Busy & Blessed

No two Texas days are alike at Flanagan Cattle Co.

My name is Christy Flanagan.  My husband, Craig and I live in Leonard in northeast Texas.  We have a 13 year-old son named JT and we’ve been married for 20 years.  My husband is the 5th generation to live on and work the land around our home.  Farming and ranching is all Craig has ever done.  He and his parents worked together until his father Wayne’s unexpected passing in October, 2011.

For several years, my father-in-law told me that I should submit a ranching journal to the magazine, and I never had, so in honor of him I’m finally writing it.  I had helped my husband some in the evening and on weekends, but always kept a “town job”.  I had a banking career for 17 years.  After Wayne passed away suddenly, we decided the only way to keep the ranch going was for me to help Craig fulltime.  So in January of 2012, I quit my banking job and went to work on the ranch.  We’ve got about 400 crossbred Gelbvieh mama cows and some years we run about 500 head of wheat pasture calves as well.  We bale hay for ourselves and about three neighbors.  In a normal year, we roll about 12k rolls of hay.  We are also sales representatives for Nutrition Plus mineral.

My husband Craig is the hardest working person I’ve ever known.  He always does whatever it takes and never quits.  He’s a cowboy, rancher, farmer, mechanic, truck driver; you name it he does it.  But he’s also my best friend, the best husband and father to our son that I could ask for.  He’s my superhero!  

We have two guys working for us, Marty Mitchell (our brother-in-law) and Chad Brewer (our friend and neighbor).  We also have an older man name Jimmy Helms who helps us during hay season.

We love what we do and are very blessed to be able to work together doing what we both love.  Most couples say they couldn’t work together, but we love it and we pray that the Lord continues to allow us to do it for many more years.

12-Day Journal of Christy Flanagan

Sunday, February 26, 2017

My father-in-law, Wayne, would have been 68 today.

Up early this morning and getting the semi loaded with round hay to haul about three hours west of here for a neighbor.  As soon as we get Craig’s truck loaded and strapped down, he heads out and I start checking our spring calving cows. As soon as I have everything checked and accounted for, then I put our mineral and mix a batch of feed for the yearlings we have at the house.  

We had over 20 new babies today; it was a good day.  Craig got home early evening.  We quit early and got cleaned up to go see my brother and his wife and my nephew Koen.  I hate to miss a chance to hold the baby.  On the way home from Denison, we had a neighbor call with a cow out, so we stopped and helped them get her back up on the way home.  Time to hit the sack for tonight


Monday, February 27

I got up at 5 a.m. this morning to fix a cinnamon roll casserole for my son’s teachers. Craig spent most of the morning on the phone taking bids from cattle buyers for our calves.  We’ve got 240 head of 7 weights ready to ship.

I checked all the spring calvers while Craig was dealing with the buyers.  Then it’s time to mix another batch of feed.  While I’m doing that, Craig has to work on the overhead plumbing on our feed bin.  He fixed the plumbing so I can add the liquid feed to the feed mix.  We have a set of about 50 1st calf heifers at the house that we are calving out, so one of us checks them about every two hours.  

We had lunch in town today at a new café and it was good. After lunch, I loaded the tank trailer and put out liquid feed in all the pastures.  Craig & Chad were working on repairing some rods in the working pens that were broken. After we finished for the day, we cleaned up and went to town so I could buy groceries (one of my least favorite things to do).


Tuesday, February 28

My good friend Joni (who is also Chad’s wife) took JT to school this morning for me, so I got started a little earlier than usual. One of my first calf heifers had twins – are all doing well.  Craig and I took a small square of haygrazer (Editor: forage crosses – sorghum, sudangrass, etc.) and caught a few more of the yearlings that we need to sell to make even truckloads.  As soon as we have them in the pen, we go back to the shop and hook up the cattle trailers and start hauling them home.

We get all the calves home and push the ones behind the shop into the pen then we start sorting.  We ended up with about 180 head so we sorted them into two pens of splitting the steers and heifers.  We get them settled in the pens and mix a batch of feed so we can feed them.  

We had to quit about 5 p.m. to clean up to go to a mineral meeting the local feed store was having.  We started pulling out of the driveway to go get Chad & Joni and we saw the steers were out and crossing the creek.  It was nearly dark and there was nothing but a hotwire to hold them so we knew that we had to get them up before it got dark.  We jumped in our old feed truck and started calling them and sounding the siren.  Fortunately, the pasture they were in was where our 1st calf heifers are and they are broke to the feed truck.  They came running and brought our wayward steers with them.  We pushed them all up and sorted the steers out (the last few minutes were by flashlight).  Since we had missed the meeting, we went to the café and ate a steak before calling it a day.


Wednesday, March 1

Craig went to the “coffee shop” first thing this morning.  I dropped JT off at school and dropped off his school uniforms to the drycleaners.  Craig had to move some hay around with the semi so we had enough hay to mix feed for the calves and to feed the 1st calf heifers. While he was moving hay, Chad went to feed our fall calving cows and check on them.  I worked on getting the tires aired up and flats changed on our homemade feed trailers to use in the pens.

We all met in town at the Mexican food place for lunch and then went back and finished our jobs.  Once we were finished and had everything fed and tended to, we went south of town to get some bulls up. We went back to the pens to sort off 70 steers and 70 heifers to make two truckloads to sell.

Craig had to go check on a field that we are going to sprig as soon as we get roots. We’ve decided after talking to the buyers that OKC West is the best avenue for us to sell our calves this time, so we’ve lined up two semis to be there first thing Monday morning. Had to make a late run to the next town for some more plumbing supplies.  


Thursday, March 2

I dropped of JT at school then picked up Craig at the body shop where his truck was going to be painted.

I had to make a quick trip to run Craig back home and double back to Bonham for a FSA County Committee Meeting. The meeting took longer than I had expected but I was out by 11:30, so then I headed to Fort Worth to pick up a load of mineral from the plant.    

Later, I stopped by a feed store in McKinney to discuss mineral with them. Chad and Craig moved hay around, fed, and checked the cows while I was gone. Marty has been running the field cultivator this week getting the ground ready for sprigging.

Home for the night.  Grilled cheese for supper and catch up on laundry.


Friday, March 3

Joni took JT to school again this morning, so Craig and I got the plowing tractor moved to the next field that Marty needs to run in today.  Chad is spending the day welding at the pens and making gates.  I mixed a batch of feed and fed the calves.  Craig is cleaning up one of the feeding tractors and servicing it.

Lunch with Chad and Joni then back to work.  I spent the afternoon checking my spring calvers.  We’ve got about 70 babies on the ground so far. I killed a wild hog while I was checking cows.  Didn’t have my A/R with me, but I did have my .44 pistol.  Craig and I had to go south of town and take down a barbed wire fence and put up a temporary hotwire so the landlord could do some dirt work on the dam of the pool. Head home and start supper:  Shrimp Scampi for JT and I and chicken wings for Craig.  Set out some meat to thaw for tomorrow’s lunch.


Saturday, March 4

Saturday is our Sabbath, our rest day, and we don’t work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday unless it’s an emergency.  It was cloudy and misting rain this morning.  I fix breakfast and get JT out the door to church with my mom.  The youth is doing a special mission’s fundraiser for kids in Africa. Clara Belle (my yellow lab) and I checked the 1st calf heifers on the side-by-side.  

When we got back, I started a roast and a pot of beans.  Once I had it cooking, I started on a big pan of spaghetti for a local family in town whose daughter is battling bone cancer. After the spaghetti, I whipped up a big pan of enchiladas for us to eat for lunch.  Mexican food sounds good on a dreary day.

Clara Belle and I go to check the heifers again after lunch and take a quick nap.  JT is headed back to church this evening for youth program practice.  Craig and I take Chad and Joni’s daughter, Courtney, out for Hibachi.


Sunday, March 5

It’s misting rain and cloudy again, but we go ahead and mix a big batch of feed and get everything fed.  On our way to Bonham to get a new pipe wrench and some air fittings we delivered two round rolls of haygrazer to a friend from church. Grabbed a hamburger from Braum’s.  


Craig and JT cleaned up the shop while I met some other FFA Booster Club families to take the food to the family I mentioned. Stopped by Chad & Joni’s on the way back, I bought Courtney a pistol and I want to surprise her with it.  We mixed another batch of feed and feed the calves as it’s getting dark, they will ship in the morning so we want them to be good and full before they go on the truck.  Got cleaned up and went out for Mexican food, we’ll save the pot roast for tomorrow night.


Monday, March 6

Shipping Day!  JT doesn’t have to go to school today since we’re shipping calves. I meet the trucks at the nearest truck stop at 7a.m. and lead them back to the pens.  It’s still misting and raining and yucky today but the trucks can stay on the rock to load.  We loaded 70 steers on the first truck and 70 heifers on the second truck.  

As soon as the trucks are loaded and gone, we set in checking cows and feeding.  Craig and I met Chad and Joni for lunch at the café.  Craig and Chad worked on setting some line posts for a neighbor.  JT and I head north of town to check the spring calvers.  Craig, JT and Chad are going to the neighbor’s to help him load his trucks while I must clean up and get to a PTA meeting at JT’s school.  But I do manage to get all the cows checked before I leave.


Tuesday, March 7

Started raining about 3 a.m., not a big rain, but enough to make the pastures slick.  After I took JT to school, I went north of town to check cows and managed to slide my truck off the pool dam and in the edge of the pool.  Spooked me a little, but Craig was nice about it when I called him to come pull me out even though it was my new truck.  It took him a couple of tries but he finally got me out.  I finish checking the cows and start feeding.  When I got to Trenton to feed the fall calvers, there was a 300 lb. heifer with her head stuck between the barn and a tree.  I had to work at it for a while but I finally got her out.

Craig and Chad working on the plow today.  We need to quit and get cleaned up mid-afternoon to go to a funeral for one of Craig’s cousins.  Just as we’re grabbing a quick bite, we get a phone call that we have two yearlings out on a busy highway in Trenton.  I jump in the feed truck and head that way to make sure they aren’t in the middle of the road.  Craig and Chad pay out and then meet me up there.  We’re able to get them back in fairly easily and without incident or anyone getting hurt.  We get the fence fixed and Craig and I head home to shower and change for the funeral.  Headed home, my mom had brought JT home from school and he’s got a project due tomorrow that he’s been procrastinating on, so I set in and try to help him get organized so he can knock it out.  We work on it until 10 p.m. but finally get finished.  Craig checked the heifers for me.  I cooked breakfast food for supper and we all crashed.  


