Month: January 2019

The Farmland Dilemma: Help! The Siblings Who Don’t Farm are Getting Farmland!

By 

I could hear her frustration and feel the pain as I read the lengthy email describing an all too common scenario for farm families today. The aging parents have been pressured to be “fair” to the siblings who don’t farm who have noticed that farmland values have increased significantly. They would like to have a piece of that valuable farmland as part of their inheritance. Unfortunately, the older folks have not planned well financially to creatively take care of gifts to the non-farm heirs. They neglected many warnings from lenders and financial planners to build up what tax and estate specialist Merle Good calls “a personal wealth bubble.” The farming child wants to keep the farmland intact and needs a decent base for a critical mass to create revenue. He or she may want to own all the land ideally, yet in reality, ownership may have to be shared with siblings.

Do You, as the Farmer, Want to do Farm Business with Your Siblings?
If the answer is no, then there are some courageous conversations needed immediately.

The parents are well into their eighties and scared that a family fight is brewing. They have avoided conflict at all costs when they should be embracing a solution for conflict resolution.

Pouring money into stocks, other real estates, and mutual funds did not appeal to them when they were more worried about how to meet the operating line payments and the mortgage payments during the tough years of the eighties and nineties. Now they are trying to piece together an estate plan with accountants who want them to be tax efficient and use up their capital gains exemptions, and with lawyers who are good at writing agreements. The player missing on this estate planning team is the referee. That would be the mediator, or farm family coach, who is willing to dive into the tough issues of asking each family member this key question:

What Does Fairness Look Like to You Considering that One Sibling Needs Access to All the Farm Land to Keep the Farm Legacy Viable?
Merle Good would encourage long-term rental agreements for the farmer to access rented land from non-farm siblings who hold the title. The sibling may choose to never sell their gifted land to the farming sibling, or may ask for the Fair market value, rather that FFP (Fair Family Price). I do not see this happening too often in 2016. If quarter sections are selling for over $400,000 per quarter, it may never pencil out for the next generation who has a passion to farm. In 2009, we chose to gift a $100,000 quarter to our son so that he could leverage that equity to buy another quarter. We had planned to gift it to him in the future, but his need for equity trumped our estate plan, and it has worked out well. Six years later, our son’s second quarter has doubled in value; that is why there are fights over land.

How Can You Solve This Expensive Farm Land Dilemma?
1. Recognize That a Transparent Conversation With All Your Heirs is Long Overdue
Consider asking each adult child what they expect from your estate, and what fairness looks like to them. You might be shocked at the answers. I have heard from emotionally intelligent adults who simply say, “Mom and Dad deserve to live well now and enjoy the fruit of their labor. I am economically secure; the land needs to stay with the farming partners. Any gift that I receive will be a bonus. I am not expecting to inherit any land.” (Yes, I can hear you silently saying, “I wish that kid was mine!”)

2. Be Prepared to Discuss FFP Land Rental Agreements
Alternatively, the non-farm heir may expect to have their name on the title of land but is very prepared to have an FFP land rental agreement for 15 years or more with the farming sibling. This person puts a high value on the legacy of lasting respectful family relationships and expects to be welcomed back to the farm for gatherings with no tension over the farm’s land deals. Options may be given for the future purchase of that land by the farmer, but not necessarily expected.

3. Call a Facilitated Family Meeting
Call a facilitated family meeting with your trusted advisors as the leaders of the meeting. Farm family coaches may team at that meeting with the lawyer and accountant so that everyone hears the implications of each scenario presented at the meeting. Professional advisors have seen creative solutions and know what a good fit looks like for your farm family. Use this meeting as a discovery process, and don’t get locked into one way of creating solutions.

Be sure that spouses and “almost married” partners are at the meeting so that nothing gets lost in translation. Everyone will understand your intent, your fears, and your vision for a legacy for the family and the farm. Accept the fact that feelings will create tears, so have a tissue box ready, and be willing to sit through deep emotions.

4. Don’t Sell Yourself Short
Be clear with the aid of your financial planner that your income stream is secure until you are 102. Most farming successors will ensure that the parents are financially taken care of, regardless of how tight the margins on the farm may be.

Non-farm heirs can also contribute to caring for parents, and give gifts of time or resources. If the family can freely talk about what each family unit needs for family living and debt servicing, you might be surprised at how well siblings are actually doing. I am saddened by a grumpy father-in-law who assumes his daughter-in-law is not pulling her weight with income generation, yet she is the real support for the family’s living needs with a six-figure income!

