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Breeding no-nonsense cattle for any environment

Al and Lori Fenton have been raising Herefords at Irma, Alta., for a long time. “My mom and dad started this outfit in 1946,” says Al. “We started in the Hereford breed because at that time it was the most adaptable breed for our environment. Like any other breed, it needed some revolutionary selection and culling to make it a lot better. I think the Hereford is now one of the best breeds out there,” he says.

“We’ve been holding our production sales in November and last fall was our 51st sale. We sell 100 bulls each year, and about 150 heifers — purebred and commercial. We also have a quarter horse broodmare band and sell quarter horse foals and geldings in our sale. We’ve been raising quarter horses for more than 30 years,” says Fenton.

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“Our cattle pretty much take care of themselves. For the past nine years we’ve been growing corn and turn the cows out on standing corn the first of November and bring them home the 20th of March. We manually feed our cows for only about 50 days during calving. As soon as they calve, they go to some grass that we saved; we pair them up and they move on,” he says.

Their cattle need to work for a living, with minimal labour required. “This is a family operation; I have two boys at home, Conrad and Blair, but one of them is a professional firefighter who does 24-hour shift work and isn’t here full-time. My wife Lori is a registered nurse and works on and off the ranch. In order for us to run this place and 500 purebred cows, these cows have to be run as simple as possible, with the least amount of equipment. We hire our seeding done and we just look after cattle,” he explains.

The Fenton family.

The Fenton family.
photo: Supplied

“The No. 1 thing that has probably helped our herd is that we’ve been keeping 100 heifers each year for a number of years, and we don’t give excuses to any cow. If she doesn’t bring in a calf, for any reason whatsoever, even if it isn’t her fault, she doesn’t stay, because there are cows in the same conditions that have calves. Yes, we can have severe winters here, and yes, we can run into adverse conditions but the main thing holding the Hereford breed back is that too many people make too many excuses for the cows they are raising,” says Fenton.

“A person has to rate udders, for instance, along with disposition, feet, quality, etc. on the day the cow calves. After a week or so with the calf sucking, those udders can look pretty good. Someone else could look at that udder at that point and wouldn’t know it from good. But on day one we rate those udders on a score from one to five, with one being very good, and two being good but not perfect. If the cow is a score three, she’s gone. A three usually means the calf is able to get on the teats and suck, but the udder isn’t acceptable.” That udder may get worse as the cow gets older.

A score three usually means the front teats are too long or the teats are too big, or there’s some other issue.

“Anything that’s a two isn’t allowed to have a bull calf (it will become a steer). The only ones we’ll keep bull calves from are the cows with No. 1 udders.” This is very important, because a bull’s daughters tend to have udders like his mother’s.

“If you stay with that plan long enough, you win. With the numbers we have, it’s a constant culling system, but if you keep enough heifers every year you can reinforce your program and not get into trouble.

“We do a lot of research on the bulls we buy, though we do get some surprises along the way; genetics can do that. A bull can throw back to places you can’t visualize,” says Fenton.

“I think the reason most of our customers keep coming back for our cattle is our no-nonsense attitude and our push for trouble-free cattle. They can also select from a large group of bulls and heifers. There will be something they want because there is volume to pick from and they have options. Selling in natural condition allows our customers to pick bulls that won’t change when they get home. We do have one style of cattle we prefer, and our environment dictates some of that, and I also think it is important to raise what you are happy with. You spend your whole life doing it, and if you are not happy with your product it won’t be a very fun day.”

“We support the Calgary bull sale and the East Central bull sale. Both sales have been going on for more than 100 years. If you always sell your cattle on your own place, you may think they are pretty good, but I think it pays to take them out there and let the buyers tell you if they are any good.

“Judging in a show ring doesn’t interest me, but having your string of bulls at a sale, beside everybody else’s and having the buyers judge them, and getting the buyers’ views and comments can give you lots of support or insight into what you need to get done.

“The buyer is right, 99 per cent of the time, and it doesn’t hurt to listen,” says Fenton.

Self-sufficient cattle

“Some of the other breeds have chased low birth weights hard, but I don’t think it’s the answer. I think pelvis size of females goes with it, and pretty soon you are forced to breed for small calves because the cows can’t handle anything else,” Fenton says.

“Some people look at a 105-pound birth weight and think that’s too much, but it depends on the size of the cow and the structure of the calf, whether it’s streamlined or not. If it’s a long calf, the cow will have that calf very easily. Calving ease has more to do with the shape of the animal than it does with birth weight. You might have a 70-pound calf that comes out like a brick, and it won’t be an easy birth. The cow still has to work at it, and at the end of the day you still don’t have much of a calf,” he says.

