Article originally published in the Winter 2013 Issue of Progressive Farmer
By: Victoria G. Myers
There’s nothing average about this operation, where the whole herd is bred with AI, and Beefmaster stands as the preferred breed.Ronald Richardson paid his way into the full-time cattle business with 20 years at a Louisiana paper mill. Those days, cattle were more a hobby for the Calhoun producer. Today, they are a full-time business built on Richardson’s belief that you set yourself up to succeed, and you always keep looking forward.
“Some people think the cattle business is about the ‘now’. I think it’s about where you’ll be a year from now. If you start worrying about where you are today, you’re already behind,” the cattleman says.
BEEFMASTER MAN. Richardson’s philosophy is a good one for a man who sometimes finds himself in the minority. He has a strong streak of independent thinking when it comes to the cattle business, causing him to look less at percentages and more at what best fits his operation.
Richardson says when he was growing up, his dad ran the local sales barn. He had his first cow at age 5. Today, he has 150 cows, all Beefmaster. He says they can be harder to sell in some cases and are not the most popular breed in his area. But for Richardson, the positives for his operation outweigh any prejudices in the market.
The breed originated in Texas and is a three-way cross between Hereford, Shorthorn and Brahman cattle. Richardson says they have a nice frame to hang meat on, and they perform well in the feedlot. His most recent set of steers gained 4.2 pounds a day, from a starting weight of 900 pounds. And when it comes to the Beefmaster females, he believes few perform better in terms of fertility, body condition and longevity.
WHOLE HERD AI PROGRAM. Richardson’s commitment to using artificial insemination (AI), not just on his heifers but his cows, too, puts him in the small percentages column nationwide.
Recent USDA data shows only about 5% of cows and 16% of heifers in the U.S. are bred using AI. Conception Louisiana producer Ronald Richardson says to be successful in today’s cattle business, you always have to plan ahead. rates, which average 50 to 60%, might seem low to some cattlemen, but Richardson believes those numbers are good enough to justify the genetic improvements he sees with the practice.
“For me, what I get from AI is so worth the time and the expense,” he says.
The cattleman does his own AI work and uses cleanup bulls on cows and heifers to get conception rates up. Conception rates for heifers and cows are at 80% and 90%, respectively.
SAVINGS ON SEMEN. Next consider bulls—both the ones Richardson keeps on his farm (five) and the ones he purchases semen from for his AI program.
Heard a lot about bull EPDs lately? So has Richardson, and he says flat out he doesn’t like them. He doesn’t think EPDs (expected progeny differences) are reliable enough and says he prefers actual data on a bull’s progeny. He wants to know what a bull’s got— real, confirmed numbers.
“As a general rule, I don’t buy high-dollar semen,” Richardson adds. “Often, the bulls I use are dead and gone; but in their day, they were very popular, and they Are a good fit for my operation. I bought semen from a breeder and gave him $8 a unit for it; in that bull’s heyday, it would have been $100 a unit.”
Richardson spends more for semen to be used on his heifer bulls, about $20 a unit recently. Those bulls absolutely have to have high accuracy on low birthweights.
BULL-BUYING CHECKLIST. Richardson recently bought two new young bulls and says they had to have three things: an IMF (intramuscular fat) percentage of 2 or better, a rate of gain on feed of 4 pounds or better and a rate of gain on grass of 2 pounds or better.
“There were about 130 bulls for sale, and this limited me to 20,” he says. “I bought two bulls.”
Richardson uses a Red Angus bull on his heifers, but the rest are Beefmaster bulls. He adds average bull prices are up considerably in his area. To get animals that met his criteria, he spent $4,000 on one bull and $4,500 on the other. On average, he says, bulls stay in his herd five years before they get “lazy” and need to be replaced.
“I like some aggressiveness in a bull,” he says. “Once they get to be around 5, they have a tendency to lose that.”
Bulls are 2 years old before he turns them out. He likes to buy them a few months prior to breeding season, so they have time to acclimate. And every bull, every year, goes through a breeding soundness exam.
BREEDING FOR FEMALES. Richardson puts a lot of thought into the genetics of his business, but he stresses it’s all aimed at the female side of the herd. That is the reason for every decision he makes about which straw of semen to buy or which bull to load onto his trailer.
