more enjoyable business to be in.”

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