Wednesday, March 8

Up early and on the road.  Chad is going to work on welding on a new set of pens we’re building north of town.  Marty is going to be plowing.   We’re headed to Oklahoma to look at some young bulls. Today is the day our calves are selling at OKC West so we decide to go by the sale barn and watch them sell.  

We decided to go in the café and have a steak while we’re waiting on our neighbor’s calves to sell. We get on the road by about 7 p.m. so we can be home by the time JT gets home from church.  Long day, lots of miles, but it was a good day.  And the windshield time always gives Craig and I a chance to brainstorm and discuss new ideas, future plans, and count our blessings.  We are truly blessed.


Thursday, March 9

I took JT to school this morning then helped Craig get moved around.  He’s putting out fertilizer for a neighbor.  After I get him situated, take him fuel and lunch, I decide to sneak away to meet my friend Traci for lunch. I walked in the café and sat down –  just as I was about to order my drink, Craig called and he’d blown a hydraulic line on the sprayer.  I told Traci I was so very sorry and I had to leave right away.  She said she didn’t have anything planned for the afternoon so she decided to just go with me.  We went and got Craig and took him to get a new line made then got him going.  Traci and I spent the rest of the day checking the cows and feeding the calves.  It was nice to have the company.   

Well this was just a brief glimpse into the daily activities around here.  No two days are ever the same and we usually start on Plan A and end up with Plan M or N before lunchtime.  But it’s a great life and we are truly blessed beyond measure.   

Value In The Valley

Enveloped by town and tourists, Lockhart Cattle Company found ways to make their venture work

Photos by David Stubbs and Melissa Hemken

Only a handful of working ranches remain among billionaires’ gentlemen ranchettes in Wyoming’s Jackson Hole Valley. One of remaining active cattle producers is Lockhart Cattle Company. Sandwiched between Jackson Hole Community School, Smith’s Food and Drug, and downhill ski runs on Snow King Mountain, Lockhart headquarters includes Teton County’s first milled plank and wooden peg house and barn, built in 1909. Purchased by Bruce Porter in the 1930s, urban sprawl has Porter’s great-grandson, Chase Lockhart, building a new ranch paradigm in town.

“It is convenient,” says Chase Lockhart of ranching within sight of the grocery store. “If I lived out at the end of the road in Big Piney [Wyoming] and ran out of coffee, it would be a 20-minute ordeal. Here, in two minutes my problem is solved.

“Though I can’t tell you how many people drive in here, saying, ‘You got a cow out there having a calf!’ Like, ‘Good, that’s what they’re supposed to do’.”

Nearly five million tourists annually funnel through Jackson, full-time population 10,135, to visit ski resorts, and Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. “Most people that come to Jackson,” Lockhart continues, “don’t know the difference between me, and the guy at the shootout in the town square or leaning on the bar wearing a cowboy hat.”

Many Jackson residents also don’t understand the financial challenges and variability of the ranching business. In 2004, the Lockhart cattle herd contracted brucellosis from grazing among elk. Regulations at that juncture forced the family to destroy the entire herd; calves, cows, bulls and yearlings…close to 900 animals. At the time, the Lockharts held the last active grazing permit in Grand Teton National Park. With no cattle, they filed non-use on the permit and the park fully closed grazing access.

The family re-grouped, and decided to transfer ranch operations to Chase and his brother Cody. “We leased the ranch one summer,” says Chase Lockhart, “and hayed it the next. But if I’m going to hay, I want to feed it to my own cows. So I began re-building the herd.”

To add value to his cattle, Lockhart purchased registered Herefords to sell bulls and replacement heifers. A couple years of attending bull sales and Hereford shows taught him it’s hard to compete with large producers, and the added costs of showing, heated barns, and embryo transfer were beyond his resources. “Also, I’m not really in ranching country,” Lockhart admits. “Jackson is not a common place people come to buy bulls.”

Going Local

Casting for another value-added opportunity, Lockhart saw Jackson’s 200 restaurants reviewed on TripAdvisor.com, the popularity of local food, and the 145-year-steady tourism industry. “I figure half of those tourists eat hamburger,” Lockhart explains, “and if I can sell the [restaurants] a fifth of that hamburger, that’s still a lot of hamburger.”

A restaurant where a friend worked was Lockhart’s first customer, and Lockhart talked up chefs and meat counter clerks across Jackson. “We tried to get beef into people’s mouths,” he says of beginning marketing, “and that meant giving it away or breaking even on it. I did a lot of things I didn’t want to do, like host ranch tours and go to the farmers’ markets in the rain.”

The big break for Lockhart’s new business model came from Signal Mountain Lodge, a concessionaire on Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park, signing a ground beef contract with Lockhart Cattle Company. “They sell an absurd amount of hamburgers,” Lockhart says. “They buy 12,000 pounds of one-third pound patties a year. I’m like, ‘36,000 patties, coming up!’ It showed we could sell beef locally, and it makes sense to grass-finish as we don’t grow, or have a way to store and feed, grain.”

With the valley filled with dormant ranches, Lockhart easily finds grazing. “I can tie up grass relatively cheaply from guys who have gotten out of the ranching business,” Lockhart says. “I have six different private leases. Some only support 30 pairs and the largest piece can hold 200 head.”

Lockhart cautions when working lands are carved up for ranchettes, many of the small acreages are left without enough irrigation, or with no access or corrals for livestock. “But it’s amazing what I came up with,” he continues. “I stash some [cattle] on a dude ranch. [Guests] pen the cattle once a week, and I get free grass.”

In the spring Lockhart feeds three generations of one cow: a calf that’s on its mom, one born last year, and the 2015 model almost ready for slaughter. A key component to selling beef weekly is easy access to a meat processing facility, which Jackson did not have. Lockhart needed a meat processor with flexibility to do cuts and process according to client request. He connected with the neighboring Hog Island Meats wild game plant, located seven miles south down Highway 89, which the owners wanted to grow into a state-inspected locker. Lockhart Cattle Company financed the plant upgrade in exchange for part ownership and management input, and gained a close-by, custom meat processor.

“The plant still does wild game in the fall,” Lockhart explains, “and that’s a challenge. We have to shut down beef processing for several months, as the facility isn’t state-inspected when it processes wild game. But every stage of the business has challenges. After slaughter is packaging, inventory, pricing model, and distribution. Ranching is the easy part.”

Sell the Beef

Lockhart cattle finish on self-feed hay, even during summer, and finished animals slaughter at 18-30 months of age and 1,150-1,300 live weight. “The beef hang pretty consistently on the rail at about 625 pounds,” Lockhart says. “The end of July is often when I butcher a 28-month-old for a client one week and a 17-month-old the next. Customers do notice meat is smaller and less marbled.”

Most customers want one type of meat cut, so Lockhart tries to group orders according to the animal. He will accept a steak contract if the ground beef from the animals providing that steak can be sold elsewhere. “The key is to have an outlet for grind,” Lockhart says, “and be willing to break even on it. Selling steaks at a premium offsets ground beef selling as a wash. The red meat business is low margin. I try to be vertically integrated to get a little piece of the margin the whole way through.”

Selling fresh beef allows Lockhart to respond to demand quickly. Because this causes him to decline customers, he recently began to keep frozen inventory. “I say no to a lot of people,” he regrets, “because they want 50 tenderloins next weekend for a wedding. They would pay 18 bucks a pound if I had it. But I’d need to butcher 25 head to get that many tenderloins.

“For a long time I would tell people, ‘Yes, I’ll figure out how to do it.’ Then I would get off of the phone and swear. Now with steadier demand, I have flexibility to say no. I also now make all deliveries on the same day so I’m not jumping out of the swather in the middle of haying to make a $200 delivery.”

In the summer, Lockhart can deliver a whole beef to Jackson Whole Grocer & Cafe on Wednesday and it’s sold out by Saturday. His attempt to sell to his neighboring Smith’s grocer is stonewalled by corporate management.

Lockhart admits small meat-suppliers do take extra effort. If the vacuum seal blows on a couple of meat packages, he might not be able to re-stock that meat cut immediately for the grocer. “I’m not the Sysco truck with 60 other packages sitting on the shelf,” he acknowledges. “That’s why I need to make quality worth the pain in the (butt).”

Know Your Meat

Sitting on his truck tailgate, Lockhart says posh restaurants purchase 30 pounds of beef a month from him for tartare—a minced, raw meat dish. “Eye-of-round is sought after for beef tartare because it has no fat in it,” Lockhart explains. “Tenderloin is also used, and sirloin can be if trimmed really well.”

Jackson’s fine diners want delicious food presented ornately, and they want to learn about their foods’ origins. “People will look through a menu and order something just because it’s sourced locally,” Lockhart says, “rather than what they originally intended to eat.”

The best marketing tool is ranch location abutting city limits: an eye-catching two-story red barn, Lockhart brand emblazoned white on the barn’s peak, surrounded by Hereford cattle grazing lush meadow. “But when my cows get out,” Lockhart says ruefully, “they aren’t in the neighbor’s pasture. They’re in Smith’s parking lot.”

Last year, Lockhart Cattle Company discontinued registering their Herefords. Lockhart shares management decisions with his brother, who thought they might as well register the cows because they could. With beef sales growing, Lockhart suggested that not weighing calves and filling out registrations could gain efficiency.

“We decided we are in the beef business and not the cow business,” Lockhart says of the final decision. “I raised those bulls, put horn weights on and ultrasounded them, and made no money. I was like, ‘It’s not even a hobby I want. I want to mountain bike, that’s a hobby…not a bull herd.’”

Lockhart plans to cross breed to Red Angus bulls, and hopes to try Wagyu bulls in the future. “I want to cross my cows to Wagyu to see if it helps with marbling,” Lockhart says. “The problem is Wagyu aren’t a hardy breed and don’t weather as well as Angus or Hereford.

“It’s fun to try new things, but it takes a long time. Once I buy new bulls it will be two years before their offspring are on the rail and I can evaluate beef quality. Then if I try different bulls, it will be five years before I make major changes. And I want to be on the forefront of beef taste.”

Refining the Business

Lockhart sells 70 percent of his beef in the summer, and 30 percent in the slower winter months. Current sales do not balance the amount of work. “If I can figure out how to scale it for small margins, I have a shot,” Lockhart says.

