Grady Sparks first saw the Alabama ground he would build a new cattle business on by helicopter. It was strip-mined land around Arkadelphia, where a grass-reclamation project had turned the 3,300 acres into a place Sparks could see a cattle operation fitting nicely.
Garry Drummond, chairman of Drummond Company, which had mined the land, partnered with Sparks in the enterprise. From Day 1, veteran cattle producer Sparks said the business has been focused around practicality, with the primary emphasis on producing great bulls.
"From the beginning, that's what we've stressed," he said of Drummond Sparks Beef. "We have five-strand barbed wire, plain and simple. What we do, we do for a reason, not for show. This is not a showplace. The thrust here is profit, and that's what we talk to our bull buyers about. We all want the same thing when it comes to that. In my opinion, the key to profitability in a cattle operation is always going to be a great bull."
Sparks grew up in Alabama, calling it "God's country," working a registered operation with his dad, George Grady Sparks, in the Jasper area. He left for Oklahoma years later and had a successful cattle operation there, as well. But it never was the same as the Southeast; so in 2010, he came back to Alabama.
"The Southeast is going to give you the rain, and that was a major consideration coming out of Oklahoma at the time," he said. Sparks added that finding large acreage for sale in this part of the world was challenging. So when he took that helicopter ride four years ago, he saw a rare opportunity.
In addition to the cattle he brought over from Oklahoma, Sparks managed to convince cattle manager Ron Dugger to make the move South.
"To this day, I'm not sure if it was the idea of moving to the South or the fact that we'd bought 88 heifers from the operation where he worked, and he wanted to stay with them—but he agreed to come," Sparks said. "Every true cattleman believes the next generation of cattle is where it is all going to come together. I think Ron just really wanted to see how those heifers turned out."
The female side of the Drummond Sparks Beef herd includes both Hereford and Black Angus stock. The 400 mother cows are split into fall- and spring-calving herds, with a goal to produce enough bulls to sell 175 yearly. And while numbers are fine, it's quality that comes first in a program that begins to build data the moment a calf hits the ground.
Ron Dugger said every calf is weighed on a digital scale at birth, weaning and as a yearling. Between 12 and 13 months, a carcass ultrasound is done, as well as scrotal and hip height measurements, to monitor fertility and frame size. At weaning, calves should be 50% to 60% the weight of their dam.
Culling of females has been emphasized during the last three years, he added. The reasons to cull are pretty straightforward.
"No calf is the first reason we'd cull, especially in the case of a heifer. We don't keep heifers that don't breed. We AI [artificially inseminate] all females once, then a bull is in with them for 45 days. Our goal is a 60-day calving season," Dugger said. Conception rates on that one artificial insemination are a strong 70%.
After culling based on conception, females are considered for temperament, udder quality and teat size. Temperament is a high priority for both Dugger and Sparks.
"There are too many cattle in the world to have a crazy one," Sparks said. "I do not like ill-tempered cattle at all. In addition to being hard to handle, nervous or ill-tempered cattle simply do not produce well. They have to go."
At the end of it all, Dugger said the females and the bulls they keep are animals he likes to describe as balanced.
"To me, that is the key. My philosophy is to breed outstanding animals phenotypically, performance-wise, and maternally. Individual performance is important, and we take every measurement on these cattle you can think of. Performance and genomically enhanced EPDs are what we use to decide if a female is worth a three-year commitment and the $1,700 to $1,900 we are going to put into developing her."
Dugger said on Herefords, they rely on breed GE-EPDs; on Angus they use Zoetis HD 50K testing to be sure they are making the best choice as to which heifers to keep.
"Genetics will tell you where your best cows are, and sometimes it's not what you'd think," he added.
While cows are the foundation of their program, it's the bulls at Drummond Sparks Beef that are the main attraction. All bulls sell between 18 and 20 months of age, and come with a breeding soundness exam that includes semen testing. Bulls are raised on grass, supplemented with a commercial ration and hand-fed. They come with a one-year guarantee on fertility, structure and soundness. In the Angus bulls, a check is made for all possible known genetic defects, and any cows that are carriers of those defects are eliminated from the herd or turned into recips.
A good bull, Dugger added, can attain stellar service for five to seven years, depending on the care he receives and the pastures he is on.
"This is a full program," Dugger explained. "I'm passionate about making sure we don't miss anything. We want the complete package, and predictability is an important part of that."
Veterinarian Bruce Lee, of Lee's Veterinary Hospital, Cullman, Alabama, performs all of Drummond Sparks' breeding soundness exams (BSEs). He saids the importance of an annual check to be sure bulls are fertile and able to perform is critical in any operation.
"We've actually seen an increase in the number of operations having bulls checked annually," he said. "As the value of calf crops climbed over the last several years, producers wanted to be sure bulls got that BSE. People understand that everything starts with the bull. If you don't have that calf crop to start with, there's really nothing else. No preg-checks. No decisions about working calves. It's a non-starter."
Lee believes a thorough BSE puts equal emphasis on three things: scrotal circumference, gross motility and sperm morphology. Having practiced for 30 years, the veterinarian said he always starts a BSE with an assessment of overall general care and body condition.
BSEs should be done 30 to 60 days prior to breeding season or anytime a producer feels he is seeing conception rates decrease. Lee said it's also important to pair expectations of a bull with his age and type of operation.
"If you have a mature bull, a 50-cow herd and you are a year-round calver who never pulls the bull, that one bull should be able to breed those 50 cows easily. On the other hand, if your goal is a 60-day calving season, you could not expect one bull to accomplish that," Lee said. He added younger bulls can't breed as many cows as a mature bull, and this also has to be considered.
In addition to fertility and balance, Dugger said bull buyers should seriously consider the value of heterosis when bringing a bull into any commercial herd. As a producer of both Hereford and Angus bulls, he won't pick favorites but said hybrid vigor is more prevalent with Hereford bulls on Angus cows.
"Anytime you add purebred genetics to cattle, you get hybrid vigor. That means more weight. It's one of the few things in this world that is truly free. I hear all the time that producers get 45 to 70 pounds more on a calf from crossbreeding," Dugger said.
As for what the market wants, he says a lot of feeders are looking for white-faced cattle now. Whether those cattle are black, yellow or red baldies, the white face has become a sign for efficiency in the feed industry.
"A producer should always know what the customer wants. Especially as we are moving into lower markets, it's critical that producers trend toward what they get paid the most for. Even in a down market, white-faced cattle have added value. I'm biased, but I don't think there's anything better than a set of black baldy cows or steers. They will ring the bell when you sell them."
Drummond Sparks Beef will hold a bull sale Oct. 21, 2016, at its Hanceville, Alabama, location. For details, visit the website at drummondsparksbeef.com.
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