Fire and feed efficiency: Using data to make it work
Chad Cook is a numbers man. The Cook family’s Bridle Bit Simmental seedstock operation in southeastern Colorado in Walsh, makes decisions based on data and that data has paid off in buyer confidence.
Cook has been utilizing the American Simmental Association’s data system, earning perfect scores in the Performance Advocate Program since 2014. More than just a pat on the back, the scores indicate that Cook is collecting data on every animal born, from birth to ultrasound yearling data.
“We collect that data on every animal born whether it’s a replacement female or a bull,” Cook said. “In fact, just yesterday we scanned all the replacement heifers and collected carcass data on all of them and the culls that are fat steers or the heifers we didn’t keep.”
Cook culls heifers three times, the first at weaning, the second time prior to taking replacement heifers to stalks, and again after analyzing the yearling weights and carcass scan data.
“If they index 80 for ribeye and 80 for IMF (Intramuscular Fat), they’re gone,” he said. “If they’re low ribeye, they better be high IMF. We like to see those heifers that index over 100 on both.”
Cook said there is expense associated with the collection of scan data on every individual, even those that are culled, making some producers shy away. For him, the data is valuable, especially paired with the detail about each animal born, whether sold, retained, or harvested. This was all information, he said, they’ve collected for years prior to the program existing through the American Simmental Association, a case of being rewarded for the steps being taken.
The Cooks also feed some cattle to sell on the U.S. Premium Beef grid and they are able to collect both scan and carcass data on those individuals. The Cooks are members and lease shares in U.S. Premium Beef, allowing one animal slaughtered on the grid per share. The Cooks also sell about 10 head per year as freezer beef and collect ultrasound data on those as well.
Grass is the name of the game in southeastern Colorado, and the Cooks have been accumulating enough grass to make the operation work. Last year, flames swept through 55,000 acres, including a pasture they own near Johnson, Kan., and one near Walsh. Typically, the Kansas pasture can hold 50 head of replacement heifers. This year, it ran 30 head of replacement heifers just to keep the weeds down. The pasture near Walsh is usually where they calve but no cattle have been on it yet. He anticipates running 15 to 20 cull pairs on it later this spring.
“It looks better from the road than it really is,” he said. “When you get over the top of it, it’s pretty thin and it hasn’t come back like you would want. We just let it sit all summer and all winter. We’ll see how it recovers this spring.”
The Cooks spent all summer building fence to replace the miles that burned. Cook said he counts the family as lucky as other ranches lost cattle, had to put down cows that had severe burns on their bags, and lost homes and structures.
The fire started a mile north of Walsh and blew northeast. Cook had just torn his ACL, leaving him to run a water trailer northeast of town, when his dad, Erroll, called with the news that the wind had shifted and they needed to get the cows off the pasture.
Two hours and five trailers later, the cows were out and the fire was coming over the hill. Cook said without the friends who showed up without being called to haul cattle made the evacuation possible. The fire moved about 10 miles in less than three hours and then burned into the night in Kansas, causing tremendous amounts of damage to homes and cattle operations. The neighbor who borders the Cook’s calving pasture built 46 miles of fence last summer at an estimated cost of $10,000 per mile. Some assistance was available to defray the cost but the damages were still extensive.
Cook said herd numbers rebounded for the most part, with only a few small operations that exited the business to allow the grass to recover.
“The big guys kept some more replacement heifers and went to different places for pasture last summer because there was no grass,” he said.
A commercial cattleman, he said, can more easily enter and exit the business whereas a purebred operation isn’t able to as easily with the investment in genetics and data collection. This investment translates to value for seedstock customers.
Another way the Cooks are adding value for their customers is through a partnership with Allied Genetics to secure buyers and a feeding program for Bridle Bit-sired cattle. This program will allow customers to market their cattle beyond the local market and reap the added value of the bulls since the calf crop performance is something they can predict through data.
Feed conversion, one of the traits that allows their Simmental cattle to thrive in hard country and in times of tight margins, is also adding value to their bull program. As more data is collected on the bottom side of pedigrees, Cook said the value will continue to increase.
Cook has only collected feed conversion data for a few years, but he said trends are appearing, so much he hopes the American Simmental Association will soon introduce a feed conversion EPD.
“I’ve got data here and I need to be able to report it,” he said. “We’ve taken it a step further. We’re flushing cows with bull calves that excelled in the feed conversion and I think I can see the trend. We’ll see if it works that way.”
This winter, he said, was one that still proves that the cattle business is at the mercy of Mother Nature through blizzards, fire and rain. The conditions where the bulls were undergoing feed conversion tests were challenging, with bulls either standing on frozen ground, snow or mud, leaving the conversions 1 pound lower than during last year’s mild winter.
Bulls are sent to a GrowSafe facility at Hy-Plains Feedyard in Montezuma, Kan. GrowSafe nodes in each pen monitor and record feed activity 24 hours per day. Feed consumption is monitored and recorded, along with bunk behavior, early illness detection and docility information. Data is gathered for 90 days using RFID tags in nodes that allow one bull in each, segregated bunk space on a scale. The data also includes a Residual Feed Intake calculation based on the amount of feed required for maintenance and gain.
The cattle themselves have changed since the days of spotted hide, frame score 8 Simmental cattle in 1986 to frame 5 cows that wean 750-pound bull calves in the fall. Cook said the breed, as a whole, has remedied its faults and capitalized on the positives. The half blood bulls remain popular with local ranchers for their hybrid vigor and the slightly smaller framed, easier fleshing female they produce.
This year, bulls were sold to Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Iowa, Texas, New Mexico and Kansas with five bulls going straight into bull studs for collection.
Data collected to be eligible for the Performance Advocate Program includes calving ease scores, birth, weaning, and yearling weights, yearling hip heights, and ultrasound or carcass measurements. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 392-4410.
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From June through September, John Etchart spends most of the day driving a tractor through hayfields below the mountains near Meeker in northwestern Colorado.