Update: February 10, 2019. It is an early spring here in south Texas. There is spring grass, the acacia brush is blooming (a natural sign of spring), and the local weatherman forecasts no more freezing temps for the rest of winter. I could see the signs even in later winter when I observed my cattle to begin gaining some flesh in late January on green winter forbs and early spring grass. In this update I wish to discuss my breeding heifer development program in reference to my latest set of heifers that have only consumed milk and forage and that will calving in May.
First, when they were only fetuses in winter of 2017 their dams were grazing mostly on stockpiled Kleberg bluestem (aka King Ranch bluestem; KRB) without receiving any hay, energy or protein supplements. (KRB is cursed by local ranchers for its poor palatability and digestibility when mature.) I contend that at this time the dams communicated signs to their fetuses. Through this process of fetal programming, genes were switched on for consuming and digesting low quality forage. (A growing body of scientific research confirms this belief.) Actually, the Star herd has been managed this way for several generations now (nearly 15 year) so breeding cattle should already be directly transmitting these genes. Notwithstanding this, Star cattle already possess many critical genes of African origin for thriving in harsh environments for about 5,000 years.
Later, these heifers were wintered on their dams. During this prolonged preweaning period, dams continued to teach their calves critical grazing behaviors. For example, being broad rather than selective grazers, reaching gut-fill on lower quality, less palatable species (it helps that Star cattle are deep-gutted), and grazing medic species when lightly infested with worms. This is in addition to learning other important behaviors such as respecting fences, participating in herd aggressive responses to predators (along with a guard donkey), and being called and gently rotated to other pastures. Of relevance, last November a young bull and five heifers were sold to a rancher in Oklahoma. He was amazed that shortly after their arrival he observed: “When I turned them out the heifers started eating the tops and seed heads of little bluestem, which most cattle don’t eat much”.
At 10 months of age the heifers were separated from their dam in early March when there was spring grass. They were by now trained and developed. Four months later from mid-July through August they were exposed to a young Star bull with the objective of calving at 24 months of age. In most years after the breeding season is over, heifers then rejoin the cow herd.
After a brief freeze in October, some green grass and winter clover and forbs was available as forage for the winter. Both the range condition of pastures and body condition of heifers were closely monitored. The heifers maintained good body condition while grazing mostly stockpiled forage throughout late fall and early winter, and without energy or protein supplements. Now they are programming their own fetuses to thrive on a lifetime of a low quality forage diet.
The feed cost has been zero in developing these heifers who have consumed only milk and grass. A source of minerals is always provided to my cattle. Again, it is an early spring this year. These heifers still have three more months to go before calving. It would be easy to worry about that – because of their genes for getting fat on only grass – they might be too fat by calving time in May! Here are a few recent photos.
December 31, 2018. As the year closes the following is a summary of performance and profitability results of the Star cattle herd. Pregnancy and weaning rates were 95.1 and 97.2%. Total costs per cow averaged $331 with land lease costs being the largest expenditure at $100 per cow. Total feed costs averaged only $10 per cow (excluding minerals). Average 205-day adjusted weaning weight was 556 pounds. Ultimately, these figures relate to a yield of 64 pounds of beef per acre. Profit per cow was $449 and profit per acre was $58. These profit figures are conservatively based on local market prices at an average of $780 per calf (most calves were actually sold for higher prices as breeding animals). In addition, these performance and profitability results were achieved by the use of genetically-adapted, moderately-sized (approx. average weight of 1,100 pounds), and highly fertile cows on healthy pastures. In 2018, the stocking rate was 7.75 acres per animal unit. This stocking rate was also pivotal in improving land efficiency in terms of pounds of beef produced per acre. Below is a figure that shows how stocking rate (number of acres per cow) has improved since 2014 at a rate of about 2 fewer acres per animal unit per year (through improved carrying capacity of pastures and likely smaller cows). Pounds of beef produced per acre has also improved at a rate of an increase of 6.7 pounds per year.
