Splitting the herd pays bills
In his lifetime, Dick Coon has had a chance to try every seasonal production system at least once. “We have been through several evolutions,” says the Benge, Washington, cow-calf producer and past president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association.
The first major transition occurred when his father shifted the spring herd he purchased for their 11,000-acre Bar U ranch to fall calving.
A contrarian by nature, his father was one of the first in their area to make extensive use of artificial insemination (AI) to improve the genetics of his herd. “Fall calving allowed him to AI in the winter when he had better control of the nutrition and had the time to spend with the cows without being distracted by other farm activities,” recalls Coon.
His father was also a pioneer in exploiting countercyclical markets. “At the time, no one was fall calving, so there were wide swings in the prices between the seasons that played to our advantage,” notes Coon.
In 1976, with the families dependent on ranch income and growing from one to two generations, the Coons had an opportunity to purchase an existing spring herd, which raised the number of mother cows in the operation to over 300 head. Half of the herd calved in the fall, the other half calved in the spring.
Coon found his initial experience of running a split herd insightful. “We were raising some high-performance Simmental crosses and were having trouble getting them bred as first-calf heifers,” he says.
Moving these open heifers into the new spring herd for another try at breeding demonstrated to him the flexibility of operating the split herd. The majority of those young animals, he recalls, performed very well in the spring herd and remained there for the rest of their time on the ranch.
Since then, with the exception of two short forays back into running single-season herds, Coon has remained committed to the split-herd concept.
What he has learned from his half century of ranching is that markets and circumstances are fluid; what works today might not work tomorrow. That said, for now and into the foreseeable future, he is confident that having both a spring and a fall herd makes the most financial sense for him and his ranch.
“The real advantage of a split herd is that it gives me flexibility,” says Coon, adding that it applies to every aspect of ranching – from breeding to feeding to marketing.
Dale ZoBell, beef Extension specialist, Utah State University, is well aware of the benefits of running a split herd. In addition to getting another chance to breed missed cows in the alternate herd, having two breeding seasons allows a bull to pull double duty at no additional expense.
“For the smart ranch manager, these kinds of savings add up,” says ZoBell.
Yet, breeding isn’t the only aspect of beef production that can benefit from a split-herd system. For him, some of the biggest payoffs in maintaining a split herd are the marketing opportunities.