Any rancher or farmer who has fought the elements — put their lives at risk for the sake of their livestock — understands the connection between themselves and the animals under their stewardship. Mike and Katrinka Bartush, Bar B Simmentals, situated along the Red River in Muenster, Texas, understand the hardship of losing their cattle to unpredictable weather, and like many in the agriculture community, they face the difficulty of battling Mother Nature by looking to their operation’s future.
Located amidst the green, rolling hills of northern Texas, the Bartushes raise 75 head of Simmental, SimAngus™, and Angus cows. They focus on developing high-quality, versatile SimAngus seedstock bulls for commercial customers. Mike shares, “People are starting to wake up to the need of half-blood SimAngus bulls to put on their commercial herds to get heterosis and hybrid vigor that they have been missing.” To make the enterprise a profitable and growing operation, they track herd data, collect DNA, and implement a progressive breeding program.
Finding the Breed
Bartush’s parents raised American Saddlebred horses. He was the first in the family to break into the cattle industry, but after his introduction to cattle at a young age, he never looked back. He says, “When I was nine years old, my parents gave me a bottle calf, a little Hereford heifer, for Christmas. The next year, they gave me a yearling heifer to match, and then my father said, ‘You’re on your own.’ So that was my start to where I’ve come to — 30 years in the registered business.
” When he started out, Bartush tried many breeds before he arrived at Simmental and SimAngus. He started with Hereford, and then switched to Limousin, but didn’t like their disposition. Bartush laughs, “Well, I’ve been down the line on breeds. I’ve tried it all. I actually had some beefalo here in my younger days.” He remembers purchasing his first few registered Simmental heifers from old family friends, and later, purchasing registered Simbrah females. Bartush says, “We have always purchased registered cattle, but we really didn’t start registering cattle ourselves until 1990.”
For Bar B Simmentals, transitioning breeds helped them better serve the buyer and the cow herd. Katrinka says, “Mike is always thinking about what’s best for the herd and what’s best for the customer. He focuses on how each animal is performing. If it’s Simbrah, SimAngus, or purebred Simmental, he has always been conscientious about what animals are performing and what genetics will improve the herd.”
Searching for the breed that fit the herd and environment eventually changed the operation’s trajectory from selling cattle commercially to selling registered cattle. During the transition, Simbrah females were bred to Simmental bulls to develop three quarter, one quarters crosses. The red Simbrah cattle soon phased to black half-blood SimmentalAngus crosses. Mike explains, “My transition from Simbrah to the Simmental and SimAngus was heavily related to my customer’s demand for bulls. It got where I couldn’t sell a Simbrah bull — I was too far north.”
Many Brahman-related breeds started to fade-out in northern Texas and southern Oklahoma, Mike recalls, “Today, you don’t see as many eared cattle as we did 15 years ago in my area. We have more Continental and European breed demand with the bull market.”
SimAngus and black-hided cattle were novel, but the first time Bartush took his black Simmental and SimAngus animals to a sale he remembers having a difficult time trying to sell the half-blood females. “SimAngus cattle weren’t really popular in the area at first. Honestly, they laughed at me. I took those animals home and kept them for my base program. But today, they have really taken off.”
Bartush has recently noticed that red cattle are starting to gain popularity again, giving him more flexibility to offer red or black SimAngus bulls to his customers. “After developing my black SimAngus program to where I am today, in the last few years I have been going to the red SimAngus program. I can even see it in herds around here locally. Producers who had all black cattle, now have pastures full of red cattle.”
Developing Bulls that Work
Bar B Simmentals predominantly calve in the fall to sell their bulls at 16 to 18 months of age. Bartush shares, “At sale time, 16 to 18-month-old bulls look so much better than yearling bulls. Many of my clientele are located in what I call ‘big country’ out west, and the bulls have to cover a lot of ground. The older, sounder bulls perform better with more age and condition than younger sires.”
Calving is a tight 45-day window starting mid-September and wrapping up at the end of October. Over the last five years, each cow is AI’d at least once before being put out with high-quality clean-up bulls. Heifers are only bred twice by AI. He says, “This past fall, in 18 days, we had 52 calves on the ground out of the 72 head that was expected to calve. The AI conception rate worked out really well.”
When calves are born, they are tagged and weighed. Bartush explains that despite the reputation Simmental has for throwing large calves, he hasn’t had problems in recent history. “I haven’t pulled a calf in five years. The first time I touch them, I tag and weigh them, and then they don’t get anything prior to weaning.
“Sometimes when people come by for a look at the calf-crop they say, ‘Man, those calves are big. How much are you creep-feeding them?’ and I tell them: ‘Four teats at a time, sometimes three,’” Bartush laughs.
A little before weaning, calves are run through the chute for pre-weaning vaccinations and weighed. At this time, cow-calf pairs are split into pasture by calf sex. Three weeks later, calves are given a second round of shots and fence-line weaned to reduce stress.
