During my recent visit to Colorado I had the opportunity to talk with and ask questions of several progressive, profitable ranchers implementing low-input management on their operations. Steve Oswald, a soft-spoken, forward-thinking rancher, and his wife, Nancy, were among this group.
Their outfit, Oswald Cattle Company, in Cotopaxi, Colorado runs around 150 head of cattle on about 11,500 acres of private and public lands near the Sangre de Cristo Mountains southern Colorado.
Oswald got his start in ranching in 1976 in Colorado, then hired on with the Empire Ranch in Canada in 1979, then the historic Canadian ranch, The Gang Ranch of British Columbia in 1986. Over time Oswald became manager of the 2,000-cow operation. However, it was not meant to stay that way.
In 1991, the Oswalds had opportunity to move back to Colorado and take over Nancy’s family ranch in Cotopaxi. The couple purchased 24 head and leased 25 more from Nancy’s dad to start. At the time, Oswald thought if they built the herd up to about 200 he would be able to make a living from the ranch.
He stuck to the standard February-March winter calving season and fed hay throughout the winter like most of his neighbors. Four years later, Oswald realized doing things the way everyone else did was spending him broke. Some major changes needed to happen if this was going to get better, he says.
Around this time, Oswald was exposed to the teachings of Stan Parsons, founder of the Ranching for Profit school. In the winter of ’96, he attended one of these courses.
"It was a big paradigm shift for me," Oswald says. "They have a unique way of looking at economics. It was a life changing experience for me."
Upon returning to the ranch, he began to crunch the numbers and he determined the major changes which would need to occur in order to make the ranch profitable. These changes would include:
Eliminate hay feeding.
Make better use of his BLM winter grazing permit.
Start management intensive grazing.
Shift calving season from February-March to May (and eventually mid-June).
"I decided to sell off all of my equipment to not have the temptation to put up hay," says Oswald. "I keyed into taking advantage of my unfair advantage."
That unfair advantage for Oswald is his ranch’s BLM winter-grazing permit which allows him to run his cattle on stockpiled forage throughout the winter until mid-March and feed little to no hay.
Oswald will tell you that every ranch has an unfair advantage. However, it is up to the ranch owner to figure out what that is and then take advantage of it.
The Oswalds have converted former hay meadows to pastures. They also have made the shift from a continuous grazing system of only two pastures with season-long grazing to an intensively managed system of 70+ paddocks. This allows them to make frequent moves, sometimes as often as once a day, during the grazing season.
However, of all these management changes Oswald made, he believes switching to June calving was an absolute key for his operation.
"It’s a no-brainer," he says. "Calving in June allows you to not have to feed hay. Feeding hay is the single biggest expense in any ranching operation."
Oswald will wholeheartedly tell you that he would be out of business if he were still calving in winter.
He believes the false paradigm most people in the cattle business have is that they must keep their cows in excellent body condition year around. Oswald disagrees.
"Nature’s model is an animal is fat in the fall and thin in the spring," he says. "That’s exactly what my cows do."
Oswald runs his cows and calves together over the winter on his BLM lease, letting the cows naturally wean the calves. When the cows come off public lands grazing in April they are not in what most would consider ideal body condition.
"By the time June rolls around they’re a body condition score of six and ready to calve," Oswald says. "That is nature’s model."
This management scheme allows for his cows’ peak nutrient demands to line up with the peak nutrient availability in the grass growth curve.
Oswald has selected his cattle specifically to meet this model, purchasing bulls from Pharo Cattle Company and downsizing his herd’s cow size from around 1,500 lbs. to about 1,050 lbs. In addition, he has worked diligently to get his calving season to a 45-day window.
When asked about this selection process, Oswald says, "I had a fallout of cows that couldn’t handle it but the cows I have now are tough and adapted. They survive and thrive."
Ranchers like Oswald and his wife are proof that ranching can be profitable and fun at the same time.
However, for this to occur one must be willing to ask the hard questions such as "Should we really be calving at this time of year?" or "Is it possible to graze our cattle year around?" In addition, profit must be at the forefront of every management decision because in the end, if a business is not profitable it will certainly not be sustainable.