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Rancher specializes with club calves

By Doug Rich

Certain areas of the country are associated with specific events or products. For example Louisville has baseball bats, Denver has the mountains. Kansas City has barbecue.

Stand next to the showring during the annual livestock shows at Louisville, Denver or Kansas City and mention Wessington Springs, SD, and people automatically think of club calves. Within a 15-mile radius of Wessington Springs, there are 10 club calf producers and they are building a reputation for producing winners.

Barry Krueger has been in the club calf business for the past 10 years, on his ranch outside Wessington Springs.

"I was searching for a way to specialize," says Krueger. "We were very diversified, with 175 sows, 400 ewes and 200 cows."

Now, he has 300 cows, very few sheep and no hogs.

"This is the first time without hogs on this place in three generations," he says.

After graduating from South Dakota State University in 1974, Krueger gained some valuable experience by traveling the national show circuit fitting and trimming cattle. He worked at shows like the American Royal, the National Western and smaller regional shows, in South Dakota.

"Then I started fitting and clipping bulls for bull sales," says Krueger.

He cut back on his travel schedule in 1984, but continued to clip and trim bulls for local producers around Wessington Springs.

In 1990, Krueger began to concentrate on club calf production. Ten years ago, black was the popular color for show calves and that has not changed. His cow herd today is primarily an Angus herd, with some Simmental in their background.

"All of the cows are a black cross of some kind," says Krueger.

The type of club calf that buyers are looking for has changed, however.

"They have gone to a more moderate framed animal, something that has more depth of rib that will finish between 1,250 to 1,300 pounds. In the past, buyers picked some pretty large framed cattle. Now, they pick more of the type the beef industry can use."

Krueger will artificially inseminate (AI) about three-fourths of the cows and heifers in his spring calving herd. He will use 14 to 15 AI bulls every year.

"A lot of bulls are promoted, but it is really a guessing game," says Krueger. "The last couple of years, we have not tried as many new bulls, but have stayed with the proven sires. It really depends on what the buyers want."

Among the bulls he used last year were Who Made Who, Payback, Totally Tuned and Heat Seeker. A popular combination is a Maine Anjou bull that has a touch of Simmental, Shorthorn or exotic cross of some kind.

Mature cows are not synchronized for artificial insemination.

"We heat detect and breed for 30 days, so we see about half of the cows go through two cycles," says Krueger.

Gomer bulls are used as an aide in heat detection. Heifers are watched through one cycle, artificially inseminated once and then turned in with a cleanup bull.

In recent years, Krueger has raised nearly all of his replacement heifers. This year, he used Simmental bulls on a group of mostly Angus cows for replacement heifers.

Krueger markets club calves to buyers from several states, including Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Kansas, Iowa, Arkansas, and South Dakota. Nearly all of these cattle are sold private treaty, over the phone. All of the club calf producers around Wessington Springs sell their cattle at about the same time. For a week beginning Labor Day weekend, they open their gates to everyone interested in buying club calves.

"Hundreds of people will come around to look at cattle in each producer's herd," says Krueger.

At his ranch, Krueger puts a base bid on each calf.

"If someone is interested in a calf, they let me know and we take bids at $100 increments beginning at the base bid," says Krueger.

After the cutoff time, he will start calling each person who bid on a particular calf, letting them know what the final bid was and to find out if they are still interested.

"Most people come by and look at the calves, and we did sell two off the Internet last year. I feel more comfortable about it when they come and look at the calves."

Most of the calves will be sold in the early fall, but a few lighter, greener calves will be sold later. Someone wanting a calf for their county fair will want to buy a calf weighing around 500 pounds, while someone aiming for the national show circuit can buy a little lighter calf. About half of Krueger's calves are sold to traders, who haul them home and re-sell them.

"There are some people who are better off to have a trader buy for them," says Krueger. "The traders know what to look for more than the average person."

Everyone hopes to find that one great calf, at a bargain price.

"There are not many real good ones that get missed," says Krueger. "Usually, somebody sees them."

Some of the calves will change hands several times before they end up in the showring, which makes it hard to get feedback on how his calves are doing. This year, he has three or four calves that have done very well.

"The key is getting them in the right hands," Krueger says. "Someone with the knowledge to show them best."

Krueger attends several livestock shows during the year, including Denver, where a lot of the new club calf bulls are on display. He and his family do not show much themselves. He sells the best calves and only has what is left over for his family to show.

"Market lambs are our specialty," says Krueger.

When asked why Wessington Springs has become a Mecca for club calf production, Krueger said it is good grass, good cattle and good cattlemen.

"There are 10 to 12 people in this area who have been doing this for over 25 years," says Krueger. "These 10 to 12 people are real good cattlemen that know what a club calf should look like."

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