A Change in Calving Season Created Forage Tested Bull Opportunity for Colorado Seedstock Producer

Staff report

CHEYENNE WELLS, Colorado: Kit Pharo of Pharo Cattle Company said he knew that April calving was too early for Colorado but like most seedstock producers his excuse was that it was difficult to sell a yearling bull born in late May or June.

"Eventually, it dawned on me that I did not have to sell yearling bulls. I could sell May and June born bulls as 18-month-old bulls or as two-year-olds," he said.

Pharo Cattle Company serves as the genetic coordinator and marketer for a network of cooperating seedstock producers in America's central heartland. These cooperators currently manage approximately 2000 cows.

Some of these are leased to cooperators by Pharo but all of the cows share the same genetic base and the same forage-based philosophy.

"Occasionally I run across a breeder who just can't quit feeding and we have to let him go," he said.

Angus (both Red and Black) predominate but Pharo also markets some Hereford and Composite bulls as well.

While still a minority of customers, he currently supplies bulls to about 40 different grass fed beef companies.

Pharo started marketing bulls in 1991 with a whopping seven bulls. Today, he markets 500 to 600 bulls per year and could probably just as easily market 1000.

While most bulls are marketed in the central tier of states, Pharo has found good markets further east as well and now sells into 30 different states.

"We were in the right place at the right time (with forage developed bulls) and the market just exploded. We had no idea it would grow this big, this fast."

He started leasing out heifers during the market down cycle in the mid-90s.

"A lot of guys like to raise our kind of cattle but just don't want to do the marketing. I take the bull calves at weaning, grow them out and market them.

"It's a win-win situation for both of us."

He said this decision to sell older bulls allowed him to develop bulls 100% on forage with no supplementation and he started doing so in 1997.

This total grass orientation starts at weaning.

"We never shut calves up at weaning," he said.

"We like to wean out on grass - preferably across the fence from their mommas for about four or five days."

These weaned bulls are run in large groups of 100 to 150 head through their first winter.

However, once the bulls start to reach puberty they must be broken into smaller groups to prevent fighting and riding.

"Groups of 30 to 45 work the best. Once they establish their pecking order, they seem to get along fine.

"Larger groups of bulls seem to find it necessary to re-establish the pecking order nearly every day.

"They are like teenage boys. Long on hormones and short on brains."

Pharo said he originally ran the bulls on short, native grass in eastern Colorado from weaning until marketing with no supplementation.

"If the snow was deep enough to hinder their grazing, we provided some hay for a few days."

HIGH DAILY GAIN IS NOT GOAL

He said a high average daily gain was never a goal.

"We seldom get over a pound of gain per head per day during the winter months.

"Sometimes our winter gain is as low as a half pound a day and this is the critical point.

"It seems they have to gain a half pound a day to hold their own since they are growing frame."

He said this first winter naturally provides a first cut of the bulls.

"We like to be extra tough on these bulls during that first winter to sort out the bulls with poor do-ability and poor foraging ability. A good forage test should quickly separate the men from the boys."

Pharo said when spring comes the bulls exhibit compensatory gain that offsets their low winter gains.

"We can always average over two pounds per head per day for 100 days of summer grazing on our native range.

"There have actually been years when we averaged 2.75 pounds per head per day."

He started selling long yearlings in the fall of 2001. Prior to that he had held them over to be sold in the spring as coming two-year-olds.

"Now, we try to market two-thirds of our forage-tested bulls in the fall to reduce our winter workload.

"The bulls held over to sell in the spring as two-year-olds are run on our short winter native grass range."

He said a small amount of alfalfa hay is fed as a protein supplement as needed.

In 2003, the drought in eastern Colorado became so bad that there was no grass to forage test the bulls and he was forced to find an alternative.

IRRIGATED BERMUDAGRASS

"We found a producer in southwest Kansas with irrigated circles of Bermuda grass. He could make it rain."

Unfortunately, Bermuda grass does not produce the kind of summer gains as Colorado short grass range does.

"For much of the year, it is not very nutritious or palatable. We have found we definitely need to provide some protein supplement during the winter months."

He hopes to be able to eventually go back to an all-native range forage test but this drought keeps lingering in Colorado.

"We are in our sixth year of drought. It is better than 2002 or 2003, but we are still not back to normal."

Today, Pharo's forage test, which used to be only during the summer months, runs from weaning until the following August.

At that time the bulls are individually evaluated, weighed, measured, ultra-sounded by Dr. Allen Williams, and fertility checked.

"When I evaluate bulls I give them a score for overall appearance, disposition, fleshing ability, thickness, muscling, masculinity, hair coat and foot and leg structure.

"I also inspect their eyes, scrotum and sheath. This was an easy job when we were only selling 100 bulls a year. It's not so easy with several hundred bulls."

"However, we have never let our quality standards decline. We don't know of any other seedstock producer who evaluates their bulls as thoroughly as we do."

Pharo said he does not place a high value on the animal's performance as long as it does not lag way behind the group as a whole.

"Since we are running 400 to 500 bulls in ten or more herds, there will be a lot of variation between groups.

"We use indexes to compare each animal within his own contemporary group."

MISSOURI FORAGE TEST

For the last three years, Pharo has had another forage test going on in southern Missouri on fescue and Bermuda pastures.

"We have found fall calving to work very well in southern fescue country.

"We have 80 to 100 bulls born in southern Missouri in the fall. These bulls are typically weaned in April and put on a forage test in southern Missouri.

"They are then sold in our two spring bull sales as forage-tested, long-yearlings."

While Pharo's bulls face a much harder life than most seedstock animals, he said his replacement heifers have it even worse.

"I tell people that we treat our heifers exactly like the cow we hope they will become, and we have not fed our cows any hay or protein supplement for the past four years.

"They don't all make it. But the ones that do are our very best genetics."

Male or female, Pharo said he puts them to nature's test.

"How can you tell what you have if you never put your cattle to the test?"

"Our bulls won't be as big or as fat as everyone else's bulls but they are rock hard and ready for work. They usually gain weight while breeding cows during their first breeding season. We are finding that our forage-tested bulls are capable of breeding more cows for more years than the typical feedlot-tested bull."

by The Stockman Grass Farmer


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