Diverse strategies position cattle operation for success

Farm Forum

By utilizing a hoop barn with a compost bed pack and paying close attention to DNA testing to capitalize on the traits of his animals, a cattleman near Frederick feels that he’s made some sound decisions to position himself firmly in the cattle industry.

Ross Ulmer of Frederick has undertaken diverse strategies to weather the ups and downs in the cattle market.

Ulmer’s wife Annette and their 12-year-old daughter Olivia are an integral part of the operation and enjoy working with the cattle. Ulmer said that Annette’s expertise is handling the bookwork, adding a vital element to the operation. They now have the same accounting system as their lender. With the amount of money that ag operations go through, Ulmer said keeping track of inputs and expenses is critical.

A few weeks ago, the family sold their calves. Now the Ulmers are in the process of re-filling their barns with heifer calves. About 450 head line the west barn that was built to hold 800 animals. Ulmer works with cattle buyers to purchase the additional animals that will be comfortable in the white canvas-covered shelters, located just south of the intersection of S.D. Highway 10 and Brown County Hwy. 14.

As far as cow comfort, Ulmer was determined to find the best type of building that he could use on his farm. He wanted the set-up to be functional and efficient. He wanted to be able to operate it as one person. He spent a lot of time traveling to look at buildings and talking to others who’d built similar structures.

“I wasn’t so much interested in what others liked as what they didn’t like,” Ulmer said. “The biggest thing they said they’d change was the size of the doors. Some who had a 70-foot building wished the doors were bigger.”

Eventually Ulmer decided that a 56-foot wide building with a 20×14-foot door was best.

It was a learning experience, Ulmer said. At first, Ulmer put up a 300-foot long building six years ago. Four years ago, they added 200 feet to that building. And last year, they added another 500-foot building that includes room for some machinery storage and can be used for calving.


The hoop structures provide great natural lighting, comfortable conditions for the animals and utilize a compost pack for manure handling.

Ulmer feels the natural light is a great advantage of the structure. In the winter months, as the days get shorter, the sunlight flows into the barns and warms the cattle. In the summer, the roof keeps the direct sun from the cattle yet illuminates the interior.

The barns allow a good airflow, which is beneficial for the cattle. The buildings are oriented in an east-west direction. In the summer the curtains in back will be rolled up for a horizontal airflow. In the wintertime, those curtains are closed, but ventilation continues to be important. The air flows from the back and takes the heat and moisture up and out the top of the building.

There is no curtain on the south side, just an eave to keep rain and snow out of the feed bunks. When the temperature is consistently 45 degrees, the back curtain will be opened. During the summer, it will only be closed if there is a big rain or windstorm. It stays down throughout the winter.

In the summer when the heat is unbearable outside, the interior is comfortable. Ulmer compares it to being underneath an umbrella. A wind of 2- to 3-mph can provide a great cooling effect. He’s observed that the animals don’t pant or stand by the water tank despite intense heat outside.

In the winter, when the barn is full of cattle, with the compost bedding pack, the area is generally at least 10 degrees higher than outside.

A sorting and processing system in the further west building allows the Ulmers to do all their A.I. work under a roof. They do that before the heifers are sent to pasture each summer.

In the winter, Ulmer said he sleeps soundly at night when a storm comes through. “The cattle don’t know there is a blizzard,” he said. “I’ll need to scrape to get a path for the feed wagon, but there is no problem for the cows to get their food.”

No mucky mess

Ulmer intensely studied compost bed packs and is pleased with the result in his barns. Inside the building, an area was packed with clay and limestone for a base for the compost. Ulmer said it doesn’t look any different than cement, but provides an essential base that allows the manure to compost.

“When we start these barns in the fall, we put a lot of straw in there, about a foot deep,” Ulmer said. “The cattle will pack that down and there will be a layer of between 3 to 4 inches of yellow straw. There’s some science associated with the bedding pack and research about the best way to get the microbes to work in it. The compost has to work right or you’ll end up with ammoniated bedding.” He has heard that if the pack is built on cement, the system won’t work, and it will result in a mucky manure mess.

