Using data to drive decisions

The family behind Echo Sand Ranching and Korova Feeders challenges 
conventional thinking in seedstock production and sales

Data has always driven herd management decisions for Doug and Helga Price, though their methods for using data have greatly evolved over the years. At one time, they calculated performance data for Echo Sand Ranching on paper. Helga spent long hours working this information to rank the females in their herd. Today, with an easy-to-use database at hand, performance and carcass data provides them with opportunities to improve their breeding program and leverage this information into new marketing ventures.

The Prices live near the original operation established by Doug’s parents, who moved to the Acme, Alta. area in the early 1950s. Before that, his family ran Rimrock Hereford Ranch at Crossfield, Alta. When he took over the operation, he expanded the herd and turned his attention to Angus genetics. Today, they run about 5,000 females in total at the Echo Sand Ranching headquarters at Acme and their locations at Little Fish Lake, east of Drumheller, and Czar, Alta. They also have pasture and a grazing lease at Rocky Mountain House. Their top females and AI cows, numbering about 1,200 head, begin calving in April, and the main cowherd starts in early May.

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The family also runs Korova Feeders, which has a total capacity of about 35,000 head at its two locations. They recently purchased the former Western Feedlots at High River and plan to increase its capacity. With the expansion of this feedlot, which will be called Rimrock Feeders, this brings the total feedlot capacity to 80,000 head.

Feeding their own calves provides access to feedlot performance and carcass data, which the Prices use to identify the females in their herd producing the most profitable calves. Around 14 years ago, they started using HerdTrax, a record-keeping program, to simplify the process of ranking their cowherd.

“(With HerdTrax) we could take the carcass data, and as long as we have a birthdate then we can identify the cow that’s producing the most amount of meat and carcass value in the least number of days,” said Price. This is the top cow in his herd. Price uses his top genetics in-house.

Slaughter data on a female’s progeny is added to her record on HerdTrax. Her herd rating can change as more data becomes available with each calf. High fertility in females is key, as missing a calf drops a cow’s ranking and open cows are removed from the herd. In lieu of performance and slaughter data, this program gives cows credit for producing a replacement heifer or bull to be sold.

“We can move so much faster,” said Price. “The way my wife sorted cattle, she looked at each individual and tried to figure out on a table which one’s the best and which one’s the worst. That was a big, big job. Now it all goes into a database.”

The software can rank animals based on an individual trait or a combination of traits. For example, the program can use calving records to rank 4,000 head on weaning weight only, and it’s possible to rank them with 40 per cent of that based on the dam’s rating, 30 per cent on slaughter data and 20 per cent on weaning weight.

The most profitable five per cent of the cow herd are known as Elite Cows and are used to produce replacements. Bulls are put on test with GrowSafe Systems to monitor conversion data, as they will be selected for use in their herd based on feed conversion and rate of gain.

“Conversion is the most important thing in my mind in the feedlot and also in the cowherd,” said Price.

While the value of identifying top females is highlighted in data-based programs, Price finds identifying the bottom-end of the herd to be the most useful aspect. “You have the biggest impact on profitability of the whole herd by eliminating your poor ones,” he said.

They produce replacements through the Echo Power Genetics program. A number of females are AI’d to Profit, a Simmental sire from Hartman Cattle Company in Nebraska, and they clean up with Hartman genetics. Bulls produced in this program are sold annually and also used in their own operation on lower-ranking females to produce feeder calves.

They also use feedlot performance data to improve conversion rates. Price explained that using an average feedlot conversion rate of about 6.5 lbs. of dry matter to one lb. of gain, improving that conversion to 6.4 lbs. of dry matter equals about $9 per head.

“When I’m testing my bulls or doing any conversion testing, there’s a variation in that group that can be from 4.5 to 8.5 (lbs.),” he said. “That’s four full points, and we’re talking close to $100 a point. There’s close to $300, $400 variation in the good ones to the poor ones. So to me it’s so important that we utilize bulls that are high gaining, good carcass and good conversion.”

The second edition of their annual bull sale took place in April, using a sale format that is unusual for the beef industry. Price based this format on a genetic production pyramid used by Pig Improvement Canada. Similar to his own operation, the producer uses top genetics in his own operation and the next level is for producing seedstock, with boars sold in categories based on data.

