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Building and transitioning a legacy herd – 2013 Part 1

By Martha Mintz

Dawn breaks over the hills near Thermopolis, Wyo., as The V Ranch cattle are gathered.
Dawn breaks over the hills near Thermopolis, Wyo., as The V Ranch cattle are gathered.

Nine-year-old Emme Norsworthy may have been able to play hooky from school on shipping day, but that doesn’t mean she got a break from work or learning. Mounted on her spry sorrel, she cheerfully helped gather and sort cattle and was a shadow to her mother, grandparents and the rest of the crew at the V Ranch the entire day.

Her inquisitiveness and enthusiasm for all things traveling by four legs bring a warm smile to her grandfather Jim Wilson’s face, as he wasn’t always sure of the end game for the Thermopolis, Wyo., ranch and reputation herd he built with his high school sweetheart, Terry. Their only daughter, Billie Jo Norsworthy, had gone off to college earning a master’s degree in music with a focus on flute.

“One day she called and said, ‘Mom and Dad, is there a place for us at the ranch?’ I never thought someone who played the flute would want to come back to the ranch. It was a good day for us,” Wilson says.

Only in their mid-60s, Jim and Terry are already working to transfer the ranch they’ve poured their lives into building to Billie Jo and her family. Handing over the reins may be difficult for many ranchers, but making way for the next generation is something Wilson is proud to do.

“They can’t just work out here with no guarantee for the future,” Wilson says. “If you love your children, you will not hang on. You will acknowledge their dedication and help them succeed while stepping back.”

Jim remembers his own start down the path to building the V Ranch. Born and raised on a Hereford seedstock operation, Jim initially partnered with his parents. Then, he and Terry were able to branch out on their own and turn other people’s lemons into lemonade in the 1980s when bankruptcies made land in the area plentiful. They scraped and borrowed to buy up land in the rough countryside around Kirby, Wyo., as it came available.

Those initial investments have flourished into a 60,000-acre ranch north of the sulfur-laden bubbling hot springs town of Thermopolis, Wyo. The rocky red hills support a commercial herd of reputation Salers-Angus composite cattle 950-head strong whose prime genetics have been spread to many other area herds, creating a powerful marketing opportunity. The Wilsons leverage the genetics linked to their original composite seedstock herd, which now numbers 60-head after selling most of it to a collaborator in the 2000s, to group market more than 4,000 cattle from about 10 different ranches in Montana and Wyoming.

“I don’t know if we were that smart or that dumb,” Jim says of their success in building a ranch during shaky financial times. “We worked extremely hard and we gambled. We didn’t know you could go broke and we just lucked out and started buying cattle to stock the place. We’re kind of living the dream.”

It’s a dream that has long been supported by the sturdy legs of top-notch genetics and strict management of herd health and nutrition.

Building the base

Starting as Hereford breeders with Wilson’s parents, Willard and Maycle Wilson, the family took a sidestep into Salers as he and Terry branched off on their own. They, along with his parents, wanted to build something better, something that could boost the whole industry, and they saw that potential in the relatively unknown breed.

“We liked the carcass traits and thought that’s something the beef industry needs, something the American public needs,” Wilson recalls.

In 1984 they purchased a Salers herd out of Canada and by 1987 had completely dispersed their Hereford herd. Eventually they had one of the largest Salers herds in North America. Though addressed by the Wilsons in their herd, the Salers had a bad reputation for a not-so-sunny disposition and the breed suffered for the black mark on its record despite excellent performance on the rail.

Wilson got out of the purebred business, but bull customers he had served as a Hereford and Salers breeder came back and asked him to raise a composite instead. He and Terry took the challenge and hit the road looking at various breeds before settling on Angus for a cross.

“We took the best of the Angus breed we could find and the best Salers genetics we could find. Dad thought I was crazy for wasting a good Salers cow on an Angus bull,” Wilson recalls. “But, when we did that, we got some exceptional cattle that would go on and breed true and better than either of their parents.”

Not one to rest on a success, Wilson has poked and prodded at his composite cattle to create a herd that performs in the harsh Wyoming countryside, flourishes in the feedyard and delights at the meat counter.

“There are a few things from each breed that we need and benefit from,” Wilson says.

Crossing frame score 7 Angus cattle with frame score 6 Salers cattle yields what Wilson says to be the ideal kill weight of 1,300 to 1,400 pounds and a 6.5 frame. Angus genetics bring in docility, maternal traits and higher marbling while Salers genetics contribute a larger ribeye, higher milkfat milk and more vigor.

EPDs are a great base, but the Wilsons rely heavily on visual evaluation.

“I like to evaluate cattle phenotypically,” Wilson says. “Billie Jo and I sort all the replacement heifers (by) horseback while they’re still on the cow. If we don’t like their mother’s disposition, udder or body, we don’t select her heifer calf.”

Going one step further, Wilson won’t bring a herd bull into his program without getting a good look at his mother.

“That cow has a tremendous impact on how he’ll produce. I like strong-topped cattle that have a lot of rib in them, which you won’t see on paper,” he says. “When the going gets tough here in Wyoming and it’s 25 below, a cow without a lot of rib won’t do well. It’s also an indication of more muscling and ribeye.”

The papers and data that do matter to Wilson are the performance records he gets back from Knight Feedyard where all the calves from the V Ranch and Wilson’s marketing group are shipped every year. Wilson pours over the data, as he has for the past 30 years on all his cattle, and looks for areas that can be improved starting at the ranch.