5. It is Not the Responsibility of Parents to Make Sure That All of Their Children are Economically Equal
I know young entrepreneurs who are fiercely driven to make financial gains on their own without heaps of financial gifts from their parents. There is some self-respect for those who chose to make their own way and not rely on parental financial assistance. It is 2016, and some adult children are already wealthier than their parents according to their net worth statements. Money does not equal love. Perhaps the best gift you can give your adult children and grandchildren is more access to you and your time.

20 Brutal Truths About Life No One Wants to Admit

Time is your most valuable asset–you need to prioritize how you spend it.

By Matthew JonesContributor, Inc.com@M_tthewJones

It’s much easier to talk about the weather, sports, and celebrities than your fear of mortality.

Unfortunately, the more time you spend pretending that ultimate truths don’t exist, the more time you waste not being your authentic self and getting the most out of every precious second.

Time, not money, is your most valuable asset. Allow the list below to ignite the spark of motivation you need to make better use of the time you have on this planet.

Sometimes we need to head into the storm to appreciate the light and have a renewed passion for the beauty of life.

Here are 20 brutal truths that every single person needs to hear.

1. You’re going to die and you have no idea when.
Stop pretending that you’re invincible. Acknowledge the fact of your own mortality, and then start structuring your life in a more meaningful way.

2. Everyone you love is going to die, and you don’t know when.
This truth may be saddening at first, but it also gives you permission to make amends with past difficulties and re-establish meaningful relationships with important figures in your life.

3. Your material wealth won’t make you a better or happier person.
Even if you’re one of the lucky ones who achieves his or her materialistic dreams, money only amplifies that which was already present.

4. Your obsession with finding happiness is what prevents its attainment.
Happiness is always present in your life–it’s just a matter of connecting to it and allowing it to flow through you that’s challenging.

5. Donating money does less than donating time.
Giving your time is a way to change your perception and create a memory for yourself and others that will last forever.

6. You can’t make everyone happy, and if you try, you’ll lose yourself.
Stop trying to please, and start respecting your values, principles, and autonomy.

7. You can’t be perfect, and holding yourself to unrealistic standards creates suffering.
Many perfectionists have unrelenting inner critics that are full of so much rage and self-hate that it tears them apart inside. Fight back against that negative voice, amplify your intuition, and start challenging your unrealistic standards.

8. Your thoughts are less important than your feelings and your feelings need acknowledgment.
Intellectually thinking through your problems isn’t as helpful as expressing the feelings that create your difficulties in the first place.

9. Your actions speak louder than your words, so you need to hold yourself accountable.
Be responsible and take actions that increase positivity and love.

10. Your achievements and successes won’t matter on your death bed.
When your time has come to transition from this reality, you won’t be thinking about that raise; you’ll be thinking about the relationships you’ve made–so start acting accordingly.

11. Your talent means nothing without consistent effort and practice.
Some of the most talented people in the world never move out from their parent’s basement.

12. Now is the only time that matters, so stop wasting it by ruminating on the past or planning the future.
You can’t control the past, and you can’t predict the future, and trying to do so only removes you from the one thing you can control–the present.

13. Nobody cares how difficult your life is, and you are the author of your life’s story.
Stop looking for people to give you sympathy and start creating the life story you want to read.

14. Your words are more important than your thoughts, so start inspiring people.
Words have the power to oppress, hurt, and shame, but they also have the power to liberate and inspire–start using them more wisely.

15. Investing in yourself isn’t selfish. It’s the most worthwhile thing you can do.
You have to put on your own gas mask to save the person sitting right next to you.

16. It’s not what happens, it’s how you react that matters.
Train yourself to respond in a way that leads to better outcomes.

17. You need to improve your relationships to have lasting happiness.
Relationships have a greater impact on your wellbeing and happiness than your income or your occupation, so make sure you give your relationship the attention and work it deserves.

18. Pleasure is temporary and fleeting, so stop chasing fireworks and start building a constellation.
Don’t settle for an ego boost right now when you can delay gratification and experience deeper fulfillment.

19. Your ambition means nothing without execution–it’s time to put in the work.
If you want to change the world, then go out there and do it!

20. Time is your most valuable asset–you need to prioritize how you spend it.
You have the power and responsibility to decide what you do with the time you have, so choose wisely.

