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Building a lean, mean stocker business

EYES AHEAD: Atop a four-wheeler, Ryan Kirkbride helps gather more than 1,000 stockers in a 12,500-acre pasture in southeast Wyoming.
Wyoming rancher Jon Kirkbride takes a conservative approach for success in the beef business.

Wyoming is one of the most conservative states in the nation. That’s fine with Cowboy State beef producer Jon Kirkbride because that’s exactly how his family has succeeded in the cattle business.

“We run our ranch very conservatively. In fact, we run it as lean and mean as we can, with very low overhead,” Kirkbride says. “We don’t have a lot of heavy equipment. We don’t have big show homes or fancy vehicles. Bottom line, we’re very conscientious of our expenses.”

And this red conservatism spills over to marketing.

“For us, it has been better to be a little conservative than trying to figure out if the market has hit its top,” he says. “When we go to sell, if we have a profit we try and take it rather than squeezing out the last dollar. We don’t get too greedy.”

Ryan Kirkbride helps gather more than 1,000 stockers

EYES AHEAD: Atop a four-wheeler, Ryan Kirkbride helps gather more than 1,000 stockers in a 12,500-acre pasture in southeast Wyoming.

Apparently that model is working well because the family has operated a successful cow-calf operation in southeast Wyoming since 1889.

For decades, Harding & Kirkbride Livestock Co. also ran sheep, but beginning in the 1960s the ranch slowly began replacing sheep with a yearling operation and stockers.

The move proved more than successful because stockers have become the most profitable part of the ranch by a “pretty significant amount,” Kirkbride stresses.

But with higher profits came more work and more risk, he continues, adding: “It’s very important to keep those two things in mind with a stocker operation. You need to have the right type of country and manpower to run stockers, and you really need to manage risks. You can make pretty good money for five years and lose it all in year six. That’s one of the reasons a lot of people don’t get into stockers.”

Wyoming rancher Jon Kirkbride

READY TO RIDE: Smothered with sunscreen, Wyoming rancher Jon Kirkbride, along with seven others, prepares to gather 1,000-plus stockers from a 12,500-acre pasture. He and other family members run their stocker and cow-calf/yearling operation lean and mean.

And that’s the very reason why some have gone under.

“Yes, I’ve seen that happen. Part of it was market conditions. They bought high and sold low. Some didn’t have good enough pasture conditions for what they were trying to do; they got overstocked and maybe didn’t understand the cattle business well enough. Like being successful in the stock market,” Kirkbride says, “you have to do your research to run a successful stocker operation, and you have to have funding to ride out the bad times.”

Alan Kirkbride

THIS WAY: Though Alan Kirkbride and other family members used four-wheelers and smartphones while gathering a large herd of stockers on one of their southeast Wyoming ranches, old-fashioned hand signals were often the best way to communicate.

Keys to success

When asked about the keys to running a successful stocker program, Kirkbride responds without hesitation: “Keeping a low unit cost of production. How cheaply can you run them?”

As you’ll soon find out, the Harding and Kirkbride families run them pretty cheaply. It starts with hard work and long hours.

Kirkbride, along with 10 brothers, cousins, sons and nephews and one hired hand, run several thousand stockers each year and also have 700 mother cows, with all calves kept over to yearlings.

“We buy 500- to 600-pound steers from late October through late March and heifers in February and March (the heifers are spayed on the ranch by a veterinarian). We like to sell the steers the following fall at 1,000 pounds and heifers at 900.”

Kirkbride explains that they typically run about four times as many steers as heifers.

“The steers are more in demand, and that’s why we start buying them early,” he notes. “Year in and year out, it seems like we can make a little more money off the steers.”

During winter, about half of the calves are placed in background lots in southeast Wyoming, northeast Colorado and western Nebraska, which is typical for stocker operations in this part of the U.S. These cattle are then taken to green pastures in April and May.

The remaining stockers are turned out on pastures throughout winter on the sprawling ranch (it has parcels of deeded land across five southeast Wyoming counties).

“Running stockers in a pasture setting during winter is unusual in Wyoming because the weather is pretty prohibitive. In fact, very few people in the state do this. A lot of people buy calves in winter like we do, but the vast majority go into a background feedlot,” Kirkbride says.

“The only reason we can run so many stockers in pastures is because we have enough land and the right type of topography and weather. And being able to winter many of our stockers on our own pasture land is a huge cost savings, maybe three to four times less than putting them into a background lot.”

Stockers keep production costs down

Though stockers have become the most profitable part of a large southeast Wyoming ranch, the vastly spread out parcels of private land in five counties were the primary motive for adding stockers to the existing cow-calf business.

