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Successful cattle management in West Virginia means hitting consistent singles

Progressive Cattleman Editor Lynn Jaynes Published on 21 February 2018
Cows in an orchardgrass-mix pasture

Of his successful 600-head commercial cow operation, Larry Echols says, “I just want to hit singles and not strike out.”

Larry and his wife, Pam, own and operate Hidden Acres Farm in Gap Mills, West Virginia, with the help of their children, Andrew and Allison. So his comment begs the question: What constitutes “hitting singles” in the cattle business?

Singles – cattle selection

“Years ago, frame was selling,” Larry says. “Anybody could judge a show. The tallest won.” Larry then tracked the industry through a phase of wanting more milk, then the carcass improvement phase, then on to muscle, “and all along, nobody thought of disposition until the last few years, and the industry developed cows that are just nuts.”

“We’ve never single-trait selected,” Larry says. “You just get in trouble. You can select for carcass and make progress on your carcass, but what have you done to your cows? If you’ve got cows you can’t get bred back because they’re raising yield grade 1 and 2 calves, what have you accomplished? I’d rather get 3’s, not get a premium but get a calf every year. Having a calf is the number one thing to profitability. I don’t care what anybody else says. If they don’t have a calf, you don’t have any opportunity to get a check.”

Take a visual tour of the ranch here.

Singles – preg rates

Larry now groups cows by age for breeding, but that wasn’t always the case. He says they didn’t have trouble getting the heifers bred the first time or the second, but when it came time to breed back the third time, conception rates fell. An evaluation of their program showed as 2-year-olds they quit treating them as young, growing cows and treated them as mature cows.

Andrew echols, Larry Echols and Allison Tomlinson

At that point, they maybe got a little less of the better feed. Larry now tries to keep them grouped by age to manage the nutritional balance a little better. In one year, that “single hit” resulted in better conception rates.

Larry takes the top end of the heifer crop, along with a few purebred cows, and uses synchronized A.I. He keeps a large percentage of heifers bred via A.I. and has a waiting list of producers who want those heifers. Larry says, “We can take the heifer crop and improve our genetics and the early conceivers. If we can do that long enough, over time it should improve our fertility and quality.”

The heifers they release for sale are ultrasounded and a two- to three-week calving window can be confirmed for buyers. Larry says, “They like that. We can tighten it up for them from what they’d get at a sale barn as far as the calving window, and we can tell them what shots they’ve had.”

Singles – risk management

The cow-calf producer typically has to have a bigger margin than a feedlot operator because they don’t generally have the volume. Often enough, cow-calf producers are at the bottom of the income slide when feedlots are at the top and vice versa. Generally, however, some segment of the industry is making money. Larry says on his operation they try to be in a couple different segments of the industry to manage risk.

All weaned calves at Hidden Acres are carried through as stockers and are backgrounded through the winter. Larry also buys stockers from cooperating producers in the area, running about 600 to 700 a year. They’re sold or moved off the farm in August at about 16 to 17 months old weighing 900 to 1,000 pounds.

Larry doesn’t push them to gain a lot in the winter but shoots for a pound or so per day to offset feed costs, feeding wrapped hay or baleage, and a little silage to the heifers being developed for the breeding program. The others will get a little commodity product – usually whatever’s cheapest at the time.

Feeder cattle from Hidden Acres are fed through the Tri-County Feeders in Iowa (Iowa State University) and some through West Virginia University, with Larry retaining ownership. He also sells some to Pennsylvania to be finished for the “white tablecloth market.”

Larry also has an informal alliance with a grass farmer in New York who buys a lot of the heifers and middle-aged cows. He says often the New York buyer can’t afford to keep heifers because the carcasses are worth so much for meat, but he can buy middle-aged cows much cheaper than what a heifer carcass is worth.

Larry says these middle-aged cows “aren’t necessarily cull cows, but in theory the heifer that calves this year should be better genetically than a cow that’s 6 to 8 years old – in theory. So we’ll keep a bigger percentage of heifers and sell him some of the middle-aged cows. If he can get three or four calves out of the middle-aged cows feeding them grass hay, then it’s a nice deal for him and for us.”

Stockers and a market for middle-aged cows – two more singles.

Singles – forages

Larry feeds cattle hay January through April as part of his forage management plan. Larry says one of the reasons he maintains as many stockers as he does is because “if you get into a dry year, there’s always a fixed or national market for stocker cattle. You can get ’em sold and on a truck pretty quickly in a national market. But if you’re fully stocked with brood cows, you’re stuck.”

Larry hays around 350 acres in round bales, all grass (orchardgrass) or grass-alfalfa mix. He gets three or four cuttings on the mixed alfalfa and takes two cuts on the grass hay if cows can’t graze it.

Singles – land acquisition

While Larry was born while his parents lived at Hidden Acres, his family didn’t own the land. His father was a sharecropper or tenant farmer of sorts, working for a woman who had inherited it. When his father became disabled, Larry worked for the neighbor who rented the farm for several years.

After graduating college with a regional planning and community development degree, he worked with the Soil Conservation Service and farmed on the side. When computers came on the scene, and he seemed to be spending more time at his desk with the computer than with producers, he decided it was time to get out of the desk job and farm full-time. He and Pam started with 157 acres and 16 Charolais cows.

Pam is a speech pathologist with the school system, and Larry says, “I couldn’t have done this without her steady income. If we hadn’t had her insurance and her household operating income, it would have been really tough. It was really tough anyway, but you adjust. Your standard of living changes.” They now own about 1,000 acres and rent another 2,500 acres – mostly pasture.

The herd is largely Angus now, a transition that took many years. Larry has what he calls a “generic purebred” operation as well. With “hitting singles” in mind, he says, “They’re registered, but we tend not to chase the brand-name bulls. We look at bulls that are the middle of the road. A lot of the top bulls are top because they’re great in a single trait, so we’ve always tried to use a balanced approach with cattle that fit our feed bucket.”

The purebred operation has been handed off to the kids, Andrew and Allison, who formed ACE Livestock. Their goal is to maintain moderate-sized Angus and Hereford cows, moderate milking cows and cows that can be maintained without having to supplement.

Having served twice on the National Cattlemen’s Beef Board and as past president of the West Virginia Cattleman’s Association, in addition to launching and growing a successful operation, Larry has essentially “played a lot of ball games” throughout his career. He says, “I think you can win a lot of games hitting singles … if you can hit a .325 average hitting singles rather than swinging for the fence.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: The rolling hills of Gap Mills, West Virginia, support healthy orchardgrass-mix pastures on Hidden Acres Farm. But developing those pastures has taken time, patience and dedication to improving forages.

PHOTO 2: Andrew Echols, Larry Echols and Allison Tomlinson work together on their 600-cow ranch in Gap Mills, West Virginia. Photos by Lynn Jaynes.

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