“We’ve followed those genetics for 30 years,” Wilson says. “We’ve watched how they gain, how they grade, what kind of ribeyes they produce, death loss and how all those things fit together. Everybody always goes straight to the bottom line on the kill sheets and we want ours to be in the plus column making money for the Knights.”

Fresh genetics to keep the herd performing positively down the line are continually rolled into the 60-head composite seedstock group and passed along to the larger commercial herd through half outcrosses to maintain consistency.

“Looking at our cattle today you will see little difference in frame size,” Wilson says at shipping. “The cutback pen is 15 head out of 600 cattle and I take pride in that. We’ve worked really hard on uniformity and consistency through genetics and by maintaining a 60-day calving interval on the cows and a 42-day interval on our heifers.”

The cattle are also uniformly healthy, thanks to rigid vaccination protocols, nutrition and cattle handling methods. Cattle are worked at their own pace in a custom-designed corral that directs the flow of cattle back toward where they entered the corral, making for fast, instinctive, smooth movement.

“A cow is pretty smart if you give them time to think. If the corral is designed right they’ll flow. The longer they stand there breathing dust and without water, the more stress they’re under, which we want to avoid. We’re able to bring in the whole herd and have the calves sorted, weighed and on the truck to Kansas in 3 hours,” Wilson says.

Wilson does everything he can to reduce stress and produce a product that keeps his buyer coming back for more.

“In the last couple of years we’ve delivered a product to Knight Feedyard that had a 0.6 percent death loss,” Wilson says. “That tells me the vaccination program, nutrition and the way we handle the cattle is working. I believe in getting and keeping a healthy calf from day No. 1.”

Pride for land and family

An extension of producing top livestock is the protection and management of the Wilsons’ delicate pastures. They were awarded the 2012 national BLM Rangeland Stewardship Award as part of the 16-member Kirby Creek Coordinated Resource Management Group. The V Ranch has management areas that serve to protect and stabilize streambeds and maintain wildlife habitat on Kirby Creek, which threads through the ranch, and on Copper Mountain.

“Even though it’s 60,000 acres, this is our backyard and we take care of it as such,” Terry says. “We have a fragile ecosystem and fragile soils and we take care to protect them. We take pride in the fact that we have wildlife and can coexist with them on the ranch.” It’s that sort of pride that drew Billie Jo back to the ranch when she and her husband, Jason, wanted to start a family. “We wanted to give our family the values that I got to grow up with on the ranch,” Billie Jo says.

Both she and her daughter, Emme, have great role models to look up to as they prepare to continue Jim and Terry’s legacy on the ranch.

“My mom is an awesome bookkeeper, an amazing businesswoman and has a lot more insight into different situations than my dad and I do,” Billie Jo says. “I admire that Dad is a great cowman. His understanding of animals carries over into horsemanship, working with his dog and talking to people. My parents are great community leaders serving on a lot of boards and bringing a lot of positive things to everything they join.”

Billie Jo is gradually taking on more and more responsibility at the V Ranch, even running all operations for several months in 2012 when Jim battled some health issues.

“I’m very proud of the herd my family has built,” she says. “Year after year after year they get a little better, gain better and perform well in the feedlot and here at the ranch. I always say that shipping is my favorite day because it’s the culmination of all of your efforts.”

Jim and Terry are happy to see the pride their daughter and granddaughter show in what the family has built and look forward to transitioning their legacy herd to the girls. They are in the process of gifting their land to Billie Jo and some small shares to Emme.

“Billie Jo has an excellent eye for cattle. She sorted the cattle today and it makes me proud that she can do that and wanted to do that. When we’re gone maybe the cow herd will be here or maybe Billie Jo will develop her own. We’re just glad to have them here,” Jim says.

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Trusted vet helps set stage for shipping success – 2013 Part 2

By Martha Mintz

Trusted vet helps set stage for shipping success
Trusted vet helps set stage for shipping success

It’s oddly quiet at 6:30 a.m. shipping morning at the “V” Ranch in Thermopolis, Wyo. A floodlight casts an orange pool of light from the peak of the silently looming barn. The only hint that a cow/calf herd numbering more than 600 head will be weaned, shipped and processed in short order is a smattering of vacant trailers.

When Jim Wilson steps out in tan chaps buffed to a high shine from hours of saddle wear to greet his camera-toting guests, there is no sign of “shipping fever.” That dreaded seasonal condition where the anxiety of a year’s worth of work and worry has come to a head and the victim is vibrating with nervous energy. Instead, there’s simply the quiet confidence of a man who has a good plan of action and is following it through.

Years spent hammering out a herd health and nutrition program that delivers healthy, quality calves on shipping day lend Wilson that calm. So does the presence of his trusted veterinarian, Dan Miller, who has long worked right beside him developing those herd health protocols.
“You need consistency year after year after year in health programs,” says Miller, who has been consulting with Wilson for more than 14 years through Cloud Peak Veterinary Services, Worland, Wyo. Active veterinarian involvement in whole-herd health protocols helps foster consistency, he says. “If a vet is only getting called out once or twice a year to put out fires, he has no plan or concept of what’s going on at that ranch.”

Miller is a very familiar face at the V Ranch, as evident by his camaraderie with Wilson’s tight-knit shipping crew of family and friends, who happily gobbled up the donuts he supplied. Besides being present for the obvious vet days of pregnancy checking, bull testing, and so on, Miller and Wilson sit down every year to go over herd performance. Weaknesses and strengths are identified and changes are planned as necessary to keep the reputation Salers-Angus composite herd in good health and producing at maximum efficiency.

“As the vet I like to be involved in the whole animal picture,” Miller says.