December 9, 2018. Nearly all of the calves presold a few months ago have been picked up. Half of the breeding calves purchased were from repeat clients who continue to upgrade their herds to a purebred Star base. Some of these repeat clients purchased bull calves that were Mashona-sired – to boost the performance level in their herds due to African genetics for fertility and adaptability and added heterosis. The photo below shows a trailer that was loaded with 2 bulls and 5 heifers destined for Oklahoma. Two ranchers: Kim Barker and Evan Rowland, previously total strangers, made the long trip together. Overall, it was good to see old friends again and to make new ones. Some brought their spouses and children along to see Star cattle in south Texas. Cattle ranchers are indeed the salt of the earth!
May 15, 2018. For 2018, the cow pregnancy rate was 95.1%. Despite brutally high temperature and humidity levels during the breeding season (mid-July through August), over 90% of cows also conceived in their first heat cycle. Cows at Lukefahr Ranch are not pampered; if they do not adapt they are culled. The feed cost per cow in 2017 averaged $4.04. Below is a photo of a Star cow (5/8 Red Angus, 1/8 Senepol, and 1/4 Tuli) with a Mashona-sired heifer calf that weighed 63 pounds.
However, this schedule requires that bulls and cows breed in late summer. This is a challenge for cattle producers in south Texas. This challenge is overcome by use of heat tolerant breeds: Senepol and Tuli. Semen evaluation tests in late June and early July have confirmed high fertility levels in bulls (most bulls tested to date have had over 90% live sperm counts in collections of semen that is highly sperm concentrated). Below is a chart that depicts well the tropical-like conditions during a rather typical breeding season (mid-July through August) in 2014. On most days, temperatures were above 100 F and humidity levels were mostly between 90 and 100%, while wind speed tended to be steady over the breeding season in terms of maximum 10 second wind gusts.
In the above photo, a 4 year-old bull (1/2 Senepol, 1/4 Tuli, and 1/4 Red Angus) serviced four cows in the afternoon on 28 July, 2011, when it was 100 degrees F. Notice too the early interest or libido of seven bull calves! Also notice the good cow body condition of the two cows. Although it was a severe drought year, cows were not being supplemented but were consuming only stockpiled forage.
The above model was developed by Steven Lukefahr after nearly 20 years of experience in aligning cattle genetics with natural cycles through drought management. The model displays the focus on drought management and appropriate genetics in working with natural cycles in south Texas. While the model is self-explanatory, it emphasizes that drought management and genetics is critical for production success in the region. The unique model has been described in detail in articles and in presentations delivered by Lukefahr to beef cattle producers at clinics and other educational events. It is highly ironic that the same model is strikingly similar to one reflected by Nature over the millennia involving wildlife species such as bison and deer. To quote Mr. Tom Lasater: ” Nature is smarter than all of us”! To illustrate, the photo below is of my neighbor’s bison herd which is never supplemented or pampered or given dewormers or vaccines. They winter their calves and later wean them in the early spring about 2 months before they calve again, which they typically do annually for some 20 or more years. Calves only weigh between about 40 and 50 pounds at birth. In addition, cows are very protective of their calves.This is the epitome of easy-care livestock. However, one negative is that they are difficult and dangerous to work in pens. The photo was taken by horseback by Steven Lukefahr, prior to being run out of the pasture by the old cow who is the matriarchal leader!
The figure below presents an overview of my basic ranch management program and below this figure is a table that compares traditional to alternative management practices with the latter being adopted at Lukefahr Ranch.
Guard donkeys – Below is a photo of the spring guardian of young calves in the herd. “Jenny” is shown below with her new foal born on March 12, 2010. Allowing a donkey to foal every few years further stimulates strong maternal behaviors. Jenny often stands guard over cows as they calve, serves as babysitter while cows go off to graze, but especially becomes very active in chasing coyotes and dogs out of pastures! Jenny is not treated as a pet but is managed as any cow in the herd. In 2013 and 2014, her daughter, Jezebel, following two years of training by her dam, is now the guardian of a separate cow herd (middle photo). In April 2017 another jenny was purchased as shown in the right photo. “Molly” is the guardian of another cow herd. Here is a link of an article that appeared in The Cattleman magazine: Guard donkeys.