by: Corinne Patterson

If a beef producer could read a crystal ball, he might be able to get where he wanted to go a lot faster and with fewer missteps. Since that strategy won't offer much insight, reflection is often the key to a cowman's future.

Ron McBee of Fayette, Missouri, has a lifetime of beef industry experience that no doubt has offered him insight.

But as he reflects, his visionary approach years ago makes one believe he sees something more when he gazes toward that infamous crystal ball.

�If you would have asked me 10 years ago what management practice has benefited us most, I would tell you that it was the grazing management that really enabled us to not only be somewhat successful, but to also expand,� McBee shares. �It cut our highest fixed cost in half. In a beef cattle enterprise, your biggest fixed cost is land. If we can run twice as many cattle on the same amount of land, then we've cut our fixed cost in half. That's what the grazing program did for us.�

�Now 20 years later, I'd have to put Braunvieh cattle in the same equation because they have enabled us to do what we are doing,� he continues. �They are the best kept secret in the beef industry. There's no breed that's perfect, but I think they're the breed with the fewest faults of any breed out there. The Braunvieh breed of cattle, along with our grazing management, really work hand in hand to allow us to do what we're doing.�

McBee and his wife, Teri, operate McBee Cattle Co., a diversified seedstock and commercial cattle operation located in the heart of North-Central Missouri.

With six children and nine grandchildren, the operation can surely be a family affair at times. The couple has carved out a niche in the highly competitive breeding cattle market in this cow-calf rich region by offering producers an alternative to many of the more common breeds of cattle available.

�When we first found the Braunvieh females � and I probably looked at 800 of them � I didn't see one that I didn't like. I didn't see any bad udders, and they were just good sharp-fronted, clean females,� McBee reminisces about his first experiences selecting the foundation of his herd. �What really impressed me was that it didn't seem to matter what the other half of their genetics was. The Braunvieh improved every breed I saw them used on.�

As time went on and their cattle herd and business expanded, McBee continued to notice the benefits his customers were gaining by using his purebred Braunvieh genetics on their English-based commercial cow herds.

The cattle were so popular with his customers that McBee began to see a trend that caused him to modify his breeding program.

�The primary reason we started to develop a hybrid animal was because we were selling purebred bulls to commercial producers and they were keeping halfblood heifers. They'd breed those back to purebred bulls and pretty soon our commercial customers had developed a cowherd that was essentially purebred Braunvieh and they were losing a lot of hybrid vigor,� McBee recalls. �We felt the need to develop a hybrid animal, and the most heterosis we see is in a halfblood animal.�

�With this, we were able to offer our customers halfblood hybrid bulls that they could breed to their halfblood cowherd and maintain that halfblood calf,� he continues. �It really simplifies their breeding program and mating decisions. When any of our customers' herd becomes more than 51 percent purebred Braunvieh, our suggestion is to move to hybrid bulls, and from then on they don't have to be concerned about which bull goes in which pasture. They just breed hybrid bulls to all their cows.�

Customer Service Vision

McBee Cattle Co. hosts an annual �Selection Day� sale the 3rd Saturday in April. The program's top 70 bulls of the 110 to 120 bulls that they measure annually are displayed in pens and are offered to cattlemen in a way that allows them a great deal of time to make their selections. Bulls are base priced, and customers have the opportunity to place their silent bids during the event.

�We don't have an auction-style sale with an auctioneer,� McBee says. �We have a bid sheet on every animal with a base price. At 10:00 a.m. we'll put up the bid sheets and at 2:00 p.m. we'll start taking the bid sheets down. Our customers have four hours to look at a bull and decide if they want to buy him. The first person to put their number down on the sheet has the right to purchase an individual bull at the base price if nobody else bids. If someone else does bid, he's got plenty of time to come back and bid again. When we close the bidding at 2:00 we allow the people who have bid on a particular lot one more opportunity to continue bidding if they're interested, and that's how we break ties and let people get the bull that they want.�

McBee feels that this approach has allowed him to better learn his customers' goals, and develop a stronger relationship with them.

�The main reason we made the decision to start this type of auction happened during one of our first sales when we did conduct a live auction,� McBee recalls. �I was sitting on the auction block and saw several people in the crowd that had questions, or really needed to talk to me about which bull they needed. I just didn't get to interact with the customers the way I thought I needed to. We have a function to visit with our customers and try to help them any way that we can. I felt the need to do something different, so we did, and we're glad we did.�

Customer satisfaction, education and success are at the very core of McBee Cattle Co.'s business philosophy.

Groups of cattlemen, university classes and foreign visitors are a common occurrence at the ranch where they are able to see and learn about the McBee grazing program, Braunvieh seedstock operation and the customer services he provides to purebred and commercial customers.

�Part of our job as a seedstock producer is to educate our customers and keep them moving forward, and that in turn helps our program as well,� McBee shares. In an area of the country where a majority of their customers own smaller herds of cattle, and in turn sell fewer calves each year, McBee has developed a unique way to pool resources to allow for greater market competitiveness.

Round Them Up

�We do as many things as we can for our customers but one of the things we do that is a little bit unique is that we have what we call a McBee Calf Roundup,� McBee explains.

Twice a year � in January for spring born calves and in August for fall born calves � McBee offers the opportunity for bull customers to deliver calves to the ranch. These calves are sorted into load lots where McBee genetics, including some of the ranch's home-raised calves, are marketed directly to the feedyard buyers through the McBee Genetic Advantage Program (MGAP).

Going into their 18th year, they group 1,000 to 1,100 calves per year.

