Grown on grass
Producer believes in raising cattle on forages
By Jennifer Carrico
Concentrating on excelling in one breed is a challenge for many beef producers, but excelling in more than one breed takes decades of experience and lessons learned in all areas of the cattle business.
At Flying H Genetics in Arapahoe, Neb., Dick Helms and his family strive to have cattle that will excel for their customers and are raised to be able to survive on roughages.
"It's important for our cattle to be able to survive out on the range or in any situation. We feel that cattle need to be able to prove themselves for us and our customers in a low-input situation," said Helms.
Flying H Genetics started in the seedstock business in 1948. Originally in the Hereford business, Helms' parents were very successful with both horned and polled Herefords.
In 1976 Helms returned from college, needing to expand the operation. After much research including the Meat Animal Research Center data, he decided to add the Gelbvieh breed and expand their genetic offering to customers.
They traveled to several surrounding states to purchase high-quality cattle. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Helms was intrigued by composite cattle and how they simplified crossbreeding. That is when he started a Gelbvieh/Angus composite to give his customers another hybrid option. GelPLUS cattle were marketed for 15 years before the American Gelbvieh Association developed a hybrid registry and trademarked the name Balancer.
"Raising and selling cattle is like going to the grocery store. It's always good to have more than one genetic choice for the customers, depending on what they are looking for or where their herd needs improvement," he said. "Combining the best cattle with planned crossbreeding makes a tremendous win/win situation."
In 2006, the Simmental breed and Simmental/Angus cattle were added to the herd. Now, they are producing a Sim/Angus and Balancer cross to give their customers an option with even more genetic selection and heterosis equal to the F1 cross.
"There are many advantages to crossbreeding, especially on the maternal side to add fertility, milk production and longevity to the females," said Helms. "The quickest way to increase efficiency in the cattle industry is with crossbreeding."
Helms said the crossbred cattle are easier to manage and help reduce the cost of production because they are more efficient. However, he said the best crossbreeding programs are planned out.
Even though Helms has different breeds in the Flying H herd, he still manages all the breeds together.
"There are good cattle in all breeds and all of them can have improvements," he said. "We manage the cattle part of our operation just like we do our crops. In crops we have yield checks to make sure we are making improvements. On the cattle side, we take weights, perform tests and look at DNA and performance data in order to make a better product for the customer."
Most of the herd calves in the spring, but they also have a small group that calves in the fall. They start calving in late January and early February in order to have more mature bull calves for breeding as yearlings.
The fall calves are mostly marketed at their Missouri location or are held over to be sold as older bulls.
"Some customers prefer older bulls so we try to fill that need also," he added.
At breeding time, Helms and his crew, which includes his son Kyle, sort out the bottom third of the cows to use as recipient cows in the embryo program.
Cows are synchronized for artificial insemination in two groups using the CIDR program. After cows are bred, they synchronize one group of heifers.
"By synchronizing our herd, it has allowed us to get more calves in the first 30 days of calving," he said.
AI is used to help meet targets phenotypically and genetically. Adjustments and specific matings can be made based on demand as well.
They also utilize embryo transfer to multiply elite genetics. When choosing donor cows for the embryo program, Helms uses the advice of a friend: "They have to produce 'three studs and no duds' to go into our donor program. We want to identify genetics that excel and then multiply them."
They are also able to utilize cooperator herds that use their genetics or embryos. This provides more animals to choose from for the bull sale and for replacement heifers.
After the calves are weaned in late summer, first-calf heifers are sorted into their own group in order to supplement them through the winter. Then at calving time they are mixed in with the rest of the cows.
First- and second-calvers are sorted right after weaning and turned into cornstalk rubble to help them gain back body condition they might have lost while raising a calf.
"Young cows have to prove themselves here. They need to produce as good as the mature cows. We find out quickly which cows can do that," said Helms. "We manage cows to be foragers and convert grass efficiently."
The Flying H cattle are known for being able to work for a living. Helms identifies cattle that can't compete in the forage environment and eliminates them. He requires them to make a living on grass, hay, cornstalks or straw.
This year has been challenging because of the lack of moisture all summer. "We are used to being dry in western Nebraska, but this year the drought started much earlier," he said.