There is more demand than supply for Lockhart beef. Lockhart is penciling out how to run more cows and slaughter five days a week. “I used to think one cow is the same work as 100 cows,” Lockhart says, “because they all need water and feed anyway, but that’s not true. Every cow is more work. Every beef slaughtered and every customer comes with more problems.

“Every employee hired and every piece of infrastructure—I bought a freezer trailer to deliver meat—has complications. For the trailer, I need to work on the cooling unit, keep the tires blown up, and fix the generator. At the farmers’ market, the tent blows away. At every step there’s something. It’s not about just buying more cows.”

Value-added products, such as hot dogs and bratwurst, will reach a new market, but Lockhart needs to grow his beef herd first. “I don’t have the beef to experiment with right now,” he says. “I can’t slaughter enough beef on a weekly basis to set two aside to play around with recipes.”

Along with recipes, processed meats bring more food safety regulations, shelf-life tracking, packaging and labeling. “I still have trouble getting my label maker to talk to my computer,” Lockhart says with exasperation. “I don’t have an IT [information technology] guy.”

Through it all, Lockhart takes the long view for building a new business model for his family’s ranch. He relates growing beef to producing wine or whiskey: forecasting what consumers will want in the future. “The reason people like our beef,” he explains, “is because of the story behind it. I raise it all right here, and it never leaves the valley. Everybody watches the cattle and whole [life] circle go around.”

Return to Ranching

An interesting journey leads this young beef producer back to the land he loves

By Troy Smith

There’s a busy stretch of road running northward, from Fort Collins to Laramie. That 65-mile section of U.S. Highway 287 carries some heavy truck traffic through northern Colorado and into Wyoming. Actually, the route has been heavily traveled since 1848 or so. That portion of the highway overlaps the old Overland Trail, and was the course many emigrants followed when journeying to Oregon or California. It was the trail used by stagecoaches and freighters driving ox- and mule-drawn wagons. It became the primary road used by folk that settled the area and hoped to stay.

    One that did stay was Robert O. Roberts, who established a hotel and café, about 21 miles north of Fort Collins, in Livermore, Colorado. Situated where a lesser trail branched off from the Laramie road, Roberts called his inn “The Forks”. About a year later, in 1875, Roberts also filed a homestead claim. He would eventually sell his hospitality business to concentrate on the building of Roberts Ranch.

    The Forks remains a local Livermore landmark, although it has changed hands many times. Roberts Ranch was never sold. Often called one of Colorado’s “legacy ranches,” the property is now held by a trust, with its more than 16,000 acres remaining intact. That’s rare along the Highway 287 corridor where, starting decades ago, many working ranches were broken into small pieces and sold to city folk wanting acreages on which to build houses in the country.

    Roberts Ranch won’t be subdivided, though, because of conservation easements, which protect the ranch from development by limiting its use to agricultural production, in perpetuity.  Consequently, Roberts Ranch has been, is and will be home to a cattle operation. Resident manager Zach Thode is charged with keeping the operation on firm footing, financially.

From Woodstock to livestock

    Holding a degree in engineering, Thode is an out-of-the-ordinary, first-generation rancher. If there were farmers or stockmen in his family tree, Thode never heard about it from his parents. And by the way, Mom and Dad were flower children.

    “Yep, they were genuine, Woodstock-variety hippies,” affirms Thode, explaining how his parents moved to the Livermore area and bought a small piece of land, back when some of the large ranches were being subdivided.

    “We were off the grid. My parents, my brother and I lived in a tent, with no electricity and no running water until I was six years old,” Thode recalls.

    Still, Thode can claim he was nearly ranch-raised. Early exposure was a result of a rancher’s wife being his daycare provider. When Thode was nine years old, a local rancher and horseman took the boy under his wing. First, Richard Borgmann helped train a young horse that Thode had acquired for the price of a whole dollar. Then Borgmann offered the kid a summer job.

    “I worked for him for the next 13 years, up until I graduated from college,” tells Thode. “He taught me a lot about ranching during that time, and a lot about life.”

    Thode graduated from Colorado State University, with a degree in agricultural engineering. After college, he found work as a construction laborer and advanced to management, spending six years engaged in the construction of municipal water treatment facilities across Colorado and Wyoming. For another five years, Thode worked for Rubicon Water, a firm that designs large-scale, gravity-fed irrigation water systems for clients all over the U.S.

    Along the way, Thode also became a regional representative for BigIron Auctions, a firm that conducts online, as well as onsite, auctions of agricultural, construction and transportation equipment. Experience as a BigIron rep reinforced something his early mentor, Richard Borgmann, had demonstrated.

    “I became a rep mainly so I could learn about sales and marketing as it is done at the farm and ranch level,” says Thode. “And I learned that it’s all about relationships built on trust and respect.”

    By 2012, Thode had married his wife, Sherryl, and started a family. Approached that year about managing the Roberts Ranch, the couple saw it as an opportunity to get back to ranching – something Thode had always thought he would eventually do – and raise their kids in that environment. He also recognized it as a challenge worth accepting. They did, starting in the spring of 2013.

    “The ranch had been under limited management for close to 35 years and there had been very few improvements in that time,” says Thode.

    Since then, several miles of water pipeline have been installed. More and better-placed stock watering sites, plus some cross-fencing of pastures has allowed for improved grazing management. Erosion of stream banks has been addressed by fencing riparian areas so cattle access can be controlled.

    The ranch has access to water for irrigated hay production, but its flood irrigation systems were in disrepair. Under Thode’s management, three center-pivot systems have been installed, along with a big gun sprinkler. Since renegotiating water rights, Thode anticipates adding three more pivots to provide irrigated pasture for the future.

Building the herd back up

    While Roberts Ranch had long been considered to be a 600-cow outfit, drought-driven destocking left cow numbers at 200 at the time Thode arrived. Moisture conditions have since improved but the ranch’s owners preferred to rebuild numbers through retention of home-raised heifers, rather than purchase replacements. During the ongoing period of herd-building, Thode has kept the ranch stocked to capacity by bringing in cows that he and Sherryl own personally.

    “We currently sell about 40 percent of the calf crop in January, as five-weight calves. We keep a few steers to run over as yearlings and we keep a lot of heifers,” shares Thode, explaining how a relatively large number of replacement heifer candidates are managed under an extensive, low-input development program and estrus synchronized for artificial insemination. After early pregnancy detection, heifers found open are sold as feeders.

    “Heifers are our most liquid asset,” Thode states.

    Historically, Roberts Ranch ran straight Hereford cows and, as alluded to previously, they were subject to “limited management”. That’s definitely not all bad, in Thode’s opinion, because the cows became pretty well adapted to the environment. Because they don’t eat much and they get pregnant every year, Thode wants to keep some of their “hard Hereford” genetics in the herd. However, he is using Angus and composite bulls to capitalize on the added productivity and longevity of crossbred cows.

    The mature cows run on range throughout the year, receiving little supplementation other than protein during the winter. Calving during May and June helps keep feed and labor costs low.

    “We try to keep cattle spread out in pastures. I believe that helps reduce sickness. We monitor the heifers so we can help with calving when needed, but the cows are on their own. We check them once per week,” says Thode.

    “We don’t tag calves,” he adds, noting how humans handling newborns can interfere with bonding between calves and their dams, and even spread infections. “Under our management system, I don’t see any real financial advantage to tagging calves. I know the cost of labor involved is a financial disadvantage.”

    Thode is all about cost-benefit comparison. He’s more than a little leery of debt and advocates frugality in lifestyle as well as business, saying “keeping up with the Joneses” can get a rancher in trouble. Having the fastest horse or newest pickup seldom makes much difference to the ranch’s bottom line.

    Thode’s involvement in the online auction business has been used to good advantage, not only to save money but also make it. He buys used equipment for use on the ranch, and most of it needs at least a little work.

    “I probably spend close to a quarter of my time fixing up equipment that I bought cheap. Often, I use it for a while and then sell it for a profit. Then, I do it again,” relates Thode. “But you do have to make the effort to learn what stuff is worth.”

Roberts Ranch label

    Thode fears many producers devote too little effort to savvy sourcing of inputs, or to marketing cattle. Producers whose programs are built on carefully chosen genetics and reams of performance data should use it when marketing their cattle, rather than simply hauling calves to the sale barn and hoping for the best. He admits that Roberts Ranch cattle don’t have a reputation for exceptional feed conversion rates or the highest carcass merit, but they do have sought after qualities.

    “They’re going to live,” grins Thode. “They’re healthy and they qualify for an ‘all natural’ program. We sell them at the auction barn, but I work at recruiting buyers to be there on sale day. If I can get at least two guys interested, it creates more competition. Just an extra bid or two can be enough to cover the costs of transportation and commission.”

    Thode also hopes to use the ranch’s historical significance to develop and market certified organic lines of grass-fed and grain-fed beef bearing a Roberts Ranch label. He’s also working with the current owners of The Forks about the opportunity to leverage their shared history, and put Roberts Ranch beef on the restaurant’s menu.

    Always seeking to establish mutually beneficial relationships, Thode advises young producers to establish a wide network of “neighbors” with which they can trade goods and services. A prime example is Thode’s practice of swapping hunting and fishing privileges for fence building and repair.

    “I try to avoid paying full retail for anything,” states Thode. “But you have to know how to negotiate, and that’s becoming a lost art.”

    Thode laments the fact that old-fashioned horse-trading sometimes has a negative connotation. In his opinion, in shouldn’t be that way. A good bargain, resulting in value received by both parties, should be based on honesty, integrity and trust.

     “We all need to teach that to our kids,” offers Thode. “And we need to teach them how to work. We don’t do a very good job of that anymore. A good start might be to tell them to shut down their electronic devices, go outside and get dirty doing something.”

One Gooseneck At A Time


The Story of Missouri’s Joplin Regional Stockyard

By: Vince Crunk

Mark Harmon is sitting in a truck stop, not far from Joplin Regional Stockyards (JRS) where he wears several hats; among them, handling communications and public relations. Harmon has been with JRS for more than 35 years. In a few days, he’ll help run cattle into the sale ring.

“We built this empire on gooseneck trailer loads.”

Harmon’s word ‘empire’ conjures up images of cattle barons, but most of JRS’s sellers have herds of less than 50 cows. Most of them come from within a 100-mile-radius.

One such producer is Kelly Essary, who runs a typically small operation. On this day he brought 37 head from Crane, a small town about 60 miles away. He keeps coming back because of the service. “I feel like I get the most that my calves are worth that day.” JRS has plenty of buyers, too. Cows get sold quickly so shrink is less of a concern.

