Nebraska Sandhills ranches are not short on history. But when looking back shows a pattern of forging ahead it seems certain they’ll continue their legacy.
Witness the Zutavern Ranch Company, next to Dunning, Neb.
It’s hard to imagine what George Zutavern envisioned in 1902 when he packed up family, fenceposts and livestock and headed out from southeastern Nebraska to settle in Custer and Blaine counties. But 110 years later, the succeeding generations have maintained its origins as a sustainable, profitable ranch.
Now home to a large Angus-based cowherd and feedlot, that legacy covers more than 36 square miles and supports the fifth, sixth and seventh generations.
True to tradition, brothers Conrad “Con,” Zak and John Zutavern always have their sights set on getting better.
“You never want to get to the point where you go backward,” says Con, chief financial manager and record keeper.
Certified Angus Beef LLC (CAB) recently recognized the ranch family for that philosophy, along with carcass data to back it up, at the CAB annual conference in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., Sept. 19-21. Con and mother Marcena accepted the 2012 Commercial Commitment to Excellence Award on behalf of the seven family-member shareholders.
Herefords were the mainstay in 1952, when Marcena and late husband Rich were newlyweds. Initial black-whiteface crosses gave way to Charolais, Limousin and Gelvieh influence when Continental crossbreeding became popular as “the boys” went off to college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and returned home one by one in the ’70s. They eventually settled back on straightbreds, using only Angus bulls since 1988.
“We thought we could do everything we wanted with Angus,” Zak says. They started using EPDs (expected progeny differences) in 1988.
Con says, “When we talk about revolutionary things that changed our business, we talk about center-pivot irrigation, distillers grains and the introduction of EPDs to help us pick Angus bulls.”
Birthweight still carries importance, but as the sole suppliers to their own feedlot, their selection breezes right past common traits like weaning weights to emphasize overall growth and carcass traits.
“We’re looking at the dollar-beef ($B) Values, and we don’t want cattle that are too fleshy. Selling on a grid, you don’t want a bunch of yield grade 4s,” Zak says. “So we try to keep them average there.”
Good mamas are a universal need, but other economically important factors have gotten more emphasis with changing times.
The Zutaverns added the feedlot in 1975 and have sold virtually every head on a grid marketing arrangement since that avenue opened. Registered breeder Doug Hoff first encouraged them to give it a try.
“We grabbed onto that opportunity thinking it’d be a way to maximize our income, because we had good cattle,” Con says. “Of course, we knew it was going to require above-average quality grades, so that has been our focus: to raise high-quality cattle.”
Since 1996, their cattle have sold on the GeneNet grid.
“They have spent a large number of years improving their genetics,” company president Ken Conway says. “That’s why their cattle are so consistent and uniform.”
February- through June-born steers weaned from Sept. 1 through October finish at 13 to 15 months of age. Last year’s calf-feds made more than 50% Certified Angus Beef ® (CAB®) brand and 11% CAB Prime.
“They’re very good at sorting and getting cattle sold at the right time, which is important when you’re selling on a grid to maximize premiums and minimize discounts,” Conway says.
The Zutaverns fenceline wean in the feedyard and start them on a ration right away. When the steers clear out of the feedyard, it’s ready for their next calf crop: the heifers. Depending on grass resources, they typically save 3% as replacements and feed the rest.
This summer has been like the year of their centennial in 2002, a grazing season that saw more wanting for rain than actual precipitation. The “great meadow” along the Middle Loup and Dismal rivers has produced less than half the normal crop. Cows are usually fed from Thanksgiving on, but drought might move that up.
“We have a lot of baled hay carryover, which wasn’t the case with the previous two or three droughts,” Con says. “Our philosophy has been, ‘Boys, don’t worry about it. Sometime you’ll eventually get it fed. It might not be this year, but go out there and get it and save it. It will get used up sooner or later.’”
Foresight joins a long list of traits that built the ranch: optimism tempered with market shrewdness, combined with perseverance.
All of those back up solid goals that transcend all historical boundaries.
“Our philosophy,” Con says, “is if you treat the cows right, they’ll treat you right.”
Source: Miranda Reiman, Certified Angus Beef LLC