“I keep every heifer I get and breed them,” he says.
“I guess you could say I breed for females. It’s hard to find a good female, especially at a price you can afford. Once you’ve started raising your own replacements, it’s hard to go and buy one you’re going to be satisfied with.”
The road to every new calf crop starts with estrus synchronization. This is Step 1 in keeping the herd on a tight breeding and calving schedule. Richardson syncs the whole herd, cows and heifers, using controlled internal drug release (CIDR) inserts. These intravaginal inserts help synchronize estrus in a cow herd so they can all be inseminated on a schedule.
Breeding season starts in late February. Heifers are artificially inseminated, and then the heifer bull is turned in for 45 days. Cows are artificially inseminated next, and their bulls are turned in for 75 days.
“The reason I pull the bulls off of the heifers after only 45 days is a way of helping to cu11 them After heifers are inseminated, out , ” Richardson bulls are turned in with them explains. “The ones for just 45 days. Open heifers that breed first will are then culled from the herd. Hang with you a long time. If she breeds early, she’ll tend to do that year in and year out. The most common reason I cull a female is because she’s open.”
This year, he adds, he had to cull more of his older bred cows than he normally would. Out of a 150-cow herd, his heifer crop numbered 63.
“You have to make room for the young. Once a cow gets past 7 or 8 years old, the quality of that calf tends not to be as good as those of the younger females,” he says. “Sometimes, it’s hard to cull these Beefmaster cows. They’re long-lived and fertile. I’ve sold some bred cows that were 10 and 12 years old.”
Calving season for heifers starts December 6, Richardson says. The cows start calving two weeks later. He used to start calving in November but found moving the date about 30 days helped him save on feed costs.
“A dry cow can make it on a little bit of nothing; but once that baby is on the ground, she’s going to need some groceries,” he says.
Body Condition Scores here don’t dip below a 5, Richardson stresses. He says these cows maintain well on grass; and when the calves come, a good ration is added.
He sets the stage for breeding and calving season by focusing on breeding females with certain key attributes. Number 1 on that list is conception rate. Numbers 2 and 3 are her ability to milk and ease of handling.
He says using AI has helped him create the Sort of female that fits best in his environment.
“I’d feel like I was missing the boat if I didn’t AI, especially for my females. You simply can’t buy a replacement of the same quality for what you pay for an AI program,” he says.
Asked about the time it takes to run a good AI program, especially one with strong conception rates, he admits it does require a time commitment. And it does cost money. He estimates each head he Ais comes in at a fixed cost averaging $12. This does not include the cost of semen, which can vary widely. He believes the payoff is there.
“It’s like this: You can pay now or you can pay later. Either way, you’re going to pay. I like to know what I’m paying for and know it will fit my operation. That’s why this works.”
The Steer Side
You won’t find any unweaned steer calves being loaded up at Ronald Richardson’s Calhoun, La., farm. This cattleman is as careful with steer calves that will be leaving for the feedlot as he is with the heifers he’ll integrate into his own herd.
Calves here are weaned and preconditioned around 6 months of age. They are moved into a large pen with plenty of hay, feed and water. After two or three days of walking and bawling, they settle down. Richardson says at two weeks, they’ll be turned out on pasture.
The cattleman is particular about the rations he uses. He likes rice bran, explaining that some starchy feeds make it harder for the rumen to process forages. Bulk rations such as rice bran, dried distillers grains or gin motes can ease that transition.
It will take about 150 days to get steer calves to the 900-pound mark. At that point, they go to the feedlot. Richardson says by now they are “hard,” or mature. They’ll gain at least 4 pounds a day, and their maturity will help add to their success.
For the last 10 years, Richardson has used Henry C. Hitch feedyards, out of Guymon, Okla.
“I went to visit that feedyard, and I asked if they thought they could sell my cattle. They said: ‘No problem. These cattle have bone, and bone is something you can hang meat on.’
“For me, I like that they yield well,” Richardson says. “I’m a cash man; I don’t sell on the grid. So if the yield is there, that’s what counts to me.”
Note: Following the publishing of this article, Ronald Richardson passed away due to an ATV accident.