Every seller I spoke with said there were other sale barns closer to home.

But they choose Joplin.

Every Monday – even on Monday May 23, 2011, one day after an F-5 tornado slammed into nearby Joplin -hundreds of trailers show up at JRS in Carthage, MO, for the weekly feeder sale. On that terrible Monday in 2011, after an even more terrible Sunday, business needed to carry on as usual, even though hearts were heavy for neighbors and friends who lost loved ones and property. But there were still trailers full of cattle to be sold.

That same week, JRS raised more than $15,000 for tornado relief and as recovery efforts were in full swing, JRS grill-teams cooked and served morethan 13,000 hamburgers to volunteers who flooded into Joplin to help with
the cleanup.

Scott Kirby has been coming to JRS for more than 25 years, buying for JBS, one of the larger feeder-cattlebuyers in the country. The Brazilian owned company might be the world’s largest protein company; perhaps better known to American consumers under brand names such as Swift or Pilgrim’s. “We like the way cattle perform out of this area,” he maintains, “conditions are good.” Kirby will buy between 500-1,000 head and is at JRS almost every week.

While not Superior-sized, JRS is a leader in video auctions too, holding weekly sales.

More than 70 Field Reps work closely with producers. If they sense the timing is right, the market is good, a call could go out on a Sunday suggesting that tomorrow might be a good day to load up and make a drive. Seller Dean Jeffield of Jay, OK, confirms, “I rely on my field rep John Simmons to tell me when to sell them and how to sell them, to get the most money out of them.”
gooseneck-2One JRS innovation goes by the name “commingling.” Harmon explains, “We take cattle from different producers. We grade them, weigh them and put them in larger bunches.” One week he estimated they had 400 head of cattle  from almost 100 different producers. “It helps the small guy. That’s our bread and butter.”

This makes a little sheet of paper, called the Drive-In Record, very important. Sellers get one at check-in and it is passed from wrangler to wrangler to ring man to the scale master; who posts the weights and prices that show up on video displays in the sale barn. JRS can’t influence the selling price but they do get a piece of it, every time.

Feeder cows generate $17/head commission and more, depending on other services that may be rendered, such as vet inspections.

But high or low, JRS gets paid and so does the seller. He walks out the front door with money in his pocket, to the tune of $300-350 million per year. Much of that gets pumped backed into the local and regional economy.

Harmon’s take sums it up well.

“When that guy backs in there, in 30-seconds, his year’s worth of work is turned into cash.”

His boss, Jackie Moore, expands on the trust involved in that exchange. “It has always meant a lot to me that when you back up to my dock and unload your calves, people say; ‘Here Jackie, here’s my livelihood. Here’s what I worked all year to produce and here’s how I’m gonna make my farm payment, my truck payment. I’m gonna put my livelihood in your hands. You take care of it.’”


Apart from size and volume, what sets JRS apart may be the team at the top. Jackie Moore and brother-in-law Steve Owens have been leading JRS as a team since 1986.

Jackie Moore went to auctioneer school at the age of 13. From there it was a predictable leap to managing Saturday afternoon auctions. Running JRS with his brother-in-law began in another location in Joplin before they moved to Carthage in 1995. Added bonus; no stoplights between the sale barn and Interstate 44.

Moore, Owens and I sat down in their restaurant above the sales arena.Moore is the cattle guy, the auctioneer, and Owens handles the operational and financial side of things.

Some of the terms Moore uses to describe JRS don’t sound very rancher-like: forward contracting, risk management, equity and hedging. But at his core, Moore is about partnerships and helping producers succeed. And those terms are generously sprinkled throughout our short conversation.

“Our mission has always been to work for our producers and let them know things coming down the road that will benefit them and keep them profitable,” Moore explains.

“Anything out there on the horizon that’s going to add value for our producers, we want them to know about it, whether they use it or not. We want them to have all the tools to stay profitable.”

Those tools? Commingling has been mentioned. Video auctions. A simple vaccination regimen that JRS recommends for its sellers. BQA. Publications. Seminars. Forward contracting. Moore describes how that last one played out on a recent sale day;

“On Monday, a guy in western Kansas bought up two loads of 400 lb. calves,” Moore recalls. “He wants to try to sell them that night on video. We didn’t have a video of them. So I said (in the video auction) ‘I got two loads of steers in Marion, KS. A guy bought them here tonight. He wants to deliver them in August. They’ll weigh 625.’ We sold them or $2.16.

“Those steers cost him $2.41. He didn’t want the risk of owning those cattle one more day without having them sold. Those cattle actually pencil close to a $300/head profit between now and August. Who has seen a better scenario than that? A banker doesn’t have a problem with that. ‘I bought cattle today at $1,060/head and I sold them today for $1,340/head.’”


Both Moore and Harmon mentioned a unique sort of partnership that exemplifies their commitment to helping existing producers and those who want to get into this expensive game.

A man in Crane was making his living mowing and had access to land, but no capital. He approached Moore with an interest to get into the business.

Moore set him up to background some cattle. This “backgrounder” made $70,000 last year, Harmon noted. Moore calls this “managing the middle.” According to Harmon, Moore probably has 20,000 head out on background.

Moore picks up the conversation again. “We turn out a lot of cattle. Some of these things may not be the most profitable for us. But if we can show a profit and get some young producers in the business and up on
their feet and going…” He adds, “All we are is a service business. We feel like we are partners. Their success is our success.” JRS’s strategy is to remain focused on the smaller producer. “A guy that’s got 5,000 cows probably doesn’t need us. The guy with 50 cows does.

They’re the ones we’re trying to keep in business and keep profitable by giving them the tools they need. The small producers are the ones we’re trying to educate on what’s out there and what’s going on in our business.” Some of Moore’s words sound like clichés but you also get a strong sense that he means all of them, sincerely. He talked about being somebody producers could “lean on”. His customers are “always right.” His most important lesson learned?

“Do business with integrity and honesty. We don’t do everything right, we can’t make it perfect, but we do it with integrity.” He emphasized JRS being a family business “just like most of those family farms – our producers.” His two sons work for JRS; son Skyler already fills the auctioneer’s chair. Moore had several bankers waiting for him while we chatted so he wrapped things up.

“The sale barn is not going away. Video is just another option for us to sell more cattle. As long as we have  small producers, we are going to have a physical location.”

Beef prices are high right now, but the bubble may burst eventually, or at least leak. Is Moore worried?

“That’s what makes it exciting. You gotta have the gambler in you to make it through the highs-and-lows. But if you can manage your risk and your grass, you’ll survive and come through it just fine. You can’t hardly starve one of us hillbillies to death. We just live as poor as we need to live to survive.”

Three Things on an Acre of Ground


This South Dakota Family Knows What They Need To Remain Viable

By: Corinne Patterson

Monday mornings at 6:30 sharp, four ag businessmen near Ideal, South Dakota, gather to discuss a simple acre of ground.

“It all boils down to acres. Our family believes if we can farm the ground the way it needs to be farmed – farm it correctly; and if we can have that ability to graze it; then also do some sort of entertainment, value-added project; if we do those three things on an acre of ground then we will be very viable for years to come,” says Cody Jorgensen. “That’s the sustainable thing for us – to be able to farm it, graze it and hunt it.

“Those meetings are very critical,” he continues. “As painful as they can be at times at 6:30 on Monday morning, they are absolutely the lifeblood of the operation.” Partners Greg, Bryan, Cody and Nick Jorgensen operate Jorgensen Land & Cattle, a diversified agribusiness that includes a purebred Angus herd and comprehensive bull leasing program, crop production, and pheasant hunting. Each individual’s talent focused on a specific aspect of the business coupled with good communication, allow them to run their sizeable outfit efficiently.

“It’s really a unique partnership,” Greg says. “I’m active in marketing the lease bulls and transitioning them in and out. I’m also the main marketer of the 30-month old bulls.”

Greg’s son Cody oversees the genetics of the cattle and the details that go into managing the bulls that call the ranch home for part of the year.

“He’s heavily involved in the marketing of the purebred side, which I’ve really walked away from because I’m having so much fun with the leasing thing,” Greg shares. Cody is extremely involved in the pheasant hunting part of our business, too.”

Greg’s younger brother Bryan manages the operation’s farming activities and shares hunting responsibilities with Cody.

“My passions have always been on the cropping and mechanic side of our business, and not so much on the livestock side, which is nice because Cody and Greg are really good at what they do,” Bryan adds. “It’s really nice not to have to butt heads with them on their side of the operation.”

Greg and Bryan’s granddad, Martin Jorgensen, Sr. and his wife, Gertrude, selected the fertile, open plains of South Dakota for their homestead in 1909 as immigrants from Denmark.

Their father, Martin, Jr. and Uncle Don managed and grew the operation during the 1940s through the 1960s with a pioneering spirit in crop production and a purebred Angus herd. With a fresh 1974 college diploma in hand, Greg jumped at the opportunity to join the family business.

“When I came home from college, Uncle Don was kind of ready to slow up and that was the process that allowed me to buy his share out and become a partner with my dad,” Greg recalls. Both Greg and his dad Martin Jr. share a passion for the cattle industry. Martin was an early adopter, and some would argue, pioneer, of the performance testing movement that began in the late 1960s.

“When Dad built that program, he, like so many others who jumped into the purebred industry, looked at the situation and saw that everybody was doing the same thing,” Greg recalls. In search of an opportunity to improve, differentiate and provide improved genetics, Martin recognized the advantages of genetically selecting cattle based on performance. Martin took advantage of the knowledge from various areas of beef production by building relationships with geneticists, marketing experts and various other specialists.

“We have a line-bred program,” Greg says. “We occasionally step out and use an outcross bull, but we’re very careful when we do it. We don’t want to end up with other issues that sometimes come with outside genetics. We haven’t deviated from that program that Dad put together back in the 1960s.”

Cody is quick to point out that he’s fortunate to leverage the years of experience both Martin and Greg offer.

“That’s really my main job, to study and be disciplined with this cow herd,” Cody says. “I have had the great honor to follow my dad and grandfather in terms of making all the decisions in selection and matings of the cows. I’ve studied what my grandfather did in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and then I have also studied the way my dad did it in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I have the tools to go back and understand what worked and what didn’t work.

With computers and the Internet I have been able to study these pedigrees, and that was a huge advantage.” Cody, in true family style, is also not afraid to be an early adopter of upcoming technology and ideas. He now utilizes DNA gene marker selection to better identify their top cattle.

