Just flat ‘good people’
Having done beef cattle meetings in every major state for that industry, I am struck by the quality people that raise cattle in this great country. They can best be described as simply “salt of the earth folks.”
Pick just about any of these adjectives and you’ll describe most cow-calf producers: hardworking, honest, caring, respectful, faithful, humble. Yeah, yeah, I hear the retort, “you have not met my neighbor,” but they must be the exception. If there is an industry with better people, I’ve not met them.
Beef cattle farmers and ranchers truly care about their animals, even risking their lives to save calves in the midst of a nasty blizzard or prairie fire. Also concerned about the wellbeing of the environment that provides feed for their stock, they are the legitimate environmentalists of the world.
From the early days of settling the West, cattle people survived long periods of drought or the harshest of winters, yet somehow manage to persevere. The hardships that many have survived makes me respect these folks so much.
In recent years I’ve had many opportunities to take foodservice and retail folks to ranches all over the United States, and they always come away amazed. They are surprised at how family-orientated these outfits have to be to make the operations work.
They marvel at the women who are doing the bookkeeping one moment, the next driving a tractor and then preparing a gourmet meal fit for a king. They’re also amazed at how hard these folks work toward their main goal of passing a better place on to the next generation, often accomplishing this through a very austere lifestyle.
Yes, cattlemen and women are just neat, neat people in my book, but today I want to single out two ranch families. My reason relates to what they accomplish in the harshest of environments.
The first is Quarter Circle U Ranch in Arizona, owned by Chuck and Judy Backus and located in the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix. This desert ranch is best suited to cactus and rattlesnakes, but Chuck knew it had much more potential. Dr. Backus was a retired nuclear engineer who worked on space missions and helped start the technical campus of Arizona State University. His other specialty in solar energy proved very handy when he bought that ranch seven miles from the nearest electricity.
Still a West Virginia farm boy at heart, Chuck first focused on managing cattle on land where forage was sparse. Attending meetings and visiting with fellow cattlemen, he soon realized genetics would also be very important. Learning how to use proven genetics quickly was essential in a land where bull mortality is a big risk, so Chuck started using artificial insemination (AI). By studying protocols for synchronized timed AI, he was soon achieving 60% pregnancy rates from the best bulls on earth.
Realizing that he could accomplish amazing things, Chuck, being the teacher he was, organized a cattle conference to share how these things could be done so others could also benefit. Having participated in one of these, I was amazed that Dr. Backus, now in his late 70s, lectured for about four hours on a multitude of subjects. It all left me in awe of what someone could achieve in a location where that just should not be possible.
The second ranch I want to bring up is the Mayer Ranch near Guymon, Okla., another location where rain is not something you can depend on. There’s a reason the pioneers called it No Man’s Land.
Owner Joe Mayer learned long ago that matching cows to the environment is step one, but then found he could raise some pretty special calves by studying and using Angus genetics. As I have watched Joe present information at producer meetings, it soon occurred to me he could be teaching a cattle genetics class at a university. There was not much about the subject that he had not learned, even taking it to the point of using DNA genomic tests to further improve the predictability of the selection process.
But here is something about these two ranches that you would not know or expect. After learning how to fit their cows to their environments, they decided they needed to know more about what they were producing in the way of a marketable calf. Hence, the next step was to work with a feedyard, following their calves to harvest.
Oops, their first experiences with the finished calves, beef hanging on the rail, were not as good as they expected.
In fact, as you can see in the table, Dr. Backus’s first calves barely graded 50% Choice. But he and Joe both realized that marbling, being the heritable trait it is, could be added to their selection criteria for quick progress. Within less than a decade, they saw transformations to Prime percentages of three to five times the national average and CAB acceptance rates triple to four times the national average. And they did it in ranch environments where you’d guess it couldn’t be done.
That was before their examples showed us. Yes, because of people like Joe and Chuck and many other “salt of the earth folks,” working in the cattle industry with producers has been and continues to be a total pleasure.