“Most of you probably have a story or two about the contrast between the beef industry now and how things were when you got started. Was it harder to make ends meet on a calf check then? Was the anxiety greater then? Or is it greater now because we have so much at stake? Now seems like a good time to step back, take stock, and be thoughtful about where the industry is headed. It’s easy to lose perspective in a whirlwind. So we thought a little perspective might be refreshing. . .
I have asked Grandpa Stew to tell me everything he remembers about getting into the cattle business. He remembers his 4th grade teacher at the one room school down the road from here asking for an essay about what they all wanted to do when they grew up. Granddad’s essay was about having a 400 to 500 cow ranch, and he proceeded to describe a dream that he refused to ever let go of. In 1964 he began buying calves at the local auction yard. Herefords dominated this country then and he would pick them up at around 300 lbs in September and October. It usually took him 2 months to scrap together 200 head to winter, and then fatten on irrigated pasture the next summer. When they hit 900 lbs in the fall, they trailed for two days down to the rail yard in Augusta, because he could capture a premium by marketing them himself in Chicago, rather than locally. The ranchers all boarded with their cattle once they were loaded to rendezvous in Great Falls with bull cars from Pendroy, Bynum, Choteau, Raynesford and all the country in between. Usually 100 cars would finally head north to Havre and the main line east. The ranchers stayed in a converted passenger car that had no seats, but plywood bunks, a coal stove to cook on and kerosene lanterns. Poker games went night and day. The train stopped in Minot to feed and water: they would begin at the front car unloading cattle, working their way to the end and then back to the lead car to reload which was an 8 hour process. They arrived in Chicago 5 to 7 days before the special “Auction of Western Montana Cattle”. The stockyard brokered feed and Granddad always volunteered to work on the feed crew of a team and wagon pitching hay into bunks. That way he could sort off some of the best hay for his yearlings.
The railroad was already anticipating the end of this arrangement, with cars and bull boards in neglect and disrepair. They were no longer interested in accommodating cattlemen. The stockyard too was in decline: the pens and cement water tanks always needed fixing or cleaning. Some pens had trees growing in them. Granddad says it was obvious they were living in the the last of an era. Grandpa Stew bought his first pairs in 1968, began contracting through the local cattle buyers, and in the mid ‘80s cultivated relationships with farmer/feeders in the midwest who would feed his calves, and buy his bull customer’s calves. What do you suppose the young Stew Schwartz might have thought in 1968 if he heard we would one day raise a steer to 800 lbs in 8 months and sell him for $1.50 per pound?
“Don’t waste it . . . “
How about Mike’s story? Dad arrived in Choteau Montana from a small farm in Wisconsin in 1966. He was 14 and dreams of the cowboy life loomed large. How to get there? He hired on in High School with a 2nd generation rancher who took him under his colorful tutoring and taught him to ride, care for horses, work cattle horseback, and keep busy at day to day ranch work. Without ear tags or any other identification, Ed Yeager showed him how to watch cattle carefully: how to pair up a cow based on how she looked at a calf. But the deeper philosophies of cattle genetics, feeding properly and managing grass came when he began working for Stew. Granddad was building a registered Simmental herd through extensive use of artificial insemination, so Dad learned to do it. He bought his first heifer from Grandad, managed to settle her to a Simmental bull and thought, “I have got to have more of this!”
He began leasing Grandad’s place, farmed and irrigated malt barley and hay ground, ran cattle for Stew and began aggressively keeping replacement heifers. Granddad always was enthusiastic about the science that Simmental breeders and American Simmental Association brought to the cattle business and so Dad had a lot of opportunities to learn to look at cattle objectively and pay close attention to conformation. How does Dad sum up those early years? “Work hard when you’re young and have plenty of drive and desire and grit. Working hard can cover a multitude of sins. It takes a lifetime to get somewhere when you start from zero.”
Mike’s first feeder calves weighed 425 lbs and sold for $0.29 per pound after he had paid a record $500 for bred heifers. The calf check didn’t even cover the interest payment. What do you suppose the young Mike Richert might have thought in 1973 if he heard we would one day raise a steer to 800 lbs in 8 months and sell him for $1.50 per pound?
“I sure hope they don’t waste it . . . “
Through the ‘80s and ‘90s as the five of us kids got to be more useful, we continued to run mostly Granddad’s cows, aggressively kept replacement heifers of our own, learned to AI, gradually paid for an older line of machinery, farmed and put up hay. We learned things the same way they did: by doing them. By asking ourselves every day: “How badly do I want this life?” So that’s where we come from: self-made men with a vision and the women who stuck it out with them. People who have taken the time to pass on a life’s worth of lessons and values and knowledge and skill. But the keenest lesson we keep thinking about right now is the one about opportunity . . . We are determined not to waste this.
How does that all come together at an Open Gate Ranch Bull Sale? The mission behind our genetic program is to achieve maternal excellence. Bulls are necessary and feeder calves pay the bills but the mama cow IS IT. That is why we don’t sell young females and probably never will-they represent the core value of our program. The bull sale is the product of us always trying to make better females. While carefully heeding the science and numbers behind good genetics, we never want to lose the ability or priority of judging an animal with the eye. We never want a trend to pull us away from what a functional cow has to be. Good dispositions are absolutely critical: we don’t tolerate aggression and certainly do not expect you to. The bulls are had fed and handled extensively during the test to evaluate this trait. Carcass values are always balanced against performance, early gain, and profit to the rancher. We believe the rancher deserves the first and best cut. Our own cattle on feed have proven it is possible to breed for high industry standards without donating profit into a grid. The reality is that most commercial cattlemen cannot capture all the value of a premium carcass animal. So we work hard to maintain value at the front end. We work hard to contribute profit and sustainability to the commercial cattleman’s program. Because that is where we come from.”