By: Corinne Patterson
Land, combined with the gifts of Mother Nature provide the capacity to sustain life. Ranchers utilize these gifts by monitoring animal units on the grasslands that blanket the countryside they call home. Bob and Kelly Close, Chilhowee, MO, believe in more than simply capacity of the land they manage, and have spent the last 15 years proving there is value in the details.
“When you look at any big company, they’re always trying to come up with new ways to continueto be successful. You don’t see cashiers at Wal-Mart using hand-crank cash registers,” Bob describes. “They could probably still make money that way, but you can’t ignore progress and technology that can make your operation run more efficiently and profitable.”
For many, it may be a little more challenging to see the value that progressive management adds to an operation. When the Closes took over the 1,300 head cow outfit in west central Missouri, it was more like a hand-cranked machine. There was no identification on any animal in the year-round calving herd, and what was thought to be a bull battery of 30 or so turned out to be only 13 herd sires covering the range.
Several years ago, when the Closes took over management of the operation for Bud Lemmons who’d owned the ranch since 1989, the herd identification strategy was basically non-existent. Bob and Kelly immediately zeroed in on rectifying that situation.
“We could get by on a lot less and keep things a lot more simple and a lot less work, but that’s not the way I like to do things,” Bob says. “I like to do better, and we’ve got a long ways to go to get to where we can be. I don’t even know where that is, but I want to keep moving forward.” For the first few years, Bob and Kelly began the tedious process of identifying what they had to work with.
“When we first started putting the system together, we got the entire herd identified and grouped the cattle as they would calve or when they were pregchecked,” Bob recalls. “We kept weaning the calves off until we got the odd-age calves out of the picture, and started to group cows into a fall calving group or a spring calving group. We put the bulls in during the timeframe we wanted.
“It took us a good three or four years to get it all straightened out,” he continues. “You wouldn’t think it would take that long but it does, by the time you get everything sorted out. At one time we sold almost two potloads of cows that had not calved in the time that I was here, and I’m guessing had not calved in a long time prior.”
In June 2014 the ranch changed family names for only the third time since its homestead days in 1832 by the Beaty family. David Perkins purchased the 1,700-acre home place along with the cow herd and records built by the Closes. Perkins has retained their management.
CUT THE DATA ENTRY TIME IN HALF
When you have a couple that is as much at ease on a horse as they are with the idea of utilizing livestock technology, the end result is one tightly managed herd. All the cows have electronic identification(EID) tags for ease of going through the chute to eliminate the need to manually reference each cow. “The technology is a godsend,” Kelly says of her tablet-based system. “We used to use the little red books, and we’ve come a long way. We’d enter in the information by hand in the little books and then input them in our home computer. That used to take us so many hours of just data entry.
With the tablet, I can enter it in real time while we’re tagging, and then Bob can take it from there and go in any direction he wants to go. He can sort by any criteria he wants so it’s not countless hours of entering all that data at home. It has cut our time in half on the data part.”
The Closes have tried many forms of data collection over the years including a scale head that holds 50,000 records. Bob admits it’s easy to try to collect too many details too quick.
“Technology is something I enjoy regardless of what it’s with,” Bob explains. “I’m not all that good with it, but I enjoy it and try to use it to get better.
As a whole in the cattle business, when you quit trying to move forward and make things better, you pretty well shut the door on improvement. You’ve just got to keep pushing forward.”
But as much as Bob likes technology, he doesn’t have to rely on it to know each and every one of the cows — a feat that is a true dedication with a uniform, black-hided herd.
“We try to blend the new technolo-gy with the old ways as well. We still
rope and drag our calves at branding,” Bob adds.
“We enjoy doing it that way and our boys really get a lot out of it. If we made them tail up 500 calves into a chute and get stomped and kicked all day long, they may not want anything to do with it when they get to be the age when they can decide.”
All the best management still won’t produce the kind of product Bob and Kelly strive for each day. They also focus on genetics that will help themget there.
“Our genetics are a big part of our improvement,” Bob acknowledges. “You can put rocket fuel in my pickup, but it’s not going to the moon. And you can put No. 2 diesel in a rocket, and it won’t even start. Anybody can get the genetics, but you’ve got to make sure you’ve got the nutrition and management to make them really reach their potential. Herd health and genetics both have to be there.”
The Closes capitalize off of their fertile ground, nutrition and herd health programs in hopes that a cow will raise a 600 to 650 pound calf, rebreed and stay in good flesh.
“Many people say that a 1,250-pound cow is ideal. In this country you’re sacrificing a lot of potential in a cow that size,” Bob shares. “You don’t want cows that weigh a ton, but most of these cows in our operation will mature between 1,350 and 1,400 pounds, and be able to stay structurally sound.”
Structural soundness is something Bob has noticed the beef industry has turned too much of a blind eye to the last 20 years.
“We’ve really struggled keeping four feet under our cows. I’m not sure what the answer is to that. We have to be careful how much we do for these cattle,” he contends.
“When I first started here we would trim feet and anything else we could do to try and get another year out of a cow. As I look back, that was not a very smart thing to do. If she can’t stay sound on her own, we need to get rid of her and raise one that will stay sound. There’s so much of that activity that has gone on — especially in the registered cattle operations — that we have bred the structure problems into these cows because we’re overlooking that trying to find other traits like carcass quality.”
