Calf near windrow of hay Robert Waggenner
Much of the hay cut by the Sims family is left in windrows. Permanent and portable electric fence keeps cattle away from the windrows during summer and early fall, so mid-November through early April cattle feed on the windrowed hay and standing forage, moving from paddock to paddock about every three days.

Ranchers aim for $3 profit per acre

Detailed record-keeping and an eye on productivity and cost cutting drives profit for this operation.

On the high, dry, wind-swept plains of southeast Wyoming, the Sims family strives to make $3 profit per acre with their cow/calf and yearling operation.

When yearly precipitation falls to six inches, compared with the 11-inch average, like it did during the exceptional drought of 2012, that’s not possible.

But by developing low-input, environmentally adapted cows and virtually eliminating winter feeding, they are stacking all decks in their favor.

Since 2007, the family has accomplished these cost savings to help boost profits:

  • Reduced annual heifer development costs from about $260 per animal to $175, by developing the heifers on the cow, on the ranch, instead of sending them to a feedlot to be developed.
  • Reduced annual supplement costs for cows from about $29,700 to $6,500 by breeding smaller, more-efficient cows and virtually eliminating winter feeding costs (the family runs about 580 cow/calf pairs and 280 replacement/yearling heifers).
  • Reduced annual fuel and lubricant costs from about $35,000 to $15,000 by leaving hay in windrows instead of baling and then grazing it throughout winter, along with standing forage.The Sims' detailed record-keeping revealed a per-acre loss of 51 cents in 2007, which Shanon Sims attributes to excessive supplementation with expensive protein, using too much fuel for hay-making and feeding, and high corn prices.Not every management change has immediately worked, and that helps to explain the issue with breed-up. To improve marketing opportunities and cut down on labor costs, the Sims were successfully moving toward a 45-day breeding season for their cows instead of 63 days.That forced them to temporarily go back to a 63-day breeding season on the cows, and it also encouraged them to find out what happened. Consulting with Derek Scasta, a University of Wyoming Extension rangeland specialist, they determined that their late-summer forage was not sufficient for proper breed up.They have maintained a 21-day breeding season on the heifers and are again working toward a 45-day breeding season on their cows, in part by fitting cows to their environment and keeping even closer tabs on forage quality.
  • “Not everything has gone perfect, so we are learning and adapting as hurdles arise,” Shanon says.
  • “We had no significant rainfall from June 10 until Sept. 24, creating a lot of poor quality forage. It was basically straw,” Shanon says. “As a result, we eliminated inferior genetics much quicker than expected and had to market more open cows than expected.”
  • “But last year really kicked our tails in terms of breed up,” Shanon says.
  • “I anticipate that if the current market holds up, we will once again be around $3 profit per acre in 2017, despite the really poor breed-up last year,” he says. “If we get some precipitation, we could even do better.”
  • The per-acre profit in 2016 was $3.10, up sharply from $2.16 for 2013, the year following the extreme drought.

Grazing and breeding slash feed costs

The Sims family has dramatically reduced winter feed costs on their southeast Wyoming ranch by disciplined bull and heifer selection, well-managed culling, leaving windrowed hay in fields for grazing, and later calving.

During the often harsh, long winters, cows feed on available standing forage and windrowed hay that stays put despite strong winds. This hay, too, acts as a snow fence, which improves soil moisture and early spring grass growth.

“We only use supplemental protein in strategic situations when the nutritional value of the grass and windrowed hay is less than adequate for proper body maintenance,” notes Shanon Sims. “Any females requiring more nutrients than our environment offers in a typical year are eliminated from the herd, thus eliminating inferior genetics.”

He adds: “We operate in a commodity market; thus, we have very little control over income. But we do have control over our input costs and have found that we can operate at a highly profitable and sustainable level by not spending money on supplemental feed and associated expenses other than for those inputs that are necessary for the health and well-being of the herd.”

They use ration balancing software to help keep costs down, but also test windrowed hay for its nutritive value and have fecal samples tested for nutrition balance through Texas A&M University’s NUTBAL (nutritional balancer) system.

“If the hay or NUTBAL tests show that the forage is not providing enough protein or energy to meet the cow’s needs, we begin supplementing with the least-cost supplement available,” Shanon says. “Cows have not been supplemented for the past three winters, and we believe this will continue to hold true except in years of extreme drought.”

Also critically important to their evolving program of trying to fit cattle to the environment is genetics. The cows are currently a mix of 50% Angus, and 25% each of Gelbvieh and Simmental.

“We like the hybrid vigor, and we have also determined that proper culling and disciplined bull selection have a much greater impact on herd fertility than feed and fuel,” Shanon says.

His father, Scott, adds: “We are breeding and calving more in sync with nature instead of fighting nature. We are creating a cow that will breed and thrive in our conditions with minimal inputs.”

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