ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
A survey of some of the top beef producers in Marion County shows diverse ways of doing things in the county’s wealthiest segment of agriculture.
Or, as Randy Mills, a cow-calf producer at Florence, puts it, “If you’d see 10 different people with beef operations, you’d probably see 10 different ways of how to go about it.”
They do have common modern concerns, ranging from the environment to possible terrorist attacks on agriculture with biological threats like hoof-and-mouth disease.
Last year, cattle accounted for 43 percent of the value of agricultural production in Marion County, or 50 percent if you add milk production, according to 2000-01 Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service figures.
The next largest production value was wheat at 17 percent.
The inventory value of cattle and calves on Jan. 1 totaled $53.13 million, with 77,000 head, nearly a half-dozen times more cattle than people.
In both numbers and value, Marion County ranked 18th among the 105 counties in cattle production.
The cattle industry easily is the biggest money-producer the county has, especially when you add all the spin-off multipliers in the local economy. That could include everything from livestock-trailer manufacturing and feed processing to the downtown shopping common to everybody.
Area cattlemen reflect a national outlook that shows the reasons the county ranks as it does. Marion County is on the western edge of the Flint Hills, the eastern edge of the Sand Hills, the beginning of some of the flatter, more fertile land, and all of Western Kansas with its conducive cattle feedlot finishing climate beyond it.
Merle Schlehuber, who owns and operates Wildcat Cattle Co. west of Hillsboro, said, “To the east of us, all the way to the coast, there are many, many small cow-calf operators, and to the western lots or to the grasslands, we can send the larger sets of cattle.”
For the past five years, Schlehuber has averaged several thousand cattle annually moving through his lots, but his operation isn’t a “feedlot” in the conventional sense.
If you put what Schlehuber does next to what Mick Summervill does southeast of Marion or what Gary Christiansen does at Durham, it
doesn’t look the same.
“We receive cattle here, and group them together so they look alike; get them up and going, over any problems,” Schlehuber said.
“We’re here to handle numbers, not a certain size or type, just so we can match them together,” he added. “We’re diverse-no certain size or color-just whatever has value, anything from a lightweight calf to a cow-calf pair.
“We travel geographically to buy calves by this time of year, usually to where they graze cattle and don’t put up much winter feed, and they need to sell calves.”
In the summer and spring, Schlehuber is in Oklahoma and Texas. In the fall, he’s back in Kansas and also Missouri, and then goes to South Dakota and Wyoming. In winter he’ll haul cattle from North Carolina or sometimes Virginia.
“We don’t buy many locally because there’s more farmer-trade here on lightweight calves that keep them a little out of our price range,” Schlehuber said. “We have good grain farmers who need something to feed in the winter, and graze on crop residue.
He said he doesn’t order buy or place the cattle for resale.
“We own the cattle all the way through to finishing,” he said. “After we put them together, they may move on to western Kansas feedlots or be grazed in the Sand Hills or Flint Hills, or on wheat in western Kansas or Oklahoma. They feed them so much cheaper, it becomes cost prohibitive to keep them here.”
In the feedlots, he said, the cattle feed mostly all corn. Most Kansas corn is on irrigated land in western Kansas.
“It is cheaper to take the cattle to the corn than to bring the corn to the cattle,” he said. “While they’re here, we’ll purchase 75 percent of our inputs locally.
“Logistically, we can’t handle the numbers of cattle we need to clear through with the amount of annual rainfall we have, and the environmental issues it brings.”
He said Marion County receives 30-plus inches of rainfall a year, which makes it impossible to keep up with the runoff requirements from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency, considering the slopes in his lots and the number of cattle he moves.
The situation is easier in western Kansas, where the the cattle can be spread out on flatter land.
“Geographically, this is a good location to bring them through, but we have to opt to have them flow through in a very short period of time,” he said.
Schlehuber counts himself fortunate that KDHE and EPA required him to be down on cattle numbers at this time to complete construction of diversion channels and an extensive lagoon system because the cattle market has been down following the New York and Washington terrorist attacks.
He predicted the environmental requirements will become much more stringent in the next few years even for small operators.
Summervill, meanwhile, got a jump on environmental requirements by putting in a lagoon 20 years ago “when I didn’t think I’d need it.” By doing it then, he beat the higher costs of putting one in now when KDHE would require it.