Additional wheat straw is added as needed. The compost pack heats to about 140 degrees and will grow to be 2 to 3 feet deep. It will be solid for the cows to walk across.

The manure is scraped at regular intervals and Ulmer said that he’s been surprised that when cleaning the barn, the result is dry and crumbly. It has some moisture, almost like silage. The manure is totally cleaned out of the building twice a year.

The manure generated is valuable. “We test it and spread it on our ground as fertilizer. We figure it has a value of about $40,000 when we put it on our fields.”


There is a lot of interest in the buildings. From what he’s heard, Ulmer said, “If a guy builds one, then he’ll build a second or a third or even a fourth one.”

Ulmer steered away from a monoslope building, as he didn’t think the airflow would be as good. And it would cost a great deal for the cement that would need to be poured. If cement had been used in the floor in his building, it would have cost an additional $600,000.

The hoop barns are a less expensive option, but still provide for the comfort of the animals. The cover should last for 15 years or more and withstand 120 mph winds. The heavy sealed canvas won’t really wear out but the stitching exposed to the sun may start to come apart.

“If so, then the cover can be replaced in a couple of days,” Ulmer said. “It’s not a big deal. The next tarp may last for 40 years.”

“We originally straight finished our calves, that’s what I designed the building for,” Ulmer said. “I did do that for 6 to 7 turns, then corn got high and margins got to be zero. Then I started backgrounding cattle, added a bred heifer program and recently started a grass cattle program, working closely on other cattle finishing programs with Darren and Kurt Zuehlke of Britton.

Wheat straw

Through experience, Ulmer has found that wheat straw works best for bedding and adding roughage to the rations. It has the most consistent protein value, about 6 percent, and it doesn’t bring in the weed seeds that CRP hay would bring in.

The Ulmers purchase about 95 percent of the hay and straw. He calculates how much he needs in June and July and has it brought in before winter. That way the Ulmers know the cost of the feed, and it’s a fixed cost. With the price of land, it’s generally cheaper to purchase the feed than to raise it themselves.

Emphasis on traits

Ulmer believes that DNA testing for animals will have a huge impact on the cattle industry, almost like auto-steer and precision farming in the grain industry.

Last year was the first year the Ulmers did DNA testing on their heifers. A device punches a small hole into the ear of a calf to take hair and blood samples. These samples are analyzed and by comparing the DNA samples, they can select animals with improved traits that will result in improved calves.

The Ulmers hired a consultant to help them through the process.

“The technology is all new to me,” Ulmer said. “The sample provides benchmarks and gives a profile on the most important traits, which would be maternal abilities, calving ease, roughage conversion and stayability.”

Last year, Ulmer said they culled 20 animals with the lowest scores, even through the animals looked as good or better than the others.

“It kind of made you question the scores,” Ulmer said. “And then my wife reminded me that if I didn’t want to know what the results were, I shouldn’t have tested them. DNA doesn’t lie.”

For commercial cattle, Ulmer noted that it’s probably more important to test the females than the bulls. The cows will stay in the herd twice as long as the bulls.

The Ulmers will be testing all of their grass cattle, and if they don’t have a good score for roughage conversion, they won’t put them on grass. This is a tool to sort off those cattle that may not show a sufficient gain on grass. With the cost of cattle and land use, it is an important management tool.

This year, the Ulmers will be trying out Cow Manager ear tags. Developed in Sweden and mostly used in the dairy industry, the tags provide information on heat detection for optimal time for insemination. At a cost of $135 each, the Ulmers will put these in 700 to 800 head of heifers. They figure the tags can be used for 8 to 9 years and will pay back the initial cost.

Ever mindful of the changes in the industry, Ulmer is seeing a payday as cattle prices are at an all-time time. He’s excited to try new ways to improve his herd.

As he headed outside to finish morning chores, Ulmer said, “The barns have been one of our best returns on investment since our center pivot irrigation systems were added years ago.”