Ranch Management Update

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.

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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!

Oct 15, 2018. As mentioned throughout this website, last year I purchased a purebred Mashona bull (Tarzan). He was used for several years in the Pharo Cattle Company breeding program. I have been very pleased by his ability to maintain good body condition (“mud fat”) and settle all cows that he has been exposed to thus far. The breeding objective of Lukefahr Ranch is to maintain a herd of polled, slick and light-colored STAR cattle of appropriate tropical genetics for the region where selection is applied to promote high fertility and survival in a low input system while working closely with Nature. While a great bull, Tarzan does have a few issues. He is dark red and horned, and he attracts a lot of flies (likely due to his high testosterone level and darker coat color). Fortunately, several of his sons out of Star cows are polled, slick-coated, and light-colored. Below is a photo of Tarzan and one of his sons as a 2 month-old calf who will be saved as a breeding herd bull replacement. The dam of this bull calf is Tuli-sired (Honey Bear), and her dam was Red Angus-sired (Leachman’s Bandito Tres), and her dam was Senepol-sired (Nocona). Besides having a great pedigree, his projected level of tropical genetics is 84.4%. As a composite-bred animal he should express a very high level of heterosis.
September 10, 2018. It appears as though Fall is finally upon us here with recent rains and lower temps. This has been a dry year. September has been the only month that it has rained for more than two days. These rains mark the opportunity to start stockpiling forage for the winter. I thought I would share with you photos taken this evening of 16 month-old Star heifers that have been developed on only milk and grass, were wintered on their dams until 10 months of age, and that are now 2 months pregnant.
June 17, 2018. The Spring 2018 Genetic Evaluation was recently conducted based on the addition of calf birth weight records to the data base which goes back to 1999 and now consists of records on 749 animals with trait and(or) pedigree records. The average birth weight for 2018 is 72.1 pounds. Below is a figure that shows the genetic trend for birth weight since 2005 (which was the year that the first crop of three-breed composite Star calves were born) in response to the breeding objective to select for lighter birth weights. Before 2005, the average birth weights were well above 80 pounds. In the figure each data point is the calculated average EPD for all calves born that year. The fitted line shows that, on average, the average EPD decreased about 0.175 pounds each year or approximately one pound every six years. While genetic progress is both cumulative and permanent, it takes time and patience.
Since the Star population is an open herd, several purebred AI bulls (Red Angus, Senepol, and Tuli) with negative birth weight EPDs have been used to decrease average birth weights. Photos of the most influential bulls are shown at the bottom of the figure with their birth weight EPDs. On the right side of the figure are photos of several of the most influential Star bulls that were born on Lukefahr Ranch that tend to have even larger negative EPDs for birth weight than most of the purebred AI bulls. Even though each of these Star bulls are related to two or more of the featured AI bulls, through gene recombination it is possible to produce composite-bred calves that inherit genes from AI bulls for all three breeds that will produce even lighter calves at birth. Other unrelated AI bulls have also been used, for example Above and Beyond and Schuler Rebel (Red Angus bulls) and WC 950K (a Senepol bull) to further reduce birth weights, while expanding the gene pool to minimize inbreeding but optimize hybrid vigor. Selection for the slick gene from Senepol and genes for light color, among other traits related to heat tolerance, has also occurred. This figure may serve as the basis for a future article. Stay posted.

 

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.