“Logistically, it was hard to run more than 700 mother cows because we don’t have the necessary land or facilities around our farmstead for that,” says Jon Kirkbride, president of Harding & Kirkbride Livestock Co. “We have a lot of very remote country far from our homestead, and it would be hard to calve the numbers we need for our operation (the ranch supports 11 families plus additional shareholders and one hired hand).”

While this remoteness means more work for each of 11 working partners, production costs are kept low because, as Kirkbride emphasizes, “We feed very little hay during winter—only if the snow gets pretty deep. In my opinion, there’s no sense in putting too much weight on them in winter because feed costs are so high. We make sure they get enough grass and cake to stay healthy, but we don’t necessarily put on a lot of weight.”

That philosophy even holds true for their stockers wintered in background lots as they feed the bare minimum to maintain good health.

“Our ranch, like many others in the area, is great late spring and summer country, and the cattle gain by leaps and bounds when they’re on green grass from May through September,” he says. “You can catch up surprisingly well once cattle do get on that green grass.”

Most of the cattle they buy are Black Angus and black crossbred.

“There is a general feeling that they’re more efficient in a feedlot setting, that they’ll convert feed to pounds more efficiently, and that is worth a little more to feeders,” he says.

Harding & Kirkbride Livestock purchases most of its stockers from ranches in Wyoming, and it also buys some from Montana, Utah, Nebraska, Colorado and Iowa.

“The northern cattle are some of the finest cattle in the world; in fact, I would say the quality is unsurpassed,” Kirkbride says. “In my opinion, they are much better quality than the cattle from the Southeast and Southwest because they are more efficient, stronger and heartier, and there is a lot more beef on them, a lot more quality beef. They are a very desirable product for packers and retailers, and, because of that, feedlots in Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas like to buy what we have to sell.”

Conservatism helps overcome market vulnerability

Southeast Wyoming rancher Jon Kirkbride says that market vulnerability is probably the biggest headache he faces each year with the family’s stocker business.

“It’s very hard to know when to buy and when to sell—especially when to sell,” he says. “Any other mistake you make will dwarf that. Just a small amount of variation in the price you get makes a huge amount of difference,” he says. “You can beat yourself up all you want when trying to see ahead all the time.”

That’s why Kirkbride takes the conservative approach.

“For me, a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush. Maybe we’ll miss out on the very top of the market, but we just try to get the kind of prices that have kept us in business for many years.”

Harding & Kirkbride Livestock uses a combination of video and private treaty to sell its stockers and yearlings.

“The percentage varies year to year, but generally we’ll use video a little bit for advertising. We want to show everybody what we have, and after that we’ll try to contract the rest through private treaty.”

Ranchers work diligently to keep stockers healthy

Beyond market conditions, other major issues that stockers and backgrounders must deal with is great exposure to disease, and rancher Jon Kirkbride says his family works diligently to keep this problem to a minimum.

“When we first bring cattle home, we keep a very close eye on them until they’ve settled in,” says Kirkbride, president of a large family ranch in southeast Wyoming that runs several thousand stockers in addition to 700 cow-calf pairs.

“We look at the stockers very closely for a period of time regardless if they go into a pasture setting or background lot. We keep them close at hand until we feel their health situation is pretty stabilized. That varies, but this normally takes two to three weeks.”

Kirkbride says this is especially important because they buy calves throughout winter, and about half the calves are turned out on pastures and receive no supplemental feed except during severe storms when snow covers dormant grass.

“Winter can be pretty brutal on calves in Wyoming so we want to make sure they are healthy before turning them out on pasture,” he stresses.

Kirkbride says stockers generally present more health programs than their cow-calf pairs.

“They have health issues almost all the way through from the time you buy them in October to the time you sell them in September, especially the steers. Pneumonia and water belly (urolithiasis) are both pretty common,” says Kirkbride, who notes they have an extensive vaccination program.

“You have attrition with a stocker program. Between October and the following fall, you’re going to lose some. Even the good operators lose 1%, and you can easily lose many more,” he says.

And there are problems beyond health.

“Stockers, in general, like to fight fences.”

In mid-August, Kirkbride, along with six family members, a hired hand and a day helper, set out to gather more than 1,100 spayed heifers and trail them to two adjacent pastures.

When Kirkbride was done counting as the large herd went through a gate, 132 stockers were missing from the bunch, and he suspected they wandered through damaged fence into another pasture in the preceding days.

“In my opinion, stockers are a lot more work than cow-calf pairs,” he says.

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