Panic attacks, isolation, loneliness and fear: January can be the cruelest month for farmers

The high cost of stress, down on the farm

January is a dark month, mentally, for farmers, writes Toban Dyck.Postmedia

I drove myself to the hospital exhibiting heart-attack symptoms and left with none. This has happened twice. And both times I left the urgent care with a clean bill of health.

The attending physician would sensitively sidestep toward what to him was the obvious conclusion: anxiety.

“Do you have a history of anxiety?” he would ask. “Have you ever experienced panic attacks?”

It never occurred to me that physical symptoms as real and specific as chest pain could stem from anxiety, a state of being that seems too nebulous and ethereal to have any physiological connection. Nor did I consider myself anxious.

Many farmers spend their days alone. They work alone. They troubleshoot alone. And they shoulder the farm’s problems alone
Adapting to a schedule that has become increasingly busy and demanding has been a challenge. It requires that I pay special attention to my mental health, ensuring that I routinely balance the things that deplete me with activities that recharge.

Canadian farmers are by and large familiar with weathering storms. It’s an assumed clause in the job description. We do it all the time. In southern Manitoba, right now, it’s cold and windy and there’s enough snow built-up that I’m not sure you’d make it down my driveway with a two-wheel-drive vehicle. This is not uncommon for January.

Spotty cellphone coverage a dangerous fact of life on the farm
Between red tape and mounds of paperwork, government keeps proving it doesn’t understand the farm
The dark side of farming: Surface stoicism can mask struggles with mental illness
In whiteout blizzard conditions my wife and I feel alone on our farm. But that’s more of an observation than a fear. We have the tools and machinery to survive. And, if those all fail, we have neighbours who would ensure our safety.

Things change, however, when the things that need dealing with are in our heads. We don’t feel as confident calling a neighbour for help. The steps needed in order to survive the storm are not as clear.

Many farmers spend their days alone. They work alone. They troubleshoot alone. And they shoulder the farm’s problems alone. And, while any farmer would be able to tell you exactly where to purchase a new cultivator shovel, they may not know where to go for help dealing with the nagging and intrusive thought that their farm isn’t going to make it another year. Or, worse yet, that they aren’t going to make it another year.

Some farms are miles or hours from the nearest community. And some farms have poor or nonexistent cellphone coverage. Isolation and loneliness are physical realities that become exponentially more dangerous when they become mental realities, as well.

Strength. Endurance. Survival. Perseverance. These are the words through which many farmers judge themselves. To be known in connection to any of them is to have built a solid legacy. To have found the last growing season stressful, mentally, is tantamount to saying you’re a lesser farmer.

My wife and I own slightly less than 100 acres of land. It’s not much, by most Canadian farming metrics. But the payments are high. And the stress associated with our new and growing operation is tied to managing the cash-flow demands we have now with an eye for what those demands are going to look like as we purchase more acres.

The federal government is currently taking a deep look into the issue of mental health among farmers. They have opened themselves to receive personal anecdotes from producers across Canada. According to iPolitics, many farmers report being under extreme pressure and some have contemplated suicide due to stress and isolation.

The full report is expected to be released this year.

In November, Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay acknowledged the mental-health concerns that are specifically plaguing the agriculture industry and announced a campaign that will see ag-lender Farm Credit Canada team up with 4-H Canada to provide a support network for youth.

On Jan. 7, Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture, Ernie Hardeman, raised his voice on the matter, announcing a public awareness campaign aimed at shedding light on the mental-health challenges that face farmers.

“Farming can be a tough business, one that takes a toll on farmers and their families,” he said, in a press release. “We want to address the stigma that still surround mental health and help people find the resources that can make a difference.”

The stigmas are not going away any time soon. Farmers are culturally known to be hearty and callous toward things as seemingly petty as insecurity and negative thoughts.

The next time you’re driving outside of the city and you see just one yard amid thousands of acres of unoccupied land, know that as lonely as that farm looks is as lonely as some farmers feel.

It’s January. Traditionally, this month is a dark one, mentally. Take extra care out there. I’m learning to deal with my anxiety. It’s not easy.

6 TIPS FOR INSTALLING A GATE YOU’LL BE HAPPY WITH.

No matter what kind of gate you buy or build, the installation is a bigger part of whether you’ll be happy with it in the long run. I’ve installed a few gates in my life, here’s a few tips to help you out.

