The Bradley 3 Ranch is committed to creating a better cow herd for themselves and for the industry
By Maggie Malson, photos provided by the Bradley family
Not many Angus breeders can say they have been in the registered beef cattle business for 60 consecutive years, but Bradley 3 Ranch of Memphis celebrated that milestone in February at their annual bull sale. They must be doing something right.
Fourth generation rancher Mary Lou Bradley-Henderson, an honorary director of Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA) credits the longevity in the business to a multitude of things, including her family’s dedication and discipline for getting their customer a better, more affordable, and dependable product. This driving force led the ranch to become an early adopter of technology, including ultrasound, DNA, data collection and use of expected progeny differences (EPDs), says Mary Lou, who now ranches with her husband, James Henderson, and her mother, Minnie Lou Bradley.
The ranch started using Angus bulls in the 1950s, a bold move at that time for the historically Hereford herd. They enrolled in the American Angus Association’s (AAA) Angus Herd Improvement Records (AHIR) program and began raising registered Angus cattle in 1958. The family felt it would help them be more efficient in producing cattle and improving the beef industry overall.
“You have to look at the number of acres, the pounds weaned per acre, and your feed costs,” says Mary Lou. “If you start looking at the whole scenario, you are trying to understand the optimum cow size for your environment. In Texas, the land capability is diverse. In some areas, you can run a cow every 40 acres. In others, it’s a cow to every 4 acres.”
In addition, the Bradleys began using DNA years before the AAA adopted it.
“My mom said, “If we can convict people using DNA, we can darn sure validate parentage with DNA,” Mary Lou adds.
They were running one bull per pasture at the time, but once the association approved DNA as a way to verify parentage, the Bradleys could run multiple bulls at a time. Today, the ranch markets registered Angus and Charolais bulls and females in annual sales.
“We were early adopters of ultrasound because we wanted our commercial bull customer to understand what he was buying,” Mary Lou explains. “As I remember, the calibration of the equipment was a challenge. At the time, they could ultrasound the animal and it could be harvested at a small meat plant to validate what they thought they were seeing on the screen.”
The Bradleys understand there are a lot of good cattle out there but identifying and reproducing them consistently is the key.
“We are not here to say, ‘We have a better cow than you,’ Instead we need to ask ourselves, ‘Does she fit your environment, is she low-maintenance, and does she have progeny that somebody wants to buy, whether it’s on the hoof or in the meat?’ We are always trying to be futuristic. That is who we are.”
The Bradleys run cattle in the rugged North Texas country, with lots of canyons, brush, and cedar. Pastures are a couple sections in size. They are not likely to see their cows every day, thus, the ranch is not set up to AI (artificially inseminate) the cattle easily. Instead, they run cattle in a manner that is similar to their commercial bull customers.
“We AI the heifers one time, then turn out a clean-up bull,” Mary Lou explains. “We will do some embryo work, but because we sell bulls, we have to be more like a commercial person and run bulls.”
Problems, solutions, and choices
Many of the choices the Bradleys have made have come from seeing a problem and seeking the solution. For example, Mary Lou explains there is still quite a bit of variance in cattle on the hoof and on the rail.
“It’s not uncommon with any one group of cattle — whether yours, mine, or somebody else’s — that when you actually harvest the animal the value of the meat is different from what it did in the feedyard,” she says. “There can be a $500 to $700 difference from the best to the worst of your animals. Some cattle are going to produce a very tender, highly-marbled beef that provides the consumer with a delightful experience, and other cattle not so much; and to me, the opportunities to find out which ones are still there.”
Even with the sophisticated technologies of today, Mary Lou says we still have not figured everything out.
“You cannot forget your environment either,” she says. “We can be 110 degrees in the summer and normally we’re going to be below freezing sometime this winter. That cow has to handle the temperature. It may rain, and it may not rain here, so she has to go forage for something to eat. She has to fit her environment and do it in a manner that is affordable not only for us but for the customer. Every day, I’m trying to figure out how to get that animal to seize that difference in value.”
By being forward thinking and creating a consistent product, the Bradleys are trying to eliminate some of the risks.
“This is risky enough with Mother Nature, but what we are trying to get good at is delivering on value every day and taking out the risks,” Mary Lou says. “You are going to see the effects of what we do in the seedstock business today, for many years to come. If a buyer gets one of our seedstock bulls, and that bull stays in that herd for say, five seasons, we hope that buyer keeps progeny from that bull for the next 10 to 12 or more seasons. What we do is so important that we are thinking out front and we are developing a product today that the consumer is going to want 10 years from now.”
Being out front and ahead of what is to come are the goals and the challenges. A great example of the Bradleys’ willingness to take a risk to create something for the future was building their own meat processing facility. Mary Lou started B3R Country Meats in 1986. The business operated under her leadership until 2002, when it was sold. Mary Lou brought her own ideas and experience to the operation. Creating that company gave the family another avenue for income, as well as a working model for taking their cattle from pasture to plate.
“We captured data here as seedstock producers, but when you follow those cattle all the way through from the feeding stage, harvest stage and then to consumers enjoying the product, you can learn how your cattle are working,” Mary Lou says. “Those years really changed our registered cattle and made us relook at what we had to offer.”
In addition to the meat plant helping the Bradleys find what genetics would provide a high-value carcass, they also focus on longevity and fertility in the cow herd.
