Truth through data: how digital records are changing cow-calf operations

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  • Shane Schulz is the third of four farming generations of his family in South Central Colorado, operating a cow/calf business, a feedlot, and a crop farm.
  • The ranch runs 150 cow/calf pairs each year, with a feedyard accepting up to 1,200 head. As a small operator, he’s looking for every advantage to reduce costs and maximize value.
  • In this case study, Shane talks about how the family’s ranching business is following in the technological footsteps of their farming operations, and why data lies at the heart of today’s successful ranching operations.

“I’m really interested in the data side of cow-calf operations, and that’s where HerdDogg, with its Animal Record Collection, is a big plus for us. To be successful in this business, you need to start capturing data from the moment a calf is born.”

Shane Schulz — Owner/Operator, Schulz Farms

How do your farming and ranching operations complement each other? 

We’re a multigenerational family of farmers and ranchers — in that order. My folks were from Southeastern Colorado, and after my grandfather passed away, my grandma told my dad: “Sure,  you can farm, but you’re just probably not going to do well farming here.” 

So after he got done with college, he went to the San Luis Valley of Colorado outside of Alamosa.

And as he worked, he bought more land, accumulating it over the years. Then, my brother and I got involved — and now my nephews are also involved in the business, and hopefully someday my son will be as well. 

On the farming side, we raised barley for Coors and for Proximity Malt that then sells regionally to microbrewers. We lease out some ground that gets farmed for carrots, and on top of that we grow canola, oats, alfalfa, and some silage corn. These crops are a key ingredient of our ranching business. We’re at 7,500 feet —high mountain desert— with around seven inches of annual precipitation a year, which is why one of the ranching challenges in this location is having enough pasture to support cattle grazing year-round.

Over time, we acquired some grass pastures and rented some ranch ground near us. Gradually,  we built up our herd which, today, runs about 150 cow-calf pairs each year. More recently, we’ve been growing a small feedlot business that serves probably anywhere from a thousand to 1,200 head.

Our farm products are an important component of how we feed cattle. Rather than feeding them corn, we can feed corn silage and canola silage. We can also use a by-product from the malt plant, spent malt, which isn’t used in the brewing process. All these crops are used on our feedlot.

Sometimes ranching gets a black eye for environmental reasons. Well, cattle are really good at consuming waste products that are not suitable for human consumption. In fact, our cattle do a pretty good job of taking product that would otherwise probably go to a landfill and up-cycling it into high-quality protein.

Tell us more about the feedlot operations

My dad and I will buy calves from neighbors in the fall. We also custom feed for other operations in the area — there’s a large feedlot in Lamar that we work with to background their cattle. We basically get them in, wean them, process them, and get them on to feed to get them healthy for the large finish yards. 45 to 60 days later, when they’re at a certain size, they get shipped over to Lamar, where they get finished out. Also, the Lamar feedlot is the main purchaser of our own home-raised calves and other calves that we buy. 

One of the reasons that we focused on the feeding side of the business is that the market prices for commodities fluctuate every year. Because we’ve built up a reputation with our feedlot, we have a great relationship with our buyers in which we can sell for a decent price that pencils out for both parties. We feel good about our cost of feed, and using our own farm products helps us feed some of our other products, such as oat straw. The other benefit of feeding is we get to use the manure to spread on our fields and help add organic matter into our soil.

This approach also insulates us somewhat from feed costs. Some years, hay prices are high, in others, they’re low. In those low years, you’re probably better off running it through a cow in your own feedlot than putting it on a truck and shipping it to someone else. 

In addition to what we are doing in our feedyard, we are able to utilize waste products from produce grown in the area for our cow/calf herd. We lease ground to a large carrot farming operation.  We are able to get more out of our pastures by getting access to cull carrots.  We also then graze the carrot field after they harvest them.  There are carrot tops and some carrots left in the field which gives us 45-60 days of fall grazing for our cows. So, the feedlot enables us to vertically integrate our operations.

Ranching, like farming, is increasingly data-driven. Is that a trend you’re seeing in your operations?

Yes. As someone with experience in both farming and ranching, it’s been interesting to see how quickly row crop farmers adopted technology such as GPS, trackers, and precision agriculture. Certainly they’ve adopted faster than ranchers. For them, the cost savings are easy to see. If you GPS-equip your tractor, it changes how you do tillage, fertilizer application, and so on. If you can reduce waste in hard costs like fuel, seed, and fertilizer, you can quickly prove that any technology is worth the investment.

