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Quality in: Quality out

17 Ranch has turned to silver cattle in a big way

Quality isn’t just part of Marty Armstrong’s business strategy, it’s everything. It’s what 17 Ranch has been all about since he established the backgrounding and grasser operation near his hometown of Eastend, Sask., in 2001.

17 Ranch flips as many at 4,500 head a year, adding approximately 500 pounds between buying in feeder steers starting in mid-October and selling them as shortkeeps coming off grass in September.

Quality starts with having an eye for the kind of cattle that will turn a profit and being willing to pay a few-cents premium to get large groups of top-cut 500-weight steers from pre-sort sales and ranches.

“Structure and health are first and foremost, but not all of the steers in the top cut are top-cut quality. Maybe 10 per cent or so don’t meet the mark for structure (frame size, muscle structure, joint health) or performance,” Armstrong says. “I give them time to settle in and sort for quality at the second round of implanting. Usually three or four liner loads of medium types are replaced with steers that fit with the rest of the cattle.”

He feeds a forage-based backgrounding ration of hay, silage, and greenfeed, or any combination thereof, depending on what the growing season brings his way. Last year, it brought more than two feet of rainfall, which culminated in record silage yields. In an average year, some 3,500 stockers eat their way through 5,000 tons of silage and 6,000 bales before turnout.

“I don’t push them through the winter — a little green going to pasture is OK. If they get too fleshy, they’ll lose pounds fast when they go out on grass,” Armstrong explains. “The whole idea is to keep inputs low and weight gains high. Year after year, I get the best performance from crossbred cattle and tame grass and clean water.”

The tame pastures include alfalfa, crested wheat grass and smooth brome grass. Cicer milkvetch is also proving to be a good forage for this area of southwestern Saskatchewan, about an hour from the U.S. border.

The final sort happens at turnout, when the steers are grouped into uniform lots to be sold off grass, which can be anywhere from 250 to 700 steers in each pasture group.

Load-out facilities at strategic locations reduce stress and shrink at sale time, versus having to round up cattle off pasture, truck them back to the yard and load them out again.

Armstrong considers sturdy four-strand barbwire fences and efficient handling facilities well worth the investment. By incorporating Dr. Temple Grandin’s design for low-stress cattle-handling facilities into his operation, the cattle free-flow on their own from the crowding tub, down the curved alley to either the loading ramps or the hydraulic squeeze for processing. The cattle- and people-friendly design makes it possible for one person at the hydraulic controls to work cattle on his own and make short work of quietly loading a liner.

Of all the technological advances the beef industry has seen throughout the decade, the widespread acceptance of Internet cattle auctions has had the greatest influence on his business, both buying and selling cattle.

He always sells through DLMS and looks there to buy cattle as well. The advantage he sees is the ability to quickly move big volumes of cattle. Internet sales make everybody available, so the cattle get broad exposure and go to buyers that he would never have expected. He appreciates the competitive bidding, which goes back to the auction market system and true price discovery.

When Armstrong started 17 Ranch, most of the cattle he purchased came from Western Canada and were sold to buyers in Western Canada, with the former Lakeside lot at Brooks being one of his major customers.

The past couple of years have seen the buyer base shift eastward, with 60 per cent of the steers snapped up by Ontario feedlots last fall. “Ontario sets the bar high and they want them big. They need framey cattle that finish out at 1,600-plus pounds,” he says.

Armstrong has become an advocate for silver cattle since testing the prospects with three liner loads purchased in fall 2010. They outstripped the blacks in the same pen in every aspect from health, to overall performance, to the marketplace, where they garnered an eight cent premium.

Silvers are modern-day smokies — the very same Angus-Charolais calves that the market used to discount. “These were the kind of cattle that buyers bought cheapest and made the most money on. I saw it so many times in the auction market,” says Armstrong, who got a crash course in real-world cattle marketing with six years’ experience working behind the scenes sourcing and sorting cattle for the Nilsson Brothers’ Vermilion market.

“When you see that many cattle day after day, sometimes 24-7, 365 days a year, you get so you can sort the good from the bad in a hurry,” he says. “When you work with good people you learn a lot and it sticks with you.”

Armstrong went for silver again in 2011 and saw the same results. Other than liking the way they grow, get big quickly, and continue to look good on grass, he noticed once again that the silvers didn’t need as much treating for health problems as other types of straight and crossbred calves.

That’s was his experience last year as well, with marketing getting off to a great start August 16 on DLMS. The first set of 400 silvers averaging 990 pounds topped that day’s sale and were picked up by JGL of Moose Jaw, Sask., for a feedlot near Hensell, Ont.

Armstrong says the use of white bulls on black cows is becoming more popular. “In my opinion a good chunk of today’s Charolais bulls are underrated as much as a strong percentage of black bulls are overrated,” he says. “There are a lot of good black bulls out there, then there are the kind that produce short, dumpy, gutty calves with no frame and no structure. When you put the two breeds together, they compliment each other and you get results.”

That’s what he is expecting from the 600 first-calf Angus heifers purchased last year and exposed to Charolais bulls to start calving this June. The expansion will produce silvers for the grasser operation and spread the risk between two enterprises.

Aside from staying true to his commitment to quality cattle, Armstrong credits his success to many quality people he has come to know through his long association with Nilsson Bros., his steady employee of eight years, Dylan Arnal, and his dad, Bob Armstrong, who is just a phone call away and always available to help.

A dozen years into his own business and several industry setbacks later, he still sees lots of potential in the cattle industry for himself and his children as long as the rain keeps falling, the grass keeps growing and quality calves keep coming his way.

He can be reached at 306-295-7473.

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