He takes an active role in advising Wilson on raising and breeding bulls, developing heifers, cow health, calf health, giving advice on when to cull cows, weaning and any other aspect of the operation where health and nutrition come into play. That way, if something goes wrong, he has the whole story to work from, not just a snippet.

A healthy start

Establishing good cow health is where Wilson and Miller focus their attention first.

“Cow health reflects in the calf, and the calf is what the producer is selling,” Miller says. “We have to take care of the cow to take care of the calf so that the cattle will perform for the Wilsons and the buyers, which will keep them coming back to buy the calves year after year.”
That chain starts by ensuring good breed-up, an obviously important factor for Wilson’s bottom line.

“Each cow on this ranch owes me a living. Either she delivers me a coupon every year in the form of a calf or she becomes the coupon as a cull cow,” Wilson says.

That being said, he knows that the cow’s success rests on his own and Miller’s shoulders. Cattle are genetically selected for maternal success, and every aspect of their health is taken care of. The result is a higher than 97 percent conception rate most years.
“We strive for a 100 percent conception rate and a 100 percent calving rate,” Wilson says.

Steps to ensure conception start in the short window between calving and breeding. All cows are given a modified live vaccine that includes protection for IBR, PI3, BVD, Vibrio and Lepto .

“It protects all the little areas that can cause abortion or early embryonic death. It boosts conception rates a lot and some immunity is passed along to the baby calf in colostrum,” Miller says.

Deworming in the fall and at spring turnout also provide a nice boost.

“Parasite control is very important. It boosts conception rates, cow performance and improves the milking rate as well,” Miller says. Wilson adds that keeping a cow clean of lice and other parasites so all her intake goes into production is “the cheapest feed we can get.”
Monitoring minerals has also paid in higher conception rates. Despite living in the shadow of Copper Mountain, Wilson and Miller were able to pin calf losses in first-calf heifers on copper deficiencies.

“We were able to change the mineral program around a little bit and now the heifers are back on track and doing great,” Miller says.

Heifers also get a scours vaccine at pregnancy testing and a booster shot at 2 to 3 weeks prior to calving to raise antibody levels and deliver protection to the calf through colostrum.

Timing and immunity

Just getting the right vaccines given to the calves isn’t good enough for Miller and Wilson. They’re very particular on the timing and method of vaccination.

A tight calving window thanks to a roughly 45-day breeding season helps ensure that calves are about the same age when it’s time to brand and administer vaccination. All calves are processed using a hydraulic calf table, making it a job for a small, responsible, BQA-trained crew. Calves are given a 4-way viral including IBR, PI3, BVD and BRSV along with a 7-way clostridial with haemophilus.

“The older the calf is, the more mature its immune system is and the better it will respond to the vaccine,” Miller says. “But there is also a window where we don’t want the calf coming down with something before they are immunized, so it’s a Catch-22. I like the calves to at least be 40 days old at branding.”

That strong immunity base is boosted strategically prior to weaning.

“The timeframe for boosting the shots we gave at branding prior to shipping is very important,” Wilson says. “We try to do it 2 to 3 weeks prior to shipment, and I’ve been really particular on the exact dates because we’ve been so successful. I look at the previous year and try to get within a day of that.”

Calves will reach their peak immunity at around 20 days after vaccination, he says.

“We time it so they hit peak immunity about 3 to 4 days after they’ve been shipped and unloaded at the backgrounding lots in Kansas,” Wilson says.

This strategy helps ensure health at shipping and performance upon arrival.

“Jim doesn’t want to ship any sick calves,” Miller says. “He wants them to show up with good immunity at the feedlot. The health of those cattle reflects a lot on Jim and on me as well. We like to keep everyone happy by delivering healthy calves.”

Performance payoff

Health certainly got tested at shipping 2012. Pastures parched by extended drought exposed powdery dirt that was quickly churned into billowing clouds of clingy sediment at gather. But as the riders brought the dust-covered herd into wetted-down corrals, there was no coughing or wheezing, no dropped ears and only the occasional dripping nose.

“With these dry years with lots of dust we have had a Pasteurella problem in this area. But with the modified live virus vaccination program, the Wilsons are doing well and they haven’t had those problems despite the conditions,” Miller says.

Healthy calves at shipping translate to healthy calves in the feedyard. Wilson’s close relationship with his buyers, Knight Feedlot, Lyons, Kan., means he hears firsthand how the calves perform, and it had better be a good report.

“The calves we’ve shipped to Knights in the past have made it through with 0.6 percent death loss, so that’s pretty good performance,” Wilson says. “I want the Knights to make money or they won’t be back buying my calves again. I think our program has worked well.”

That’s good news for Miller, too.

“When our client makes money, we make money. If our client doesn’t make money, we suffer as well. We want everybody, including the buyer of these calves. to be successful because that puts more money back into the program. It’s a trickle-down effect,” Miller says.

And if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it, he adds.

“It’s important with herd health programs to stay consistent year after year after year,” he says. “If you’re changing products and changing brands all the time, how will you know what was consistent? Stay with one product for a while so you can see what’s working and what isn’t.”
Consistency, careful timing and solid results have created an environment that allows both Wilson and Miller to remain relatively relaxed and jovial on such an important day. They know they’ve put in the work and just have to sit back and reap the benefits—at least until the calves are on the truck. Then, it’s back to work pregnancy checking the cows and setting the ball rolling on another successful year.

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Cattleman-Broker bridges the gap between pasture and bunk – 2013 Part 3

story-of-a-steak-rancher-jim-wilson-photo-by-martha-mintz
RELATIONSHIPS—Rancher Jim Wilson has developed long-standing relationships that span the beef supply chain. (Photos by Martha Mintz.)

