Matching feed availability to cattle needs: a paradigm shift at the Broughton Land Company
by Doug Warnock
Changing the calving season to better match the availability of pasture with the nutritional needs of the herd has resulted in cutting winter feed costs by half and being able to sell 14,000 more pounds of calves last year at the Broughton Land Company's ranch near Dayton, Washington.
"It has also improved our quality of life," says Gene Patton, Cattle and Hay Manager of the Broughton operation. These and other changes in thinking have occurred as a result of Patton's involvement in a training program through the Washington State University/Kellogg Holistic Management Project. The project encourages participants to "get out of the box," that is, to be open to new ideas and to think holistically.
"One of our long-range goals was to make the cattle portion of our operation more profitable and this change has certainly moved us in that direction," says George Wood, General Manager of Broughton Land Company. Wood manages the 38,000-acre farm, which is owned in a partnership by third- and fourth-generation descendants of Charles Julius Broughton. The Broughton operation includes a beef cattle herd of 750 females, 16,000 acres of range and pasture, 15,000 acres of cropland, and 6,000 acres of timber.
Patton and Wood are two of the 158 participants in the four-year WSU/Kellogg Project. The project, in its final year, is providing training in holistic management, helping participants develop leadership skills and helping to improve their effectiveness in dealing with policy issues.
"Our herd used to begin calving in January and calved into March, but we've changed and now begin calving in April. Ninety percent of the cows are calving in the first thirty days and we have a higher survival rate, close to 100 percent," says Patton. "We're selling calves that are a little lighter, but due to the better survival rate, we're selling more pounds. This year we sold 14,000 more pounds than in 1996. Also, we've reduced by half the amount of hay being fed," he adds.
"The savings in winter feed and the additional pounds we had to sell, combined with better calf prices, have increased gross returns from the cattle enterprise considerably over 1996," Patton says. He also notes that they had fewer calving problems with the heifers and they seem to be milking better than before.
The calving date change has moved the calving process out of confined and muddy barn lots onto small pastures that are drier and healthier for the cows and newborn calves. "In April the weather is much better and easier on the cattle and the people in charge," Patton says. A big factor is that by the time the cows need that higher nutritional plane, they are out on pasture and this reduces the amount of hay that is fed.
"Previous winters we fed hay to cattle every day and now we're feeding our main cow herd three times a week. We can have a weekend off and there's much less human stress," he adds. Patton and one employee take care of the cattle, which includes winter feeding, calving, working the calves and moving cattle on pasture.
The Broughton herd of Angus-Hereford cross cattle utilizes about 16,000 acres of range land, 6,000 acres of timbered pasture and 150 acres of irrigated pasture.
The early concerns that Patton had about making this change didn't occur. "I used the pie chart to match feed availability to livestock needs," he indicates. This refers to the circular calendar used to plot the normal amount of forage available by month, as well as, the amount of feed needed by the cattle on a monthly basis. Cattle need an increased plane of nutrition in late pregnancy and an even higher plane when they calve and begin lactation. This illustrates that moving the cattle production cycle to better meet the availability of forage decreases the need for supplemental feed.
Patton has brought about some changes in the company's hay operation, as well. Over 100 acres of subirrigated land producing grass for hay and pasture has been seeded to dryland alfalfa and used for hay production. "The alfalfa is yielding around seven tons per acre and by not having to irrigate we've reduced labor and lowered costs. We're getting a better return on that land," he comments.
"I've been managing the two divisions (cattle and hay) that weren't very profitable. They were being supported by the crop division. This year, it looks like the cattle and hay enterprises will stand on their own and contribute profit to the company's bottom line," Patton says.
"The course [WSU/Kellogg Project] has really changed my way of thinking. I tend to question the old ways and have changed some of my paradigms. It has also changed the way I work with employees. I share control with them." This has brought positive results in that they take more pride in their work and feel that they are part of a team effort.
George Wood sees opportunities to manage in wholes not only in cattle and hay production but with timberland, cropland, ground that is "out" of production, and community development. The general manager of the Broughton Land Company has been county commissioner and an active participant in downtown revitalization in Dayton. The BLC maintains its office in a remodeled downtown building that has been in the Broughton family for generations, with a mural on the side depicting Dayton several generations ago.
The floods of 1996 and 1997, says George, changed his thinking. Dayton and nearby communities such as Waitsburg suffered extensive property damage. The no-till and minimum-till percentage of the BLC's cropland has climbed rapidly, increasing the ability of the soil surface to slow runoff and absorb moisture. Tillage breaks down the soil structure and costs moisture overall.
During the periods of heavy rain the no-till ground suffered much less erosion than conventionally tilled farm ground, he says. George took all of his farm crew to a recent no-till conference in Pasco.
With a background in logging, George is able to manage for a healthier, more productive timber stand while still producing income from BLC's timber ground. The logging crew uses a single-grip processor and forwarder, and they are more concerned with leaving a stand in good productive condition than with the volume of harvest.
The land company provides employment to about a dozen people. George markets the crops and continues to seek opportunities to add value. Condiment mustard is now part of the rotation on some farm ground.
As county commissioner, Wood spearheaded the courthouse remodeling which is now a showpiece of community pride. Main Street, which was half empty 15 years ago, has made a comeback. Economic development is still a concern in predominantly rural Columbia County, population 4200, which has been threatened recently with loss of its small hospital and declining funding for schools.
In the past, an economic development task force has tried to recruit businesses from out of town. "With that, you don't increase the pie," says George. "Where we've grown is where people have had a local idea." He points to the success of local business efforts such as Dayton Tractor and Bumper Crop Mustard, and a business that developed a process for coating wrought iron. "We don't know how much of that is out there." He is interested in the Sirolli Institute enterprise facilitation model, which is a bottom-up approach to economic development (see last issue, p. 14).
George grew up in Dayton and has many strong ties to the land and the people. In 1995 he and Gene Patton recognized in a holistic goal that they wanted "to work and live in a way that is beneficial to our employer and to our community."