“Two things bother me about the Here­ford business. No. 1 is that many people will sacrifice some awfully good cattle for colour. They pass it by if it has a white front leg or a big white crest. The second thing is that people pay so much attention to EPDs and birth weights that they sometimes get off track. If calves are long and streamlined, they can be 100-plus pounds and come out of heifers and never look back. Yet if you say that number, everybody runs for the hills,” says Fenton.

“I ride out there with my cattle at least 200 days a year. I know what my cattle weigh and how they grow, and I know what they look like. There are a lot more good calves that are over 100 pounds at birth than under 100 pounds, yet I have to steer everything that’s over 100 pounds because I can’t sell it as a bull. But you should see my steer pen! People are knocking down my door to buy my steers, but the purebred guys question my bulls because they think they are too big.”

He wants to keep his cattle large. “We had smaller cattle at one point in my life and it wasn’t easy to get bigger and good. It only takes one bull to get you little and I don’t want to do that. Right now our kill cows bring more per pound if they are big. A 1,600-pound cow could bring $1.03 to $1.05. If you sell a 1,200-pound cow, she brings 95 to 97 cents.She brings less per pound and doesn’t have as much meat on her so it’s a double loss.

“With smaller cattle you give up $300 in salvage, and I don’t know why people want to do that. My goal with these cattle is to keep them big enough for whatever our environmental conditions will handle, and not follow the latest fad,” he says.

The Hereford has many plusses, and one of those advantages is disposition. “I have nine grandchildren under eight years old. I go out and tag newborn calves with horses, and those kids are with me. I am not saying that all Hereford cows won’t hunt you; there are some that will. But if you know what you are doing, you can go ahead and tag any calf on my place, in a herd of 500-plus cows, with grandchildren helping — on a pony or a big horse, or standing there holding the tagging gun, and it’s not an issue,” Fenton says.

Another issue is milk. “You see a lot of high-profile bulls with high milk numbers such as 30 to 35. If that number is real, I can’t own those cattle; they won’t conceive, at my place. They may conceive as heifers, but they won’t conceive their second year because they are milking too much. If the breed average for milk EPDs is 18 or so, my herd is probably a 16. If I have 500 cows that don’t milk (according to those numbers) you’d be shocked at what their calves weigh. If a 16 to 20 milk EPD is working really well at my place and the cows are breeding back and getting the job done, I don’t know what I would do with a cow that was 30 to 35. I’d have open cows, if it’s real,” he says.

“I used to AI a bit, but found the results inconsistent. If you use 10 AI bulls your calf crop looks like a box of Smarties. I bought seven herd bulls this year even though I only needed two. My boys wondered why I did that, and I told them you have to buy them when you can find them. There will be another year when we’ll want another bull or two, and if we don’t find one that suits us, we don’t buy one. This just happened to be a year that I brought home some extra bulls that I thought would be useful, because there’s always a bull that can go off the bottom.”

His No. 1 goal is to look after the commercial cattleman, but the purebred breeder has a lot of value, too, as a customer. “He will understand what he’s looking at. We don’t trim feet or make excuses, so what you see is what you get. If the cattle change, they’ll change in the right direction instead of going downwards. They will adapt to most environments; I sell bulls into the mountains of British Columbia, clear to Ontario, and as far south as Texas,” he says.

“I’ve also sold more than 500 cattle to Russia and bordering countries over the last several years. I am not big on selling/using semen. We feel it’s more important to watch these bulls and see them work naturally, and if they suit us then we know their sons will suit us. If you get it out of a tank, you don’t know how those cattle were evaluated. If you bring those genetics here, the way we run our cattle, it rarely fits,” he explains. A person needs to see the real deal.

“Everything’s got to be in front of you. If you keep cattle in a situation where Mother Nature is providing (rather than being pampered) you will make better judgments and better selections, every time. Mother Nature will tell you. You can take an average animal with the right environment and it will look extremely good. But it costs money to get that animal in good condition. A poor cow eats the same amount as a good cow. If you evaluate them for what they will really do, you can cull those poor ones,” he says.

“One nice thing about wintering our cows on standing corn, even if they are out in two feet of snow, they will eat that corn right down to the bottom. They rustle for their feed all winter. The manure is scattered all over the field where we need it, rather than concentrated in a few places like when bale grazing or swath grazing, or feeding in a pen. Another advantage when those cows are out eating corn — there’s no competition. They can walk to the next stalk if there’s a cow at the first one. You can run mature cows, 15-year-old cows, and first-calf heifers all together and they should come out in the same condition. The ones that don’t — they leave our place,” Fenton says.

“If you can get cattle to the point where you are not having to process any feed for them, that’s the best situation. They have teeth and can harvest their own feed. If they will work under my conditions, they will work under most others.”

“You can throw that bull out somewhere with an old hay bale and he’ll be fine. I think this is a huge advantage. Cows need to go out and forage. A lot of people work too hard for their cattle,” says Fenton.

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