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New Traditions: Technology rides the range as ranchers

They swing into saddles early, maybe at dawn, often by age 4 or 5 or younger.

They grow up to be the classic working cowboys and cowgirls, rounding up and roping calves for branding or deworming or shipping to better grazing or to market, or to train horses for work and/or to show or buy or sell them. Their business, wholly responsible for the animals’ lives, is to nurture the critters and earn a sustainable family livelihood from them. Their lives are part of a storied tradition stretching back more than 140 years, and many things have remained the same. But even out yonder in the wide open spaces of West Texas and beyond – where you can truly get away from it all – technology is changing this way of life.

“We raise food … safe, high quality beef … relying on sustainable resource management,” said Todd McCartney, co-owner/operator with his wife Marianne Brown McCartney of a classic beef cow-calf business, McCartney Ranch Co. in West Central Texas, in the Throckmorton-Seymour area. He, Marianne, her ranching brother Donnell Brown, his wife Kelli Brown and other family members were attending a recent barbecue dinner at the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, recognizing livestock and horse producers as show supporters/participants.

“In this country, we’re producing more beef today with about half as many cows as they did in the 1950s,” said Donnell Brown, a fifth-generation family rancher on the Throckmorton-area R.A. Brown Ranch, a cattle operation with roots of three families dating to 1876.

That means, Brown said, producing more beef per animal per acre and pernutrition pound consumed. He and Kelli operate a purebred/seed-stock cattle business aimed at delivering the genetic potential to deliver that top beef-growing performance.

It’s a given: These cowboys, cowgirls and ranch managers would rather be on horseback in a pasture or on the range, dealing with their cattle or horses.

But now – Todd and Marianne McCartney, Donnell and Kelli Brown, 6666 Ranch cowboy and horse trainer Justin Johnson and other ranch hands and managers agree – they’re reaping the benefits of modern technologies.

“I can ride herd on just about everything I need to do … making decisions with speed and accuracy, managing the ranch, evaluating projections [before spending money] to minimize our risks … all while I’m on horseback,” McCartney said, citing smartphone- and/or laptop-facilitated/delivered decisions linked to bull and cow genetics, herd health and nutrition, grazing options, ranch accounting and facilities, cattle marketing, cowboy work assignments and more information, as detailed as wanted.

“Basically, I’ve got my office with me wherever I go,” said fourth-generation ranching cowboy Kris Wilson, 37, Ph.D., general manager of two Bell Ranch Division/New Mexico ranches of the multi-division Silver Spur Ranches, a former Texas Tech assistant professor, and specialist in ruminant and equine nutrition. He grew up in the Stephenville area and showed cattle as a 4-H and FFA member at the Fort Worth Stock Show.

“I quit my office job to ranch,” Wilson said. “I wanted the rural life to raise my family. Now with my smartphone, I can enjoy it more, again.”

And he can do a better job of making faster, better and more timely decisions for more efficient ranch work, he said.

“We’re able to know so much more about our cattle,” retrieved at the tap of a smartphone screen or laptop button, purebred/seed-stock producer Brown said. He cited practical, computer-enhanced management tools derived from or based on sound genetic science such as gene mapping and DNA typing.

Those genetics are linked to performance and pedigree records on every one of the ranch’s seed-stock bulls, heifers and cows (going ultimately to clientele’s beef-production herds) and the bovines’ bloodlines and offspring, Brown said.

“We use a lot of spreadsheets for the evaluation of performance points on our cattle [birth weights, weaning weights, ultrasound for pregnancy checking and beef ribeye measuring, feed conversion/efficiency, calving ease, breeding results, etc.] and cattle inventory,” co-manager Kelli Brown reported.

“It is also helpful to have all of this information dumped into one spreadsheet for evaluation of the [bull or other cattle] sale order and subsequently, the data that I pull into the sale catalog for the printer,” she said in an email. “In terms of the financial analysis of the ranch on a month-by-month basis, we use Quick Books to capture the data for enterprise accounting and therefore are able to use quarterly reports to make management decisions.”

They are making all the old chores and decisions easier, faster and more accurate – at the tap of a button or screen.

Of course, that also includes cowboy/cowgirl work assignments – getting more work done.

“They don’t need just a cowboy anymore,” said cowboy Justin Johnson, 40, a cattle ranch hand and a Quarter Horse trainer/showman for the Guthrie-headquartered branch of the multi-division 6666 Ranch. He worked as an arena judge in the Stock Show’s Best of the West Invitational Ranch Rodeo.

Johnson explained his comment this way:

• Now with the drought ending, ranchers are trying to rebuild herds.

“We didn’t have a cow on the [Guthrie-area] ranch in 2011,” Johnson said, because of the drought-forced shipping of 5,000-plus cattle from the approximate 180,000-acre 6666 Ranch division near Guthrie in about 45 days as grass forages shrank after years of mostly dry weather, including a record string of 100-degree-plus days – more than three months. The cattle were shipped to available grazing in other states.

• Now, despite the long selloff of nearly half the nation’s cow-herd population, ranchers are facing a slump in beef cattle market prices driven by competing record high meat and poultry supplies and sluggish export demand. Note: The Guthrie-area rain-rejuvenated 6666 Ranch division now nurtures about 3,500 cows and calves on site.