October finds six semi-loads of Salers-Angus range calves winding through Wyoming mountains, over the pancake-flat plains of Eastern Colorado and past the white sentinel-like wind turbines of Kansas to lush living at the Knight Feedyard.

It’s a path that’s been well worn by many loads of calves making the trek between Jim and Terry Wilson’s V Ranch in Thermopolis, Wyo., and Kenny Knight and his son, Mark’s, backgrounding and feedyard operation in Lyons, Kan. They’ve been trading livestock for 5 years. But more than just the Wilsons’ calves make the trip.

Wilson has developed long-standing personal relationships that span the beef supply chain from pasture to plate. Those bonds afford him the trust needed to gather and market-at a premium-more than 4,000 head annually of quality, uniform cattle to the Knights through his brokerage business, Wilson Livestock.

“The ranches we ship from have been in business a long time and have uniform, consistent cow herds that share genetics from our original Salers-Angus composite herd. That gives consistency in the loads and there’s an advantage to that at the feedyard,” Wilson says. “Different breeds of cattle and different groups of cattle feed differently. We’re able to take away some of that variability with these cattle that share genetics and management styles.”

Trust and reputation are other commodities that Wilson trades in mass quantities.

“I’ve been working with Jim directly and indirectly for 15 years,” Kenny Knight says. “I had met his father, Willard, through NCBA (National Cattlemen’s Beef Association) and known of them and their reputation for a long time. It’s important to me to be working with someone I don’t have to worry about. When he ships cattle to me they’re always exactly like he says. I like that.”

A friendly smile, a true love for the business and a bustling work ethic have earned Wilson countless friends at all levels of the beef industry. He got his start by watching his father merchandizing calves for his Hereford bull customers. Jim continued this tradition as he and Terry transitioned to selling Salers-Angus composite seedstock. And the strong support system he has in Terry and their daughter, Billie Jo, keeps the cogs spinning at the ranch, allowing Jim to pursue his marketing ventures and even take a sick day here and there.

Trading data

What makes Wilson unique in the brokerage world is that he doesn’t market the cattle and then drop the rope. Just like his father before him, Wilson has long tracked the performance of the cattle he markets in the feedyard and beyond. He then uses that information to manipulate the seedstock herd-and therefore the commercial herds-to continually build performance.

“Kill records showed us which bulls were producing calves that weren’t grading well enough, and we were able to improve that with the Angus cross in the Salers-Angus composite,” Wilson says. “We were able to increase the ribeye quicker through the Salers breed. We worked on those issues in our herd and with our bull customers that are now our brokerage customers.”

Despite selling most of his seedstock herd to Jim and Sherry Doubet in 2006, Jim still works with them and his old customers. Most of the calves he markets to the Knights carry the genetics the Wilsons molded over the years and he still offers advice on genetics. Add in some like-minded management from one herd to the next and the calves in Wilson’s thousands-strong marketing group almost seem to come all from one ranch.

“We’ve followed those genetics for 30 years,” Wilson says. “We know how they gain, how they grade, what kind of ribeye they produce, what their death loss is, all of those things. It takes a lot of guesswork out of the process for everyone.”
Knight liked the genetics so well he even bought a load of bred heifers sight unseen from Wilson to try and improve the frame size in his personal cow-calf herd.

Wilson continues to truck information back and forth between the feedyard and pastures. When he’s not tending his own herd, he spends a lot of time visiting the ranchers and the Knights in person. He lays eyes on the cattle at all stages of production and collects valuable data that all parties can use to evaluate what’s going right, what’s going wrong and what can be done to improve everyone’s bottom line.

story-of-a-steak-on-the-road-photo-by-martha-mintz
ON THE ROAD—The V Ranch crew gathers cattle to be sorted and shipped to Knight Feedlot in Kansas.

Feeders aren’t always keen to give up their data. But, once again, a personal relationship with Wilson goes a long way.

“It’s a two-edged sword because if the seller knows their cattle are doing well and how well we like them it’s harder to buy them. But, Jim has always been fair. He appreciates getting the information and we’re willing to share it with him and the other ranchers to improve the end product,” Knight says.

And Wilson’s experience earns him willing ears with his brokerage customers when it comes to management changes, such breeding, vaccination protocols and age and source verification.

“Jim spends more time actually going out and talking to buyers, feeders and packers than most ranchers get a chance to, so we respect what information he can get back to us,” says Reg Phillips, manager of the Diamond D Cattle Company, Dubois, Wyo. Wilson facilitates the sale and delivery of around 800 head from the Diamond D each year. “He always makes sure we get treated fairly.”

Easy button

For many of the producers Wilson works with, the process of marketing and delivering their calf crop has become like pressing the big red “Easy” button from the Staples commercials.

“He has created a situation where there is a consistent buyer that knows what our cattle are worth to them. We know what they’re worth to us. And we’re able to strike a deal in the middle that benefits everyone,” says Phillips, who has a 35-year strong relationship with Wilson. “It saves us time, effort and money. We don’t have to pay a commission at the sales yard and we have some marketing power when we sell our cattle.”

More knowledge on both ends of the deal results in some attractive offers. Like the bid Wilson brought to another long-time friend in the cattle industry, Dan Morris, manager of the Pitchfork Ranch at Meeteetse, Wyo. Wilson had worked with Morris and the Pitchfork herd for many years and offered to market the calves in 2009.

