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Eagle Hills Ranch seeks marketability

"Dad loves eagles," says Todd Geiken, explaining why his family's commercial cow-calf operation is dubbed Eagle Hills Ranch. For a long time, it was called Geiken Ranch and was owned, in succession, by three generations of the Geiken clan. And, for a long time, it ran white-faced cattle among the hills south of Gothenburg, Neb. The change of name followed a fourth generation's entry into ranching and a change of focus.

"For awhile there, before my brothers and I got involved, Dad was nearly out of the cow business," tells Todd. "When we decided to get back in, we went with straight Angus. We wanted maternal traits and calving ease. Angus gave us that and enough outcross opportunity to meet our goals for growth. As much as anything, though, we wanted to raise calves that were marketable."

During the early 1990s, brothers Todd, Shane and Wade joined with their father, Norm, in several businesses. The Geiken family operates a grain elevator in Gothenburg, as well as a trucking firm. They raise grain and forage crops on about 2,600 acres. Todd and Shane take primary responsibility for a cow herd numbering close to 1,600 head.

It's a spring-calving herd with an average calving date of March 10. During recent years, calves have been weaned in September, backgrounded on the ranch and shipped to new owners in early November.

"We used to sell bawling calves, right off the cows," says Todd, "but it's been more profitable for us to wean and background the calves for at least 45 days. Up until the last few years we sold mainly through a local auction market, although we have retained ownership and fed out some of our cattle. We sold them on the grid and retrieved the carcass data when we could. We try to follow up with calf buyers too, and collect as much data as we can."

The information they've gathered shows improvement in the percentage of calves achieving Choice quality grade and an acceptable yield grade. The data suggests the percentage of calves that meet specifications for Certified Angus Beef has increased from 25 percent to 65 percent.

The brothers prefer to avoid extremes, favoring genetics that balance growth and carcass traits with maternal characteristics. According to Shane, bulls are currently purchased from two different sources that methodically introduce fresh genetics to proven breeding programs. Matings are planned to emphasize complementarity between females and sires.

"We run groups of closely related bulls--mostly half-brothers--running each sire-group with about 80 cows," explains Shane. "Calves are identified by sire-group so we can evaluate the calves, and so we know which way we want to go when mating the daughters we save."

Knowing the lineage of each female also aids in avoiding genetic defects resulting from recessive mutant genes associated with certain Angus cattle. The Geiken brothers admit that they had some bulls that were carriers of arthrogryposis multiplex (AM), or curly calf syndrome, but it hasn't been a problem.

"And it won't be a problem for us," adds Todd, noting that fewer than one percent of the cow herd might be carriers and steps are being take to prevent propagation of the mutation in the herd.

"We can easily avoid mating a carrier bull with any females that might be carriers," he adds.

Record-keeping at Eagle Hills Ranch has evolved from a paper trail only to a computerized system. At branding time, calves are fitted with individual electronic identification tags which allow data, including dam and sire-group, a history of vaccinations and medical treatments plus weaning weights to be entered, chute-side, into the system. Any subsequent data collected on calves can be added to their dams' production records, increasing the value of dams' records for evaluation of daughters as potential herd replacements. Four years ago, the ranch added age- and source-verification, through a USDA-approved program.

The lion's share of the last three calf crops were sold through video auctions which, the brothers believe, provided more exposure to a wider array of buyers. They also believe using a program for verification of age, source and no treatment with growth hormones has increased competition among bidders.

"We're trying to use proven Angus genetics, through planned mating, to optimize economically important traits and increase uniformity. And we're trying to use management tools that add value too. At the very least, it creates opportunity to access niche markets," says Todd.

"Lately, video marketing has worked to our advantage, although we have sold some replacement quality heifers at private treaty. And we're not saying we won't decide to retain ownership again. We're trying to maintain some marketing flexibility and choose the way that offers the most profit potential."

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