I’ve been applying those same principles to see how HerdDogg can be used to make the cattle herd smarter, higher tech. And quite frankly, livestock, especially the cow side of it, has been one of the last frontiers to really adopt technology because margins are really tight in the cattle industry. But if you can show efficiency, I think more cow-calf guys, beef guys, or dairy guys will look at these precision-farming technologies.

I’m really interested in the data side of cow-calf operations, and that’s where HerdDogg, with its Animal Record Collection, is a big plus for us. To be successful in this business, you need to start capturing data from the moment a calf is born: which cow delivered the calf, was it a bull calf or a heifer calf, and then which shots were given and when? 

The older guys in the business just jot down these details in a cattle book that fits in a pocket.But then later you go and upload it in a spreadsheet and hope that you can read your notes from a month ago.  I am using the welfare tag on replacement heifers which will allow me to bypass the calving book and use it on my phone or Ipad. Using the HerdDogg welfare tag, we can detect the estrus cycle for individual animals, which means we can eliminate some of the hit-and-miss aspects of breeding. I also can use the welfare tag to help understand when and if they were bred and which cycle. 

For example, when a heifer goes into estrus and the bull hopefully breeds them, was the calf conceived on that first breeding cycle? Because if we know that, then later, when we preg check, I can hopefully cross-correlate that with ultrasound scans. So then if we think it was that first cycle, then I can be looking for a timeframe of when I think she is going to calve. 

Another data-driven feature is that the welfare tag helps us detect a signature uptick in activity that is the signal that she’s getting ready to calf. And that’s important because you want to be there when that happens — especially with a first-time mother. You have to babysit first-calf heifers because they can have calving problems or not take the calf right away.  Some heifers have a pretty good maternal instinct, but every now and then, a cow delivers a calf and won’t take it right away.  They are confused about what just happened.  You can tell she’s like “What the heck is that? What just came out of me?” If you’re there, you help mitigate the situation and save the calf and even the mother.  

This same data is also useful when the exact opposite happens—when a heifer is bred and yet there’s no pregnancy. The data we’re collecting tells us when she potentially was exposed to the bull, so then if she continues to go into estrus after that, then something’s going on. Maybe she can’t get pregnant, or she got pregnant and lost the calf. For a rancher, you need to know, so you can decide whether to cull her out of the herd earlier—because that way at least I’m not paying to feed her all winter long, or paying her to eat up grass. There’s a true efficiency saving there, and in fact this has implications for sustainability and feed costs.

What’s your message for other ranchers who are considering digital animal records?

The thing to understand is that hardware —the tags and all that— is really just the gateway to where the true value lies. The software and data side, HerdDogg calls it the animal record collection , or ARC, is key. Especially for smaller producers who want to compete better. Even if your average herd size is less than 50 head, there’s real value here, particularly if you want your herd (or some part of it)  in a branded beef program such as all-natural or non-hormone.

All these programs require individual audits where a third-party auditor comes to your ranch. They are there for a day and you pay a fee, which is usually a thousand or a couple of thousand dollars. They go back to their offices and you become certified for those programs. When it comes time to sell those animals, you have to provide a written affidavit. Well, with a digital animal record, you have a history of everything that happened to that animal: vet visits, vaccinations, pregnancies, and so on.

These digital records means a small ranch operation can enter individual animals into these potentially profitable programs because, rather than paying for the entire herd, you’re instead looking at a per-head fee.

And when feedlots are also using digital tags and records, there’s a lot less paperwork. That animal record goes digitally with each animal, and you can identify it back to that tag. It becomes a much simpler or cleaner process. Rather than digging through a file, trying to find that piece of paper to confirm which pen or animal did or did not qualify for a program, you can read a tag and know for sure.

Another example would be a big internet video auction trading house. If you’re a producer and you want to sell through a video auction, there are different programs that you can enter your cattle into, and it shows up as badges when they get advertised either on the video or on their country page. Today, you still have to sign a kind of a written affidavit when you place the ad. I could see them adopting a digital record instead of a written affidavit because, again, we’re talking about efficiency and value.

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