When Randy and Laura Rockhill purchased a large property in Madrid, NY, their intent wasn’t to start a purebred cattle operation.
“We bought it primarily for hunting,” said Randy, describing the 400-acre home farm. “We bought a few head of cattle, and went from a few cattle to over 200 head.” In addition to the home farm, the Rockhills rent an additional 500 acres for crops and pasture.
Randy started with a small herd of Simmental cattle, but within a few years he found that the breed wasn’t ideal for his freezer beef business. When he had an opportunity to purchase an Angus herd, he made the switch.
“I bought them from a man who had been in the business for a long time, and he had a good breeding program,” said Randy. “I wanted good cattle to start with, and from that time on, I’ve bought nothing but the best bulls. When we first started, we bought bulls from bull test sales. They’re all eating from the same grain bucket, and when they’re tested, you know what you’re buying.”
Within a few years of carefully selecting sires for planned matings, the Rockhills found themselves selling seedstock to other cattlemen. “That’s the direction I wanted to take the herd,” said Randy. “Good replacement females and some high-end bulls. We sell about 15 to 20 bulls each year.”
Randy’s effort to select low birthweight bulls has paid off. Out of 75 cows that calved in spring of 2015, none required assistance. “When I’m picking bulls from my own program, I keep calves that are the most vigorous,” he said. “We follow those through as they go on feed, and if they’re the high gainers, they’re the ones I keep for my own herd.”
But Randy already has a good idea of which cows’ calves he’ll keep an eye on. “They’re all in the barn and being fed, so it doesn’t take long to figure out which are the good ones,” he said. “When some calves are gaining three pounds and others gaining six pounds, you know where mama is. That’s how I built the herd — through process of elimination. We keep the top 10 percent of bulls from the top 10 percent of cows. If the top 10 percent have heifers, those will be the replacements. We feed them all and keep the best.”
The breeding season starts with synchronization and A.I. service to first calf heifers “I like to breed the heifers a few weeks prior to the rest of the cowherd,” said Randy. “It gives them a couple weeks longer the following year. It’s their first calf, and if they have any trouble, it gives them extra time prior to going into the cowherd. After heifers are A.I.’d once, we run a bull behind them. Then I’ll pick my best 20 cows and synchronize and A.I. them. The rest of the herd is bred by bulls.”
Calving begins at the end of March/early April, and is planned for a 60-day window. This year the entire herd calved within 40 days. After calving, cattle are on pasture by May 15. At weaning, calves go into the barn for the winter and are started on feed. Some will be kept as replacement heifers and the rest will be sold for the freezer trade or as bulls. “Our bulls average 1,400 pounds or more by their first birthday,” said Randy. “Many of the bull buyers are repeat buyers.”
Randy says when he was selling freezer beef in the fall, it was often difficult to book processing dates because it’s the busy season for processors. “We had to book a whole year out,” he said. “It was hard to predict a year from now what I’d have. After we started pushing the calves harder and with a better breeding program, we now have calves that grow and finish in 14 months. That works out well because they finish in June, a slow time for slaughterhouses, and we don’t have any trouble getting them in. It also works out for the freezer trade because people love summer beef.”
Cattle are fed a homegrown TMR that includes corn, hay, alfalfa and supplemental minerals. Randy works with a nutritionist and includes testing of feed components as part of the ration planning. His goal is to provide sufficient dry matter while meeting protein and energy needs. And although Randy has worked hard to develop a consistent feeding program, he’s willing to experiment. “Every year I try something different,” he said. “Last year we tried forage soybeans. That’s when we hit six-pound gains. But I didn’t have enough to push them through the year. This year I planted 25 acres of forage soybeans, so I’m anxious to see how we do feeding them.”
In discussing herd bulls with other cattlemen, Randy has found that it’s sometimes hard for people to see the difference between a quality bull and an average bull, and that a good feeding program can make a big difference in animal quality.
“I tell people that all beef isn’t created equal, and to be consistent,” he said. “We just weaned about 75 calves, and they look like peas in a pod,” he said. “That’s part of a good breeding program — they should all look alike. And if you sell someone a piece of beef this year that grades choice and they liked it, next year it better be the same. It’s all about consistency.”
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