Thinking about the finished gate before you start. Ask yourself, “Where do I want this gate to swing?” “Where will it latch it or let it rest against?” Just answering these questions will make your gate work better.

Here’s a few more ideas to help:

Tip #1
Make sure your post is strong and straight. Theres 3 basic ways to make sure your gate post is strong enough.

First, just put a big post, deep in the ground, and cement it really well. This is best used on places where the post is not able to be supported, or where overheads are not wanted.

The second way is to use overhead supports. Usually you want to make overheads at least 12’ tall to ride under on horseback, or get a normal tractor under it during clean-out. (A tractor with the loader DOWN that is!) You’re best off using a 4 1/2” post for the hinge end, but the latch end can be 2 7/8”. The overhead is often 2 2/3”, but 2 7/8” will work fine.

The third option is to have 2 direction support for your gate post with top rail. This is probably the strongest way to have a gate post because the load is spread out over 2 whole fences, not concentrated.

No matter which way you do this, getting a strong post is probably the most important part of installing a gate. You can always replace a gate in an hour, replacing a post is hard work that is best never done!

Tip #2: Gates need to be level.
Level on gate
I’ll probably do a whole post about leveling gates, but for now, lets just say that gates should be level (except on hillsides, but we’ll talk about that another day)

You want to install the gate so the latch end is just a little bit high, (the edge of the bubble on the line is enough) That way the gate will sag down and be perfectly level.

The hinge end generally should be plumb. The only exception is when you are mounting a gate crosswise on a hill, then you want to tilt the hinge end enough so the gate will come up and follow the land rather than plowing into the ground.

Tip #3: Gates in a fence line should be offset

Gates need to swing around and latch back against the fence. You do this by offsetting the gate enough to fold back. Installing gates straight in the fence line should be avoided unless the gates doesn’t swing thru. At no point should a gate hit at the hinge before it can be latched, It will get bent or broken if it does.

Tip #4 Make some space on both ends of the gate
You want to leave about 1” to 1.5” of space on the latch end. If it’s too wide, the latch doesn’t work and small animals might get their head stuck in it, if it’s too tight, you might smash your hand in it, or it might settle and not be able to swing thru.

The gate you buy should be 3” shorter than the gap your are filling, so you will have about 1.5” on both the hinge side and the latch side.

Tip#5: Test it out!
After you get the gate set in place, tack it up enough to hold it. Take the blocks out and test it out before you weld it up solid. It’s a lot easier to make any changes now than to have to cut it all off to make a change.

Tip #6: Weld it up (hill)
The first thing you want to do is clean the metal up. If there is thick rust, paint, dirt, or any kind of coating on the post, go ahead and use a wire wheel or grinder to clean it up. The mounting plate is usually good to go, but it doesn’t hurt to clean it up if it’s been sitting out in the weather.

I’ll do another post on welding, but the main thing is to use the proper size of rod and proper welding method, which is to weld uphill.

The biggest thing to make sure your gate sticks is to use good quality welding rod that has been sorted correctly. Almost any type of general purpose welding rod will stick it on, but my personal choice is E7018. I’d recommend using a small rod, such as 1/8” or 3/32”, don’t use large rods or weld downhill, I used to do this, but it’s not as strong and it’s worth spending the time to do it better.

Welding a gate
Make sure to use proper safety gear. safety glasses, long sleeve shirts, welding helmet, steel toe boots, and gloves.

I’ll have more tips on setting up the post and latch in the coming weeks. Make sure to follow along on social media (links at bottom of the page) and don’t be a stranger if you’re needing some help designing up a set of corrals! Click the contact button to send an email, or write me at jake@aurochsconsulting.net

Get Unstuck on the Farm: The Power of a Heartfelt Letter

By 

Get Unstuck on the Farm The Power of a Heartfelt LetterSometimes we have to go back to basics to keep healthy change happening on our farms. Lately, in my transition seminars, I have been encouraging frustrated young farmers to write a heartfelt letter of intent to their founding parents. People who are stuck with a large degree of anxiety and overwhelm from not knowing the certainty of the future are caught in what William Bridges has termed “the neutral zone.”  You want to get out of neutral and moving towards a more certain future.

Let’s look at five types of letters that might be helpful to your situation

  1. Exploration
  2. Collaboration
  3. Explanation
  4. Confrontation
  5. Affirmation

You might want to take parts of each of these types of letters to accomplish your specific goals. Here’s how I have seen them used in my coaching work.