Replacement heifers are conditioned to 14-months-old and bred the first part of December with cows closely following. Ten years ago, culled heifers and steers would go to the feedyard with cull data collected at harvest. With the heavy focus of improved genetics through AI breeding, Bartush is culling fewer females and bulls. Many are sold private treaty.
“When you start AIing as much as we’ve done the last couple of years, your cow herd improves so much with that you don’t have a whole lot of culls. The cows that I cull, aren’t really feedlot culls. They are decent replacement females for other herds.”
Bulls are hand-fed from June to October, prior to going to the bull test for the sale in March. Bar B Simmental and two other consigners, Mallett Simmentals and Tex-Ann Cattle Company sell 55 Simmental and SimAngus performance-tested bulls in their annual Cattlemen’s Kind Simmental Sale in San Saba, Texas.
The main criteria that Bar B Simmental focuses on for their customers are docility, birth weight, and moderate EPDs. “One of the first questions my bull customers ask me about my bulls is ‘is he gentle’, and the next thing is birth weight — that is always going to be there — but I get told all the time that my cattle are ‘too gentle,’” Bartush says. “I don’t think you can ever get them too gentle. Sure they can be more difficult to work when they are gentle, but it’s so much easier as I get older. I can’t get over the fence like I used to. If I had anything like that, they’re gone. I don’t want to retain them in the herd.”
With each calf-crop, Bar B Simmentals collect birth weights, calving ease scores, and weaning weights, in addition to the yearling weights and ultrasound data collected on the bulls in test. As a part of a recent research project with the American Simmental Association called Cow Herd DNA Roundup, each cow in the herd has been parent-verified through DNA and has genomically-enhanced EPDs.
This year marks five years collecting feed efficiency data on sale bulls with grow-safe systems. At first, Bartush was hesitant about tracking feed intake, but after seeing how the data can help with selection decisions, he has feed-efficiency tested his 2018 replacement heifers.
“The first couple of years I asked ‘why are we doing this?’ All I saw was another set of numbers, and I thought that my commercial customers were going to run from it. But when I started reading the data, a few bulls really stood out in feed efficiency. They average almost four pounds a day on their average daily gain but their RFI number was a negative four. This last year, we had a couple of people at the sale already paying attention to those numbers.”
Each year, Bartush and a friend go back and forth critiquing each other’s herd to help each other find areas of improvement. Katrinka smiles, “They really do go hard on each other.”
Recently, Bartush received feedback for moderating the size of his cows, but he’s pretty happy with the reduced size of his females, “The old saying is, the old farmers at the coffee shop, they like to brag about their bull they can see in the pasture . . . But I like to brag that you can’t find my bull when it’s in the pasture with my cows because it might be the same size or smaller than the cows. I like that frame score of five and a half to six.”
SimAngus, Pecans, and Family
When Mike was four years old, his family moved from Dallas, to where the 3,500-acre ranch is today. For 30 years, Mike managed the family ranch, alongside running his cattle operation. “When I was managing the family ranch, I ran the majority of my cattle on the family ranch, and as a part of my lease, I took care of the ranch with two full-time hands.”
Beginning in 2012, Mike transitioned to a consultant role on the family operation and focused full-time on his own cattle operation. Katrinka says, “At this point, it has transitioned to the next generation actively running the ranch. While Mike isn’t a part of daily operations for the family ranch (just his cattle operation), he has been a consultant for them over the last several years in many different aspects be it wildlife management or the cattle operation and so on.”
The ranch, situated with a part of its land on the river bottom, has experienced five 100year floods over the last 35 years. In 1994, Mike’s mother, Mary, wanted to plant a pecan tree for each grandchild. With 12 siblings, Mike had 42 nieces and nephews. He says, “I convinced her to plant the whole bottom with pecans trees instead. With the flooding we moved them back to a little higher ground, but the family harvests pecans every year.”
About 300 pecan trees were transplanted out of the river bottom onto high ground. “We had a 70-acre Bermuda grass river bottom with 250 mature pecan trees that we used to harvest all the time. There’s none of that land left now. Our land is all up against the bluffs.”
Even with the loss of land, the loss that hits home the most is the impact on the cow herd. “Mike knows every cow in our herd,” Katrinka shares, recounting the Red River flood in June of 2015, where they lost 12 calves from that year’s calf crop. “People outside the industry don’t realize that it’s more than the immediate financial loss — it’s personal. The next year, people in the panhandle were devastated by fires. It just hits you in your heart. The only thing you can do is rebuild and move forward.”
Mike says, “After what we had been through, I felt it in my heart. I bought $2,500 of fencing materials, loaded my flatbed, and drove to the Pampa Relief Center. I just felt obliged.”
For the Bartushes, moving forward, they focus on breeding the Simmental and SimAngus genetics that meet the needs of their customer. Mike concludes, “Adding a little bit of Simmental helps our customers with cow herd longevity. I can see that in my own herd with the purebred versus the half-blood cattle. I believe that half-blood cow is the best cow walking.”