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Heifers return home ready to produce

In the mid-to-late 1980s, the beef industry paid scant attention to the genetic influence of cows and heifers on the overall performance of a cattle herd. That fact didn’t escape the attention of Patsy Houghton, then a Kansas State University beef cattle Extension specialist. Her focus on heifers intensified when KSU implemented a cow-calf student project designed to help students learn the artificial insemination process.

“We placed students on numerous ranches each spring. Over the course of the four years I worked with the program, we bred about 10,000 heifers across Kansas,” Houghton says. “As part of that program, we handled several large heifer projects that involved between 300 and 400 head. Until that time, no one had attempted that.”

As she worked with students on the larger AI projects, Houghton recognized that different issues were encountered at each ranch. If heifers were over- or under-conditioned, if there wasn’t enough help for the project or if facilities weren’t designed to facilitate cow comfort, there was little Houghton or her students could do to resolve those problems. She began considering how heifer conception rates and calf quality might be improved through more controlled nutritional development, reduced stress and other aspects of the AI process.

“It was an entirely new concept,” Houghton says. “There was no model to follow. We were really designing our own blueprint. There were no mentors because nothing like this had ever been attempted.”

In spite of the hurdles she faced, Houghton sought out some business partners and began developing plans to locate her own business, Heartland Cattle Co., a heifer development facility near McCook.

“There was an unlimited feed resource literally across the fence from our facility,” Houghton says. “We located in farm country that neighbored the largest cow-calf production areas in the United States. We have placed cattle in 31 states. However, the bulk of our customers come from the Nebraska Sandhills, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Kansas and Colorado.”

Before she had outlined the details of her business, Houghton was well aware of the needs of her customers. She was also well-versed in associated cost figures and the benefits of a successful program.

“Heartland Cattle Co. has four primary objectives,” Houghton says. “We bring heifers into the yard for the fall and winter months. We provide services that add value to the animals and return them to their home ranch as 45- to 90-day bred packages. Our contractual heifer development program offers animals that are bred and sold on a forward-contract, specification basis.

We also start between 6,500 and 8,500 bawling calves each fall between heifer rotations and facilitate a research program that has included U.S. Food and Drug Administration trials for clearance of product usage in replacement heifers and feeder cattle, company trials and proprietary data trials.”

Houghton uses a high-roughage, limit-fed nutritional feeding program that targets a 5+ body condition score or 60% of mature body weight at breeding. Her program’s 30- to 45-day conception window assures that only highest-quality heifers with the ability to perform in a forage-based system return to the ranch.

But it’s not just about nutrition. The program is designed to reduce breeding costs, improve conception rates, produce heavier and more uniform calves at weaning, reduce bull costs, reduce calving difficulty, and decrease calving labor.

“Reduction in the size of the nation’s cow herd is weeding out some producers,” Houghton says. “That leaves more opportunity for efficient operators. It will take increased attention to genetic quality and improved business practices to participate in the opportunity side of the equation.”

Sorensen writes from Yankton, S.D.

Tips for a New business venture

Patsy Houghton knows firsthand that establishing a new business poses many challenges. When she and two partners began considering the concept of professional heifer development for Heartland Cattle Co. in the late 1980s, the idea wasn’t always met with much support. Still, she and her partners were confident there was a need for the specialized service and began to organize a business model to meet that need.

“We had to put ourselves in the other guy’s shoes and think about what would help if we were running a ranch,” Houghton says. “Heifers offer ranchers opportunities. They also pose some problems. In developing the concept for our company, we identified seven primary areas where we felt we could help potential customers solve cow herd management problems.”

Obtaining finances for their venture was no easy task. Because their business concept was brand new, there was no true model to use for cost comparisons. Houghton and her partners used the best information available at the time to develop financial projections.

“When developing financial projections, allocate a sizable contingency for risk,” Houghton says. “That will help you avoid getting your back against a wall if there are unexpected expenses. If there are people who can mentor you, consult them. Have a clear vision of what it is you’re planning. Communicate your vision to others who will help you think critically to refine your business model.”

In considering a partnership, Houghton recommends ensuring that each partner own the same percentage of the enterprise. If a partner has a higher percentage interest in an associated business, their focus will always be slanted in the direction where they have the most to gain or lose.


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RISKS AND REWARDS: Patsy Houghton experienced challenges in starting a heifer development business, but the venture has proven successful.

This article published in the February, 2012 edition of NEBRASKA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.