For Echo Sand’s bull sale, traits measured on test include weight per day of age to sale day, performance from weaning to sale day and the ranking of their dam. This data splits them into three categories: Silver, Gold and Platinum. Bulls are pre-priced and sold on data alone, with customers choosing a category rather than a specific bull. A computer program will randomly pick the requested number of bulls from each category. Many bulls are ordered prior to sale day, and Price selects bulls for his own commercial herd through this method.

Although the concept of ordering a class of bulls on data is novel, buyer feedback has been positive. On sale day this year, Price asked many of the buyers if they went back to the pens to check out the bulls they purchased and if they were happy with the computer selection.

“I didn’t have anybody that went and looked at them. They all came and looked at the bulls during the day and selected how many they wanted, but it was interesting to me that they didn’t go back and look at them,” he explained. “The bulls all looked good, so it didn’t really matter to them which one they got out of that class, which is the right concept in my mind.”

Echo Sand Ranching also offers a calf buyback program for its bull buyers. “I believe that in order to be a true program, I should be the one that wants to buy the calves back,” said Price. “I know what they’ll do in my own feedlots.” He splits the final quality premiums with the producers and provides them with feedlot performance and slaughter data.

When it comes to genetic improvement tools, Price prefers using this data to inform his breeding decisions rather than considering EPDs. “My opinion for my own herd is I like real, true data. Nothing’s adjusted, nothing’s predicted. It is what that dam or what that animal actually did in the meat.”

This approach fits an operation such as his, as he has the opportunity to follow animals all the way to slaughter. As well, performance and slaughter data are generally more readily available on crossbred cattle.

“We have quite a volume of slaughter data that we can track right back to that cow or that bull or the pair of them,” he explained. “It’s pretty hard to identify what’s under the skin by looking at it. I’ve followed a lot of cattle through the plants, and it’s very difficult to identify with your eye what is the best genetics. But true data, actual data, will get you a lot closer.”

He believes using data to determine how to improve your breeding program is a worthwhile investment, one he sees used more frequently by young beef producers. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the young producer is much more true-data-driven. They want to know how they can improve and how they get that information,” he said. “If the young commercial guy, in my opinion, can track more information on what he’s producing and what value he’s producing and what cow is producing that, he will get ahead in his own operation.”

The ability to use this information has helped them expand all aspects of their business. “We enjoy growing it and creating more opportunity for the family and our employees,” he said. “I think over time, providing we can produce seedstock, whether they’re heifers or bulls, that are superior under this format, I can see that expanding.”

Continuous improvement also allows for greater opportunities for everyone involved in Echo Sand and Korova. Price is passionate about celebrating the team at the heart of his operation — family members invested in the business and employees who have been with them for decades. “What excites me the most about our operation are the people that are around us,” he said.

This is evident on a drive around the neighbourhood with him, as he waves to employees cleaning pens at one of his feedlots and praises the managers of his cowherds while touring pastures. Pulling onto the highway north of the small town of Acme, he mentions the importance of supporting the community by creating jobs.

The next generation is part of this, with two of his daughters playing major roles in different aspects of both operations. Tonay and her husband, Evan Hegedys, run Hegedys Ranching, with a 1,500-head cowherd and feedlot. They use Echo Sand genetics to produce hybrid females, and they’re partners in Rimrock. Kendra and her husband, Bryan Donnelly, are shareholders in Korova and investors in Rimrock. Kendra manages the controller team for Echo Sand, Korova and Rimrock, while Bryan runs their annual bull sale and assists with operations in Saskatchewan, among other duties.

Among their many employees, several have been with them for decades, moving up to management positions. Sabrina Barkman is the overall cowherd manager, Tyson White manages the Little Fish Lake herd and Lenard Eberts manages the Czar herd. Joe Lofthouse is the manager of Korova Feeders, while Lyle Konschuh and Clay McBean provide expertise as the go-to cowboys.

“The operation is what it is today by the people that we have circled around us and our long-term employees and managers. We’re only as good as the people we have around us,” Price explained. “We’ve been very fortunate to be able to have passionate, hard-working, long-term employees and family. It’s really important to me, because how do you do this without good people?”

Doug and Helga Price’s family are involved in the business. The people around him are what excites Doug most about the ranch and feedlots.
photo: Deirdre Kavanagh

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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