“We had a couple of buyers calling, but Jim was able to make us the better offer. He knew the cattle well enough and had a good enough relationship with the buyers in Kansas that he wasn’t afraid to purchase the cattle at a premium price and know the buyers would still make money,” Morris says. “He just has so much history with our cattle and with us. He knows the calves will be consistent and that the buyers know how to feed them right to perform.”

Simplicity on shipping day is yet another perk.

“We’re able to sell right off the ranch,” Morris says. “We don’t have to haul to the sales ring or mess with commissions. They line up the trucks and we just bring the cattle in, strip off the calves, weigh and load them. We’re in and out of the corrals by 10 a.m. The convenience is overwhelming.”

All in all, everyone working in this group comes out ahead. Jim’s cattlemen customers know he’s bringing them the best deal, and Kenny and Mark Knight know he’s bringing them quality cattle that will perform in their specific feeding program.
“We’ve worked with these producers for a long time. We know their herds and that the calves will be healthy and have the genetics to gain and produce a good carcass,” Wilson says. “We send the Knights the cream of the crop.”

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Integrated backgrounding operation eases range cattle into feedlot – 2013 Part 4

story-of-a-steak-calm-cattle-photo-by-martha-mintz
Banning hotshots and laying out a welcoming layer of straw bedding keep cattle calm and comfortable as they unload in the pens of Kenny Knight’s backgrounding operation. His son, Mark Knight, reasons that calm cattle eat better, drink better and are less likely to get injured so they can more quickly transition from pens to lush, green wheat field grazing. (Photo by Martha Mintz.)

By Martha Mintz

Room to roam is still plentiful for freshly weaned Wyoming calves as they make their way off the truck at the Knight Feedlot in Lyons, Kan.

The Salers-Angus composites we first encountered in their vast V Ranch pastures just prior to shipping Oct. 1 will spend the next few months of their life trimming up bright green blades of Kansas winter wheat and learning to eat from the bunk. While the green forage of Knight Farms may be novel to them, the sturdy construction of their wheat pasture fences will be very familiar.

“We have permanent 5-wire fences around all of our wheat pasture pens,” says Kenny Knight, who owns Knight Feedlot and Knight Farms with his son, Mark. “We don’t want to be out chasing cattle around all the time.”

Stout fences are one of many subtle indicators that Knight is no casual cattle backgrounder. It’s an integral part of the diverse, integrated livestock and farming operation he’s spent more than 50 years building and perfecting. And thanks to that diversification and aggressive forward thinking, it’s an operation that has proven as sturdy as the fine oak furniture Knight crafts when he isn’t busy turning out top quality beef.

Born and raised on the fringe of Lyons, Knight started out farming and then expanded into cattle feeding in 1972 with Mark. His operation now includes a 13,000-head feedlot, 6,000 acres of wheat grazing with 10,000 total cropland acres, a 500-head

Angus cow/calf herd in the Flint Hills and the Bar K Bar Trucking firm.

“Our various operations help offset the cost of each other and keep us more profitable and more in control of our situation,” Knight says. “The feedlot industry is overbuilt by about 30 percent and we’ve seen a lot of feedlots our size and smaller that haven’t been able to sustain like we have.”

The Knights have been able to turn failures on one operation into success in another. For example, when their soybean crop failed in 2012 they were able to bale it and get some feed value out of the otherwise worthless crop. Soybean hay was used to stretch their alfalfa hay supply by making up a third of the modified ration.

Fields also benefit from pivots delivering nutrient-dense waste water from the feedlot.

Successful Calves

The Knights’ backgrounding and farming operations serve as a layover point for the high quality range cattle they bring in from Wyoming. Over time, Knight has patiently and strategically bought up land parcels surrounding his Lyons-based feedlot.

“I’ve waited years to buy these 80 acres,” Knight says as he looks out over a field freshly cleared of hedge trees just barely out of view of the feedlot. There are still a few chunks of land that will finish connecting the pieces of his farm, but for now he has 11 permanent steel satellite pens attached to wheat parcels that are all within 5 miles of the feedlot.

These conveniently situated satellite pens serve as receiving areas for calves such as those coming from the V Ranch. Each pen is set up so calves can be processed on site, instead of unloading at the feedlot, being processed and then moved again. Calves come off the truck and are settled into the pens with some bedding and are given a starter ration to get them broke to bunk feeding.

“Mark started putting out bedding straw for all the new cattle coming in,” Knight says. “It seems to make the cattle calm, like they feel a little bit at home. They’ll lay on it even if it’s 100 degrees outside.”

Great care is taken to make the cattle feel right at home. For starters, no hotshots are allowed.

“We use our own semis to get the calves and all of our drivers have been BQA trained. They don’t use hotshots, know how to handle the cattle and check them often,” Mark says. “We want it to be a peaceful process so the cattle will be calmer and adjust to their new home faster. We want them to unload, relax, go to the feed bunk, go to the water tank and settle in. Calmer cattle will attack feed a lot better.”

Mark notes that the cattle coming from V Ranch and the other Wyoming operations usually come in fairly calm and healthy thanks to selective breeding and effective preconditioning programs.

“With good preconditioning the cattle are just healthier. They’re good when they come in and they’re good 30 days down the road. We don’t have to bring them in and mass treat them. That’s why it’s important to work with ranchers we trust that have good breeding and preconditioning programs,” Mark says.

Calves sit in the satellite pens for 4 or 5 days before they are further processed. Provided the cattle are healthy, they are wormed, given an IBR/BVD vaccination and are tagged by pen. They’re also started on an extremely high energy diet of alfalfa hay, wet distillers grain, flaked corn, molasses and protein supplement mixed with some antibiotics for 6 to 10 days. Once they’re determined to be acclimated and off to a good strong start, they’re switched to a grower ration and are turned out on wheat pastures.