�Our calf roundups allow our customers to bring their calves here to the ranch to be grouped in larger groups. We age and source verify the cattle. If we have 150 steers in a pen that weigh 550 to 650 lbs., we price those cattle at the same price. If you took those 150 steers to a traditional market, they would be sorted 10 different ways. We don't do that. All the calves in that pen, regardless of color, they all receive the same price. It's an added service to our customers that gives a guy with 30 cows the opportunity to compete with a guy with 300 cows.�

McBee's non-traditional approach to customer service has also allowed him to cultivate strong relationships directly with cattle feeders across the Midwest who have come to trust the genetics and the program behind it.

�We have a list of buyers who have bought cattle from us. My protocol is to call the guy that bought them the last time and give him the first opportunity. We don't take bids on the cattle, we price them. Usually, I don't have to call more than three people to get the transaction completed,� McBee says. �In 18 years of doing this I've only had one buyer come and actually look at the cattle. We send calves to South Dakota, Kansas, Colorado; and when they get the calves they send me a check. It's definitely gotten easier over the years.�

An added bonus of established relationships in the feeding industry has also allowed McBee to provide his customers with feedback regarding the endpoint feed efficiency and carcass performance of their feeder calves.

�We just recently received some data back on some cattle that were harvested in 2010,� McBee says. �One set of 88 head were processed on one day and they were 91 percent Choice or better and 82 percent Yield Grade 1's and 2's. The interesting thing about those 88 calves is that they were brought here by 15 individual customers of ours, and sired by 21 different McBee bulls. We're very pleased with the consistency we're seeing. We think that what we're doing is working. We just have to do more of it.�

Cash Cow

Over the last few years, the McBees have also developed a program designed to allow their customers to cash in on the strong maternal traits found in their Braunvieh-based replacement females.

�Over the last 10 to 15 years we've sent thousands of excellent Braunvieh based females to the feedlot that would have made good cows,� McBee says. �Now we're offering our customers the opportunity to retain ownership on some of those heifers when they bring their calf crop to us and keep them back as replacements. We're developing, feeding and breeding those heifers and allowing our customers to share in the proceeds of those heifers when we sell them as bred replacement females. It's a bred heifer program that we've just implemented that works hand in hand with our calf roundup. We like to say that we've got our commercial customers pretty well taken care of. They raise the calf, and we'll help them take care of everything else.�

The McBees currently manage more than 400 head of cows; 300 are members of their seedstock herd and 100 are commercial cows. Management of their cowherd and land resources depends heavily on the rotational grazing practices first put in place by McBee in 1982.

�We have about 1,600 acres of pasture. We have a grazing cell on 1,350 of those acres with 80 paddocks,� McBee describes. �There's 10 to 20 acres of pasture in each paddock. We put in 8 miles of underground water lines, installed 60 rubber tire water tanks and built about 60 miles of fence. In the spring when grass is growing fast we rotate the cattle fast, almost every day. When the grass slows down, we slow the cattle down.�

Rotational grazing has allowed McBee to maximize production of his available acres and minimize expenses to enhance profitability.

�It all works in any environment, it just depends on how intense you want to get,� he shares. �In our area it's all fescue and we stockpile a lot of it. We winter a lot of dry cows on stockpiled fescue and don't feed hay during the wintertime, depending on the weather.

In a normal year about half of our cows will not get any hay. They'll be grazing stockpiled forage all winter. That has really changed our program over the years. We used to figure feeding five big round bales per cow through the winter. When you can go from five bales per cow to zero, that's really where the bottom line goes from red to black. That's probably helped us as much as anything on our overhead feed costs.�

While the cool season fescue pastures that the McBee herd calls home are ideal for winter grazing of stockpiled forages, it takes attention to detail and a dedicated plan to execute a concentrated grazing program during the hot summer months when the grass is most vulnerable.

�We handle pastures about like you mow your yard.� McBee says. �When you mow your yard, you put the lawnmower in the shed and after a day or two it doesn't look like you mowed it at all. That's because there's a better root system in your yard than in the pasture. The reason you have a better root system in your yard is because every time you take four inches off above ground and it grows back, the root system grows four inches below ground as well. If you turn 50 cows out in a 100 acre pasture and leave them there all summer, that grass is not getting any rest and therefore, it's not developing a root system.

�That's why in this country in July and August we can go 50 days without rain and the pastures are burnt up, but we're still mowing yards,� he continues. �It's really kind of common sense. We're just rotating cows like we're using a lawnmower to mow our yard. We're keeping our cows on a higher plane of nutrition because when you keep grass short and keep as much of it from maturing as you can, it's more nutritious than when cattle are grazing nothing but stems and seed heads.�

Let's ride

Modern-day challenges continue to keep McBee and his crew on their toes, and sometimes force them to come at a problem with a 'back to the future' solution. One of those problems was the rising cost of gas to keep their four-wheelers rolling.

�Until two years ago we had no horses on the ranch,� McBee says with a chuckle. �We usually divide those 80 paddocks into three or four sub-paddocks each. We're not just using 80 pastures, we're using 240 pastures. That portable fence has to be put up and taken down several times, so we will burn a lot of gas.� They began to incorporate horses into the management strategy, and some members of the crew that had never ridden much before had to learn to adapt. Their main hired man is in his 50s and had never been on a horse. �You can imagine what it was like around her for awhile,� McBee adds.

Unique solutions to everyday challenges seem to be the driving force behind McBee and his operation. He takes great pride in his family, and the lifestyle he holds dear.

�Since I've been involved in the cattle business all my life, I really don't know anything else. I don't know any other livelihood or job where you can manage yourself, make decisions and be as happy as we are.�

(Reprinted with permission from Working Ranch Magazine November/ December 2011)

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