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Adopting tradition and new ideas at Silver Spur Ranches

Robyn Scherer Published on 01 April 2011
Silver Spur Ranch

Nestled in three states, the Silver Spur Ranches constitute a one-of-a-kind operation.

With a diversity of locations, the ranch takes pride in showcasing what a progressive cattle producer can do.

The Silver Spur Ranches are located in Walden and Kiowa, Colorado; Encampment, Wyoming; and the T.O. Ranch near Raton, New Mexico, along with the Bell Ranch, northwest of Tucumcari, New Mexico.

Silver Spur Ranches make up the ninth-largest commercial cattle operation in the U.S., and some locations date back to the 1800s.

The ranch has several divisions including the cow-calf sector, a horse division and an outfitting sector.

The ranch has both commercial and seedstock cattle, and breeds cattle good for the producer and the consumer.

Thad York, the general manager, says, “We recognize the importance of matching our mother cow to her environment and natural resources … in both our commercial and registered herds.

This means we select for fertility, soundness, moderate birth weights and optimum, not maximum, growth/milk. At the same time, we maintain selection pressure for efficiency and muscle.”

Kasen & Thad York

The ranches produce registered Charolais, registered Angus and Red Angus, as well as a Range Fire Composite (Charolais x Red Angus) and commercial cattle (Angus x continental breeds).

The genetic philosophy is “We strive to produce low to moderate-maintenance cattle that can be profitable in each segment of the beef industry.”

While many ranches prefer to stick with tradition, Silver Spur believes in innovation. “We are willing to try new technologies and willing to be innovative, but at the same time we are very traditional in our values and goals,” says Cheramie Viator, who coordinates marketing and works with the ranch managers on their genetic plans.

“While our ranches date as far back as the 1800s, we are an operation which embraces technology, research and success for future generations,” York says. “With each tradition of the past, we embody the opportunity to create new traditions and efficiencies that will ensure these ranches for generations to come.”

Silver Spur Ranch uses EID on all calves, and the ranch is working toward having EID in all cattle, including cows and bulls.

While many producers believe the technology and programs create a cost and labor nuisance, according to Viator, “We use this as a way to track. For us it’s about tracking data and having accountability on the cattle.

If we can track through the feedyard all the way to the processor, we have that data to trace back to the sires and dams to hold them accountable.

“We feel it is necessary to embrace new technologies because of the challenges we have in the industry with rising costs.

Woman using Archer handhelds for electronic tags

We need to find efficiency that will enable us to eliminate poor-producing cows and systems. If we utilize technology we can find those inefficiencies and be a more profit-oriented producer,” Viator says.

“A cow is an employee, she works for us. If she doesn’t show up for her job, she doesn’t get to stay,” she added.

Although the tagging system is unique to the individual ranches, it is aligned to all ranches across segments, breeds and feedyard locations. Viator says, “All the feeder cattle are tagged. By weaning, each calf has both an EID and a visual tag. This enables both feeders and replacement heifers to be tracked in the Silver Spur production system. While we would like to, it’s just too expensive to EID the entire herd at one time, so we are working towards this goal and have started with the replacement heifers. For now, the mature cows are still tracked by a visual tag and/or brand.”

Silver Spur also embraces retained ownership and niche marketing.

The cattle are kept from birth to processing, and are marketed to Tyson Foods and Meyer through the natural foods program, and those cattle that do not meet the standards are marketed through the Non-Hormone Treated Cattle (NHTC) Program and other premium programs.

“We have a very positive alliance through Tyson that supplies meat to Whole Foods and we supply to Meyer All-Natural,”

Viator says on their motives for the program. “Because we meet their production criteria and the cattle perform well, the premiums make it worth it.”

Viator believes that the benefits of marketing to a commercial program outweigh the extra costs. “The biggest benefit is the net dollars returned.

All cattle are age- and source-verified, and they all have some type of premium except for the very basic culls. EID allows us to have that most basic premium of age and source.”

Charolais cow herd

But there are obstacles to marketing to these programs. “It’s challenging to understand the needs, and the balance of the program rules with practical cattle production,” she says. “Sometimes we have to compromise to make things work.

We have to find middle ground.”

She said that retained ownership has its challenges as well. “Silver Spur has fed cattle for over 20 years. We have a long history of retained ownership. It allows us to be able to realize dollars returned on genetics that work.

The cattle feed well and hang well, and we wanted to capture those additional dollars. Because of the all-natural and retained ownership programs, we have to have great records.

We have to budget for a different cash flow system. Now, we are moving toward harvesting nine to 10 months out of the year.”

In August 2010, Silver Spur Ranches purchased the historic Bell Ranch in New Mexico, a move that reflected its goal to preserve Western ranching traditions.

