Fewer cows, more money

Jul 15, 2011
by DTN

After nearly 35 years of intensive ranch management, Jim Theeck realized a few years back he either had to go cheaper or get out of the business.

“Cow production inputs started to skyrocket,” explains Theeck, the veteran central Texas cowman. “That’s when I realized to survive in the cattle business, I had to learn to do it with one cow to 10 acres with very little supplement or hay, as opposed to one cow to two or three acres as I was doing before.”

Beginning five years ago, Theeck, who runs 500 cows on 5,300 acres near Brenham, TX, stopped fertilizing grass, cut back on spraying weeds, and reduced hay and supplemental feeding to the bare minimum. Sounds like the recipe for disaster?

Well, in the past few years, he’s weaned a 92 percent calf crop on all cows. For one herd, he’s fed three round bales of hay in three years. And, in 2006, he weaned the heaviest calf crop ever off this herd—719 pounds without creep feed.

Jason Cleere, Texas A&M Extension beef cattle specialist, says reducing stocking rates may be a rancher’s best solution to rising input costs.

He says it makes sense for cattlemen to step back and analyze their operations to see if they can do better with less. “We’re not suggesting cutbacks that reduce cow performance or reduce calf quality,” Cleere assures. “You don’t want to cut back on nutrition, animal health or genetic improvement.

“But what you can do is reduce fertilizer rates and stocking rates. Depending on which rainfall region you are in, if you’ve been running one cow to three or four acres, consider running one cow to six or eight acres,” Cleere continues.

The biggest savings, he adds, can come from relying less on hay feeding and making more use of standing hay crops or stockpiled forages.

“Stocking at less than 100 percent capacity actually can provide more flexibility,” Cleere explains. “In a good forage year, you have the option to bale and sell excess forage, retain ownership of your calves, purchase stockers, or lease out pastures for custom grazing.”

Economics first

In times like these, “economics trumps tradition.”

Theeck can speak to that. As general manager of the Mayfair Ranch at Brenham for 28 years before striking out on his own a dozen years ago, Theeck was on the cutting edge of beef production technology.

“I was always maximizing everything,” he recalls.

“Maximum fertilizer, maximum weaning weights, maximum yearling weights.

“I can’t do maximum anymore,” he maintains. “I’ve determined that weaning a 650-pound calf is about the best I can do under our environment. I can push that up to 700 or 750 pounds, but the inputs cost more than I can get back in returns. I have to work on production costs.”

So far, Theeck has observed few drawbacks to his cutbacks. “This ranch had a lot of Coastal bermudagrass. Since I’ve quit fertilizing, I’ve seen some increase in native forages—buffalo grass, vine mesquite, big and little bluestem and Indiangrass. But they provide pretty good grazing as well. I’ve also had some bur clover come back,” he reports.

“But after 28 years of heavy nitrogen fertilization, the Coastal is holding up pretty well.”

Theeck typically harvests about 200 round bales of hay a year for emergencies and to feed to weaning calves. He has it custom baled to cut down on machinery investment. He owns several older-model tractors with frontend loaders and two that he uses for shredding and planting oat pastures. His labor crew consists only of one man who has been with him for 35 years.

Theeck limits supplemental feeding to a high-energy cube when cows are on dry standing grass and a 10 percent protein cube when he has to feed hay. When stockpiled forage isn’t available, he purchases hay with a minimum protein percentage of 9 percent.

“I have a closed herd, so I don’t vaccinate my cows,” he says. “But I do vaccinate all my calves. Calves are all preconditioned for 45 to 60 days. I’ve been selling all my steers and non-replacement heifers at the Commingled Preconditioned Calf Sale at San Saba, TX. That’s added about $100 per head in net profit.”

Theeck has noticed a slight reduction in cow conception rates. “Back when I started, I had a 95 percent conception rate. Last year it was down to 92 percent,” he concedes. “But my savings from fertilizer, feed and fuel more than make up for the loss of three calves per 100 cows.” — DTN