Because of the drought, the Flying H calves were weaned earlier than normal in order to reduce the nutrient needs for the cows.
They wean the calves on a grass pasture with their mothers on the other side of the fence to limit the stress and dust usually present in a lot situation.
More than 400 bulls are marketed through three auctions, as well as private treaty sales. The sale at the headquarters in Nebraska is the first Saturday in March. Two sales are held at the Missouri location--one the last Saturday in March and one the last Saturday in October.
About half of the bulls sold are Gelbvieh and Balancer and the other half are Simmental/Angus. In Nebraska, they sell more of the Gelbvieh-influenced bulls and in Missouri, the Simmental-influenced.
Flying H Genetics sells bulls to more than 20 states every year. In order to meet the needs of their customers in the eastern and southeastern U.S., they added the Missouri operation in 2008.
The bulls in Missouri are raised to be able to adapt and perform, especially in a fescue-grass environment, which requires a more athletic, muscular bull.
The cattle at the Missouri operation are managed by Jared and Jill Wareham. Helms said they have been an important part of the Flying H team and have built a good reputation for the cattle and have good relationships with cattle producers in the area.
In 2010, Flying H Genetics joined with 50 other seedstock producers from across the nation--mostly Simmental breeders--to start a company called Allied Genetic Resources.
"Allied is designed to combine the genetic power of our herds through our customers and source thousands of calves of like genetics to feedlots and packers to meet the needs of consistent, quality branded programs," he said. "This is another project that we have invested in to provide more buyers for our customers' calves, which should increase their value and reward the good producers for their good genetics and management."
Helms said they want to be sure their customers are happy with their purchases. Nearly 30 percent of their bull buyers buy sight unseen, and they want to guarantee their customers are satisfied.
They initiated their 15 quality standards almost 20 years ago to guarantee the genetic quality of every animal they market. In 1998, minimum carcass standards for ribeye area and marbling were added, making it 16 quality standards. In 2005, they added standard number 17--disease prevention--making one of the industry's strongest guarantees even stronger.
All bulls must meet their set standards for calving ease, birth weight, weaning weight, weaning/yearling hip height, yearling weight, weight per day of age, yearling scrotal, yearling pelvic and breeding soundness exam.
Both the bull and his dam must meet standards for disposition and conformation and soundness. The dam alone must meet standards for teat and udder quality, milk production, fertility and efficiency.
Health tests are performed on the herd to ensure good quality health for all their customers.
"Different states have different health requirements. We want our bulls to be able to go to any state, which means they all have to be tested," he said. "It can be a challenge and expensive at times. It would be much easier if all the states had the same requirements."
The Flying H cattle are tested for trichomoniasis, Johne's disease, BVD, and other diseases. Vaccination starts at birth. The calves receive vaccinations at branding time in the spring as well as more shots at weaning. These shots are given to help prevent sickness throughout their lives.
Helms has performed DNA coat color testing on his cattle for nearly 15 years. New research has been developed to show markers for feed efficiency as well as other performance numbers. He's begun to utilize this as well.
Dick and his wife, Bonnie, have always enjoyed being part of a family-run operation. Their son Kyle came back to the ranch after college. His wife, Kayla, and young daughter, Lily, also enjoy being at the ranch.
Their long-time employee, Kevin Hilker, and his family have been an important part of the operation also and have worked into a partnership also. Ty McGuire, who is a student at Ohio State University, was an intern at the Nebraska headquarters for the second straight summer.
Another son lives in Wyoming and is involved in agriculture through an honor farm, which teaches nonviolent offenders agricultural trades.
Helms said he is glad to have Kyle there to take over the operation in the future. A big challenge for agricultural operations right now is the generational transition.
"It is satisfying to see that my plan is working for our operation. Kyle is managing the cattle side of the operation and while my brother-in-law has been in charge on the crop side for 20 years, we are needing to find someone to eventually take over that part of the operation as well," he said.
Helms said he enjoys being a part of the seedstock business and it has been very rewarding for him and his family.
"The seedstock business is a people business. This is not a one-man show. Our goal is to be a well-run business and make a good living for our customers and ourselves," he concluded.
Jennifer Carrico can be reached by phone at 515-833-2120, or by email at email@example.com.