Colorado ranchers join forces to produce quality high-altitude cattle
March 24, 2017
Cory Schmitt and Andrew Schaefer are not the elder statesmen of high-altitude cattle but they just might be on to something with their Elevated Genetics partnership sale. Both ranchers in the Dolores, Colo., area recognized a need for high-quality cattle locally and have set out to meet that need. The partnership between the two operations, Schmitt Angus Ranch and Cedar Mesa Ranch, seeks to meet the needs of high-altitude producers with cattle that are a phenotypical and genotypical balance with the fertility and longevity necessary in their environment.
Though he's relatively new to the industry, Schmitt's ranching roots run deep. His youngest years were spent bouncing around in a pickup checking cows with an uncle and he began buying his own cows after high school. His family is in the process now of incorporating the operation that has grown into a sizable purebred and commercial business.
Schmitt echoes the challenges many young producers are plagued with — finding land. The main ranch has been in his family for five generations but the family had to add land and cattle to the original operation to support the family now.
"The ranch and the cow herd my dad took over was my great granddad's," he said. "It runs deep."
“Raising cattle at high altitudes is not solely dependent upon PAP scores, Schmitt explained. As with other environments, cattle must be made for longevity and chosen for fertility.”
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The current operation is comprised of Schmitt and his wife, his two siblings and their spouses, and his father. The three Schmitt siblings have been able to purchase places and they've secured the leases that allow expansion of the cow herd.
One of the most important cattle traits at high altitude is their lack of susceptibility to congestive right heart failure, or High Country Hypoxia. Common in cattle ranged at altitudes similar to Schmitt's near Dolores, sitting at nearly 7,000 feet above sea level, the disease can be fatal. Also referred to as brisket disease or high mountain disease, cattle above 5,000 feet are commonly tested using the pulmonary artery pressure (PAP) test.
One of the contributors to having a successful high-altitude bull sale is having cattle that are successfully PAP tested and done correctly," he said. The PAP test is the standard for identifying cattle at moderate and high risk for the disease. Elevation, age, stress, and heat can all affect the results, he explained, and cattle are best tested at elevations above 5,000 feet.
"PAP testing can give us helpful information for bull customers," Schmitt said. "But it's important that the test be done correctly and that producers realize that factors can affect scores."
When the PAP is done correctly by a reputable veterinarian, at the correct age, and at elevation, the results can be key to selecting bulls.
Colorado State University's Tim Holt, DVM, has long maintained that bulls must be tested at altitude for the test to be accurate. Holt is recognized as the leader in PAP testing and conducts much of the testing and trains other veterinarians to do the same.
Raising cattle at high altitudes is not solely dependent upon PAP scores, Schmitt explained. As with other environments, cattle must be made for longevity and chosen for fertility.
As the young ranchers grew their operations one cow at a time, they realized that partnering would allow them to strengthen their operations through cooperation, giving the young producers a sounding board, and would allow them to pool their bulls for a larger offering of high-altitude bulls.
Andrew (Schaeffer) and I are both pretty young and just getting into the business," he said. "There are a number of challenges to the business of selling bulls and this partnership allowed us to overcome some of those to put together a quality offering.
Of course we are looking at EPDs and want them to be desirable," he said. "But we are also selecting for animals phenotypically. We want animals with good bones, a big foot, sound legs, productive in terms of fertility and longevity and high performance to add to the calf crop."
The balance game is key for Schmitt. The whole picture is more valuable, he said, than EPDs alone. Without the other traits, the EPDs are a wash if the female isn't producing a calf and remaining in the herd for a number of years. BULL SALES
Hosting a bull sale, especially for the first time, has been a labor-intensive undertaking for both Schmitt and Schaeffer. Both producers have the cow sense inherited through hard work and generations in the ranching business but it is, perhaps, Schmitt explained, the fresh eyes and culmination of carefully balancing data and actually eye-balling a bull that has been most helpful in the process.
Schmitt is among the young producers who are internet and social media savvy, making a common hurdle one that is easier to cross. The sale and all that goes with it, Facebook pages and posts, websites, photos, catalogs, and the bulls themselves represent nearly two years of work specifically preparing for the gavel to drop on April 12. For the Elevated Genetics sale, just like other bull sales, the truth will lie in the customers who return for their second sale. ❖