When Deanna Sand talks about what she and her family have done over the past few years on their ranch, she always points out two things. First, this is not a recipe for how to change. It’s just their story of the decisions they made to change. Second, the decisions they make are driven by viewing the ranch as a whole. They now realize that EVERY decision affects something else on the ranch, even if they don’t notice it for 6 months or a year. Once they started changing their operation, they had to continue to change unless they wanted to go back to the way things always were. And that was NOT an option.
So, as they changed their grazing management and got off the hay wagon, they also had to change what they did with their cattle. In the first article in this series, the Sands talk about the benefits from changing their calving season from March and April to April and May. Not only was this important for lowering labor and input costs, but it was a necessity to make their winter grazing schedule work the way it was described in the second article in this series. In addition to the cows being able to graze to meet their nutritional requirements, they ended up with healthier calves and a family that was happier because they didn’t have to go out in blizzards to check calves. Their new calving season is also easier because they also quit ear tagging newborn calves. (You can read more about the reasoning behind that here.) Finally, they cull animals that can’t calve on their own, so every year their herd is stronger.
So how can you go from selling 6-700 pound backgrounded calves to selling 400 -450 pound calves off the cow and make money?
“Well, you can but you have to change your whole operation to do so,” says Cody Sand. “You have to change your way of thinking.”
Instead of asking how much your calves sell for, Cody says the real question should be, “How cheap did you run your cows last year?” When you start thinking this way, he says, it changes everything. For years they worked to make their calves worth more money, and it always ended up costing more than they expected. So they decided to lower their inputs and change their marketing.
Now calves aren’t their only product. They have “Cash Cows” too, a term that Deanna came up with for what they used to consider “Cull Cows.” They have to sell 300 of “something” every year to make a good living, so old cows, open cows that used to be considered a liability, and some yearling heifers are all now a part of their income stream. They usually bring in more money than the calves too.
Breeding Expectation Adjustments
So does it matter if you have open cows? Cody says they always wondered who said you need a 90-95% breed back rate or higher, and what does it ost to get that extra 5 to 10%? Once they started marketing their “Cash Cows” Cody and Deanna also changed they way they look at open cows. Again, this helped them reduce expenses and added to their income stream.
Changing Heifer Management to Match the New System
As Jim Gerrish points out in “Kick the Hay Habit,” the cheapest hay you have is the fat reservoir cows go into winter with. Cody says it has been a struggle for them to send heifers into winter with enough fat so they had it to lose. They found that heifers could give them a calf that first year, but after raising it, and going into the winter grazing program, they didn’t have enough just didn’t have enough fat in their fat bank for the winter. As second calvers, they were skinny all summer and didn’t breed back. If they did breed back they’d become good cows and they’d stay in the herd.
The problem was that their fall out rate was too high. They had three choices: do what they were doing and live with the high fall out rate; feed more, which they weren’t going to do; or change again and do something they’d read about: waiting to breed their heifers until they are two years old.
They chose the third option and this year they are calving out their first set of three year olds. The biggest question was whether they could afford this change. They figured the first year would be tight, but once they made it through, it would just be part of the new system and it would be fine. Luck also played a role, as the calves showed up during the highest cattle prices in a long time.
The change to breeding was part of a better way to raise and wean calves. At first they tried fence line weaning, which they liked because it kept the calves on the same diet and required less feed. After weaning the calves stayed on grass all winter, supplemented with a little cake. Cody recommends this kind of weaning to everyone, although they now do something different because it works best for their ranch.
Instead of weaning the heifer calves and feeding them all winter, now they leave them with their mothers all winter. They bring the heifers home in March, before the cows come home, and let them run on grass supplemented with a little cake until the grass turns green in May. The calves do very well with the cows and it’s more profitable.
The heifer calves didn’t grow as quickly this way, making it more difficult for them to breed the first year. That helped them make the decision to hold off breeding them until they were two. According to sources the Sands have found, raising heifers with their mothers creates a healthier, more natural herd. Waiting to breed until heifers are two also helps them hold weight, so they can breed back without supplementation. Finally, there are studies indicating that heifers that aren’t bred until they’re two have greater longevity, living three to four years longer. Cody won’t know for sure how it’s going for some time and suggests you check back with him in 15 years.
Adapting the Herd to the Sand Ranch Environment
One question the Sands have had over the years is whether they have the right animals for what they want to accomplish. At one point Cody even thought they should sell their entire herd and start over. But instead, they kept their base herd and have been building on the adaptation the animals have already made to the ranch. Their animals are now getting used to the new grazing management system, and winter grazing. Those that don’t adapt head down the road as part of the Sands’ income stream. And each year the herd becomes stronger and better adapted to the land and their management.
Sometimes Cody worries they may have pushed the animals a bit too hard, either for financial reasons or because they they thought they were on the right track. The Sands’ don’t beat themselves up about this. As one of their friends reminded them, there have been years of studies about how to raise cattle with lots of inputs, but there’s very little information about how to do it with few inputs and just grazing. So trial and error and learning from mistakes is the best teacher they have right now.
Thanks to trial and error and a willingness to change, here are some pictures of his latest crop of two year old heifers as an example of the kind of hear the Sands have created:
Cody says that now their cattle work for them instead of vice versa. He thinks this photo, of some of his cows laying around on the ground is kind of ironic because he says “That’s how we work now – not very hard.”
Here’s the last in the series: How to Make Change – and More Money Too!
To read all the articles in this series just Click Here.
Thanks to the National Grazing Lands Coalition for making this article possible. Click on over to see the great work they do for all of us. Thank them for supporting On Pasture by liking their facebook page.
I like everything here except waiting until three years old to calve. That is an expensive wasted year. If heifers won’t breed as yearlings and then breed back as two year olds, your cows are not well adapted to your environment. It might cost a little–and just a little–supplement in early years to get them to rebreed as two year olds. That’s lots cheaper than a wasted year.
Just expose lots of heifers–nearly all of them–as yearlings for only 21-24 days. It won’t be long before you have adapted cows–right size, right milk, right efficiency. See Kit Pharo article in this issue.
I Calve at 2 yrs old but my question to you is this if you were to calve at 3 yrs and get 4 more calves out of a mature cow would that not offset the loss of one calf in the beginning of her life. Also would the calves out of a more mature cow be larger at weaning than out of a heifer, and if you are developing them on grass alone with no supplement what is the cost of an extra year.
Great article. This series on the Sand Ranch has been helpful for a lot of people. I love the part about how much this type of thinking is still trial and error and not a lot of research. I’m in the same boat. This is cutting edge stuff and still against the grain. Of course there are good books out there, and I owe them a lot, but we all have unique situations. So it’s trial and error and not feeling guilty if we make a mistake.
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