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The Golden Days of Beef

By Martha Mintz

Rod and Christine Lewis with daughter Rebecca Mettler.
Rod and Christine Lewis with daughter Rebecca Mettler.

When Christine Lewis steps out her kitchen door each morning-usually about 8 a.m. as she “doesn’t like mornings,” a rarity in the livestock world-she’s immediately greeted by the sight of her family’s Angus-Simmental cross cattle lazily browsing on pasture. Their black noses are buried deep in the vibrant green fescue grass that has helped secure southwest Missouri as a beef cattle haven.

As she does every morning, Christine hops on her 4-wheeler. Its put-a-put-putting engine noises cut sharply through the otherwise quiet morning as she heads off down a tree-lined lane to check cattle.

Their 400-head herd is separated into eight groups to accommodate fall and spring calving cows, weaned steers and heifers and yearlings. As she pulls through a barrier of oak, walnut and hickory trees, which may have been just saplings when the Lewis family first took possession of the land in southwest Lawrence County, Missouri, in 1878, Christine takes her time hoping to spot the deer and turkeys that frequent the area.

“My husband accuses me of spending more time looking for deer and turkeys than checking on the cattle,” laughs the seasoned rancher in her softly lilting Missouri accent.

No wildlife in sight, she cuts out across the pasture leaving tracks in the dew to make sure all the cattle are in good health. “We’ve got to take care of our livestock properly or we won’t be able to make a living,” she says. “We invest a lot of time and money to make sure they’re healthy. We don’t just stick them out in the pasture and leave them-we make sure they’re OK.”

Checking cattle with an all-terrain vehicle is one of many ranch chores that the previous generations of Lewises would shake their head at with wonder.

“This industry is so completely different now than it was even when I got my start 30 years ago,” says Christine’s husband, Rod, standing in the cool shade of his big white barn emblazoned with the Lewis family 4R brand. He sees a reminder of the massive changes every morning when he pours his coffee.

“There’s a picture in my kitchen of my great grandfather and grandfather standing with a steer that wouldn’t yield 50 percent and they’re just as proud as can be of it,” he says. Rod couldn’t show his face at the sale barn if he tried to market such an animal today.

He notes in his lifetime alone they’ve gone from weaning 300-pound calves to 700-pound calves, he can put up more tons of forage in a day than they used to in a month, use AI to advance his herd’s genetics or use genomics to map out positives and negatives in their very genetic makeup, market his cattle by video from the comfort of his own home, and the list goes on. “In the last five to 10 years the changes have really hit warp speed. The cattle industry is changing fast. It’s really amazing,” he says.

Upping the health ante

Cattle from Missouri used to have a reputation, and it wasn’t a good one. “Back in the 1990s Missouri calves had a reputation for being sick and dying and costing the feeding industry millions of dollars,” says Jackie Moore, co-owner of Joplin Regional Stockyards, just a scant 12 miles down the interstate from the Lewis ranch. Joplin Regional Stockyards set out to change that reputation by pioneering preconditioning and value-added programs. These programs incentivized area producers to have solid vaccination protocols and wean their calves prior to marketing, helping to transition them more smoothly to the next phase of their life.

The Lewises took advantage of these preconditioning programs, but were mostly just getting credit for the good practices they were already following on their ranch. Today they’ve built a tremendously positive reputation for high-quality, healthy cattle and are able to obtain top dollar for their calves by following the same protocols that are included in many of the programs.

Under the advisement of their trusted veterinarian, Ted Dahlstrom, Animal Clinic of Monett, the Lewises start the path to a healthy calf by securing the health of the mother cow. “I rely on my vet’s knowledge of the industry. He has big test groups and works with vaccine companies and he’ll let us know, good or bad, how products and practices perform. He tells it like it is,” Rod says.

The Lewises have always been progressive, changing up herd health programs over the years as necessary, Dahlstrom says. “And their herd has improved every year as a result,” he says.

The most recent change being a focus on the health of the cows through vaccine programs, mineral supplementation and ensuring their nutritional needs are met at critical points of in the year. Cows are all given prebreeding shots including IBR, Vibrio Lepto and PI3. Healthy cows pass some latent immunity to their calves through colostrum and get them started right.

Calves get two rounds of vaccinations, once in late June for the spring-born calves and a booster in November at weaning. Vaccines address issues such as pasteurella, blackleg, bovine respiratory disease and bovine virus diarrhea. Fenceline weaning, allowing the cows to stay close but separate, reduces stress and illness, helping calves build immunity and move easily on to the next stage of their lives.

The Lewises usually background their calves, feeding them hay until spring when they sell the hale, hearty and feedbunk-broke calves at 900 pounds during a hopefully stronger market than they would see in the fall when a glut of cattle are sold. Sometimes, though, they choose to feed them through to slaughter in feedlots in Kansas or Nebraska.

Benchmarking the herd

Retaining ownership of some of their calf crops has been eye-opening for the Lewises. It’s helped them understand the impact the decisions they make have on their ranch, with their herd, all the way down the line to feeders, packers, retailers and consumers. Especially with health.

“One year we had cattle in northwest Kansas and there was an epic blizzard, but we didn’t lose a single one. I think herd health really saved our bacon there,” Rod says. “We also learned that if you have to treat a sick calf even once that it reduces their chance of grading choice, so we want to avoid sickness if at all possible.”

Feeding cattle off and on for 15 years also allows them to get back valuable data on how their cattle perform for the packer, retailer and consumer. They’ve gone back and made very specific bull selections to improve ribeye area and other factors as indicated was necessary by their experiences.

“Since we’ve fed our cattle and made adjustments, they now yield 80 percent Choice with almost no death loss. We can pass that information on to perspective buyers. They know what their potential is and know they’ll get a better end product,” Christine says.

In the current market, as long as a calf is alive it’s bringing good money. But the Lewises having extra information and a reputation for quality, healthy cattle will increase exponentially in value as cattle producers rebuild their herds and markets take a predictable downward turn.

“We’re really in the golden days of cattle production right now,” Rod says. He notes they’ve spent decades scraping by suffering droughts and severely depressed markets. “Once we worked all year and the profit was just $300.”

But now the Lewises are enjoying a few years of the cattle industry paying off. It’s nice, but it doesn’t much matter to Rod and Christine either way since, “It’s the only thing we know to do and the only thing we’ve ever wanted to do,” Rod says.

It helps to love what you do.

“We raise our cattle with passion,” Christine says. “We put everything into them that we’ve got because it’s our name out there. We want to raise a good, healthy animal that’s been treated humanely so that the people who buy our beef know that it’s been raised the right way.”

The Lewises hope to pass along this passion and to position the ranch so that the sixth generation, their daughter, Rebecca Mettler, can enjoy raising cattle as much as they do one day. She seems to be game.

“We’re a century farm and that’s an important legacy to keep,” she says. “Both of my parents have worked with cattle their whole life and they have a vast amount of knowledge to pass on. The more I can get, the better. I hope this land stays in the family a very long time.”

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