Exploration

Exploration is the discovery process of seeking out the possibilities of how you might like to address an issue with another party. You are exploring the various options ahead of you. For a young farmer, it might be exploring a new business plan with the founders or folks who hold most of the equity in the operation. In our case, our son used a marketing contract with a hemp processing company to explore the possibility of growing hemp on our certified seed farm. His father agreed to the plan, and we now have three years of hemp growing experience. What opportunities do you want to explore on your farm? What letters of reference or testimonials do you have in your research to prove that it is a workable choice to engage? Writing the letter will help crystalize your commitment to the project and help think things through for your business plan.

Collaboration

The purpose of this letter is to agree on a working contract. I use this letter in my speaker agreements to be clear about timelines, dates, venues, supplies, fees, and expenses. When you want to collaborate on a project with a family member you usually talk about it lots, but how many documents are in place to be clear about roles and responsibilities? Many farm folks I know wish that they would have taken a few more steps to get things in writing so that they could refer to the original goals and expectations. A shareholder’s agreement is a documented letter of collaboration. Do you understand what your shareholder’s agreement says? Do you need to update it?

Explanation

The Explanation letter is a powerful script to follow when you want to convey your thoughts and intent at a meeting but are not sure that you will be able to say everything quite the right way that you want it to go. I have seen this type of letter used as a powerful tool by a farm widow who was distressed that her adult children were fighting over how the father’s estate had been carried out. She used the letter to read her thoughts at the opening of the family meeting. The children listened intently while their mother conveyed her angst at their bickering. When the tone of reconciliation had been set by the mother’s expectations conveyed in her letter, the children discussed their next steps towards a better family relationship with an understanding of why the estate was executed in a certain manner. People cannot read minds, so letters are a vehicle for building up understanding and starting robust courageous conversations.

Confrontation

Stop texting when you are angry. Put that energy towards collecting your thoughts on paper in a word document that you can craft until it sounds right. I have used this approach when adults want to deliver a strong message of concern to another adult. In one case it was crafted by a husband and wife, then hand delivered to the party that needed to receive the message of concern. This took time and deliberation over carefully chosen words. The power of hand delivery emphasized the openness for ongoing conversation and the seriousness of the need for the conflict to be dealt with. You can make this even more impactful if the letter is handwritten, as long as your writing is easy to read. Sometimes these confrontation letters are hard to receive, particularly if you are like me and would rather just have a face to face conversation. Use the letter as a starting point, and as an invitation to have a face to face conversation.

Affirmation

One of my love languages is verbal affirmation. As a writer, I also love the power of the written word through cards and notes of affirmation. They are nice to see on social media, but those are fleeting comments. You can hold a card or letter of affirmation in your hand, and pull it out again on hard days when you need a word of encouragement. I have seen this powerful letter used by a father-in-law who sought to empower his talented daughter-in-law. He wrote her a letter stating the many reasons why he thought that they should work together on the farm. That letter started a great relationship, and affirmed open, loving, respectful communication between them as a team.

Some younger people have not learned cursive writing, and therefore only print or keyboard their messages. Our local agent who sells driver licenses has taken to teaching young teens how to craft a great signature! I find this hard to believe, but a reflection of how the written word is changing in our culture. Writing a letter to break down the barrier of anxiety about your future on the farm, or the plans for the fairness factor in estate plans is a place to start. You can be clear about your intent not to cause harm, stating your hope to gain clarity of expectations for the future. You can think about the words you carefully choose.

Please consider what type of letter you need to be crafting today. If you have any questions, I’d love for you to write me a letter.

Soil Health Comes First, Then Grass & Livestock

Burke Teichert | Jun 27, 2014

In recent columns, I’ve touched on the following topics:

• Empowered people, because everything in our businesses happens because of and through people – usually those closest to the business, land and livestock.

• Sustainability, because it’s such a buzz word and people outside of our business will have an impact, whether we like it or not. Also, ranchers don’t know all we should about the environment, particularly the ecosystem – its complexity and interconnectedness, and how it reacts to our management actions.

• Planning strategically first, and then developing tactics and operational schedules and methods to accomplish the strategic objectives. Too often, we do it backwards – starting with operations, then tactics, letting strategy be determined by default – with tactics defining our strategy.

If my writings do nothing more than confirm your current thinking, I’ll have failed. My aim is to, respectfully yet somewhat vigorously, challenge your current view of a cattle ranching business and lead you to some new thoughts, approaches and methods.