Making genetic decisions on soundness also helps manage the workload on the family. Bob and Kelly run the operation with just the help of their two sons, Clay who is 12 and Lane who just turned 9. Limited day help is secured only to help work cattle or at branding time.
“We pay attention to temperament. With our boys being involved on a day-to-day basis, we’ve definitely sold some cows that were good cows but we just couldn’t get along with them,” Bob says, adding, “the same goes for the bulls. We’ve identified some bloodlines that we just can’t get along with. They’re good cattle but their temperament is terrible and they pass it through to their calves and we just get rid of them.”
YEAR ROUND GRASS ADVANTAGE
Fescue makes up the majority of grass available in the area. With fescue comes the challenge of endophytes, but with the long-standing pastures that make up the majority of the ranch, they deal with it in limited situations. Farming has taken over much of the grasslands surrounding the operation, but that isn’t the case with the historical home place.
“Our cattle stay out on grass year round,” Bob says. “In some areas of the country folks have to bring cattle in and basically pen them up, but we’re able to keep them out pretty much year round.”
Managing grass so they can calve on clean country is important. They won’t graze the intended calving pastures the season before calving for both spring and fall calving herds.
“We make sure that we have a rotation where we can get the cows off of some of the grass in the fall so we can get a little bit of re-growth on them and clean up any bacteria that’s out there,” Bob says. “Calving on clean pastures is something that we really concentrate on. We’ll turn back out onto those pastures around the 2nd week of February and begin our calving season in spring.”
Taking advantage of fresh grass is also a key component of their weaning program. Kelly says they recently started weaning calves out in the pasture increasing efficiency and avoiding the dry lot all together.
“We try to pull cows out of the pasture over five or six days depending on how the cattle are acting,” Bob explains. “If the weather gets bad we may skip a day or two and let them settle. As far as getting them in and cold turkey weaning them in a pen, we don’t do that. It’s just proven to work so much better for us, and our cattle don’t seem to go backwards.” The benefits Bob recognized with pasture weaning were both in calf health and in handling.
“I got tired of bringing a set of calves in and they looked really good.
In a week or so, they didn’t look so great anymore due to the stress of weaning,” he points out. “What really made my mind up was that we had a small bunch of steers weaned and they got spooked during the night. They crashed into a pipe fence and it killed four of them. That was 10 percent of that pen. At today’s prices that was just way too much money.”
Bob’s willingness to observe and gather ideas from his herd’s natural behavior gave him the idea to wean differently.
“We have some trouble with calves getting in the wrong pasture during the summer time, and we don’t catch it and that calf has just weaned himself,” he recognizes. “It was a simple process where obviously that calf wasn’t stressed because you would have seen him bawling. It’s a slower process but the cattle seem to do way better.”
Kelly says they use the feed truck to coax a few cows out of the bunch each day until only calves are left in the original pasture. An additional benefit is that it helps get the calves used to coming to the feed truck because the cows will bring them in to start with. “What we really like to do is wean our fall calves in May,” Bob says. “Once we’ve got those calves weaned good, they’ll go out on that re-growth, and we’ll graze them there all summer.
If the rain works for us that can be some phenomenal feed for them.”
The spring calves are born February to May and the fall cows calve the end of August to the first of September, with none later than mid-November. “When I came here I thought fall born calves were terrible,” Bob admits. “I believe now that this country may be better suited for fall calving cows as long as we get rain in the summer time. We can get some really cheap gains out of those cattle.”
BUILD A SOLID FACTORY FIRST
For years, the ranch-raised calves have been retained through harvest. It has given the Closes insight on the end product they produce. With their emphasis on maternal traits with a window on carcass performance, Bob wants to work towards selling bred heifers.
“We could offer production data on each of those females, and put carcass data with all of them. I’m not one of those people who believe we need to get rid of every cow that raises a Select calf,” Bob says. “I have seen cows that raise a Prime or High Choice calf and have other major production faults. I’m not saying there are not perfect cows out there that can do both, but I’m a lot more interested in real world production. That cow that’s going to calve every year on time and be a good mother and bring in a 600 to 650 pound calf in the fall on her own and stay sound and be maternally efficient — we have to master that long before we worry about the carcass data. We can’t build a product without having a solid factory.”
Retaining ownership through the feedyard also allows them to track long-term animal health. They focus on vaccinating calves in low stress situations instead of when it’s simply more convenient to get the most out of the modified live products.
“When we started here, and began to get information on the cattle that were in the feedlot, we’d see a lot of them making visits to the hospital pen,” Kelly says. “With the changes we’ve made in vaccine management, we very rarely see one show up in the hospital pen once they get to the feedyard.”
Capacity of the land is something Bob and Kelly closely monitor through genetics, nutrition, production and animal health to keep moving forward in the beef industry.
“We’re at the point in a lot of cases where we’re missing the forest through the trees,” Bob warns. “So much of this data is not proven data, and with the data we have a lot of people can’t analyze. We’ve gotten away from simply raising good cattle. Realtime production data and being honest with ourselves in regards to what we have will far outweigh a lot of the other stuff in the long run.”