“The American Angus Association has been very good at helping us identify traits that work and traits that don’t work,” he adds. “There’s so much information that we have access to today that years ago we didn’t have.”

Every registered Jorgensen cow has her Zoetis High Density 50K (HD 50K) DNA profile. This test provides genomic-enhanced expected progeny differences (GE-EPDs) and indexes for 14 traits.

“Along with all the quantitative genetic research we’ve done in the past and currently, we now throw DNA on top of that. It certainly can help us make some good decisions with the cow herd in the future,” Cody says.

“That is very critical for us to maintain that integrity of being on the forefront of performance testing and on the forefront of identifying cattle that are above average.”

Reflecting on the beginning of their bull leasing program, Greg acknowledges that the system was born out of the agricultural economy’s condition at the time.

“In the 1980s commodity prices were really low, and it was tough to scratch out a living in agriculture. It was really out of necessity that we started leasing out the bulls. People couldn’t afford to own a bull, but they needed one and we had extras available.

That’s how it got started,” Greg says. Today, the father-son team place nearly 3,500 bulls into commercial programs across the nation. Greg and Cody rely heavily on referrals and word-of-mouth to place their bulls.

“That business over the years took on a pace of its own. For years we didn’t advertise it. A neighbor would tell his neighbor about it, and pretty soon we might send five or six bulls 100 miles away to a ranch. The next year there might be 20 bulls in that area. It just blossomed that way.”

Service is a key component in a seedstock supply business, and the Jorgensens feel their bull leasing program
is an extension of their service.

“The customer needs a bull, but he doesn’t like to deal with the bulls in the off-season so that service becomes ours. We take care of the bulls in the off-season,” Greg says. “When those producers really study their costs and analyze everything that’s related to the purchase of a bull and bull ownership, they quickly realize that economically it makes a lot of sense to lease bulls. It’s become service, service, service, and as long as we stay competitive in price, it will grow. Our lease program usually stays within a 200-mile radius of our ranch, however we have customers as far away as 800 miles”

After the first breeding season, yearling bulls are gathered and returned to the Jorgensen’s bull development center where they undergo a culling and feeding process Greg calls “reconditioning.”

“Obviously if there are any injuries, those bulls exit the program. We’ll get some condition on the bulls and get them back up to around 1,300 to 1,350 pounds in our feedlot,” he notes.

“Then, we’ll turn the bulls out to forage on grazing cane, corn stalks, and other available forage for several months to keep our costs down. They’re brought back into the facility in March as nearing two year-olds, and we get them back in condition. At this point in time, the bulls are ready for their second breeding season and lease.”

Herd health is one of the most important components to the lease program.

“Our veterinarian, Dr. John Voegeli at the Winner Animal Clinic, guided us through our leasing project,” Cody says. “At first it was very difficult to talk a vet into allowing us to sell a used bull. That’s a big no-no for veterinarians. Every vet you talk to will say ‘don’t ever buy or lease a used bull’. That was a hurdle for us.”

The Jorgensens worked with Dr. Voegeli to develop a comprehensive health protocol process including Trichomoniasis testing each bull prior to a non-virgin breeding season. This partnership has helped ensure that their management protocols offer disease free bulls. They have conducted more than 40,000 non-virgin trich tests processed to date without a single positive case.

When the two year-old bulls return to Jorgensen’s bull development center they are prepared for their final exit out of the program. These bulls immediately start their recondition program, are trich tested, and then sold as 30-month-old bulls.

“Most of those 30-month-old bulls go to the southern states, particularly Florida. That particular environment in Florida and the southern states really benefits from these 30-month-old bulls because they’re essentially done growing and they can hold their own in that particular environment,” Greg says. “We can be very price competitive because we already have the two leases on the bull.”

The Jorgensens work with 13 cooperator herds to fulfill the bull orders. These herds have been using Jorgensen genetics for 40 years or more and have what Greg considers like-kind genetics.

“For many years, we’ve had very loyal customers that come to our sale and purchase bulls,” Greg says. “We started with one of our oldest customers. We had used them previously as a test herd back when you had to have an actual progeny test with live terminal cattle in order to get carcass information. We were buying his steers, and now we buy his bull calves.”

These herds have capitalized from the Jorgensen’s strict line-breed genetics from what Cody refers to as the parent-stock cow herd. These partner herds select their genetics from the Jorgensen’s annual bull sale the third Monday in April, from an offering of 150 registered Angus bulls.

When the Jorgensens buy bull calves from their cooperating herds,
detailed requirements are attached to the price tag. Birth weights and sire groups are imperative, and the partners have synchronized health regimens prior to bull calf delivery. Calves in January and February receive an electronic ID tag upon arrival and are cross referenced to their ranch number and ranch information. Then, bulls are freeze branded based on birth weights.

“For example, we get 100 head of calves from a ranch. The lightest birth weight calf would have a freeze brand ending in ’00,’ indicating he had the lowest birth weight in his contemporary group. The next lightest calf would be ‘01’, and so on. We’ve learned that our customers, almost without exception, have some kind of a birth weight in mind when they lease bulls. That’s why we rank the bulls in numeric order based on their birth weight.”

While in the development process, bulls are culled constantly. Employees have the right to cull a bull if he shows a disposition problem while handled. Bulls have to meet performance standards and pass a breeding soundness exam (BSE) before their first lease. Greg says the cull rate reaches 20 percent.

Cody knows his role in selecting genetics for the parent-stock registered cow herd influences hundreds of thousands of cattle down the line, so he is disciplined in culling decisions as well. The Jorgensens have been utilizing embryo transfer in their herd since the late 1970s. Only cows that have proven, high indexing calves for at least three years are selected as donors. Ten cows that meet these standards annually are taken out of production and flushed for one year, and 300 embryos are implanted the following year.

Bulls are leased depending on individual ranch need. Some ranches have a narrow breeding season of 30 days, with the vast majority keeping bulls for around 100 days.

Delivery coordination is an intricate process, Greg says. “We try to make the best arrangements we can to get them delivered as close to, or right to the ranch, if possible.”

For Bryan, providing hungry, growing bulls the right kind of feedstuffs while maintaining the quality of his farm ground and a place for wild game to thrive is a delicate balance. His key management practice has been 100 percent no-till farming on nearly 11,000 acres since the early 1990s.

“We have a very diverse location with a lot of different crops. We have spring grain such as oats and spring wheat and then we go to winter wheat. Then we have corn, milo, cane, soybeans, alfalfa, peas, millets and other crops,” Bryan says. “The biggest thing I like about what we do is having the livestock in the system, which gives me a lot of opportunity to grow not only feed grains, but forages as well. It really allows me a lot of dimension within our locations, whereas if I were just a grain farmer I would not have those opportunities. I design rotations based around the needs of the cattle.”

Bryan is passionate about the health of the soil on the ranch and has done his level best to ensure it is a thriving environment.

“For the last 10 to 15 years, I’ve focused on nutrient efficiency much like Cody and Greg have focused on feed efficiency with the cattle. My goal is to try to get a lot more efficiency out of the soils and try to minimize the amount of nutrient input,” Bryan says. “We’ve done that by no-till, increasing organic matter in the soil and improving the biological aspect of the soil by getting more biological growth out of our soil. We’re trying to return it to more of a native state similar to what you would find in a native prairie soil system.

“We discovered that the efficiency of the soil improves so much that you can cut your nutrient demands in regards to applied nutrients by as much as 50 percent to 60 percent compared to what we used to do,” he adds. “At the same time your soils are healthier and your plants are healthier. There are a lot of things that fall into place so it’s really a cool thing to see the soil improve.”

Whether their individual interest is in the cattle or land, each Jorgensen works to balance what grazing advantage the bovine creature brings to the South Dakota plains.

“Ultimately what we’re trying to do, in my mind, is create a long-term sustainable system to help build that soil for the next generation,” Bryan says.

“We strive to do it economically and still provide the feedstuffs that we need and the cover for the wild game for the hunting that we do. It’s all part of the system.”

feature-9-2The harmonious relationship between the bovine and soil strikes another cord in the Jorgensen’s threefacet approach.

“We are blessed to have wild pheasants on our property. We decided it was a great business to add – the entertainment side of the production agriculture,” Cody says.

With no-till farming and livestock grazing management practices, the Jorgensen property is a haven for wild pheasants. Plenty of cover and feed is a byproduct of the grazing and farming practices that create a natural conservation aspect of their operation.

The Jorgensens built a full-service lodge two years ago. They moved from day hunts to a complete package offering 4-night, 3-day hunts including meals and lodging starting the third Saturday in October through the end of the year.

“It certainly ties right into where we live and what we do,” Cody says. “The family enjoys it, and we enjoy entertaining people. It really is a nice fit for us.” Even with thousands of acres to evaluate at their Monday morning meeting, the Jorgensen family doesn’t deviate far from considering what they can do with just one acre.

“Our big goal as a family is to pass the operation on to the next generation,” Bryan says. “Equity transfer is very important to us. If we can make something that’s transferrable such as the land assets or land resources better for the next generation, that’s really the ultimate goal.”

Happy With Their CRM


After 30 years, this award-winning Wyoming ranch family sees no reason to give it up

By: Melissa Hemken

If we’re going to ranch in this country, we’ve got to learn to get along with the federal agencies,” says Keith Hamilton, a fourth-generation rancher near Hyattville, Wyoming. “Our CRM [Coordinated Resource Management] plan is how we accomplish that. The CRM brings all parties to the table to discuss management strategy for our federal leases.

“We run on about 75 percent federal land,” Hamilton continues. “One downside to federal is that the government could strike a pen in [Washington] D.C. and say no grazing leases. Then half the state of Wyoming would be up the creek.”

Established in 1915 on the western side of the Bighorn Mountains, the Hamilton Ranch is a diversified operation running Rambouillet and Hampshire sheep and Angus cattle, along with an irrigated farm.

“My great-grandparents started out running cattle only,” Hamilton says, “They brought sheep to the ranch in 1928. We scaled the sheep operation down in the 1990s and took up the gap with cattle. If the sheep market hadn’t improved, we were going to convert fully to cattle.

“Sometimes, when we have had as much snow during lambing as this spring, we wonder if we should have sold them. When the next generation comes along, maybe that decision will be made.”

Three generations of the Hamilton family work together to ranch on federal, state and
private rangelands. Their livestock begin the warm season at the lower elevations near Manderson, Wyoming, at about 4,000 feet, and range to the top of the Bighorns at 10,500 feet.

