First generation farmers Nicole and Derrick DeBoer started At Ease Acres in Berne, NY, in 2006 with almost nothing. Today, their cattle are making a name for themselves.

Derrick grew up on his family’s veal farm, participated in 4-H with pigs and commercial cattle, started his own Angus herd, then met his wife Nicole in college. Although Nicole didn’t grow up in agriculture, she had a strong desire to work with animals and received an ag degree from SUNY Cobleskill.

The DeBoers started farming on land Nicole’s parents had been renting. “We started in 2006 with nothing,” said Nicole. “We had 400 acres of rented land and a skid steer. We didn’t own a truck and we borrowed a tractor and a baler. There was no fence, no water, nothing. We built everything from scratch.”

The At Ease herd started with Derrick’s four Angus cows and additional cattle purchased from his father. “I was fresh out of college and had just started a new job,” said Derrick. “We had a loan to buy a skid steer and built high tensile fence ourselves.”

Derrick described the farm’s first working chute as an old portable unit used by veterinarians. “We made our own alleys and tubs,” he said. “We still use the same chute, although I’ve modified it since we got it. We also use the same homemade alleys we built when we first moved in.”

While that first system is used primarily for young stock, the DeBoers eventually invested in a larger second-hand chute system for bigger brood cows.

The couple’s vision was to develop a quality herd of quality registered Angus of 100 head or more. Derrick recalled that over time, he realized they wouldn’t have a fancy operation with 100 head, but a strong desire and willingness to work has paid off with donor-quality cattle.

“We focused on EPD profiles, but we also wanted the phenotype,” said Nicole. “We didn’t want our cattle to just have numbers backing them – they’re meat animals so we wanted soundness, maternal qualities and carcass quality.”

Since the DeBoers couldn’t immediately establish grazing paddocks, the cattle initially grazed 40 acres of pasture. “Then we moved to rotational grazing,” said Derrick. “NRCS helped with that and with waterways.”

As the DeBoers made improvements, they continued to believe their best investment would always be the cattle herd.

“We invest in genetics rather than what looks pretty,” said Nicole, describing their choice to focus on cattle rather than infrastructure. “Genetics is what will pay down the line.” She said efficiency is a critical trait that’s necessary for cattle to use pastures to their best advantage, and since the farm doesn’t have concrete surfaces and cattle are on shale or sod, longevity has come naturally. The herd includes older cows that are still producing good calves.

The DeBoers realize that not all Angus breeders strive for the same outcomes. “A lot of them are breeding for show cattle,” said Derrick. “There are also some breeders who only look at the maternal side. Others are number chasers who don’t focus on what the animals look like.”

Realizing he could focus on a variety of traits, Derrick hasn’t strayed from his original mission statement. “I want the one-size-fits-all cow,” he said. “I grew up in 4-H so I want pretty cows, but I also want cows with numbers to make money. We strive to create an animal that’s pretty, but if it isn’t pretty, it will still marble and hang for meat. We have a variety of markets for one animal.”

Value through genotype and phenotype

Because their young children help with farm work, the DeBoers are careful to select cattle with good dispositions. Photo courtesy of At Ease Acres

With a young family that includes children ages 13, 11 and eight-year-old twins, all of whom help on the farm, it’s imperative that cattle have good dispositions. “My children bring in cows, work the chutes, help pull calves,” Nicole said. “They’re involved in every aspect of the farm. Our cattle have to be docile.”

Cattle are overwintered on corn silage, baleage and dry hay. This year, since it’s getting harder to find help, the DeBoers are feeding 100% grass-based forages (baleage) along with corn and grain. Calves are creep fed and young heifers are grain fed.

Because they’re using older barns with limited space, they calve twice a year. The majority of the herd calves in autumn, and Derrick has noticed an increase in both weights and docility.

“They calve on pasture; the kids are feeding them,” he said. “It’s much easier to have animals become docile when they’re young rather than try to make a larger animal docile. Spring calves are docile in January, but once the grass comes in, they’re on pasture and don’t see humans until September.”

The DeBoers have noticed autumn calving means lower vet bills due to fewer cases of pneumonia and other health issue. “They’re born in September and early October, and they’re big by January, February and March,” said Nicole. “They’ve been vaccinated and have a good start.”

The couple sells most of their bulls in Missouri at three sales throughout the year.

For female sales, Derrick said there’s an opportunity to capitalize on a yearling heifer before she’s bred. “My choices for breeding are never popular because I use out-of-the-ordinary bulls,” he said. “I find bulls I like that will make the best of the animals I have. I get the values, the look, the style.”

Nicole and Derrick select less popular bulls that are a good fit for the cows they have. “They look great, and their EPDs are off the charts,” she said. “People are noticing and it’s working for us.”

In one case, Derrick selected an unknown bull that was just starting his career as an AI sire, and the result was a female that became the farm’s number one donor cow that is now producing high-selling bulls.

For breeding efficiency, most females are synchronized, especially embryo donors. Derrick does the AI work and pregnancy checks, and an experienced embryologist helps with embryo work. All female calves are DNA-tested, and the results help determine which will be retained or sold. After receiving DNA results, Derrick evaluates potential replacements phenotypically.

“Our focus is keeping the best looking, highest value females to stay in the herd,” said Derrick. “We’re averaging over $300 C, which is one of the newer Angus numbers that incorporates the maternal dollar value and the carcass dollar value in one number.”

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by Sally Colby