ST. ANTHONY, N.D. – Trilling meadowlarks and slick, black cows moving through belly deep pastures greet visitors to Schaff Angus Valley.
Owners Kelly and Martie Jo Schaff have been raising some of the best purebred cows and bulls in North America since 2001, when they took over the ranch near St. Anthony.
The family-run operation has sold Angus breeding stock all over the world. Its 108th production sale, held this year in February, obtained record prices as it offered performance based animals that stay true to phenotype.
The sale average on 390 bulls was $10,475 and the top selling bull, SAV Harvestor, fetched $275,000.
All calves have DNA parentage tests and expected progeny differences and indexes attached to their pedigrees, but the Schaffs do not stray from what an Angus should look like with a deep, thick body and good maternal qualities.
“There was a trend in the U.S. for a while to breed strictly off the numbers, and that led a lot of the Angus cattle population in the wrong way rather than selecting for structure and phenotype. There’s got to be a lot of flat, hard doing Angus in the U.S.,” he told a tour organized by the Saskatchewan agriculture ministry.
“One of the main reasons the blood lines here got to be so popular was because people are wanting to put power back in their Angus.”
Schaff and his family took over the ranch when his father retired. His great-grandfather homesteaded there in 1902.
The North American cattle industry has experienced difficult times in the last decade – drought, high feed prices and land lost to better paying crops. The U.S. cow herd is expected to drop to 29 million in the next census.
However, Schaff sees it as a positive for his business because beef markets are better and producers may consider expanding. When they do, they will need heifers and bulls.
“It is a favourable picture for the whole U.S. cattle market and the Canadian market as well,” he said.
“It will open up more opportunities for northern cattle to come down. I
think it is good for everyone. We know it won’t last. Every high cycle has a low, but we are just at the tip of the iceberg of the best cycle we have ever seen in history.”
Schaff’s cattle are raised on the range. The area is typically dry, with annual precipitation of 330 millimetres, but this year it has already received more than that during the growing season. Some of Schaff’s neighbours cannot seed crops, but his grass is belly deep.
“The cattle wouldn’t look the way we do if we didn’t have good grass,” said Martie Jo, a full partner in the operation.
Added Kelly: “It is the wettest year in my lifetime.”
Calving starts March 1, when 400 to 500 naturally raised calves are born. About the same number derived from embryo transfers are born to recipient mothers raised by commercial partners. The resulting calves come back to the ranch after weaning.
The ranch registers 900 to 1,100 per year with the American Angus Association. This year it was 975.
Embryo transfers are an expensive but essential process for a leading seedstock producer who wants to multiply a solid genetic line.
“We can offer daughters from all our top donors. You can offer a daughter from every top cow,” he said.
Heifer development starts early with a good nutrition plan so that it can be bred at 1,000 pounds.
“The key is not to get them too fleshy. A heifer in a gaining plane of nutrition will breed,” he said.
They may not get pregnant on the first service if they get too fat.
Schaff doesn’t worry much about cow weight because he focuses more on a moderate frame than the number of pounds on a scale.
A good cow that holds its body condition all summer and still weans a large calf is desirable. Big, tall cows need more feed and are harder to maintain. Balance is the key.
“In my opinion, if the cow is the right frame, the weight will take care of itself. The reason she weighs more is she has that extra ribcage and she is the one that has the capacity …,” Schaff said.
“Most of our commercial customers that we sell to, they want cattle to be fairly rough and they want them to maintain without a lot of extra inputs.”
The ranch’s cow herd has been closed for decades so diversification comes from new sires. However, it has produced bulls that are used all over the world.
Traveler 004, which was born on the ranch 11 years ago, set them on their current path. The bull is still alive and his progeny can still be seen at artificial insemination studs and at the ranch in the summer, where they return for natural breeding.
Seven of Canada’s top 10 Angus bull registrations came from Schaff-raised bulls carrying the SAV prefix on their pedigrees. Heavy Hitter, Providence, Final Answer and Density are household names in the Angus world.
Schaff does not raise cattle for the show ring because he feels the style preferred in some circles do not produce good beef animals with strength and high performance on the range.
“Show cattle have become truer to what real world cattle should look like,” he said. “Most of the cattle are quite good. They are thick and deep but still, to be competitive in the show ring, they still have a tendency to be over conditioned.”
On June 19, Schaff Angus Valley was named this year’s All-American Master Breeder of the Year.