I’m reminded of my first meeting with the late Bud Williams – the best, in my opinion, of many gurus of stockmanship. After about 10 minutes of my questioning him, Bud stopped me and said that we needed to change the rules of the conversation.

He then pointed out that I was looking for things I did similarly to how he did them. He told me that I would likely find some and, when I did, “you will think you’re as good as I am, and you’re not.” He then said that for the rest of our conversation, I should only look for things (ways of handling livestock) that he did differently and ask why.

That very short exchange changed the way I have tried to learn from others ever since. Now, when I occupy the role of learner, these are my questions:

  •  What are you doing?
  •  Am I seeing it correctly?
  •  Why do you do that?
  •  Why do you do it that way?

A change in management approach

With that background I want to suggest another change in our approach to management. After working with a number of clients, talking to ranchers following some of my speaking engagements, and thinking about my own past approach, I’m convinced that most ranchers give their cattle the highest priority, followed by grass; little thought is given to soil.

I suggest that is backwards. We should think soil first, as all life springs from the soil. Our livestock can be a powerful tool to improve or damage the soil, and too many of us don’t think about which we are doing.  We just graze cattle. Of course, we like to think we’re not “overgrazing;” but do we really know what “overgrazing” is?

We usually do our grazing for the benefit of the cattle, and maybe the grass, with little attention to the effect on the soil. Do you know how to use livestock to improve soil organic matter, increase water infiltration rates, improve soil moisture holding capability, and improve nutrient cycling?  This can be done, and then grass productivity improves.

In addition to seeing our livestock for their endpoint value, we need to see them as a powerful tool for soil improvement and then grass improvement. (In this context, when I talk of grass, I am including anything that livestock and wildlife will eat – grass, forbs and shrubs.) When a short period of grazing is followed by an opportunity for the grazed plant(s) to fully recover before being grazed again, and when the animals help to lay litter on the soil surface trampling some into the soil, and when animals spread their dung and urine on the very areas they graze, soils begin to improve.

As soils improve there will be an increase in biodiversity above and below the soil surface. There should be a greater variety of plants with different depths of rooting. Some will grow early and some will grow late, while others will grow when it’s hot. There also will be an increasing variety of soil micro-organisms and animal life. This complex web of interdependency, if properly managed, will continue to improve the soil and its ability to feed your livestock.

While I want herbicides and pesticides in my tool box, I want to use them as sparingly as possible, as no poison kills only the target organism. Sometimes the net effect is good, but we often fail to see the unintended consequences because they aren’t quite so obvious to the impatient, untrained eye.

I often wonder, when using pesticides and herbicides, what have we killed that is important to soil building and nutrient cycling or to a balance in predator-prey relationships. My preference is to manage as much as possible “for what you do want” instead of “against what you don’t want.” And I want healthy soils with much biodiversity above and below the soil surface.

Cattle endpoint value

While we should manage cattle for their endpoint value, we must put it in appropriate context. If soil building and soil protection isn’t one of the first considerations in developing our strategic plan for the ranch, it will probably be ignored.

Cattle operations must be flexible to accommodate good grass and pasture management. This often means that the same event (calving, breeding, branding, weaning, etc.) won’t happen in the same place each year, but the end results for cattle can still be good. In addition, the people involved must learn to be flexible and understand that nature likes a little chaos. Livestock management must fit the grass management, and the grass management must fit the objectives for soil health and soil improvement.

We must always remember that our livestock are a powerful tool for management of the soil. They can be used for improvement or regression.  By thinking “soil” first, we can still allow for excellence in cattle management. So, let’s change the paradigm from livestock-grass-soil to soil-grass-livestock.

Producers struggle to regulate cow size

Teresa Clark
for The Fence Post

Determining what size of cow is ideal for the environment is a hot topic. It depends on the environment, the ranch, and sometimes the rancher. What is even harder is settling on a certain size of cow, and maintaining it.

University of Wyoming Extension Rangeland Specialist Derek Scasta shared a story about his grandfather’s struggles to maintain cow size in his own herd. “What we have is a lot of information to go through,” Scasta told producers during the recent Southeast Wyoming Beef Production convention. “When my grandfather would go to a bull sale, he was looking for EPDs for low birth weight and higher weaning weight, but he may have ignored the maternal traits, and then kept the higher end of the heifer calves for replacements,” he said. The result over time was larger cows.

