Cultivating Cattle and Creativity in Kansas

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Cultivating Cattle and Creativity in Kansas

By Lilly Platts        |              

The Blew family has been raising cattle in Kansas for five generations. The family’s history with the Simmental breed began in the 1980s with many of the traditional bloodlines that solidified the breed’s place in the US. The business has ebbed and flowed with industry changes, and today, CJ, his brother, Russell, and their families run a commercial operation based on Red Angus genetics. CJ Blew is an advocate for International Genetics Solutions, and through his commitment to the cattle industry, he has become an industry leader with important insight into the future of the intersection between seedstock and commercial philosophies.

Living on Leased Land

The most notable element of the Blew operation is that just over 95% of the land they run cattle on is leased. This comes with many challenges but has also allowed the family to expand so quickly that their cattle and genetics can barely keep up with the room they have to grow. “We’re somewhat atypical, in that we don’t have the home place that has been in the family forever that can be the base,” Blew explains.

The Blew family decided to use this model based on the cost of land in their area. Castleton is the ranch’s home base, and like many places in the US, rangeland has high market value for hunting, fishing, and farming. The cost of leasing allows them to run enough additional cattle that the profit and opportunity for expansion outweigh the benefit of owning more land. Blew does plan to move toward purchasing more land in the future, but currently is continuing to focus on sustaining the leased land.

Despite not owning the land, the Blew family has been recognized for environmental efforts and is extremely committed to improving every piece of land they utilize. “We have to be able to differentiate ourselves in some way for the landowners. We couldn’t do what we do without the land, and the relationships we have with our land owners,” Blew says. “So, the approach we take with the leased land is that we do own it and that it will be in our family forever. We utilize every tool we can to meet the environmental and stewardship objectives that we have to improve the land. Whenever there is an opportunity to work with a landowner who wants to improve their land long-term, then it’s going to be a good relationship. It’s one of the reasons we have been able to grow — we have demonstrated that we can come in and use good stewardship.”

For young people wanting to get into the cattle business, or simply expand, the cost of land can be the number one barrier. The Blew family’s business model is appealing for anyone dealing with the dilemma of wanting to grow, and according to Blew, being able to lease land simply takes seeking out opportunities. “The first thing is, don’t be afraid to go where the opportunities are. We’re spread out quite a bit because we’re willing to do that. They won’t all be close to home” Blew explains. “Have a plan and write it down if you need to, and then build a team. It’s about building those people around you who will help you be better. It’s the people you go to for advice, and the people you depend on. Sometimes you may actually pay for it with a consultant, but find people who can be your trusted advisors.”

Relying on leased land to sustain the entire business does come with challenges. Blew says, “We try to get long-term agreements when we can, but they don’t all come with that. We’ve gone through plenty of frustrating situations where you work your tail off, fixing a place up and cleaning it up, and then they sell it or you lose it.” He continues, “It used to really bother us, to put that much work into something and then watch it go, and I think we finally just came to grips with the fact that this is what we do. We really are in the land rehabilitation business. We couldn’t do what we do without leased land. I have to continuously give credit to our landowners because they give us the opportunity to do what we do.” 

Balancing Growth and Data

Data and EPDs are something Blew believes in wholeheartedly. Currently, due to the opportunity to expand the cow herd, he is having to take a more general approach to genetic selection, which comes with challenges and important lessons as a commercial producer. “Through IGS, we have EPDs on every one of our cows which is really cool, and I’ve been able to pull that information out in the past when we chose our replacement heifers to sort,” Blew explains. “Right now, the fact is that we have been growing so fast that I haven’t really been able to do that. But I also know that’s our goal, and what we are going to get to. We want to have more information in our hip pocket to go make those decisions going forward.”  

In addition to the commercial operation, Blew has found a steady market for Red Angus replacements, which means they have had to incorporate some seedstock philosophy into their commercial operation. Whether a female is going to stay in his own herd, or go into someone else’s, he balances maternal selection with the requirement that the genetics are conducive for a quality final product. Blew explains, “If we weren’t expanding, we would have around 25% that we wouldn’t keep based on our criteria. For us, we want to maintain the maternal traits, which will come first, but we also want to put pressure on carcass traits and end product merit. That’s where we have been heading with bull selection, and I would take the same approach with our heifers.”