Summervill coordinates farming with cattle feeding, irrigating 65 acres of corn on fields bermed to contain runoff with water from the lagoon and another 250 acres of corn irrigated from the Cottonwood River.
He finds it ideal to have his feedlot on a hill location with water flowing off to the lagoon and the flat bottomland of the Cottonwood below.
“Our lots drain off well,” Summervill said. “KDHE checks us every year, and our permit is up for renewal every five years. We have to watch ourselves, too. It’s the name of the game anymore.”
He feeds the corn silage, and also grazes cattle on leased Flint Hills pastures under the care of Jim Barr at Cottonwood Falls.
Summervill has a regular program of purchasing around 150 Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri cattle monthly through order-buyers J.B. and Scott Mese, and also selling that many monthly.
“J.B. has been buying for me at least 20 years,” Summervill said. “I don’t have enough time to do it myself.”
“I buy calves at 400 pounds, and sell them at 800 pounds,” he added. “I like to buy black ones, usually steer calves because they do well, and I’ll stay with them.”
His lot capacity is 950 head, so he’ll turn over all the pens twice a year.
“I like selling 150 a month because that way I’m evening out the market highs and lows, protecting ourselves,” Summervill said.
He goes through the sale barns to sell them, usually at Herington, and the cattle usually go on to feedlots out in western Kansas or in Iowa or Nebraska.
“The feeder cattle haven’t been as low as the fats,” he said. “The fats are taking a real hit now.”
Christiansen is a backgrounder for stocker-feeder cattle much as Summervill is, but with different angles to his program. He also buys 400- to 500-pound light calves for growing to feeder size at 800 to 900 pounds, but of all kinds, as long as they are “native-looking cattle”- calves that have the look of coming from this area, whether steers or heifers.
“I buy in Kansas and Missouri mostly,” Christiansen said. “I like the Angus-Charolais cross and some of the Gelbvieh and Limousin crosses, too.”
Christiansen may have close to 2,000 head at a time and keeps them grazing as much as possible in the local area on native grass or wheat pasture.
“I raise quite a lot of my own feed, milo or wheat to winter graze,” he said. “I try to take them off wheat in March, so I can cut it for grain too.
“I do some order buying,” he said. “I buy a few for neighbors here. I get orders from feedyards from western Kansas to Texas to Nebraska. It varies from year to year depending on prices. I don’t do any cow-calf.”
In contrast, Mills is one of the larger cow-calf operators around, although he declined to discuss numbers. Instead, the genetics he is striving for in a commercial herd is to come up with the best meat carcass values for both the feedyards and the consumers.
He has an Angus-based herd that for “years and years” has been based on two traits: mothering ability-the ability of a cow to have a quality live calf and successfully raise it-and good quality carcass grades of the final product.
With these goals in mind, he retains ownership over all males produced from when they leave Florence for western Kansas feedlots to the packing plant, while females may be dispersed for herd cows throughout the country.
“We’re concerned with keeping the herd identity, to verifying how they’re doing in the feedlot, to following through to the packing house to see if there’s a problem, and how we might improve,” Mills said. “We keep a long-range plan on where we’re going.
“We use an electronically computer-based ear-tag system from calf to end point to keep track of expense and efficiency,” he added. “It’s an EID tag-ear identification-that’s scanned every time they come through a chute. It’s important for beef to be able to compete with the other food protein groups.”
Mills raises his own females for cow replacement, but he buys all of his males from the outside as embryo transplants that are raised here.
“We try to improve with a full brothers bull concept,” he said. “The embryos all come from the same genetics with similar traits so we can see what we’re doing on the maternal side and on the carcass side. It can take a lot of years to correct anything we don’t like or to see where we’re going.”
Besides keeping herd replacements and local customers, Mills has females going all over the country.
“We have customers in Georgia, Ohio, Iowa, western Kansas, and a lot of places all over the U.S.,” he said. “We’re at the center of the country in Kansas and Marion County.
Mills’s cattle are grazed on native grass year around, even in the winter.
“There’s no lots, no confinement, no backgrounding,” he said. “It makes it nice for cleanliness, and we don’t have a lot of health problems because of it.”
Mills urged anybody reading this article who needs to safeguard against bio-terrorism to contact the Kansas Livestock Association in Topeka for some guidelines.
“We need to be aware of our own places, and who might be on some of our own ground,” he said.