“We expect them to gain 2.5 pounds per day while on wheat pasture and grower rations,” Mark says.

The Wyoming-born calves typically graze from arrival in early October until January when they hit about 800 pounds. At that point they’re sorted and moved to the feedlot to start the next phase in their stay with the Knights.

“The Wyoming cattle do very well as the ranchers are using the preconditioning protocols we’ve provided them and we’ve been very successful with the calves when they do it right,” Knight says.

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Maintaining happy, healthy cattle keeps Knight Feedlot going strong – 2013 Part 5

By Martha Mintz

Mark and Kenny Knight are constantly working to manage risk, improve efficiency and create a better, more desirable product for consumers. (Photo by Martha Mintz.)
Mark and Kenny Knight are constantly working to manage risk, improve efficiency and create a better, more desirable product for consumers. (Photo by Martha Mintz.)

“That’s what I like to see as a cattle feeder,” beams Kenny Knight as he looks out over a pen of shiny Angus steers lounging peacefully in the unseasonably warm December sun at his Lyons, Kan., feedlot. “Those cattle are happy, healthy, calm and gaining weight.”
While the fat steers are happily soaking up sunshine in their pen, it’s the cattle feeder who is often found pacing the confines of his office fretting. Worry about how to stay afloat and still produce a healthy, quality product has resulted in much pacing and more than a few ulcers in the industry.

Cattle feeding is a tough business with staggering variability. Profit potential from year to year depends on the market price of the cattle coming in, often highly volatile market prices of feed and even more variability in the price they get for the final product. That’s not to mention impacts of weather and health during the feeding process. However, in his 40 years of feeding cattle, Knight has hammered out helpful tactics to keep his feedlot profitable from year to year.

These tactics have kept him in the cattle feeding business while many other similarly sized feedlots have closed their gates permanently. Knight’s son, Mark, runs Knight Feedlot with his father and has adopted his strategies while adding a few of his own.

Buy quality

A profit strategy that connects them to the reputation cattle delivered from Wyoming ranches by Jim Wilson of the V Ranch, is that when you find quality cattle, go back for more. And the more times they buy from the same ranches, the more familiar with their performance they become.

“It’s a little scary when you haven’t dealt with a rancher or specific group of cattle before. That’s why if you find good cattle from a responsible ranch you’ll generally do better than buying cattle out of the sale barn. You get a lot of surprises with sale barn cattle.” Mark says. “The Wyoming cattle are easier to predict and project so there aren’t any surprises during feeding or on the rail. Their health is generally good and the carcass performance is always excellent.”

Besides getting great genetics that have proven themselves time and again, cattle from the Wyoming marketing group come with immunity and traceability. Knowing where the cattle were born and how they’ve been treated since day No. 1 is invaluable to profitability and producing a good product, says the Knights’ consulting vet of 15 years, Tom Edwards, Midwest Feedlot Services, Inc., Kearney, Neb.

“It gives us the opportunity to work back and organize our vaccination protocols to complement what the calves have been given at the ranch when they come to the feedlot,” he says. “Cattle with no history, on the other hand, really put us behind the 8 ball. It’s so much harder to build immunity with an unknown calf once they arrive at the feedlot.”

The Wyoming cattle purchased on contract arrive at the feedlot having already received carefully timed vaccinations for key health concerns. Kenny reports that of the 2,600 head brought in from Wyoming in October 2012, by December they had only lost 4 head. That’s 0.0015 percent death loss, as compared to the normal 2 percent death loss with unknown groups of cattle.

“We can build a higher level of immunity with those calves because they come to the feedlot with a head start,” Edwards says. “That takes a big weight of a feeder’s shoulders. By successfully limiting illness, we can grow those cattle to their greatest potential. Hopefully they gain better, convert feed better and have lower rates of morbidity and mortality.”

Maintain a stress-free workplace

Just like office workers perform better when stress is managed, so, too, do livestock, Kenny says. All of their employees are trained to practice low-stress cattle handling. Hotshots and horses, both which can agitate cattle, are strictly forbidden at the Knight Feedlot. And, animal behavior specialist Temple Grandin consulted on the design of their receiving and processing facility.

“Where the gates are located, how the tub is built and how the cattle lead into the processing facility are all designed to flow cattle through faster and more instinctively,” Kenny says. “The faster cattle are through the chute and out of the processing building, the better their performance in the long run.”

Edwards notes that limiting stress can have a significant positive impact on animal health.

“Stress decreases the immune response, making calves less able to fight off infections. Calmer cattle are healthier and cope better in the feedlot,” Edwards says.

Diversify

Integrating ranch, backgrounding, feeding and trucking companies helps the Knights stay a step ahead of the competition. All of the feed produced on their 10,000 crop acres go to feed their backgrounding and feedlot cattle. Producing their own feed takes some of the sting out of volatile feed markets.

Flaking their wheat and corn on site is yet another way they stretch their resources.

“Flaking lays out more surface area for the acids in the rumen to react with and break down,” Mark explains. “We hardly ever see any corn in the stool like you do when you feed cracked corn. If we do, we look to see what’s wrong.”

The wheat pastures that get the cattle off to a strong start when they reach Kansas also take them to finish.

“We prefer to feed wheat when we can because it has way more energy than corn and the cattle do well on it,” Mark says. While corn typically makes up 54 percent of a ration, wheat make up only 46 percent of a ration for the same energy. “We’re a small enough feedlot that we can raise and store enough wheat to supply our needs and it’s cheaper than corn.”

