When Chandler Lindsley picked up the reins as manager of her family's Backbone Ranch in 2011, she already had a good idea about how best to use the resources she had inherited.
"We had plenty of grass and water," she says of the 47-year-old Texas operation. "What we needed was a way to convert those resources into a high-quality product -- hormone-and-antibiotic-free beef that could be marketed for a premium price."
What kind of cattle would enable them to achieve that goal? The proper genes and body traits would be essential, Lindsley maintains, explaining they looked for breed genetics and phenotypes best suited for converting grass into tender, highly palatable beef. Credit for finding that perfect fit goes to Lindsley's son Hays Boyd, who had already been researching which beef breeds possessed the strongest traits for a grass-fed program. His internet search brought the family to the Murray Greys.
Developed in Australia in the early 1900s, the breed is a cross between a Shorthorn cow and an Aberdeen Angus bull. Raised primarily on grass, Murray Greys consistently win carcass competitions in Australia. Local butchers pay premium prices for these cattle with high cutability that can produce beef rated high in tenderness.
Sealing the deal for Backbone Ranch managers was a report comparing average genetic values of Murray Greys against all U.S. cattle tested. On average, Murray Greys scored high on measurements for tenderness, marbling and percent Choice, as well as average daily gain.
The ranch bought a purebred herd of Murray Greys from a drought-stricken Oklahoma producer in 2011 to start the transition. They've added genetic depth by breeding the herd using semen from selected AI (artificial insemination) sires from the 1970s, when Murray Grey bulls were first imported into the U.S. from Australia.
"Our game plan has been to raise registered replacement bulls and heifers to sell to other producers, and to market our steers directly to consumers as high-quality grass-fed beef," explains Lindsley, a Texas A&M-trained veterinarian.
Backbone Ranch, located near Era, has a ranch herd that includes 40 registered cows and their calves, eight to 10 bred heifers and seven yearling heifers. The family sells six to eight bulls and an equal number of replacement heifers annually. The long-range goal is to build herd size to approximately 60 mama cows.
Lindsley operates the ranch with foreman Josiah (Jo) Pelton and her son Hays Boyd, a Texas A&M sophomore majoring in animal science and genetics. They are particular about phenotypic traits, starting with the idea that an animal must have the body capacity to use lots of forage and the conformation to produce high-quality cuts of beef from that forage.
"We test all calves at 9 months of age by sending tail-hair samples to Igenity," Lindsley says. "Igenity tests for over a dozen traits, but we are primarily interested in tenderness and marbling. Utilizing Igenity scores of 0 to 10, we retain only calves that score 7 or above for tenderness, and 5 or above for marbling. Bull calves require a score of 9 or above to be kept for our own herd or to be sold as replacements."
GRAZING AND SELLING
Pelton says the ranch has a variety of forage species suited for year-round grazing. Native grasses include big and little bluestem, sideoats grama, lovegrass, kleingrass and johnsongrass, as well as native legumes. In addition, they've invested in sodded Coastal bermudagrass and a planting of Plains bluestem. They use no commercial fertilizer or herbicides.
"In early spring, we map out a rotational-grazing schedule," Pelton explains. "The ranch is cross-fenced into 15 paddocks that average 40 acres. Steers run on our highest-quality grasses; heifers are on the lowest quality because we don't want them to get too fat. I rotate cows on a five-day schedule, sometimes up to 10 to 12 days during peak growing season."
Steers stay on grass for 20 to 24 months before they are slaughtered. Lindsley sells whole carcasses (650 pounds), halves and quarters. She estimates 30% to 40% of the carcasses would be Choice, the rest Select. She markets mostly to parents of fellow classmates of her younger son and daughter, who attend school in Dallas, noting she's been able to sell all of her beef that way over the past six years.
Finding a processor willing to handle cattle to her exact specifications has been essential to marketing a consistently high-quality product, she adds. "A poor processor can undo two years of my work to develop tenderness. I also want beef to age 14 to 17 days before cutting. He has to be willing to cut to my specifications in regard to thickness of steaks and roasts, and the number of steaks and pounds of ground beef in each package. And, the beef has to be vacuum-packaged."
Does this attention to detail pay? Lindsley concedes costs are higher than if she just sold calves at auction. But, the payoff is worth the extra effort. "I'm selling beef for $6.50 to $7 a pound, which beats $1.50 to $1.75 running them through the auction ring, she says."
BACKBONE RANCH'S IDEAL COW:
What makes a good herd of grass-fed cattle? In the case of Chandler Lindsley's Backbone Ranch, that question has a specific answer. Overall, she says both males and females have to show docility as well as depth and muscling at an early age.
Specific to Gender:
Cows and heifers are:
> deep and wide through the heart girth and flank, indicating large rumen capacity to convert grass into beef,
> wide through hips for calving ease,
> good on udder attachments,
> sound on feet and legs so they are able to walk to find feed and water,
> very feminine in appearance,
> cycling by 8 to 10 months.
> masculine looking,
> have large crest and tight curls around the face and neck indicative of fertility,
> large in scrotal circumference,
> actively chasing females in heat before 6 months of age,
> showing a high sperm-cell count.
For More Information:
Backbone Ranch: www.backboneranch.com
American Murray Grey Association: www.murraygreybeefcattle.com
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