Producers at the Range Beef Cow Symposium held in Rapid City, South Dakota, last December heard three varying approaches to creating savings with cow costs from cow-calf and stocker operations in Nebraska, Wyoming and South Dakota.

Cooper david
Managing Editor / Progressive Cattle

Chip Ramsay from Rex Ranches of Nebraska, James Sewell from the TA Ranch in Wyoming, and Ed Blair of Blair Brothers Angus Ranch of South Dakota, could each share how drought, fuel prices, tax structures and harsh winters produce obstacles to their success.

But those are challenges to be overcome, not excuses to cite, on the road to successful financial ranch management. Each producer offered some wisdom on the simple answers that can provide smart savings.

Chip Ramsay
Rex Ranches
Mother Nature had her way for many Nebraska ranches as the drought hit hard in 2012 and parts of 2013. But Ramsay said the elements are no excuse for maximizing long-term profit by enhancing land, livestock and human resources.

The Sandhills operation located around Hyannis, Nebraska, runs about 80 percent cows and 20 percent yearlings. The yearly stocking rate takes about 1,000 pounds to every 13.5 acres. The ranch runs large herds that rotate every 3 to 7 days “in order to have at least 100 days rest on that pasture before we come back to it.”


Enhancing the land means disciplined written grazing plans and giving the ground enough recovery time to avoid overgrazing.

“It allows us to stock heavier,” Ramsay said. “If we manage the goose correctly, we’ll get a few more eggs.”

With genetic resources, Rex Ranches uses cross-breeding, database genetic selection. “We need a cross-bred cow to cover up for our mistakes,” Ramsay explained. When employee turnover hits, the cows need to maintain themselves and the hybrid vigor works to that advantage.

“Since we’re a commercial producer and what we’re looking at is producing pounds of quality beef, that’s what we do, that’s the reason we like that color in that herd,” Ramsay said. “We like white faces, we like black cows, and we like red cows. … The other thing is we try to handle them correctly so they can express all the genetic potential that they have.”

In regard to human resources, Ramsay said the ranch hires good people that can handle autonomy and be held responsible. Crew meetings are open discussions where suggestions are shared and healthy competition is fostered.

Retaining employees is a key goal, but more importantly, the aim is to help employees improve. When the ranch was hit by drought, “I wasn’t going to drop good men because we didn’t have good cows on the ranch. (Good labor) is way too valuable of an investment.”

“Try to hire good people and give them meaningful responsibilities, and reward excellent results.”

James Sewell
TA Ranch
The high elevations of Saratoga, Wyoming, with picturesque settings on the North Platte River may be a postcard-worthy image for hay production in the West. And for some 35 years the TA Ranch got fine results from 6,500 acres of flood-irrigated ground.

But for Sewell, hay production was a year-long project that stole from the balance sheet of time and expense. After flood irrigation, driving equipment in summer, and five-months of feeding, the only time off was October. And that was used to feed replacement heifers and picking up bales in the field.

“Something had to change, that’s why they hired me to come to the ranch.”

Sewell did a breakdown analysis of the ranch’s three main expense areas. First came employees, benefits, pension and insurance. Next came feed off the ranch, supplements and other management inputs.

But it was the equipment and machinery costs that raised Sewell’s eyebrows. To feed 75 tons of hay a day requires a lot of machinery and backup machinery. Maintenance costs were high for the ranch, and there seemed to be a glut of equipment.

So Sewell hit the market – to sell. Tractors, pickups, four-wheelers became culling opportunities just like cows.

“What I tried to do is step back from what we had at the ranch and to say what we need at the ranch,” Sewell said. “There’s too much equipment, too much feed on inventory, too much this or that.”

Now, tractors have an expected life span on the ranch, and when it’s met, it’s sold. Excess trucks are sold off as well, with data to show how many miles it takes to keep them.

The same approach ranchers take to cull cows needs to be taken to cull old equipment, Sewell said. Doing so led to huge reductions in costs at the ranch, waste losses in feed and fuel dropped. Registrations and insurance for vehicles were cut back, as were repairs and parts.

The ability to manage equipment is also tied in with how to manage labor. “I can hire the best guy around that’s going to take care of his stuff. But if I ride to a cowboy’s house and he’s got 10 junk cars there, I’m going to wonder how his fences are going to look. How are his cows going to look?”

Ed Blair
Blair Brothers Black Angus
Building a commercial Angus ranch just off the Black Hills in Vale, South Dakota, Ed Blair and his brother never thought they’d ever get rid of 500 acres of irrigated acreage in a period of drought.

Then he did some analysis of the books and saw how much it was costing.

Eventually the operation decided to give up hay farming and aggressively began buying feed. It was a good timing move.

Soon other decisions came into play. He made corn futures purchases to get feed under production costs, and consistently got better each year.

Blair found other ways to analyze what he was doing. Producers should always try doing the same, he said, because their presumptions won’t always be right. The following were some of his top 10 savings tips:

  • Short-term grazing – Blair started small with replacement heifers, but the range improvements were significant. So stocking rates went up, and cows were added. Nowadays, “our goal is to get through every pasture before we start to A.I. Depending on the year, we’ve got three to four weeks we’ll be moving cows every two to three days.”
  • Piped water – Blair has spent 25 years putting pipe in with the goal of a tank on every corner. “You can manage cattle easier with water than you can with fence and cut out a lot of production.”
  • Early wean for drought – Blair says “getting those kids off the cows” is critical, to save energy for the dams.
  • Cows grazing corn stalks – Crop aftermath works magic for Blair cattle.
  • Synchro A.I. – The effort takes some investment but getting 85 percent of mature cows bred in 25 days pays off in calf weights and makes calving season easier.
  • Easy equipment – Blair buys only portable equipment. A.I. sheds are mobile and placed in pasture for work. Light manual equipment brings back its initial investment and holds up well.
  • Handling training – Attend a handling seminar. It may seem like simple advice, but you come away with a different attitude and more efficient behavior.
  • Low-stress weaning/preconditioning – Get the shots in the calves, Blair advises, “it’s one of the most important things you can do” to improve the herd. Use fenceline weaning or a version of it, and see the transition to the feedyard go easy.
  • Least-cost balanced rations – “Take a look at using different products. Take the time, run the rations and don’t’ feed the cows all they can eat. You don’t need to. Feed them what they need.”
  • Buy right – Use the Internet to check prices regionally and nationally. Shop around for genetics, equipment and feed. Time taken pays off. end mark

Blair Brothers Black Angus in Vale, South Dakota, is owned by (from left to right) Ed Blair, his son Chad, Ed's brother Rich Blair, and Ed's nephew Britton Blair. Photo by Dede Long.