Current conditions have registered cattle breeders optimistic, bulls in demand

Story Heather Hamilton
Rapid City, S.D.
Calf lying down.
Getty Images/Hemera | Hemera

The effect of drought, high feed prices and reduced cow numbers doesn’t just impact the commercial producer.

Going into fall, registered breeders recently discuss why they’re optimistic, what management factors they’re using to meet customer demand and how the last two years have impacted their operations.

“I think there should be a large amount of heifer retention take place this fall, and that a lot of people sold bulls due to drought in both 2012 and the spring of 2013 before the rain started,” said Bruce Ketchum, Montana Red Angus Association president and owner of Milk Creek Reds in eastern Montana. “So, at present time, there are producers with minimal bull numbers looking to keep more heifers, and that scenario leads me to believe our bull market will be good this season.”

Rausch Herefords of north central South Dakota noted that while popularity varies by breed, the last three years have shown a strong demand for their Hereford bulls, also causing them to maintain numbers and optimism as they head into fall.

“If you look at the recent sales this summer, Red Angus calves have been topping the market in many cases,” Ketchum explained. “There are even some Red Angus heifer calves outselling their steer mates, which is unique and speaks to the demand for the breed, making us very optimistic as well.”

Dudley Booth of Doug Booth Family Angus near Torrington, Wyo., is another registered breeder who saw increased demand based on last year’s sale average, but added that severe drought conditions the last two years have impacted his and his customers’ operations.

“We have sold a few cows because of our own pasture situation, and while that wasn’t a huge impact, it did allow us to increase the depth of quality in the bulls we offer,” Booth said. “We also knew that some of our customers were dealing with drought last year, and in response to that we tried advertising in some new areas.”

Dry weather has plagued many parts of Montana in the last two years as well, but Ketchum noted the situation has improved significantly on the eastern side of the state since mid-May.

“We have been working toward implementing a commercial Red Angus female sale in the fall, and had 600 heifer calves on the books that were to be bred this summer,” Ketchum said. “But, the owners had to pull them out and sell them in the first half of May due to the dry conditions. Then, as the year has progressed we have seen an increase in moisture and consequently demand, and have been able to start over with procuring females for a fall sale, which we again plan to host.”

Rausch said cows were also culled in South Dakota, and that his family adjusted their management by planting more feed crops versus cash crops in order to maintain numbers.

But, he also noted that the cows left are black, and producers remain interested in putting a Hereford bull on them.

“One thing we do is an evaluation program on how a bull will enhance, or not enhance, the average Black Angus female. That’s a great marketing tool for us, and we actively pursue raising bulls that will best compliment that black female because the majority of our breed stock go to the Angus market to make crossbred calves,” noted Rausch.

Other components of Rausch’s extensive commitment to customer service, which keeps a strong customer base, include utilizing their large operation to performance test 10 different bloodlines and Hereford cow families each year, and assisting customers in marketing their Rausch-sired cattle for top dollar, either as calves, fats or on the rail.

Ketchum stated that the Red Angus breed’s strong commitment to the commercial producer remains their largest factor in preserving a strong customer base.

“For example, members of our staff do things like visit feeders that haven’t fed a lot of red cattle before and explain the different marketing avenues they have available. Our goal is to inform and educate the commercial producer and feeder of what the cattle can do for them,” explained Ketchum.

Booth upholds demand for bulls out of his program by continually breeding for individuals that excel in the performance traits his customers want in their own herds without sacrificing phenotype.

“The trend is still calving ease and growth because a lot of ranchers are getting older in this area, and they don’t want the labor associated with high birth weights,” Booth explained. “But, they also aren’t willing to sacrifice performance, so we utilize all low birth weight sires that have a Yearling Weight EPD of over 100 in addition to high ribeye and marbling numbers.”

To ensure his cattle perform at the level he breeds for, Booth sends bulls to Midland Bull Test regularly, noting that each year he has done so, they have been in the top performing pen on test. He also takes cattle to the Wyoming State Fair and the National Western Stock Show to see how they compare to their contemporaries, and to provide his customers with the opportunity to see them off the operation.

Ketchum echoed Booth’s statement regarding performance, noting that he has also seen the trend in recent years of the highest performing bulls that also maintained a lower birth weight topping his sale.

“One trend we see is the role technology is playing in changing the cattle industry,” added Rausch. “The ability to DNA test for different traits enhances our predictability and selection criteria. If you do a 50K test on a bull that’s the same as him having one calf crop, up to 15 calves, on the ground. We think that will continue to play a major role in the beef business, and will be a selection tool customers will want in the future.”

All three producers agreed that sustaining customers and a marketable product is a long-term commitment, and that management decisions are rarely based on a single year. Through their various strategies, all feel they have placed themselves in a position to benefit their customers, and consequently keep their business. ❖