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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.

Recognized Strategy

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. 

“Because half your herd is fall calves, it is a given that they will always sell into an up market,” notes ZoBell.

As another benefit, he also cites the option of retaining ownership after weaning. While the single-herd producer is often compelled by debts and other commitments to cash in the entire calf crop immediately after weaning, the owner of the split herd, who benefits from an incremental cash flow of two or more payouts, is usually in a better position to initiate strategies that offer the best return per animal. 

Coon concurs. “There is a real advantage of being able to keep your weaned calves until you are ready to sell them, rather than having to pull them off the cows and send them to the sale yard because you have no other options,” he says. 

Some of the highest returns on weight gain can be realized between weaning and the feedlot. “That is when your genetics really kick in,” says Coon. “Selling your calves before then is like spending all your time training for a race, and then when you are in the race, stopping before reaching the finish line.”    

An integral part of Coon’s calf-retention strategy is his low-stress weaning program. Having a split herd means fewer animals to wean at a given time. This, in turn, opens up more options for creating a low-stress environment. 

For his spring-weaned group of 70 calves and mother cows, Coon sets aside 10 acres of freshly cut and windrowed irrigated pasture. Within sight of each other but separated by a hot-wire fence – and distracted by the highly palatable windrows – calves and mother cows barely acknowledge the potentially traumatic event. 

“We run three strands of permanent hot wire down the middle of the pasture and use temporary hot tape on the ends to create a 1-acre enclosure for each group,” explains Coon. “Every day we move the tape over 1 acre. At the end of four days, we are done.”  

This attention to optimizing the return on each animal is part of an underlying philosophy that keeps Coon and those who rely on an income from the ranch operation paid.  

“We really aren’t that big, so we really need to maximize our return on all our resources,” he says, adding that the attention to the bottom line doesn’t end with calves. “Remember, it isn’t just the calf crop we are marketing; 15% to 20% of our cows are going every year.”

With a split herd, the opportunities to remove cull cows doubles. “Almost every two months you get a shot at marketing culls,” he says. “You don’t have to wait a whole year before sending one to the sale yard.” 

With that flexibility comes profit. “There are times you might have access to cheap pasture or aftermath that can be used to fatten up culls,” he says. “You can make an extra $10 per hundredweight, with very little effort, taking a cow from a canner to a cutter.”

Coon is the first to admit that in spite of all the flexibility it offers to the astute rancher, running two herds does have a downside. 

“The advantages of a split herd outweigh the advantages of a single herd in almost every way except one,” he says. “Operating a split herd is a 12-month-a-year job.”

For someone who loves where he lives, loves ranching, and is passionate about raising cattle, that isn’t much of a downside.

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