“Both cattle and sheep have their pluses and minuses,” Hamilton says. “It takes a lot of effort to lamb, but when we’re done, our sheepherder, Florentino Espinoza, takes care of them the rest of the summer. We tend camp to give him groceries and feed for his horse. With the cattle, three people can calve them out fairly easily. When they need to be moved it takes five guys [on horseback] to gather and trail, and day help isn’t always easy to find.”

First begun in Nevada in the 1950s, the CRM process is voluntary and initiated by private landowner(s) to bring together neighbors, public agencies and other stakeholders.

In the early 1970s, the increasing demand for natural resources intensified the conflicts between interest groups, land users and land management agencies. This prompted the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and Cooperative Extension Service (CES) to encourage CRM planning nationwide.

The year 1982 saw the state of Wyoming endorse the use of CRMs, now coordinated by the Wyoming Department of Agriculture. The Hamilton Ranch was one of four operations to initially enroll in the program. The private landowner(s) who initiate the CRM are responsible for inviting the needed members, and it is essential to include all stakeholders from the beginning to establish investment.

The Hamilton’s CRM group, involving five agencies plus themselves, met regularly early on; now, over 30 years later, they meet annually.

“It took us a long time to put this together,” Hamilton says, “the time commitment is why agencies aren’t always excited about CRMs. A key to a successful CRM is local people who have the authority to make decisions. Everyone gets around the table to gain consensus, and that’s what makes it work.”

CRM decisions are made collaboratively; there is no voting – discussion continues until all members can support the management plan being developed. Within the CRM approach, local people familiar with the planning area make the decisions regarding natural resource management. Specialists from outside the local area may only assist by providing technical information.

The CRM plans include the acreage of each pasture; designating the animal unit months (AUMs) for livestock; and monitoring point locations for grass and forb health, among other grazing management methods. Having a CRM can be very beneficial as public land agencies look to reduce AUMs in drought years.

In 1998, the Hamiltons received the Environmental Stewardship Award from the Wyoming Stock Growers Association for their dedication to healthy grazing lands.

“We use a rest rotation system to manage grazing for our sheep and cattle,” Hamilton says. “During dry years, when other ranchers have to move off their allotments early, we are still able to graze as we have conserved grass.

“As we coordinate our grazing plans through years with different rainfall amounts, sometimes we’ve got to run later on BLM than we normally do, or earlier on the [Bighorn National] Forest, and it is nice to have everybody there to make it all work. We’ve built a lot of flexibility into our grazing program.” The challenge with grazing on public lands is their multi-use purpose—ranchers, recreationalists and energy developers must find ways to use it together.

“The frustrating part with federal grazing leases is that the agency people come and go,” Hamilton says. “They may be here five years or 10, but we’re still here. We’re the ones on the ground making the day-to-day decisions about what is good for the land. The CRM helps to provide some management continuity. A new person is hired and we hand them our CRM plan.”

Another beneficial aspect of a CRM is that it complements regulatory processes, such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), national and statewide initiatives to conserve Greater Sage Grouse habitat, and mandates to incorporate the public in decision making regarding public lands.

Hamilton says their CRM experience has been very positive and has opened up lines of communication that would have remained closed. “We’ve developed trust, and a plan everybody can live with. We’ve had our CRM for about 30 years now, and we don’t have any reason to give up on it. It still works for us and the land.”

Compiled from the Wyoming Department of Agriculture

• Voluntary, private landowner initiated and perpetuated.

• All interested or concerned stakeholders must be involved. Participants must have decisionmaking authority for their constituencies.

• Experienced, neutral facilitators are key initially to focus discussions on goals and interests, etc.

• Determine common goals early by group consensus; foster commitment by creating ownership by all members in the plan.

• Create a team. Develop an understanding among CRM members and build trust.

• Focus on what management practices are currently needed to improve the natural resource(s) and not the agency policies or positions that have been implemented in the past.

• Monitoring is very important to provide baseline data and to accomplish goals and objectives.

• Make the plan flexible to allow for drought, floods, ownership changes, etc.; yet rigid enough to provide for accountability

A Superior Idea


Satellite Auctions Have Come A Long, Long Way From The Video Tape Days

By: Tim O’Byrne

Some things we kind of take for granted, like antibiotics or cell phones. They are both marvelous additions to our workday lives, and they both have inspiring stories of development behind them. Here’s another story I’ve thought about a few times – the origins of satellite cattle auctions. Back before all this technological nonsense came into our lives, the only outlet for our cattle was the sale barn, the on-site ranch sale, or less frequently, private treaty. The competition of a live sale always seemed to hold a place of esteem in the cattle business. It’s just plain fun to go to one. Urn-made coffee in styrofoam cups, the smell of sawdust, and the hypnotic drone of the auctioneer over a scratchy mike. Look-ee-lous, qualified buyers, anxious and proud sellers, sleepy truckers dozing in the top row, and armchair cattlemen, all under one roof, breaking at noon for steak and biscuits in the cafeteria. Sale day was always a great day.

Then, sometime back when the NFR was still in Oklahoma and there were only 13 channels on TV, we heard a rumor about a sales team that would show up at the ranch with a video camera and film your calves right there in the pen or out in the field. Imagine. What the heck were they going to do with all that film once they got it developed? “Put it on a satellite TV”, somebody answered. Preposterous. Nobody in their right mind would buy a set of calves they couldn’t lay eyes on, would they? Some scoffed while others pondered the notion quietly, and I, as a hotheaded kid… I had a hard time seeing the future of such an incredulous venture.

Let us pause our story to allow the pages to fly off a calendar on the TV screen. 1987 to June, 2014. Superior Livestock Auction is the largest in the country, rolling over 1.3 million head of load-lot cattle across its screens every year. Servicing such a massive logistical undertaking are over 380 representatives out in the field connecting buyers, sellers and cattle. Bi-weekly satellite sales are broadcast on Dish Network’s channel 232, Click to Bid and listed online at the Country Page.

Here’s how they did it.

“It started out as Odle Cumberland Auctioneers,” recalls Jim Odle, an original founder and current General Manager of Superior Livestock Auction, “and we had our first video sale back in 1979”. It all came about through the need to sell cattle from locations and ranches that buyers didn’t really go to.

“Odle Cumberland had been having videos for 9 years before Buddy Jeffers out of Fort Worth, Texas, came to me one day and asked if maybe we could merge our two companies together,” Odle explains. “He’d been having videos for about two years before that.”

Together, they talked about it, and later Odle, accompanied by his older son, Ted, left their home base in Colorado and went down to Fort Worth to meet with Jeffers. “It looked like it was a good fit,” Odle says. “It looked like it was something we should do, and at that time we did do a merger, and we had our first sale at the Denver National Western Stock Show in 1987.” A merger is a delicate, living, complex thing. All the pieces need to fit together, like gears in a transmission, if traction and long-term forward movement is going to occur. “It was a great merger,” Odle continues, “because we had the region areas that we all brought together. In Colorado, everything north and west of I-70 and I-25 was the region we were selling cattle out of.” Buddy Jeffers had earlier merged with the first American video out of Florida, giving him claim to the south and southeast regions. The pieces were beginning to fit nicely, but they needed a southern place to call home. “Back then, Billy Bob here in Fort Worth gave us free rent, and we had a little old room here at the Stockyards, so that gave us two options; one in the south (Fort Worth, Texas) and one in the north (Odle’s operation up in Brush, Colorado). And it was a good deal.”

It’s fun to think back about technology’s bulky beginnings. The contraptions were expensive, slow, and cumbersome compared with today’s sleek, hi-speed wireless equipment. “Back then we used great big ol’ cameras that would weigh 30, 40, 50 pounds, with a separate recorder,” Odle recollects. “We used ¾” videotape… we’d bring it back into the offices and edit it. Originally we used to carry one tape for each lot, and then we started alternating with two tapes with the lots on different ones and carry them all to the sale and broadcast them that way.” Reflecting on those old days, Odle remarks of today, “It’s changed a bunch.”

When asked about how the whole concept of video sales were received in the beef production community, Odle’s reply reflected back to some degree on my own youthful, knee-jerk impression. “I think there was some skepticism out there, but we didn’t feel it,” he states. “In the video auction business the old-time ranchers that we went to, they grabbed ahold because they knew they didn’t have buyers come out there several different years.

Some of the younger ranchers gave us a little pushback on it, but the oldtimers come on immediately. Of course their families have been with us ever since. The buyers…I was always concerned about buyers and so we were trying to get as many as we could. And from Day 1, from the first video sale we ever had, we had all kinds of buyers. In fact, when we got to Denver (for that first video sale in ’87) there were so many buyers at the video sale that our big buyers were sitting there back at the regular sale, and most of the cattle were sold over the video to the smaller buyers, the bigger buyers didn’t hardly get any of the cattle.”

As testimony to the confidence level Superior Livestock Auctions has attained during their explosive growth in the past 27 years, their current database of qualified buyers tops a whopping 8,500. “And every one of those buyers in the database is qualified to buy one load or more,” Odle adds. “And that’s a big deal.”

The beef industry has always prided itself on doing millions of dollars a day worth of business on a handshake or verbal agreement. A unique enterprise such as this one… Hey, buy these cattle just by looking at this TV picture, I  promise you’ll get exactly what I’m tellin’ you they are… would be doomed to almost immediate failure if the seller misrepresented the offering or the buyer didn’t come through. That hurdle appears to have been vaulted early on.

“Integrity is still what life is all about,” Odle offers, “and Superior has great integrity. Everything we’ve ever done we’ve followed through to the very end.” Odle admits to some hiccups early on with some of the big buyers going bankrupt, which is bound to happen in a fluid and risky marketplace such as live cattle. “As far as Superior’s concerned, we’ve never had a (load) lot that didn’t deliver and didn’t go on like it was supposed to.”

Looking back, Odle reflects that the challenges in getting Superior off the ground were there, but they were a lot less than people might have thought.

“The big thing was to get it advertised and get out and meet the ranchers and tell them about it.” One more piece of the puzzle fell into their lap. “We had several order buyers back when we first started that had gone through a pretty tough time and didn’t have finances. Some of those good order buyers came on board as representatives for Superior. They brought their customers with them, and of course they had contact with the buyers, too. So that overcame a lot of the problems that we might have had, but the way it worked out, we didn’t have.”