• Thus, full-time ranch cowboy or cowgirl jobs had been dwindling in number, as ranchers had to sell off too many good cattle, downsize by selling acres or sometimes whole ranches, and cut labor costs with fewer fulltime cowhands and more as-needed temporary day-cowhands.

• Ranchers are also dealing with increasingly more expensive assets, insurance and operating costs. During the just ended long market upswing and some record high prices, wise ranchers built reserve savings to help buffer squeezed profit margins.

• So, they’re demanding cowboys and cowgirls more skilled than ever in careful handling of the cattle, horses, animal health/safety, $30,000-$50,000 pickups, cattle chutes, gooseneck trailers, other machinery, tools like riding gear/tack, supplemental hay/feeds, ranch lodging, the land’s grass/forage and water resources, and – yes – the now common-on-ranch computers and smartphones.

“Once if you got mad, you could resign first and call a couple of places and get a job quickly,” Johnson said. That cowboy-ing option is disappearing, he said, noting that “more are staying in one spot than they used to. They’re becoming a part of the brand, wanting the security, the benefits. … It pays to be able to say, ‘I’m a Pitchfork [Ranch] cowboy’ or ‘I’m a four-6’s cowboy.’ ”

“We’ve gotten better cowboys and cowgirls,” Todd McCartney said, adding that many are college educated.

“We’re training [already skilled] cowboys to have higher quality practices,” Wilson said.

That also means better cattle handling to produce higher quality, less-stressed cattle producing higher quality beef, he said.

“Cattle like to see you,” said McCartney, referring to reducing stress on cattle while moving, directing and herding them, which produces better performing cattle. “Cattle don’t want you behind them.”

By working and herding cattle from the sides, “they know you’re there. They mind you; you move them more easily in the desired direction,” he said. There’s no need for whooping and hollering, slapping any leather or any undue noise. It induces unwanted/uneeded stress.

At R.A. Brown Ranch, Donnell Brown said, the path to better performance also means identifying every bull’s and cow’s DNA markers that most accurately forecast — among other progeny results – their pasture and grazing performance, easy birthing and calving, milking ability and production, fertility, longevity and rapid growth of high-volume, tastier, sufficiently marbled beef.

And it also means using artificial insemination, in-vitro fertilization and embryo-transfer technologies to produce more of the most desirable calves, he said. For example, a 15-year-old and now past retirement R.A. Brown cow named AbiGrace – one of the ranch’s best cows on all the markers – has produced more than 300 calves via in-vitro fertilization and embryo-transfer technologies, compared to an average of 10 per cow by natural reproduction. The embryos are transferred to good surrogate-mother cows.

To measure feed conversion efficiency, cowhands apply an electronic ear-tag to each animal to monitor precise feed consumption at its designated trough; exact amounts of feed eaten are registered as weights are taken by the electronic scale mounted under each trough and are transmitted wirelessly from the scale to a computer at the ranch office.

The data can be pulled up on the Browns’ smartphones.

Any cow or bull off its normal feeding routine will draw a close “eyeball” examination and maybe veterinary checkup for health issues, he said.

That works effectively in more controlled feeding operations, such as the Browns’ seed-stock/purebred business, but not on the open range and pastures of commercial cow-calf ranches. Still, the cow-calf operator’s calves can be monitored closely for feed-conversion rates while proceeding through the grain-feeding/finishing stage in feedlots, just ahead of the slaughter/meat packing plant.

And, these ranchers said, today’s cattle performance results can be traced back from the meatpackers to live animal origins on the ranch.

Echoing the Browns, McCartneys and Johnson, Wilson said: “We’re really trying to do a lot better job of marketing.”

From its beginning in 1896, the Stock Show has been and remains an important marketing tool for many producers – showing off the latest genetic results of their breeding ventures via bulls, cows and heifers and/or horses in the arena.

But now the technologies bring new avenues, as well.

“We utilize our website, YouTube and Facebook to share our message,” Kelli Brown said, adding that the Brown Ranch team uses social media “to share an insider’s viewpoint of ranch life” with the outside world and consumers.

“But [the same media] are also handy to market our sales,” she said. “We also have all of our bull and female sale animals individually and professionally videoed. We no longer run the animals through a sale ring but rather show those videos at the sale barn and on an online broadcast. This allows everyone to see the animals in their natural state [as opposed to just a sale ring], and it allows our customers who are unable to travel to Throckmorton for the sale, to bid and buy from the comfort of their computer.”

Citing the old and lingering need of “eyeballing” any cow, bull or calf for appearance, performance, breed traits, health and injuries – and still wanting his own gut feeling/intuition before making many final decisions, McCartney said: “We’re blending the technologies with time-honored traditions.”

Naturally, some cowboys and ranchers say, young cowboys can get a bit distracted texting or talking with their sweethearts, playing electronic games, Facebooking or tweeting.

Ranch bosses typically say no cellphone socializing or gaming on the job, and some collect cellphones at workday startup, monitor the cell calls and texts and then return the devices when the workday is done. Emergency calls are allowed, however.

“It does happen,” Johnson said.

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