Baled wheat straw from Knight farms also serves as windbreaks around the pens and is rolled out as a welcoming bedding for cattle just off the truck.

Create opportunity

Progressive thinking also opens doors for the Knights. They are constantly searching for ways to make their product better and more desirable for the customer as well as more profitable for them.

They’ve created a group of like-sized feedlots into The Beef Marketing Group (BMG) and use their united numbers to leverage better commodity prices and negotiate their own grid marketing program with the beef packing facilities they market to.

Kenny, Mark and the other BMG members also have dedicated themselves to pre-harvest food safety, well ahead of the trend that is just now starting to be glimpsed in the industry. To facilitate pre-harvest food safety, as well as better operating standards, they’ve created a lengthy handbook outlining correct procedure for every function of the feeding process imaginable. From truck cleanouts to the temperatures of the refrigerators that house their vaccines, every base is covered.

“Tyson recently announced their own pre-harvest food program and they’ve accepted our third part-verified Progressive Beef food safety program for their program,” Kenny says. “Our goal has always been to better serve the end user and increase value from that end of the food chain. It’s difficult, but that’s why we’re doing things like the Progressive Beef program. We’re trying to separate ourselves from mainstream cattle feeding.”

“The Knights go above and beyond what is expected of a typical cattle feeder,” Edwards says. “They do a great job of making sure that consumers can be happy that the steak on their table was raised and handled in the best interest of the cattle, the managers and the end consumers.”

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Hitting the quality target – 2013 Part 7

A taste bud tickling wisp of savory aroma announces its sizzling arrival just moments before delivery to the table. The knife is met with little resistance and the first juicy bite delivers the rich, buttery flavor the aroma promised.

It’s not a good steak; it’s a great steak. The kind used to celebrate a promotion or an anniversary or impress a first date. While the only ingredient is beef, producing such a decadent treat requires months, even years, of prep work. Work that starts long before the steak is delivered to the kitchen.

Tyson Fresh Meats cattle buyer Kevin Allison knows it takes good product coming in to make sure that the product leaving the process-ing facility will have the fork holder smiling. It’s his job to seek out quality cattle that won’t bring any surprises during processing. And a er more than 15 years on the job, he knows what to look for in cattle and feeders.

“When cattle do well in the feed-yard, nine times out of 10 they’ll do well in the packing house,” he says. “We want to buy cattle that have been handled and fed properly.”

Cattle that come to the bunk every day to eat, have plenty of water, are in pens with plenty of room and are overall comfortable simply do better, he says. They come into the facility hydrated and, especially with the cattle purchased from Knight Feedlot, they’re less likely to have bruises and other injuries that result in discounts as they’re handled in a calm fashion without the use of hot-shots.

Allison can also rely on the fact that Knights have fostered relation-ships with ranches that provide them with quality cattle to work with. When the reputation Salers-Angus cross cattle that make their way from Jim and Terry Wilson’s V Ranch in Thermopolis, Wyo., through the Knight background-ing and feedlot operations at Lyons, Kan., arrive at Tyson’s door, premiums, not discounts, are the norm. at’s because packer, feeder and rancher have worked together to determine a goal and all do their part to meet the expectations.

Tyson Fresh Meats has set up a grid for Knights and other Beef Marketing Group feeders to incentivize quality, convenient product coming in.

Wyoming cattle purchased through Jim Wilson continually hit the mark. Though hailing from many different ranches, the livestock are linked genetically providing uniformity in size and performance over a large group. And their collective performance has drawn the attention of not only the Knights but Tyson, too.

“We know the background on the Wyoming cattle. We like their uniformity and quality,” Allison says.

Making the grade

Success at processing startsback in the Wyoming pastures. A tight calving window and careful selection of breeding stock at the V Ranch and the ranches Wilson works with yield a truly uniform group of cattle.

“Uniformity is great for the efficiency of a facility. Once the cattle have been harvested and we are breaking them it’s great to be able to do all 800 lb. carcasses for an hour instead of a few 600 lb. carcasses, a bunch of 800 lb. carcasses and a couple 900 lb. carcasses,” Allison says.

When carcasses are all the same size they produce consistently sized cuts of beef, making for more uniform product in one box and a better end user product.

“In a lot of cases cattle brought in are commingled from a lot of sources and we get a wide variety of genetic base in those pens and variety in size and quality,” Allison says. “With groups of specific ranch calves they tend to be very consistent, very uniform, especially those coming out of Wyoming through the Knights’ feedyard.”

Uniformity is great for efficiency, but quality grade is what drives the industry. Allison is always looking for high-quality cattle that will cut Choice or Prime and that still have a cutability yield grade of one, two or three. Yield grade four and five carcasses are not desirable as theyrequire a lot of time-consuming, profit-clipping trimming.

“The Wyoming cattle are consistent and predictable in cutability and quality grades. They do a nice job on our grid and there are a lot of premiums earned on those cattle,” Allison says.

It’s a quality that has been built thanks, in part, to years of carcass data flowing back to the ranchers, allowing them to tweak their breeding programs to produce cattle that perform to the highest standards.

“A lot of these higher qualitycattle can go into niche programs such as Chairman’s Reserve Premium Beef and Certified Angus Beef programs,” Allison says. “Those cattle are great because they add value for everybody as they move forward.”

Familiarity also brings confidence and accountability when it comes to cattle handling.

“We are concerned that cattle are handled properly from the time they’re calves through the packing house. We want to be stewards of good animal welfare,” he says.

Years of building relationships between rancher and feeder and feeder and buyer allows Allison to be confident that the welfare of the Wyoming cattle purchased from Knight Feedlot has been carefully protected from the pasture through to processing.

