Rebuilding the herd with better traits

Feb 3, 2012
by WLJ

A drought is never a good time for a cattle producer. But sometimes it can turn into an opportunity.

That’s what happened at Nebraska’s Maddux Cattle Company where general manager John Maddux saw an extended period of dry weather as an opportunity to improve their cow herd and fine-tune management.

The operation was able to start over with a new set of cows, focusing on fitness and convenience traits. They coupled this with modifications in their calving and weaning calendars to develop a system where cows could thrive entirely on grazed forage. Eliminating the need for additional feed, supplement or hay is a big advantage in today’s market.

“We have reduced annual feed costs by at least $100 per cow, with no reduction in weaning percentage,” Maddux reports. “We also have savings in labor and health costs.”

Maddux, a fourth-generation rancher, says drought hit southwestern Nebraska in late 2000 and lasted into 2005. “We were able to hold the herd together by weaning calves at 60 days, sending them to the feed yard, and dry-lotting a reduced number of cows on a high grain and distillers grains ration,” he explains.

Time to sell

By 2005, Maddux and his father, Jack, decided it was time to liquidate the herd. Drought conditions still had not fully abated. Corn prices, which had shot up to $7 a bushel, no longer made their calf-finishing program profitable. Plus, they were able to take advantage of USDA’s Drought Disaster Declaration, which permitted them to sell their cows but restock over a period of years with no tax liability.

“We sold off about 4,000 adult females and replacement heifers,” Maddux recalls. “Then, as the drought eased, we began buying back large numbers of Red Angus heifers. We sorted them heavily and kept only the best to develop for cows.”

Through a program of strategic crossbreeding, using artificial insemination, they developed a composite female that is 3/8 Red Angus, 1/4 Tarantaise and 1/8 each Devon, South Devon and Red Poll.

“Our objective is a moderate-sized, easy-fleshing cow with strong maternal traits,” Maddux says. “We stress convenience and fitness traits over growth and high performance. We want a low-input female.”

Calving season reset

Next, they modified their calving season and weaning program. Historically, the ranch had calved in March when blizzards were still a hazard. Now they calve heifers in April and cows in May, when temperatures are milder and grass has greened up.

“This has reduced calving problems and labor requirements,” Maddux says. “We also eliminated early weaning because feeding lightweight calves was no longer profitable with high-priced grain. Instead, we wean in early October.

“We run those calves on cornstalks and grass, and supplement them with enough distillers grains so they’ll gain a pound and a half per day to make a 600to 650-pound yearling that will go on grass the following spring.”

The Madduxes run the steers on leased grassland and sell them to commercial feed yards at 900 pounds.

Maddux reports his cow herd has maintained itself very well on the 12-month grazing program. From April 1 until Oct. 30, cows graze native range and subirrigated meadows. The Madduxes practice highintensity, low-frequency grazing, often rotating cattle more than once a week. For winter grazing, they lease harvested corn fields.

“We are fortunate to be located close to a large irrigated farming area,” Maddux notes. “We can drive our cows to the fields on horseback.

“We know there will be rare times in the winter when there will be too much snow on the ground for cattle to graze sufficiently,” he continues. “We’ve backstopped ourselves by ensiling hailed-out grain fields.

We keep at least a year’s supply of silage on hand in case of difficult winter or drought.

“In the last five years, we have never had to feed any supplement or hay,” Maddux says. “The last time we fed stored forages was during a 2007 snowstorm.”

The cattleman concedes cow body condition possibly is down slightly. However, he doesn’t believe that has hurt them too much because calving later on green grass allows cows to improve condition scores before calving.

He says weaning percentages on both heifers and calves have held at over 90 percent.

Hold down bull costs

Maddux Ranch reduces bull costs by using its own composite bulls.

“We save about 250 bull calves every year out of our very best cows. We put them on a gain test and sort heavily to end up with about 120,” John Maddux says.

After one breeding season, they castrate the yearling bulls, place them in a feed yard and sell them as fed steers.

“We do this for several reasons,” Maddux explains. “For one, with a compositebreeding program, it is important to maintain a broad base in our genetic system. We figure the maximum number of calves that one bull will sire is 25 to 30. So we minimize inbreeding by only using a bull for one season.

“On top of that, we can sell that bull at 18 or 19 months of age for a fed steer price. He may not grade all that well, but there is no premium being paid for Choice beef anyway,” Maddux adds. “In addition, we don’t have to feed that bull all winter when he would eat as much as three cows.” — Del Deterling, DTN