This dedication to data has laid a foundation that currently allows Blew to use a more general selection process for the purpose of expanding. Selecting heifers currently includes removing the bottom end, and then placing extreme emphasis on fertility. Blew says, “We will do a pelvic measure and get a reproductive tract score, and when we do that — including our freemartins and everything else — there are around 20% that fall out. Those cattle go, and then we literally just set the rest up for AI.” He continues, “We pull heats, and time AI anything that doesn’t come in, and we put cleanup bulls in for 60 days. We pull the bulls, and 30 days later we ultrasound. Any of the open females we find at the 90-day mark go to the feed yard along with the initial 20% we pulled off and didn’t breed. Those cattle all go to the feed yard together. With ultrasound, we find out which females conceived in the first 30 days, which is all of the AI breds, plus we’ll have a small percentage that was bred with the first heat of natural service.”

If the ultrasound shows that a female was bred in the second half of the 60-day exposure, she will be sold as a bred heifer. While the current process doesn’t rely as heavily on data as Blew would like, the emphasis on fertility is something he will continue forever. “We will get to the point where we will use EPDs and take the bottom end of that bell curve off. We will still continue to breed a lot of heifers moving forward. I’m a firm believer in exposing a lot of heifers, continuing to put more pressure on fertility, and selecting the most fertile females.”

As a commercial producer, convenience traits are something Blew also puts a lot of pressure on. “Looking at the EPDs, we would look at calving ease, heifer pregnancy, and stayability, and then I would start to move into the carcass traits. We’re going to continue to put pressure on our quality grades, so marbling will be important to us. Our cattle have to yield also. On the sire’s side, I want a bull that’s in the top 10% for marbling, and the top 25% for ribeye, when I think about end product merit.”

Moving Forward Together

Simply gaining more data is something Blew believes can really accelerate progress for commercial producers, and he also believes this responsibility needs to go back to seedstock businesses. “The total herd reporting thing is huge, and I think some people don’t understand how big of a deal that is. The fact that you get all of the data on every cow is a big thing because it helps the accuracy of your EPDs,” Blew explains. “I can give a vote of confidence to the IGS database. If we don’t have a good process or evaluation, then it won’t be something we can utilize or that we trust to utilize.”

Blew continues, “I love the fact that the two breeds I would want to use are on the same database. I think that’s beneficial. I also think there are benefits to IGS in just the sheer amount of data.”

While data reporting from commercial producers is something Blew encourages, he also explains that seedstock businesses have all of the tools to do so at their fingertips, leaving very little excuse for not reporting all of their data. “I think we need to put pressure on breeders to be more data-centric,” Blew says. “I think we need more data, the data needs to be good, and we need to make sure that we’re evaluating and expressing that data in accurate terms.”

Blew continues, “More data is obviously better, and I am surprised by the number of seedstock breeders who think weaning weights are a lot of data. I don’t think we’ve exhausted our efforts to try and get our direct members and registered seedstock producers to turn in every bit of data they can, like mature cow weights and hip heights. I think we have a ways to go, and an opportunity to get more from the producers expected to do that.”

 Blew also retains ownership on his calves as part of a sire test program, which in addition to submitting performance data, requires obtaining carcass data. “If we’re making the kind of cattle that we think we’re making or that we want to make, then we really need to be retaining ownership on them to maximize those premiums,” Blew explains. “When we started, my intention was to have cattle that would grade 70% choice or better, and be yield grade 1 and 2. Today our goal is to be 50% Prime or better, and still be yield grade 1 or 2. We still have some work to do on the yield grades, but we are extremely close to achieving the 50% prime quality grades.”

An Industry for the Future Blew attended college at Hutchinson Community College, where he studied agriculture and was a part of the livestock judging program. He met his wife, Beckie, who works full time on the ranch, during this time. Blew had a handful of cows on leased land, and coming back to the family business and expanding with his brother simply made sense. Their three children, Cole, Caylee, and Claire, are all involved with the ranch, and Blew’s parents still serve as supporters and mentors for the operation. The benefits of being in the cattle business far outweigh the challenges for Blew. “If it wasn’t rewarding we wouldn’t do it,” Blew says. “I go back to some of the stewardship stuff, and what we can do for the land. We know they’re not making any more of it, so if we can put effort into that and watch that change, I think it’s really rewarding. On the cow side, it’s the same thing. I really like the genetic side — the art of breeding cattle. That part of it is fun. I also know that people have to eat, and we have the capability to take beef, the most nutrient-dense protein, and make it the most enjoyable eating experience too. Knowing that gives me comfort that we will always have something to sell and there will be a demand for it.”



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