Cow-calf sector slow to innovate: rancher

It’s time to break away from the status quo and give new ideas a try to maximize profits and production

SWIFT CURRENT, Sask. — As good as things are in the cattle business, Kit Pharo knows that will change.

The rancher from Cheyenne Wells, Colorado, says most people in the industry won’t be ready.

“What are you going to do when calf prices go back to where they were three years ago?” he said at the Foraging into the Future conference.

“The beef industry, I believe, is at a major tipping point. The problem is nobody knows it. Things are so good right now that they don’t see this.”

Pharo and his family run commercial and purebred cattle and sell about 800 bulls a year, including to Canadian customers. He also writes a regular newsletter for 20,000 customers and industry observers six times a year.

He told his Saskatchewan audience that what worked for the last 50 years won’t work for the next 50. Input costs have risen four times faster than cattle prices during that time, and those who haven’t planned will be out of business when prices drop in the future.

Pharo said innovations in most industries are accepted and implemented within 17 to 24 months. In the cow-calf business, it takes 17 to 24 years.

One reason is that most operations are multi-generational. The younger generation doing the work is operating within an older generation’s paradigm, he said.

Pharo said an older producer who won’t consider change puts everyone else in jeopardy.

Take farm meetings such as the one where Pharo was speaking.

“Junior” goes to the meeting because Grandpa sent him, Pharo said. He returns home excited about what he heard and full of new ideas, but Grandpa will shoot that down because he has quit thinking.

“How many times can you put Junior down and keep Junior on the place?” he said.

Pharo said people often say the younger generation doesn’t want to work, but it’s really the older generation that doesn’t let them do things differently. He urged producers to be herd quitters, which is someone with enough courage to break away from the status quo.

“I don’t know of any industry that is more herd-bound than ranchers,” Pharo said. “We like to think we’re independent thinkers. Most of them aren’t thinking at all.”

Pharo believes cattle producers can do more with their forage resources to maximize profits and production per acre.

Too many get it wrong by focusing on production per animal, he said.

“I’m not making money with 100 cows. Let’s see what I can do with 200 cows,” he said.

The “herd” of producers focuses on increasing individual weaning weights as a way to increase profit.

Herd quitters will look at increasing pounds per acre rather than pounds per animal.

Pharo implemented a planned rotational grazing system 20 years ago in which most of his cattle run together in one large herd and are moved through paddocks quickly when grass is growing and more slowly when the grass is not growing.

Each of the 30 paddocks on his ranch is typically grazed eight to 10 days during the growing season and 10 to 12 days during the winter. The grass is rested the other 345 days of the year.

This keeps the grass healthier, decreases or eliminates supplemental feeding and allows more cattle to be run on the same number of acres.

Pharo is a proponent of calving in sync with nature. He moved his cow herd to late May calving to better match grass growth and feed availability.

He was skeptical at first, but a neighbour moved his calving from March to May and realized a 70 percent reduction in feed and labour costs the first year.

“The other thing that happened … they were getting about 90 percent of calves born in the first 30 days of the calving season,” he said.

Calves weaned in October were smaller but not as small as Pharo had expected. As well, more total pounds were weaned because fewer calves got sick or died.

Pharo said 400 lb. calves will often be worth more than the 600 lb. calves.

“We worked so hard to increase our bragging rights that we’re going broke,” he said.

“We put 200 lb. on for nothing.”

He calves his heifers at the same time as his cows and leaves the cows, heifers and calves together so that the older cows can teach the heifers. Bull calves are weaned in December.

The cows on Pharo’s ranch are intentionally small.

The biggest cows don’t always wean the biggest calves, he said. Plus, they increase cost of production because they eat more.

Researchers from North Dakota divided a cow herd into five groups based on weight.

The smallest group contained cows weighing 1,242 lb. on average, while the largest were 1,698 lb.

The smallest cows weaned 50 percent of their own weight for an average 617 lb. The largest cows weaned 34 percent of their own weight for an average 572 lb.

However, most producers say they have big cows to get bigger calves.

Pharo said producers can get those larger cows to do what they want, but that will come at the cost of more feed.

Matching cows to available forage resources is one of his key messages.

This means requiring the cattle to live within their means without inputs such as feed, buying cattle that fit that environment and culling those that don’t fit.

Producers who want to move in this direction should proceed slowly.

He said using the wrong bulls will never produce the right cows, yet most producers are trying to do just that.

They will say they want efficient 1,200 lb. cows that can wean at least 50 percent of their own body weight for many years without having to be pampered, Pharo said.

“Those same guys will tell me that they’re using bulls that were produced by 1,500 to 2,500 lb. cows that have to be pampered,” he said.

“They’re doing just the opposite of what they’re saying.”

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