Tim Shelton, a well-known farmer in Dry Fork, Va., grows tobacco and grain, and raises cattle.
“I’ve always believed in being diversified,” he says, “but from a [macro] point of view of the business, tobacco nets out more clear money than any of the other commodities. I try to keep myself leveraged and in a position so if the tobacco industry becomes unprofitable I can transition into another commodity — for example, more cattle.”
While tobacco brings in a large part of the income, Shelton doesn’t rely totally on the golden leaf. Shelton has increased his cattle herd to 300, which include purebred Black Angus and a Simmental-Angus cross known as the SimAngus breed.
• Shelton believes in diversification. He grows tobacco and grain, and raises cattle.
• He prefers the SimAngus cross for their hybrid vigor. Calves grow faster.
• He uses AI for cattle breeding, and also purchases top Angus bulls.
Since he was a teenager, Shelton’s passion has always been to raise cattle. He says the SimAngus breed gives his cows more hybrid vigor so they can produce calves that tend to grow off faster.
“They make better cows because they are not inbred,” says Jeremie Ruble, the Eastern field representative for the American Simmental Association. “If they continue to use one breed all the time, fertility goes down.”
Ruble, who is based in Lexington, Ky., says the SimAngus breed grows more efficiently because it has a better carcass value. SimAngus cattle produce a leaner, heavier cow with a good blend of marbling, and a ribeye with more “red-meat yield.”
At this point, 75% of Shelton’s herd is Black Angus and 25% is SimAngus. So far, Shelton is happy with the SimAngus breed, which he has raised for the past five years.
He believes the Angus breed is genetically superior to any other cow in the beef industry, citing very good marbling and the high quality of meat cuts. Shelton points out that even with a Simmental-Angus mix, the SimAngus cross is still marketed under the Angus breed and classifies as certified Angus beef.
He uses AI for cattle breeding and purchases bulls ranked in the top 10% of the Angus breed. While he has paid a premium to obtain those bulls, Shelton believes the top 10% gives him a better-quality bull.
“It has improved our cow herd over the years using premium bulls,” he says. Since going with partial SimAngus breeding, Shelton has lowered his calf attrition rate to a 2% loss.
Pleasing the customer
In the early 1980s, Shelton raised a lot of Simmental cattle. However, the larger frame of a Simmental put off the packers. They wanted a finished cow that better fit their needs. “If we get calves finishing out above 1,350 pounds at the feed market, it’s not desirable for the packer,” he says. “They’d rather it be in the 1,150- to 1,350-[pound] weight range to grade Choice.”
Not only is any cow over 1,350 pounds considered too large by the packers, Shelton says, they also argue that the meat quarters don’t fit into the shipping box.
Under the cattle industry’s grading standard, Shelton says the 1,150- to 1,350-pound range would grade out at the packer in an M1 or M2 class. An M1 or M2 class has a moderate frame and thick muscle. In comparison, an L1 or L2 class, weighing from 600 to 700 pounds, is a moderate frame with slightly less muscle. The S1 and S2 classes are considered lesser-quality.
“We typically cull anything that grades outside that M1 or M2 or L1 or L2 class,” he says.
For the last six years, Shelton has been marketing his steers to a feedlot in Pennsylvania. Feedlot representatives come south to his farm, grade his steers, sort them by weight and decide which ones they want. Once that is done, the feedlot sends a tractor-trailer to Shelton’s farm and loads the animals onboard, usually in June or July.
Shelton likes the benefits of selling to the Pennsylvania feedlot. For one, he receives a 5-cent to 10-cent-premium price that he can’t get at the local livestock markets for calves of the same size.
“They are willing to pay the premium for them coming from a single owner off one farm,” Shelton explains.
Secondly, the feedlot representatives pay to ship the animals using their hauling equipment, rather than Shelton using his own 20-foot cattle trailer.
Good recordkeeping is critical. Each calf is identified by the farm. For each animal, he must maintain records three to five years after they’ve left the farm. This way he can prove the background of the mother and sire they were bred to. He also must keep records on the shots given the animals, any medical attention they receive and the feed they are given.
Before the feedlot representative comes to Shelton’s farm, Shelton preconditions his calves. He will wean them off their mothers, start them on feed and automatic waterers, and give them the necessary shots to qualify them in the Virginia Premium Assurance Program.
“Basically at the precondition stage, we’re just trying to get them acclimated to eating feed, weaning them off their mother and getting them started on feed, so they are ready to go on a full ration in the feedlot. We’ll feed them 45 to 60 days here and then ship them out.”
Shelton feeds the calves either hay or baleage, which is similar to silage but is a combination of grain-rolled hay with soybean hulls and gluten pellets. Sometimes he uses wheat middlings, which is grain left over from the wheat. The calves are fed 8 to 10 pounds of rations per day.
He also sells them on the Internet, through a joint venture between the Pittsylvania County Cattlemen’s Association and Halifax County Cattlemen’s Association.
He culls calves that don’t grade well at the feedlot, direct-marketing them at the Lynchburg Livestock Market.
To stay up on the latest breed knowledge, Shelton reads as much cattle information as possible that Virginia Tech and other universities put out. He also reads cattle production literature from the American Angus Association.
In the future, Shelton predicts he will likely increase the percentage of the SimAngus breed in his herd. “The statistical data that we’re keeping annually and the production of calves will warrant how much we increase over the next year,” he says.
“Basically it is from year to year. We’ll look at the production of the females and the growth of the steers, how well they’re producing milk and how well their calving prospects are working. We will take all that into consideration in the breeding program in the future.”
Womack writes from Danville, Va.