“Having a live calf is the most important thing a cow does,” says Minnie Lou, who, at age 86, continues to enjoy driving through the cow herd. “We understand the money is in having a real fertile cow that is going to have a calf to wean every year.”
Shortening the breeding season
Using the model Minnie Lou describes for selection, the Bradleys have created a trusted and proven herd in these traits. The pressure they put on their cows to perform was a direct result of deciding to convert to a 60-day fall calving season.
“We are turning a bull out in January, and part of our goal in doing that is trying to have the very best fertility,” Mary Lou explains. “Because if we can get cows bred in January and February, when we have the least amount of nutrition and forage for those animals, we are going to increase our fertility. We are always challenging ourselves.”
The cows calve in October and November, which Mary Lou describes as beautiful weather in the Texas Panhandle.
“We don’t have blowing winds and typically, we are not hot or cold,” she adds. “The temperatures are very nice, and we get that calf on the ground, where it can survive the nasty weather which for us, normally comes later in February.”
Even when the weather gets rough, like the early blizzard that came in December 2015, the calves are big enough to handle it.
“Our country is so rough, and they get down in the canyons,” Mary Lou says. “Most of those cattle will figure out how to survive because we cannot get to them because of the terrain. Typically, if we do get nasty weather, it usually does not stay for more than a few days.”
The Bradleys admit that this system is not for everyone, and it took a while to implement. The family had been selling bulls private treaty, but in the early ‘90s decided they wanted to have an auction every year. Selling bulls at 14 to 16 months of age was ideal for their customers, so that led to wanting to calve in the fall.
“We had a much longer season at the time, but once we made the decision to do an auction we knew we wanted to get into the 60-day calving season,” Mary Lou says. “Because we are adamant on 60 days, not every group of cows is the same 60 days. We set a schedule and we put bulls out over a couple weeks and we pick them up over a couple weeks.”
For producers wanting to decrease their calving season, Mary Lou advises them to step into it.
“It sounds good, but if bulls went in on this date and you are adamant that you are going to pick them up on this day, which we are, you have to figure out from an operational side how you’re going to do that, and that’s the wisdom,” she advises. “Take your time getting to decreasing your calving season. Yes, you can get there quicker, but you are going to give up some bred cows. Now that we have done it for a number of years, our breed up is really good.”
Some people do two 60-day seasons.
“They have two 60-day seasons for marketing reasons, spreading the risk, or their environment,” she explains. “But it is all about setting those goals and getting there.”
Mary Lou admits it is a different thought process. There are some pluses and minuses.
“Some people think we are crazy because we don’t have that pasture green up to get that cow bred,” she explains. “No, we don’t. Our goal is to have that green up once we wean that calf.”
In six decades, Mother Nature can throw a lot at you. Mary Lou remembers 1979, when it was below freezing for 30 days. The drought from 2010 to 2015 left them scrambling, like so many producers. She says hay is scarce in their area. They have tried raising it and have supplemented with cake, too. But their focus is paying more attention to the forage.
“We manage this country really differently now to grow more forage,” she says. “We feed hay in a blizzard, but it’s not a long-term solution. We do gain on grass because we are focused on these animals converting that forage into nutrition. We have really worked on trying to grow more grass to get rid of the weeds. We have worked on how we graze this country.”
Attending grazing schools and learning what works for their environment has been a key.
“We still need Mother Nature’s help with rain, but we are ahead about growing this grass,” Mary Lou says. “We have invested a lot in trying to let the grass grow and rotating the cattle around, paying attention to and eliminating those cattle that possibly don’t do their job.”
Sixty years of experience offers a unique perspective. It has not always been easy, but the Bradleys have persevered through times of personal loss, low cattle prices, droughts and blizzards, and the challenges that are the cattle business. They have remained committed to adopting new technologies, making necessary changes to management practices, and putting their cow herd to the test to make improvements. Mary Lou advises other producers to think about the bigger picture and what they want to accomplish in the next five, 10, or 15 years, while realizing things don’t happen overnight.
“No. 1, ask yourself, ‘Are you raising a product in your cattle that somebody wants to buy?’” she explains. “No. 2, ‘Are you delivering value? Do the cattle perform?’ Then, I would look at other proteins on the market and how they have changed dramatically. ‘Are we in the beef business changing? Are we better than we were than yesterday and are we delivering more value to consumers?’
“Finally, it is looking at the bigger vision,” she adds. “Some things we want to do with our cattle, like getting to a 60-day calving period, or the property, like installing a new road or water system. It may be improving our quality of life here in these rural areas. If we have a vision, we do not have to get there in the next 30 minutes. In these times of instant gratification, you have to have a little patience.”
The Bradleys have been innovators the last 60 years, using the best and newest technology while developing a product that cattlemen and consumers want today, and in the future.
“We are producing more pounds on less acres than ever before in the history of the ranch,” Mary Lou concludes. “All of these things drive the development of the cattle, but the basics of 60 years ago still apply today. Fertile cows that breed up early and raise a calf, year in and year out no matter what Mother Nature throws at her, are still the most predictable measure of profitability. Combining the basics with the newest technology keeps us excited about the next 60 years.”
Progressive. Trusted. Proven. is excerpted from the October 2018 issue of The Cattleman magazine.
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