Balancing Act

An Accidental Cattleman

The Huber family's North Dakota cattle operation includes Isaac, Bryan, Emmy and Alex Huber (left to right, standing) and Taylor Solinger-Gaines and Betsy Huber (left to right, seated). (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Patty Wood Bartle)

Bryan Huber didn't begin his agricultural career with the intent to raise beef. However, in 1997, when he found himself with a bit of discretionary money, creek-filled land primarily fit for pasture and friends who knew the beef industry, he invested in three purebred Red Angus cows and one bull.

"I was very green when I bought my first cattle," Huber said. "I'd always been intrigued by the ranching life and was fortunate to have completed some animal-science courses as part of my degree at North Dakota State University. My good friend, Todd Leland, at Sidney [Montana], first steered me toward Red Angus."

It turned out to be a great match. Today, farm, the Hubers alby maintaining a focus on production efficiency, balanced traits and functional cows, Huber and his wife Emmy have grown the operation to include 135 registered Red Angus females and 150 head of commercial cows. Their operation, Huber EY Red Angus, is south of Jamestown, North Dakota. A diversified so raise corn, soybeans, alfalfa, wheat, barley and hay.

RETAINING HEIFERS TO GROW

Early on, retaining heifer calves each year allowed the Hubers to build the Red Angus-based commercial cow herd. Because they started out with few buildings where they could work cattle, calve or house animals, any profit they saw those first few years was reinvested in beef facilities.

A healthy, dense shelterbelt provided cattle with protection from cold wind and snow until the Hubers could afford to improve facilities. Ample water sources were an important asset as they started developing their herd.

"It took resources, time and labor to build corrals, buy chutes and cattle panels," Huber said. "It made tax time easy. There was no shortage of deductions. But if there was any profit, it went back into equipment, cattle and facilities."

Emmy's family, the Lodoens, have raised purebred Hereford and Red Angus in North Dakota for years. So Huber knew Red Angus genetics included a high degree of marbling and produced a quality retail product. Even though he expected his own herd would always be quite small, he wanted to raise high-quality animals from the beginning -- with an emphasis on balanced traits.

Huber said he looks for structural soundness, high maternal traits, sound udders and good dispositions. He added that the Red Angus gene pool has always been strong in terms of carcass quality, calving ease, uniformity and moderate size.

"We invested in solid commercial females to build our base herd," Huber said. "We kept our best heifers as replacements and used AI to access genetic traits. While we want to produce a high-quality carcass, we balance that with maternal traits, disposition and calving ease."

SUCCESS IN THE DETAILS

A detail-driven management strategy has been one of Huber's most effective tools in accomplishing both beef and row-crop goals.

"When we started out, we had to schedule beef chores around planting and harvest," Huber said. "To be ready to go to the field by mid- to late-April, we usually started calving when it was cold and snowy. It's always been challenging for me to bounce back and forth between focusing on our crops and also on cows."

As any newcomer to ranching can relate, there were times things didn't go as planned.

"The year we used an infertile bull, we raised very few calves and saw little income from the herd," he shared as one of those relatable moments he'd like to forget.

Moving forward from mistakes is key, however. And with Emmy and their children all working as a team, the family starts every spring the same way -- checking and repairing fences, and getting cattle moved between feedlots and pastures. They spread out the work and maximize their time.

MULTITASKING

"When calving is done, we sort pairs, process and brand animals, and transport them to pastures," Huber said. "It's not unusual for me to be planting when cows need to be moved. We work together with my dad and brother, planting and harvesting crops. We wouldn't be able to get all the crop work and day-to-day cattle activities completed without the help of our two hired men, Joe and Garrett."

Once cattle are moved to the pastures and crops are planted, the Hubers' schedule quiets down to a degree. At harvest time, though, the pressure is on again.

"By Oct. 1, we are bringing pairs home from pastures for weaning and processing," Huber said. "I want calves weaned before the weather gets too cold, so cows have a break before they calve again."

Commercial calves are backgrounded at the farm until they're marketed in January at a sale in Napoleon, North Dakota. Steer calves at this time weigh an average of 800 pounds each. Registered Red Angus bulls and the farm's top replacement-quality heifers are offered at the Huber's annual spring sale.

After weaning, cows graze on native pastures and cornstalks as long as weather allows. If necessary, silage, hay or alfalfa provide a supplement.

"I like to keep cows in cornstalks for at least 45 days," Huber said. "That's an efficient way to use the corn residue. I need to keep the cows' nutrition adequate in the last stages of gestation, so we can supplement with distillers grain as needed or with our own feed sources. This works since corn stalks are close to home."

Soybean residue hasn't proven to be a satisfactory grazing option because of the hoof injuries the soybean stalks can cause.

The Hubers didn't give a lot of thought to diversity when they started developing their beef operation. However, with recent commodity-price volatility, they find the cattle make a significant contribution to their bottom line.

The principles the Hubers continue to rely on to accomplish their cattle and crop goals are teamwork, practical thinking and efficiency. Their commercial herd helps them stay in touch with the qualities their seedstock customers need. Emmy's careful recordkeeping and the family's commitment to working together are both key elements of their beef-production success.

"It was tempting to cut back on cattle numbers when commodity prices were high," Huber said. "We don't feed the majority of our crops to cattle, but we would have had more crop income if we sold it all. We realize farming goes in cycles, and when commodities were bringing good money, we trusted that the cycle would change.

"It might be harder now to start a beef business the way we did. Higher cattle prices, increased land values and finding available land would be challenging. In years past, many farmers raised cattle and crops. Some people today don't think the two fit well. We haven't seen a crazy amount of profit, but for us, the diversity is working."

For More Information:

Huber Farm: www.huberredangus.com

Red Angus Association of America: www.redangus.org

(VM/CZ