by Cyd Hoefle for Raised in the West Magazine
According to the 2017 Agricultural Census, there are more than two cows for every person in the state of Montana. That equates to about 2.5 million head of cattle. Cattle are a big deal. In fact, they rank close to the top as a contributor to the number one industry in the state, agriculture.
For cattle ranchers, many variables can affect their bottom line. The market, feed costs, weather, and consumer buying habits are some of the things that they have no control over. They are in a continual battle trying to stay ahead of the ever-changing industry in order to keep their operations profitable. The biggest day of the year is the day their calves sell, and every rancher hopes their costs are covered and they can put some money in the bank.
Fifty-seven years ago, Leo McDonnell Sr., a young rancher, hoped to come up with variables that could be controlled by the rancher and in the process, a new concept was born. He reasoned that if breeders were able to measure their bulls’ performance and keep track of the data, they could make better decisions about their breeding programs. Keeping track of birth weights, weaning weights, gain-ability, mother’s production, and yearling weights, he believed, would give ranchers a measurement to help them decide which bulls were profitable enough to continue using. He started with a handful of young bulls provided by several breeders who agreed to let him track the results from the tests.
Though it was valuable information, it would be some time before the industry gave credibility to the concept. But with perseverance, those first years of following the proficiency and performance of young bull calves paved the way to one of the nation’s most reputable and successful feedlots.
Visible from Interstate 90, six miles east of Columbus, Montana, Midland Bull Test is a familiar site to anyone accustomed to traveling along that stretch of the road. The long low barn with “Midland” printed in large letters across the roof, and pens filled with cattle, extending out from the barn, might look like most feedlots across the region. But Midland Bull Test is anything but typical.
“A lot has changed in the industry in the past 50 plus years,” Leo Sr.’s grandson, Steve Williams, said. “But some things have not. We still believe that the number one input is feed. What are you feeding your cattle and how are they performing because of it?”
At Midland, they believe that the greatest opportunity ranchers have to be profitable is in the converting of roughage to pounds-on-the-scale, because in the end, that’s how ranchers make their living.
Six decades and three generations later, Steve is still operating from that original concept. Computers have long since replaced hand-testing. Manual feeding of the calves has been replaced by a specialized feed truck which allows precise tracking of daily feed and water intake. And the number of bulls from a few ranches has grown to a list of seed stock producers from 32 states enrolling over a thousand bulls every fall into the coveted program.
Every September, young bull calves, freshly weaned from their mothers, start arriving at Midland. These registered purebred bulls already meet a high standard before entering the program. If their performance at Midland meets the strict criteria and they make it through the cuts, they will be part of the annual production sale. Commercial cattle ranchers around the country will gather for the “Final Sort Sale” in April, where the top 70 percent of the bulls will be offered to the highest bidder.
Beginning on a level playing field, the calves are closely watched and monitored for seven months, developing from young bull calves into sound functional bulls, ready to be used as herd sires. Just after arrival, the calves are tagged with an electronic ear tag that tracks and monitors their feed consumption and progressive weight gain, along with other invaluable information. The information is gathered and entered into computer programs on a daily basis. Two weigh-in dates during those months eliminate bulls not making targeted gains.
The test results gathered tell Williams the correlations between the pounds of gain to the pounds of intake and ultimately, the cost of gain.
In a video on the company’s website, Steve’s father, Leo McDonell, Jr., said “sixty percent of our country and our world is arid and covered with a product that has no value to humans for food.”
That product is range grass.
“We are blessed with ruminants like cattle that convert these grasses to a high-density protein that’s enriched and has a lot of value,” McDonnell continued. “We manage our grasses and use cattle to harvest it to provide a great food – that’s beef.”
At Midland, great effort is taken with feed. The animals are fed high levels of roughage coupled with low levels of grain with a low energy ratio. The feed is compatible to rangeland pastures and prepares the bulls to survive on 20 percent less grass and still come out at the top performance level. This ensures that no matter where the bulls end up across the country, they will hold up in strength, durability, and soundness.
“The greatest opportunity ranchers have is in the ability to maximize profits found in incremental efficiency gains as cattle convert roughage to pounds on the scale because that’s where the majority of our customers make their living,” Williams said.
Midland is renowned as the largest feed efficiency program in the country. With the data gathered, producers are privy to the results of tests that rate fertility, genetics, soundness, structure, and disposition – information that is critical to ranchers’ profitability.
The sale provides commercial ranchers with a wide range of affordable bulls to use for breeding and building their herd. It also gives buyers the opportunity to see and compare, at one sale, the top bull calves from ranches all over the U.S.
It’s a daily program for Williams and his crew. The bulls need to be fed multiple times per day, every day. Data gathered from the ear tags needs to be downloaded and made available to producers keeping up on their bulls’ performance testing. But despite the hard work, the crew at Midland still believe they’re doing something beneficial for cattlemen.
Williams said he can’t imagine another line of business.
“It’s a lifestyle for us,” he said. “We never stop learning. If you do, that tells you one thing – it’s time to get out of the business.”
Educating cattlemen is important to Midland. Williams believes, just as his father and grandfather did, that educating cattlemen about efficiency will keep Midland successful and buyers aware.
“We take care of our customers, both the consignors and the buyers,” he said. “We strive to be available for them.”
He keeps an app on his phone which tells him immediately where each bull stands. He’s always available when consigners call about the progress of their bulls and when buyers want information about bulls enrolled in the program.
“We want to keep showing our customers the importance of performance testing and how to maximize profits. We’re all in this together,” Williams concluded with a smile.