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Simplicity is key for this Tennessee producer’s finishing enterprise

Jaclyn Krymowski for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 March 2020
Jerry Ray

It takes a lot of knowledge, determination, dedication and grit to even attempt raising stocker or backgrounded cattle. Of these individuals, there are those who go on to becoming successful in their businesses and fewer still recognized for exceptionality in what they do.

Jerry Ray of Tullahoma, Tennessee, is among those few, winning the Tennessee Farmer of the Year not once but twice, in 2008 and 2019. Ray, who describes himself as a stocker cattle producer, has grown from overseeing a mere 45 acres inherited from his grandfather to over 1,900, where he raises row crops and 1,400 head of cattle.

Ray first stepped into the cattle industry very modestly. He started with a small cow-calf herd, primarily for the purpose of eating some leftover corn. With some trial and error along the way, he found his niche with sale barn cattle, creating an exceptional and profitable finishing enterprise. He shares some of the ingredients in his recipe for success.

The feeding situation

Ray describes his feeding situation as being fairly simple. The bulk of what he feeds is distillage from a distillery only 6 miles from his home farm.

“A lot of people around here just feed the straight distillage and free-choice hay. But on that, you only get like 1.8 on your rate of gain,” he explains. “We add 2-and-a-half pounds of corn, and we got our gain up to about 2.8 to 3 pounds. This way we can turn so many more cattle.”

On average, the herd consumes two or three 4,000-gallon truckloads of distillage a day. They feed from a trough and top-dress with square bales of straw and corn. This method is extremely effective with minimal labor; Ray employs two full-time workers with part-time help from his son. He notes this system is doable for about three people, taking four hours to feed about 600 animals. He notes this is a lot less labor-intensive than filling a traditional mixing wagon.

A drawback to this diet is the increased risk of bloat, a major contributor to death loss in the herd.

“We try to keep our death loss around 2-and-a-half percent. I’ve had nutritionists, vets and everybody look at the incidences of bloat,” Ray says. “They keep telling me there’s not much you can do, just part of doing business because we have a cheap feed. We probably bloat anywhere from 1 to 1-and-a-half percent.”

The distillage, being 92% water and extremely high protein, needs to be hauled in every single day and kept in front of cattle. When a cold front comes in and animals go off feed for even a day, they tend to overeat and bloat very quickly. Ray notes this feed is excellent for short-term feeder calves, who are kept on this ration anywhere from four to six months. In a long-term cow-calf setting, it just doesn’t work, as the acidity contributes to tooth decay and overly fat mother cows with a host of calving issues.

Bookkeeping and management

A strong point many folks commend Ray for is his exceptional bookkeeping skills, which helps his management practices.

“If I didn’t keep my records on everything, I wouldn’t know what’s going on and which groups are making money,” he says. “I use a spreadsheet and my personal notes.”

Every calf is weighed individually on two occasions – immediately upon arrival and again about a month before they’re shipped out. Weighing animals individually not only helps put together more uniform loads, it’s also a way to track rate of gain. Other things monitored are death loss and treatment.

One of the things Ray likes about his cattle system is the cash flow schedule and how it incorporates to his crop enterprise. Especially in the winter months, it helps fill in the void when no crops are in the ground.

“We go through a cycle; every four months I’m buying about a 550-pound calf and selling about a 900-pound calf,” he says. “I like the steady cash flow where I sell two tractor-trailer loads a month. Additionally, we feed our own corn, which takes away some of the excess and gets us a better price.”

Another trick of the trade Ray has learned is the importance of volume in buying and selling. This applies to his animals and feedstuffs and is why he likes to sell his groups in semiloads. For example, for his feeding program, Ray feeds a good mineral custom made by a nutritionist.

“When we first put our mineral out, I was buying it by the bag, and it was costing me around 250 dollars each,” he says. “Then I got a tractor-trailer load of it bulk, and it cost me like 2 or 3 dollars a ton. I couldn’t believe the price difference. It just goes to show, you’ve just got to have volume.”

There was a time when the procedure was to mass treat all incoming cattle. The response wasn’t as good as when cattle were pulled and treated individually, so they stopped the practice. Now all incoming animals get a round of dewormer, an ear implant and two rounds of a modified-live virus vaccine. Antibiotics are only given upon clinical symptoms.

Give-and-take of education

One thing that makes Ray unique among his colleagues is: He is largely self-taught. He attributes much of his success to things like trial and error, utilizing resources at extension offices and attending plenty of seminars.

For example, he now strives to buy preconditioned calves; in fact, that’s all he’s bought in about the last six months.

“The vet bill charged each calf about 25 to 30 dollars, and that’s dropped down. My gain has gone up a lot too,” Ray says.

He notes that not a lot of people in his area regularly precondition their calves. That’s something he tries to share with cattlemen who visit his ranch, explaining that with the stress of weaning and change, those little things make a big difference to buyers. He’s picky in what he chooses at the sale barns.

“It takes me about two to three weeks to put together a group of 100 head, and that’s what I try to run into each lot,” he says. “We try to run five or six groups, so we’re always bringing in cattle.”

Above all, Ray credits a lot of his learning to the people he’s encountered. He has participated in roundtables and has learned a lot from producers who share the same challenges, and the exchange of ideas is pivotal.

“It’s good to pick other people’s brains and let them pick your brain. I get a lot of people that come around here and ask a lot of questions and I don’t mind,” he says. “That is a good way of giving back and learning a whole lot. I enjoy it; you always learn something.”

Hard work and determination are also important figures in the success story that is Jerry Ray. He reflects on these, coupled with taking a few chances, as being part of what built his operation to where it is.

“You can’t be afraid to try new things, and you’re going to fail sometimes. But that’s what it takes to get better,” he says. “It doesn’t take a whole lot to make the bottom line a lot thinner. And you’ve got to have that passion; without it you won’t be really successful.”  end mark

PHOTO: Jerry Ray of Tullahoma, Tennessee, was named Tennessee Farmer of the Year. Today, he operates 1,900 acres of crops and feeds 1,400 head of primarily Angus cattle. Photo provided by Jerry Ray.

Jaclyn Krymowski is a freelancer based in Ohio.