March 4, 2018. One unfair advantage of being located in deep south Texas is an early spring. Calves that were wintered on their dams were recently weaned at 10 months of age. In most cases, their dams had already weaned them for me. This past winter was unusual. Several cold fronts resulted in freezing temperatures and one blizzard even resulted in over 6 inches of snow! Although I had stockpiled forage in all the pastures last fall in preparation for winter grazing, the freezing temps did damage the grass and reduced the forage quality. In a couple of herds where cows were wintering heifer calves (most bull calves had already been weaned and sold for breeding), I did decide to feed range cubes in order to keep cows’ body condition at a minimum score of 5 while still raising their calves. Although range cubes were fed, since January 1 the total feed costs averaged only $6.12 per cow. Also, no hay was fed. About one month ago I stopped feeding cubes when there was enough green grass and forbs to meet the cow’s protein needs. Below is a photo of wintered heifers taken in early January which shows the low quality forage. The other photo was taken on March 5 of a cow that had wintered her heifer. Cows now have 2 months of grazing green grass before they calve in May.
January 20, 2018. Some readers my find the set of graphs particularly interesting, which were updated after closing the books on 2017. The first one involves trend for total costs per cow, which have dramatically decreased through better grazing management and by utilizing more adaptable genetics. The second graph shows stocking rate (SR) trend over the past 17 years. Hay has not been fed for over 16 years. The graph speaks volumes about drought management and management in general. First, between 2001 and 2004, the ranch was transitioning between traditional overstocking and continuous grazing towards an implemented rotational grazing system. The initial key decision was made in 2001 to reduce SR (more acres per cow). Because of the adverse effects of past poor grazing management, a few years were required for pasture health to recover. After 2004, pastures were in better condition (quality and quantity) so SR was increased (fewer acres per cow). Then starting in 2009 were years of extreme to exceptional drought. In 2013, SR was reduced (i.e., more acres per cow) to be more conservative on forage resources – mostly achieved by moving cows to temporary leases and selling 20% of the cow herd (mostly older cows and cows that made too much milk). In late 2014 and throughout 2015, ample rains returned and pastures gradually began to recover. In response, in 2015 the SR was increased from 16.0 to 12.2 acres per cow and in 2017 stood at 9.1 acres per cow. What is perhaps most interesting over these years is that as SR has been reduced (more acres per cow) the pounds of beef in weaned calves and profit per acre (last two graphs) have both generally increased in more recent years following a drought management plan and having adaptable cattle which continue to improve in performance.
June 29, 2017. Star bulls at 13 months of age were fertility tested by a local veterinarian. (This veterinarian has previously purchased two Star bulls which are now his main herd sires.) The bulls who have been developed only on milk and grass easily passed the Breeding Soundness Examination. In mid-July they will be turned out with heifers and cows. Several AI and natural service sires will  be used this year. One of the bulls that was fertility tested is shown in the photo below. His breed composition is 43.8% Red Angus, 18.8% Senepol, and 37.5% Tuli. His paternal grand sire is PCC R2R Simon (Red Angus) and his maternal grand sire is Honey Bear (Tuli). He is also homozygous (2 copies) for the slick gene which he inherited from his Senepol ancestors. Needless to say, as a composite his performance will be boosted by considerable hybrid vigor.
May 31, 2017. All cows except one calved between April 18 and May 28. Pregnancy rates for cows and heifers were 97.0 and 100%. The 45-day breeding season was between mid-July through August of last year. Average birth weight for all calves born was 69.6 pounds. No heifers had to be assisted at calving. Heifers were wintered on their dams until 10 months of age and were bred 4 to 5 months later. For years, Star cattle only graze forage without being fed hay or given energy or protein supplements. Below is a photo a 14 year-old Star cow who has produced 13 calves (left), a Star cow in her prime (middle), and a 2 year-old Star heifer with her first calf (right).
 April 14, 2017. In another month it will be calving time. Below are photos of cows that will be calving who wintered and later weaned their 10 month-old calves in early March. Since then they have been grazing early spring grass to replenish their body condition, although some were already at a BCS of 7 when they weaned their calves. This past winter, no energy or protein supplements were fed, only free-choice minerals. Only stockpiled forage and some winter forbs were grazed. For generations, cows have been teaching their calves to graze predominantly Kleberg Bluestem (aka King Ranch or KR Bluestem), a species that when dormant is highly unpalatable and indigestible. Hay has not been fed in over 15 years. The following quote is highly relevant:
“We’ve just completed studies showing that calves exposed in utero to high fiber diets both consume and digest high fiber foods such as wheat straw better than calves exposed in utero to low fiber diets. Greater digestible dry matter intake is important for pregnant cows and their offspring that winter under extensive conditions on dormant forages where their energy requirements are only marginally satisfied for many months. Those cows and their offspring are likely better adapted to using dormant forages during winter.  Fred Provenza, Utah State University.”
RANCH MANAGEMENT at Lukefahr Ranch reflects the paradigm of ‘Working with Nature’ as illustrated in the following figure. Calves are born mostly in May (see figure below). The green line depicts forage quality whereas the red line represents cow’s nutritional requirements. Working closely with Nature allows cows to gain flesh condition prior to calving from the spring flush of green grass. Especially for heifers, this will ensure high herd fertility or breed-back.

work-with-natureHowever, 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.

 Weather 2014In addition, in the summer season most bulls in the region are sub-fertile, even temporarily sterile (especially if they have black-colored hides). In addition, calves are usually weaned in fall (by the fence-line method) after rains cause the next major flush of green grass for the year.However, in recent years calves have been wintered on their dams and weaned in early spring (early March) – about 2 months before calving. Cows then have about a two month window to obtain a minimum BCS of 6 by calving time. The strategy has so far paid off without the need for dietary energy or protein supplements during winter.

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.

Drought focusThe 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!

bison6 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.

 

alternative-practices

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.

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Heifers for Sale

Flying W Ranch is located in Cotulla, Texas. For years now, this business has been purchasing Star bulls to produce cattle that are heat tolerant and productive without pampering. The herd manager, Grant Rogers, has eight Star-sired heifers for sale: 2 year-olds (6) and 3 year-olds (2); photos appear below. They are out of Red Angus crossbred cows. Since December, these heifers have been exposed to Star bulls. They can be palpated to confirm pregnancy. Another bonus is that the heifers are American Grassfed Certified. The ranch is asking $1,100 a head for these good heifers. Grant can be contacted by phone (830-456-9519) or email (flyingwranch@icloud.com).