“At Tyson we’re always workingto build and hold our relationships with the feedyards,” he says.

“We’re all striving for a betterproduct in the end and relationships like the one we have with BMG and Knights and the one they have with their supplying ranchers help get us there.”

The end result is the production of a steak that not only satisfies taste and hunger, but satiates the conscious with the knowledge that it was produced in a responsible and respectful manner.

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Streamlining the path to a good steak – 2013 Part 6

When shiny black baby calves took their first wobbly steps this spring in the mountain pastures of the V Ranch at Thermopolis, Wyo., their path had already been charted nearly all the way to consumption.

From the trucks that will whisk them to the backgrounding pastures at Knight Farms, Lyons, Kan., in the fall to the feed they’ll munch as they pack on the last few pounds to finish, it’s all al-ready organized. e predictable, pro table and repeatable path from pasture to plate is the result of savvy cattlemen banding together at all stages of production.

Just as the Wyoming ranchers we met earlier in this series come together to market their calves to Mark and Kenny Knight of Knight Feedlot, Mark and Kenny have joined forces with other feeders to strengthen their position in the marketplace. The Knights along with 15 other Kansas-based confined feeding operations form the Beef Marketing Group (BMG).

“Instead of competing against each other, we joined together as a group to achieve a common goal,” Mark says.

A 15,000-head feedlot doesn’t have much pull, but multiply those numbers by 16 members and the feeders become a force of their own. Since the group first formed in 1987, they’ve leveraged those numbers to achieve better rates on inputs from animal health supplies to distiller’s grain and created their own grid with packing giant Tyson — a profit-boosting perk usually only afforded to very large feedlots.

“While it started as a way for family owned growing and feeding operations to work together in the face of consolidation, BMG has evolved. In addition, we now develop programs that create added value for our membership and in the cattle themselves,” says John Butler, BMG chief executive officer.

Goal oriented

A grid with de ned parameters gives the Knights and the rest of the BMG group a very specific target to aim for when purchasing and feeding cattle. They know exactly where their quality and yield grades and carcass weights need to end up.

“The processor has identified the most desirable product for their facility and we produce to that standard,” Butler says. “They’ve said, ‘These are the kind of cattle we like,’ and they built a pricing structure that incentivizes us to produce that kind of cattle and impose consequences if we do not. It makes us produce more consistent cattle for them and creates efficiencies in our system be-cause there is a consistent and predictable target.”

A good relationship with the processor also has resulted in carcass data owing back to the feed-lots and trickling all the way back to the ranches. Because the Knights have worked with the same ranch customers year a er year and formed relationships with them, they’re able to pass along that information to start molding cattle to t the grid before they’re even born.

“After all this time working with the Wyoming cattle and collecting data on the different ranches we know exactly how to feed those cattle and know pretty well how they’ll perform,” Kenny says. “We’ve learned to produce to the grid we have.”

These industry-spanning bonds mean ranchers, feeders and processors are able to collectively hone their objectives so everyone makesmore money, Butler says. Efficiencies are achieved and premiums are paid for hitting the target.

Building value

True to the progressive feeders that started the group, BMG works many angles besides just their force in numbers to pry more value from their product. For one, they’ve implemented an extensive standard of best management practices known as the Progressive Beef Program (PGP) that all member feedlots follow.

Critical control points were identified in the areas of animal care and handling, food safety and sustainability and standard operating procedures were developed around them. For example, each feed mill has a system to verify that all feedstuffs coming into the operation are exactly as ordered and that they’re free of pathogens and contaminants. Proper use of vitamins, minerals and other supplements are carefully outlined, animal care and handling is addressed and much, much more.

“The idea is with this system in place we can bring a promise — a Good Housekeeping Seal — to the cattle we deliver to the packer,” Butler says. “They can, in turn, use this verified system related to how we take care of the cattle to create differentiation for merchandizing the product to retail and food service customers.”

Having systems such as this in place has resulted in BMG member feedlots being given the first opportunity to participate in brandspecific programs. In the past, they’ve worked with IBP to deliver source-verified cattle to McDonalds. They’ve teamed with Certified Angus Beef and Tyson to build an aligned system that delivered a consistent supply of all natural Angus cattle.

“What we’ve done is really try to understand what the consumer wants first and then work backward to see what we can do as producers to address those needs, wants and concerns,” Butler says.

For one, consumer data has shown that, as compared to 10 years ago, consumers are more sensitive to animal care, knowing where their food comes from and knowing how it was produced on its way to their plate, Butler explains. In response BMG feedlots have created animal handling guidelines that would pass any hidden camera test. “The standard operating procedures we’ve built means there’s more to it than just saying we’re good caretakers, we’re verifying to the consumers we really are.

 

The Progressive Beef initiative withstands a third party audit. It allows us to be transparent about our responsibility to the cattle. All employees that interface with animals are trained and certified to these standards and those benefitscarry forward to the packer and the end user,” Butler says.

Quality is essential, but it’s the knowing that really drives the success of these cattlemen and their partners. The ranchers know if they produce their cattle a certain way that they have a buyer that will pay them what the cattle are worth. The feeders know the cattle have been handled in a certain way and they can continue that program to produce to the exact parameters the packer has determined. The packer, in turn, pays a premium to know the livestock coming in consistently meet specifications and will allow for the most efficient processingpossible.

“Knowing how and where our cattle will be marketed with a predictable target provides us a tremendous advantage,” Butler says. “We’ve taken a lot of noise away from the process with the supply chain we’ve created.”

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