Looking at the bull’s maternal EPDs will indicate how the heifer calves will look, Scasta said. The bull may have had a positive EPD for milk and mature size, producing larger daughters. “That is why you really need to sort through the bull catalog and look at those EPDs,” he said.

400 POUNDS

In 1975, the average beef cow in the U.S. weighed 1,000 pounds, which became the range management standard for calculating animal unit months. However, recent data suggests the average beef cow now weighs 1,400 pounds. “In 2010, 16 percent of the U.S. beef cows were more than 1,500 pounds,” Scasta said. “That’s millions of beef cows that weigh more than 1,500 pounds on range and pasture in the U.S.”

Despite a more than 400 pound increase in cow size in the last 40 years, Scasta said no evidence exists to suggest that increase has resulted in weaning larger calves. “We have enhanced the production and performance potential of cows, but we may not be realizing that in terms of calf weaning weight,” he said.

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The EPD for yearling weight has increased 100 pounds in the Angus breed, which basically shows ranchers have been selecting for growth in cattle. In 1985, the average carcass weight was 725 pounds, and in 2015, it was 892 pounds, which is 165 pounds larger. “Cattle are basically 20 percent heavier than 35 years ago, and 10 percent heavier than 15 years ago,” he said.

With that amount of growth has come some negatives in relation to animal welfare. Cattle pots were originally designed to haul smaller cattle. “With these bigger cattle, a lot of them will bump their back going into that lower deck, which leaves a bruise on their back leading to a cut out. It is costing the industry $35 million a year because the cattle are bigger today than what the trailers were originally designed for,” Scasta said.

RANGE IMPACT

It is not just a matter of muscle growth. Ranchers have also selected for milk production. “As we have enhanced the performance of our cattle, what has been happening to rangeland? Actually, rangeland has stayed pretty flat despite the production potential of cattle increasing. We have managed to optimize what we get from the range, and it has stayed pretty consistent over time,” he said. “Ranchers have done a good job of matching their cattle genetics with range productivity.”

Scasta said there is a lot of disagreement over optimum cow size. Some studies suggest smaller cows are better because of live weight production and income, while others find larger cows to be more efficient because they have a larger rumen which could be an advantage for the efficiency of processing low quality forages.

A lot of the data available comes from feeding trials, where they did a lot of modeling, Scasta said. “What I found was a lot of mixed studies, and a lack of information in Wyoming,” he said.

Do larger cows wean larger calves?

One study he shared that was published in the Journal of Animal Science, studied how cow size impacts calf weaning weights relative to precipitation extremes. The four-year study involved 80 cows grazing rangeland northwest of Laramie.

The study showed that during the driest years, the larger cows had an advantage, and the smaller cows weaned lighter calves. However, the results were opposite during wet years, and variable during average years. “Taking the average of all four years into account, they found no significant difference in terms of cow size class,” Scasta said. “Smaller cows weaned calves statistically similar to those weaned from the bigger cows, riding the roller coaster of wet-dry-wet-dry,” he said. Calculating the input-output ratio, which is the pounds of grass consumed relative to the pounds of calf weaned, the smaller cows were weaning similar size calves across all wet-dry cycles, Scasta said, while eating less because their nutritional requirements were lower.

A 1,000 pound cow consumed 7½ pounds of grass per pound of weaned calf, according to the study. For a 1,200 pound cow that number jumped to 8½ pounds, and for 1,400 pound cow, it was 9½ pounds. “Basically, the larger cows had to eat more per pound of calf weaned,” he said. “Most ranchers have an efficiency target for the cow weaning a calf that is at least 50 percent of the cow’s body weight. So, a 1,000 pound cow should wean at least a 500 pound calf. In this study, the smaller cows were the only ones to reach that target,” Scasta said.

In another study, Scasta worked with a Wyoming ranch to analyze 8,000 cow/calf records with 13 years of data to determine which cow size is most efficient. The cow size on this ranch varied from 800 to 1,600 pounds, but the majority of the cows weighed 1,100 to 1,300 pounds, Scasta said.

From this data, Scasta found that the smaller to moderate size cows were closer to hitting the 50 percent cow size to weaning weight target, compared to their larger counterparts. “The 1,600 pound cows were actually pretty inefficient for the amount of grass they eat,” he said. “I think the data indicates managing for moderate size cows, and to not let them get bigger over time.” ❖

— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at tclarklivenews@gmail.com.