The Bell Ranch has been in existence since 1824 and is located in San Miguel County. The ranch is composed of 290,100 acres, and has a unique cattle composite called a Red Bell, which is a cross of Hereford, Red Angus, Gelbvieh and Brahman.

“We purchased this ranch because of our core values – wanting to retain ranches as ranches,” Viator says. “That’s a large piece that offers a lot of cow/calf opportunity, and expansion for Silver Spur.”

She continued, “It was a logical addition. We can utilize feeder cattle from there for our earlier-harvest cattle. They will help us to attain our goal of harvesting cattle nine to 10 months out of the year.”

The Bell Ranch allows Silver Spur to pursue its goal of preserving ranches and their lifestyle for future generations. “The Bell Ranch culture, work ethic and traditional Western values will be maintained because those are important to the employees,” Viator says.

Horse at Silver Spur

“When we added the Bell Ranch, we respected the values of the employees already there. These are good folks who want to accomplish the same things our other employees want to accomplish … raising good cattle and a Western way of life. The employees are very open and willing to make sure things get done the way we do them. We had a lot of buy-in from the crew and positive acceptance for new technology. That says a lot about the gentlemen that are there. They were willing to move forward.

“The Red Bell breed will be utilized in the current cowherd, but changes will occur with the addition of a new bull battery,” she says. “For now, we will use the current Red Bell cows that are there.

We respect the purpose of this composite. But we also realize there is an inconsistent end product. With our retained ownership program, we need our end product to be as consistent as possible.

We will use Red Angus bulls at the Bell Ranch to get this consistency. Then, in future generations, we will use the Range Fires to maintain yield.”

The ranch is also being brought up to speed in the EID program. “We went in last fall and started tagging all the calves coming off the cows before they left the ranch, and tagging the cows with individual identification.

She has a tag and a button that match. This way we can trace the animals in this herd as well,” Viator says.

Silver Spur Ranches also offers trophy hunting and fishing opportunities, programs that Viator said provide a balance to the ecological system, and secondly, promote the purposes of agriculture.

“It allows us to have individuals from metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas out on the ranch so they get to view ranching and can understand it,” she said.

The ranch also has a horse division, and raises its own horses to be used on all the ranches. “We run mares at Encampment and the Bell Ranch.

Our cowboys want horses that will serve us on the ranches that are athletic, sound and good-minded. We also sell ranch horses by private treaty and at our annual sale the last Saturday in April,” Viator says.

Cow herd at Silver Spur

Cody Miller, the horse manager for Silver Spur, said, “We are trying to breed horses that will work on the ranch, and have enough bone and foot to last while also having sound minds.

We want to have good-minded horses that can take any kind of pressure, but that are still gentle, and have enough ‘go’ and cow in them to get the job done.

We want a horse anyone can ride, but still be versatile enough to work in other places. It’s just tough to find that kind of horse. That’s why we are trying to breed our own for that.”

He continued, “We start all the colts as long yearlings, or short 2-year-olds. We put a few rides on them, and then kick them in the rougher country with the weanlings so they learn what holes are and how to travel.

Then we really start working them in the fall of their 2-year-old year, and they just work themselves into the group. The youngest horses we put in the sale are 5, but we like 6-, 7-, 8-year-olds as well.

We sell them when they are finished, solid ranch horses. That’s a good age because they are going to stay where they are, and nothing bothers them. Anyone can get along with them.”

Although the ranch just expanded, Viator says the focus is about moving forward with its mantra: “Building traditions for tomorrow’s generations.”

“We have set forth goals we want to attain in our cattle operation, as cattlemen, conservationists and stewards of the land,” she said. “All of this takes a group of employees who share in a common vision.”  end_mark


PHOTO 1: The Silver Spur entrance at Encampment, Wyoming.

PHOTO 2: Kasen York and his dad, Thad York, ride together at a Silver Spur operation. Thad is the third generation York to manage Silver Spur Ranch.

PHOTO 3: Silver Spur utilizes electronic ID tags and Archer handhelds in conjunction with the Trazaro data collection/record system.

PHOTO 4: The Charolais cow herd at Silver Spur Ranch has existed since the 1950s. The herd provides the basis for the new Range Fire composite.

PHOTO 5: The Spur’s horse program focuses on producing horses that are dependable and athletic. A brood mare band runs at both the Bell Ranch and at the Northern Divisions in Encampment, Wyoming.

PHOTO 6: The cow herds at Encampment, Wyoming, and Walden, Colorado, run at 7,000-plus feet. It is here that both commercial and registered Angus, Red Angus and Charolais herds run along with Range Fire composites and commercial cow herds. Photos courtesy of Silver Spur Ranches.