Lessons Learned, Lessons Shared
Five Successful Practices From a Young Cattle Producer
Caleb Williams bought his first heifers when he was in high school. Today, at age 24, Williams still has less than 10 years in the cattle business. But don't discount how much this young cattleman knows.
Between his year at Texas Christian University (TCU) Ranch Management school, day work on ranches all over the country, a full-time herdsman's job at the University of Georgia's (UGA) Eatonton research station and years helping his dad and granddad with their cattle, Williams has plenty of real-world experience to guide him. Top of mind are five practices the Georgia producer believes are key to success for his cow/calf and finished-beef enterprises.
1. ESTABLISH A CONTROLLED CALVING SEASON.
Even though Williams needs a supply of calves year-round for his finished-beef business, he wants no part of a year-round calving season.
"If you breed year-round, you can't keep track of your cow herd, what they're actually producing and how many pounds of calf they're actually bringing at weaning," he says.
To help even out his supply of weaned calves, he split his 35-cow herd into fall- and spring-calvers. The fall calves come in September and October, while the spring herd hits the ground in January and February.
Williams wants as many calves coming in the first part of those two seasons as possible, so he synchronizes the cows. On a Saturday or Sunday, he puts in Controlled Intravaginal Drug Release (CIDR) devices. He removes them seven days later and turns in the bulls. Williams doesn't use any other synchronization drugs and says this one step pulls his costs down.
"It pays off tremendously," he says. "I keep my bulls out for 75 days, but most of my calves come the first month of their season, probably 85 to 90% of them. I like those few outliers, too. They fill in the gaps in my feeding program."
UGA animal scientist Pedro Fontes says most producers he works with use synchronization with artificial insemination (AI), but he says syncing works with natural service, too.
"It gets cows to cycle in a short period of time. They breed early in the season, calve earlier, and at weaning, their calves are heavier," he says. This allows the early-calving cows to recover more quickly and breed back sooner.
The combination of synchronization and natural service, the animal scientist says, should result in a 10 to 20% increase in the number of cows that calve in the first 20 days of the calving season.
2. GET A CROSSBRED ADVANTAGE.
Williams uses an Angus-Hereford-Brangus cross, giving him a lot of crossbred advantages.
For starters, there is hybrid vigor. The cattle producer's 1,000- to 1,100-pound cows typically wean off calves that weigh 550 to 600 pounds. That's off nothing but grass and hay.
Williams says he also appreciates what each breed brings to his southern-based operation.
"Brangus are five-eighths Angus, so you get beef quality, but you also get heat tolerance. These cattle are going to be out grazing while the English cattle are shaded up. We like the Hereford side for docility."
University of Nebraska animal scientist Matt Spangler goes so far as to say that in today's environment, if you aren't getting hybrid vigor, you're missing something pretty important.
"If you don't crossbreed, you leave money on the table," he says, adding that heterosis has the largest impact on fertility traits.
"Crossbred females stay in the herd 1.3 years longer, according to data from the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center," he says. "That means an extra calf in their lifetime, which is a substantial economic advantage."
Using a composite, or crossbred bull, is one way to simplify crossbreeding, especially with a smaller operation. "A composite bull can create a crossbreeding program with one package," Spangler says.
Williams uses a five-eighths Angus/three-eighths Hereford bull on his Brangus-Hereford cows. He says the crossbred bulls not only fit his program but are easier on his wallet.
3. KNOW YOUR COSTS.
"At TCU, they instilled in us how to run a budget and analyze every little cent. It opened my eyes to how a lot of people lose money because they're fudging numbers," Williams says. "Put every cost to the cow or calf or heifer, however, you need to run your budget."
The cattleman uses those numbers to help him decide whether to sell calves at weaning or finish them. While it varies, he currently has his cost of a weaned calf at around $1 per pound and a finished animal at $4 on the rail. Even if calf prices go up, he says he'll only sell half the animals so he doesn't lose the customer base he's building for the finishing side of his operation.
Those same financial records he uses with cattle helped him stay out of the red when fuel and fertilizer costs skyrocketed. After analyzing his budget and considering the higher input costs, Williams saw he needed to go from $5 per pound to $7 per pound on finished animals to continue to meet his goal of 50 to 60% profit per animal.
Williams uses CattleMax for recordkeeping, both at home and at UGA. He also uses financial spreadsheets he learned to build at TCU.
4. ESTABLISH A GRAZING PROGRAM.
Williams says he got a really good knowledge base of forages and grazing during his time at TCU. Even though he was used to continuous grazing as the norm, after attending the university's ranch-management program, he quickly put rotational-grazing programs in place on his three leased farms.
Each farm is divided into four pastures with temporary electric fencing. Once a week, Williams rotates cows to new pasture.
"My rotational-grazing system is a lot simpler than what most do. I have to feed, rotate, do everything in one day a week," he says. This weekly rotation, however, still means each fescue/bermudagrass/bahiagrass pasture gets 21 days of rest.
"Root growth is relative to top growth, so I was taught to take half, leave half when rotating," he says. "After 21 days of growth, the grass is at its peak for nutrition, not rank or overgrazed."
Stocking rates, Williams adds, will vary based on how much ground he has under lease.
"I'm a firm believer that if you lose the grass, you need to lose some cows. If you keep cramming them on too little acreage, you're going to have no grass. Something I learned at TCU is an average cow will graze about 10,950 pounds of forage in a year. So, on most of my leases, that comes out to 2 1/2 to 3 acres an animal."
Aside from grazing, homegrown hay and free-choice minerals, Williams says the cows get no supplement. After a maximum 60-day preconditioning period, heifers go on the same program as the cows.
"I rotate them just like the cows and let them naturally get to their mature weight," he says. The program gets Williams around an 80% bred rate on first-calf heifers.
"I think that's under the national average, but I lose pretty much everything that I'm going to the first go-round, and after that, I haven't seen any trouble with my second breed up. Like I said, it's on grass, and if they can't make it on grass, I don't want them."
Williams typically only has one or two open mature cows a year, which he culls.
5. BE A PRICE MAKER, NOT A PRICE TAKER.
"For years, I watched my granddaddy and my dad raise a calf, and whether they preconditioned it or took it straight to the stockyard, there was always somebody telling them what their cattle were worth. I didn't like that. So, I started feeding them, finishing them out and telling the consumer what I thought my beef was worth."
Williams says going back to the early 1990s, his family had finished a steer or heifer for their own use. He started broadening out this side of the business in 2021, selling four head direct to consumers. He doubled that to eight head in 2022 and expects to sell 12 to 16 head in 2023. Sales are quarters, halves and wholes for the grain-finished-on-grass beef.
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