As far as technology is concerned, keeping up with advances is pretty much subliminal for many of us (with the exception of this author). You just adapt without giving it much thought. “You don’t even realize you’re changing as much as you are,” Odle comments about their technological growth. “One of the big things I think changed a lot was Joe Lichtie (Vice President of Superior) got together with the people back east and put together the Click to Bid (www.superiorclicktobid.com) that we use each and every sale. I think that’s been a huge, huge thing.”

Superior’s strategy calls for the company to continue to try to get as many of the good cattle as they can across the United States. They have done a few sales in Canada and Mexico, but their focus remains here in the U.S. Recently, they underwent a structure change that Odle is optimistic about. “National Livestock Credit out of Oklahoma City, along with a group of investors, now owns Superior Livestock Auction and that’s probably as solid a set of hands that any person could want to be in. They’re old time, they started out in 1932. In that length of time they’ve only had five presidents, and that’s quite a thing to say for a lending company. I’m just so proud to have them take over the reins and move ahead with what we’re doing here at Superior Livestock.”

Odle’s vision for the future includes moving steadily forward and keeping up with anything that comes along. “I think Superior’s customers will see quite a few new things over the next 2-3 years, maybe sooner, in the way we put out the catalog, in the way we broadcast our sales, and of course we’re going to be in as many homes as we can.”

Don’t Knock The Flock


Terrell Farms Chooses Moos and Ewes for Diversity Plan

By: Troy Smith

Agricultural operations often evolve and grow out of necessity. It is generally agreed that if farm and ranch businesses don’t grow, they probably won’t last very long. Of course, growth can occur in different ways. Adding to an operation’s land base can facilitate increased production, but business growth isn’t always about getting bigger. By honing their marketing skills, producers can sell what they produce and procure needed resources to greater economic advantage. With or without additional acreage, diversification of production may improve resource utilization. Diversification can also create additional marketing opportunities.

Over the course of six decades, the Terrell family’s Nebraska panhandle operation has grown in each of those ways. According to Brock Terrell, the process continues as family members work at managing resources more effectively, increasing production efficiency and developing marketing expertise. But Brock and his brother, Seth, also think diversification is key to future growth. “We like having the options that come from a diversity of crops and a diversity of livestock,” states Brock.

“The more diverse we are, the better.” Brock and Seth, along with their respective wives, Heidi and Courtney, share management of a fairly large outfit with parents, Vern and Marjean.

Known formally as Terrell Farms, it’s big enough to support three family households, plus those of three hired men. Headquartered in the Mirage Flats area, south of Hay Springs, the operation’s farming enterprises include multiple cash and feed crops grown on irrigated and dryland acres. Cattle interests include cow-calf, yearling and feedlot enterprises. Most recently, sheep have been added to the mix.

Sheep are scarce in the area, but Vern Terrell says it wasn’t always that way. Small flocks were almost plentiful back when his own parents relocated here. That occurred following completion of the Mirage Flats Irrigation Project – a Depression-era effort begun by the old Farm Security Administration. Stalled during World War II and finally completed in 1948, the program offered war veterans an opportunity to purchase land irrigated with water diverted from the Niobrara River.

“My folks came here from Torrington, Wyoming, and started farming on 80 acres,” explains Vern, noting how diversity was common then. “They grew crops that were fed to sheep and hogs. They milked cows and later added beef cattle. Over time, they bought and rented more land. My brother, Terry, and I joined the operation during the 1970s.”

That decade also brought the first significant purchases of grassland and expansion into beef cattle production. As the livestock focus shifted to beef, the sheep, dairy and hog enterprises were phased out. As Vern and his brother assumed management roles, gradual expansion continued through the purchase and lease of additional farm ground and pasture. A feedlot was added to finish home-raised calves. Today, Terrell Farms owns most of the cultivated land on which corn, edible beans, wheat and alfalfa are grown.

Double-cropping of some fields, with millet, turnips or a grass-legume-brassicas cocktail, yields forage that can be grazed in the fall and winter, along with corn stalks and other crop residues. A majority of the ranch’s range land lies across the Niobrara, in the hills southeast of Mirage Flats.

“Most of our grass is leased and we’ve enjoyed good relationships with land owners. Some have lasted a long time,” tells Vern. “We’re not afraid to make investments, such as fencing and water development, on leased properties.

They have been win-win situations and that probably helped us acquire several more rented places in the last few years. We’ve been fortunate that when a lease has been lost, due to the land being sold, something else has been available to rent.”


Still, an operation that depends so heavily on leased grass needs to be nimble. Vern says the threat of drought and the area’s frequent hail storms are more reasons for maintain-ing flexibility. Not only are they capable
of responding to a shortage of forage, the Terrells can take advantage of opportunities such as unexpected forage availability. On the livestock side of the operation, flexibility is achieved by running multiple classes of cattle and sometimes managing them in non-traditional ways.

Terrell Farms maintains two separate cow herds, including a March calving herd, comprised of purebred Angus and Angus-cross cows. According to Seth, genetic selection focuses on maternal traits, followed by performance and carcass merit. A majority of replacement females going into the March-calving herd are home-raised heifers.

“We use AI fairly extensively on the March-calvers. We AI all of the heifers and about half of the cows,” explains Seth. “We raise some bulls out of the purebred cows, including those we use for clean-up after AI. We also sell a few bulls at private treaty.”

Usually, any cows that breed late to clean-up bulls are shifted to the other herd, which is bred to calve in May. This larger herd consists primarily of purchased cows and none of the heifers they produce are retained. All of the May-calvers are bred to Charolais bulls for a terminal cross.

Brock says May-calving herd numbers are increasing because the system is “low-input” in terms of feed and labor. Typically, the cows graze crop residues and range during the winter, with protein being the only supplement. Over the last eight years May calving cows have not received hay, except during winter storms. Weather challenges are rare during calving season, as is dystocia, and rotation through pastures reduces calf exposure to pathogens. The cows recover quickly after calving and breed back readily while on green grass.

“Generally, about 90 percent of the cows breed in the first cycle of a 45- day breeding season,” states Brock, noting that bulls used on the May herd are managed in a manner that saves feed and bother.

“Keeping bulls around all the time can be a nuisance, but the Charolais bulls are only on our place for about 60 days. Our bull-supplier helps us find a new home for them after their work is done here. So, we pull the bulls from the pastures, test for trichomoniasis, and send them to south Texas,” he explains.

Home-raised calves are retained after weaning and grown as stockers, along with a variable number of purchased calves. The stocker program is two-fold, consisting of replacement heifer candidates and calves that will

It Fits The Program


Randall County Feedyard Tends To The Cattle And The Consumer

By: Gilda V. Bryant

The Texas Panhandle has been devoted to agriculture since 1888. Historic ranches such as the XIT and Charles Goodnight’s JA Ranch still run cattle, and the region also grows wheat, corn and grain sorghum, much of it used to feed livestock. The Panhandle is chockfull of beef cattle and feedyards, and all facets of the beef industry are vital to the area’s economy. Here, approximately six million cattle easily outnumber people, and provide 30 percent of the nation’s beef, according to the TexasCattle Feeders Association.

Friona Industries, L.P., began as a small feedlot in 1962 and is now a modern commercial cattle feeding outfit with four facilities. These feedyards have a total capacity of 290,000 head and are located in Canyon, Littlefield, Friona and Tulia, Texas. One of Friona Industries’ operations, Randall County Feedyard, is located outside of Canyon.

This site runs an average of 87,000 head per year according to Jerrid Vincent, Manager. The facility receives cattle from approximately 25 states, most arriving from the southeastern United States. Generally, calves arrive weighing from 550 to 800 pounds and they finish out between 1,300 and 1,375 pounds.

Vincent reports that many of his animals have been backgrounded before they arrive. In other words, they’ve had their vaccinations and know how to hit the bunk for rations such as corn, Sweet Bran® and wet distiller’s grain. Incoming calves have access to a salt block upon arrival for the first 20 to 30 days. “When the cattle come in, most of them hit the bunk and are able to consume the right mineral levels,” Vincent explains. “At times we have individuals that may not be that aggressive. By throwing the salt blocks out there, we just help their chances of getting their nutritional requirements.”

Besides salt, minerals are an important part of the animals’ diet. This company’s beef nutritionist recommends a well-balanced mineral supplement in pellet form from a major feed company. It is mixed in the ration based on consumption rates.

“One of the reasons we went with this supplement is because we do get cattle from several different states,” Vincent relates. “They would have different mineral needs, but the mineral level  in the pellets should help in all deficiencies if there are any.”

The lengthy drought smacked the Texas Panhandle hard, just as it has in many areas of the nation. “We started using this mineral before the drought,” explains Vincent. “It hasn’t changed since. Right now, it fits our program.” Vincent offers this advice about mineral supplementation, “Other individuals are going to have to figure out what best fits their operations. Sometimes, it’s putting their mineral in liquid, sometimes it’s in the pellet form.

Most feedyards have a consulting nutritionist to make sure the mineral supplement is appropriate for the operation. I would tell feedlot owners and operators to contact their suppliers, producers or stocker guys that send them cattle to make sure they have an understanding of what the mineral requirement would be for their operations.”

Randall County Feedyard managers not only make sure animals receive the appropriate rations and mineral supplementation that increase weight gain and maintain health, but they are sold on the Beef Quality Assurance Program (BQA).

What is the BQA and why is it important? The BQA is a set of standards and guidelines that brings the beef industry together, according to Vincent.

This program gives those involved in the cattle business, including the cow-calf or stocker producer, feedyard operator, packer, trucker, sale barn crew, veterinarian, or supplier a better understanding of the processes in the beef industry.

“It’s an opportunity to expand our knowledge as supervisors,” says Vincent. “Our employees also understand why they’re here and how we need to do things in a manner to be the most productive.” Dell Volmer, Randall County Feedyard General Manager adds, “Consumers want more information.

They want to know that we’re treating cattle safely and humanely and the food is going to be safe. That’s one of the big reasons why BQA came out… we’ve got to keep proving that we’re doing the right things out here and that we’re doing what’s best for society.” Once a producer or facility is BQA  certified, yearly training consists of a one day seminar, taken either online or in a class with others.

Vincent says they take classes presented by the Texas Cattle Feeders Association (TCFA), which includes practical, hands-on training in timely topics, such as cattle handling or feeding. Sue Doxon, Office Manager for Randall County Feedyard, reports that they send employees to a variety of classes, and they return armed with updated skills and knowledge to train the others. Doxon says this facility was one of the first in the area to earn the BQA certification, back in March 2000.

She explains, “We train every employee so everyone is signed off, not just management. All employees have gone through a training process. Everybody on the yard knows the policies and procedures.” Folks who take the classes don’t have to pass a test. “The audit is the test,” explains Doxon. “It’s pass or fail.” The TCFA audits member facilities from one to several times a year.

Auditors look at various procedures including minimal hot shot use, cleanliness of water tanks, cattle feeding procedures and moving animals. For example, this facility has several hospitals located throughout the yard, which reduces stress in sick calves because they aren’t walking long distances. Plus, water tanks are cleaned weekly during summer months.

A Healthy Handoff


There’s More Than One Way To Transfer A Working Ranch To A Worthy Successor

By: Troy Smith

Some things are meant to be. That’s how Lily Klase sees it. That’s why her late husband, Don Klase, got along so well with his business partner, Russ Anderson. They ranched together for just shy of eleven years; the veteran acting as mentor and helping the younger, aspiring cowman to put on the mantle of management authority. But theirs is a different kind of ranch transition story. It shows how fair and far-sighted participants, though unrelated by blood or marriage, can arrange for a business to pass smoothly from one generation to the next.

Currently, Russ Anderson and his wife, Cheryl, are majority shareholders of Bonnifield Cattle Company, located near Hyannis, Nebraska. It’s the same Sandhills operation that Don Klase ran for most of 50 years, on leased land. To understand how the Andersons’ participation evolved, it helps to know some of the history behind Bonnifield Cattle Company. According to Lily, Don was just 14 years old when the Klase family came to the Hyannis area and his father, Bernard Klase, went to work for rancher Bob Bonnifield.

Don soon entered high school at Nebraska School of Agriculture, in Curtis. Now the site of the University of Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, the campus served as a boarding school from 1913 to 1968. In addition to the high school curriculum, the school offered agricultural training. Between terms, Don returned to the Sandhills and worked on area ranches. Within a few years, Don’s father became a partner in Bonnifield Cattle Company, thus sharing ownership of the ranch’s cattle, but not the land.

“It wasn’t that long, though, before Mr. Bonnifield died,” tells Lily. “So, after graduating high school (in 1945), Don joined his dad to help run the ranch. They owned the cattle and leased the land from the Bonnifield family. They had a 25-year lease with an option to renew it.” Lily believes that was orchestrated by Bonnifield, before his death, to make sure his wife would have help managing the land and to further the business he and Bernard
Klase had begun.

“Don always appreciated what Bob Bonnifield had done. It really helped Bernard and Don get established,” affirms Lily. A nurse in Columbia, Missouri, at the time, Lily met Don on a blind date arranged by a mutual friend that Don was visiting. They married in 1951, and raised four children on the ranch. Don succeeded his father as manager of the operation and the couple eventually acquired full ownership of Bonnifield Cattle Company. Over the course of years, the Bonnifield estate – the land – passed to a succession of heirs whose business and personal relationships with the Klase clan continued uninterrupted.

“We remained close to the (Bonnifield) family, kind of like they were part of our family,” adds Lily. All of the Klase children attended college, but only one had any real interest in ranching. Daughter Amy and her husband eventually joined Bonnifield Cattle Company. It did not last, however. The young couple separated and both
moved away. It complicated Don’s plans for slowing down. He didn’t want to quit, but he was ready to share the burden of running the company. Enter Russ Anderson.

Russ and his wife, Cheryl, grew up at opposite ends of Nebraska’s Sandhills. Cheryl was a native of Alliance, while Russ was raised near Anselmo. They met while attending Chadron State College. The couple moved to Hyannis, in 1996, where Russ worked on an area ranch until the outfit was sold. He and Cheryl established a custom fencing business in 1998. They also started a contract haying business, and began to accumulate a small herd of cows.

Russ also day-worked on ranches and kept his ear to the ground. “We kept looking for some kind of ranching opportunity,” explains Russ. “I knew Don Klase. I’d done some fencing and day-work for him, and I knew Don to be an honest, respected and well-liked rancher. After his daughter and son-in-law left, in 2002, I called Don. He told me that he’d actually been thinking about calling me.”

The men talked. Russ explained that he was looking for something with more potential than another ranch job paying no more than enough to live on. Don made it clear that he had no desire to retire yet, but he did want to ease up a bit. He needed help and was willing to share some of the management responsibility. He also had a plan for helping the right person gain a foothold in the cattle business.

“Don suggested that we try each other for a year. He would pay me a wage, and I could still work in some custom fencing. If we were getting along good after a year, we could try to work out a way for Cheryl and me to buy a share of the company,” says Russ. After the trial period, both men were satisfied they could work well together.

Ready to pursue a permanent arrangement, they sat down at the kitchen table, inventoried the Bonnifield Cattle Company assets and calculated the company’s worth. Don and Lily then agreed to sell 33 percent of the company. They also offered to loan the money the Andersons would need to make the purchase. The Andersons provided their own 33 cows, plus some fencing and haying equipment as collateral.

“The loan’s interest rate was just a little bit higher than what the money would earn with a CD (certificate of deposit) at the bank. And we could take as much time as we needed to pay it back. It was a great deal for us,” states Russ. “I still received a wage, andCheryl and I could still take some fencing and haying contracts. That gave us enough to live on so, at the end of the year, we could pay our share of company profits toward the loan.”

Reflecting on it now, Lily thinks Don saw some of his younger self in the eagerness and ambition Russ displayed. Appreciative of the younger man’s energy and hard work, Don wanted to make Russ a good deal.

In a manner similar to what old Bob Bonnifield had done for the Klase family, Don wanted to help the Andersons get ahead in the cow business. The lease on the land was renewed when the Andersons bought into the company. Terms remained similar to the previous long-term agreements, with the land lease price tied to the cattle market. That way, the land’s absentee owners share in the risk posed by bad weather and shifting markets.

Basically, each year’s per acre land cost is calculated as a set percentage of the sale price of calves produced on the ranch. But the lessee (Bonnifield Cattle Company) also pays real estate taxes and all costs associated with maintaining existing improvements, as well as any that are added. The lease cannot be terminated early, just because the landowners decide to sell the real estate. And should they choose to sell, the lessee has the first option to buy the land.

“Don always tried to keep the landowners in the loop, explaining any improvements we wanted to make. I believe that’s only right. That way they understand how it should make things work better for everybody. The landowners have always been agreeable. Nobody has ever been greedy; only fair,” says Russ.

The good working relationship with Don Klase continued until the elder man’s death in 2013. Don had gradually shifted more and more management responsibility to Russ, and was receptive to the younger partner’s suggestions. Together, they began to implement some changes. Recurring drought was a challenge, particularly in 2006 and 2012. Some destocking of the ranch occurred, but the effects of drought were also mitigated
through changes in range management.

Large pastures were cross-fenced and pipeline was laid to create additional stock watering sites for the increased number of pastures. The improvements facilitated increased rotational grazing. Russ plans to do more in the future.

Long term, he expects improved grazing management to enhance forage utilization, forage quality and ultimately increase the ranch’s carrying capacity. Drought prompted Don and Russ to consider other significant changes in what, for decades, had been a fairly traditional spring-calving cow outfit.

Historically, replacement females had been purchased as bred cows, and all steer and heifer calves were marketed in the fall. Following fall pregnancy testing, any cows that had failed to rebreed were sold as well. But the drought of 2006 actually put the ranch in a position to consider different cattle management options.

“That year hurt our range, but we still put up a lot of hay,” explains Russ. “The meadows dried out enough that we were able to cut hay in areas that Don had never been able to hay before. We had about 3,000 big bales. It included a lot of bulrushes and cattails, so it wasn’t great for quality.

Using that hay and some protein supplement, we kept our open cows, bred them and sold them as fall-calvers. It worked pretty good.” Figuring out ways to make use of their low quality forage relieved the pressure on lesser supplies of winter range and better quality hay. Encouraged by Russ, Don agreed to use some of their feed resources to retain and develop a small number of home-raised heifers as replacements. That practice has continued, with increased numbers of heifers retained in subsequent years.

“I want to have more control over the quality and disposition of our replacement females, and we’ve learned that we can run heifers over to yearlings, affordably, by using low-quality forages,” states Russ.

Also relatively new to the  operation is the weaning of steers for placement in a custom backgrounding lot, while the lighter steers and feeder heifers are sold off the cow, as in the past. Russ says this change in calf management and marketing practices takes advantage of opportunities to add value and spread out marketing dates.

Another practice, introduced by Russ, focuses on conservation of riparian areas through fencing and planned grazing. The effects – reduced erosion, the return of more native plant species and improved wildlife habitat – are already visible. Fenced wetland corridors can be grazed early and quickly. Either haying the regrowth or grazing again in the fall are management options.

“We could see that Russ and Cheryl would be good stewards,” states Lily. “We were glad to find people that would care for the land and look out for the landowners’ best interests. That was really important to Don.”

More recently, Russ and Cheryl have relocated an older home that stood on the ranch, and they are in the process of remodeling it. As time and money allow, Russ is either restoring or redesigning and rebuilding ranch corrals or cattle working facilities. He still accepts some custom-fencing contracts. Cheryl helps with all of it, along with serving as Hyannis city clerk and giving summertime swimming lessons. Along with activities including competitive swimming and 4-H, the ranch provides each of the Andersons’ daughters, Mackenzie (14) and Rudi (11), ample opportunity to ‘make a hand.’

“The girls help us a lot with rotating pastures and other cattle work. They help with the fence work, and Mackenzie helped in the hay fields for the first time last summer,” offers Cheryl. “It’s a blessing to be able to work together as a family. The girls really are learning how to work, but we make sure to take some time to get away as a family and play.”

There is always work waiting when they return but, according the Cheryl, Russ thrives on it. In that way, he is much like Don Klase, and it’s probably why their partnership was such a good fit.

“Don was far-sighted. He wanted our arrangement to work and go forward after he was gone. The plan was written into our contract. It gave peace of mind to everyone. It’s the reason Cheryl and I now own 50 percent of the company and can continue to increase our share,” says Russ.

“One time, I asked Don, ‘Why me?’

He said he had been watching me and thought I knew how to work. He knew Cheryl and I could run a business,” tells Russ. “According to one of our neighbors, Don claimed that he and I made a good pair. Don told him, ‘I only work when I want to and Russ does all the hard stuff.’ That sounds like Don.”