By Larry Dreiling
There is an old saying: "If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at luck at all."
A lot of High Plains producers consumed by worries over drought could say that.
Bob Cheney, a Natrona County, WY, rancher, could say that, but he won't.
Cheney (no known relation to Vice President Dick Cheney, who also is a native to the area) has not only suffered through drought, but a fire and a devastating injury also have taken their toll. Still, he remains guardedly optimistic about the future of his operation, the heart of which stands at about 8,000 feet, in back country behind Casper Mountain.
"Tough times call for tough measures," Cheney says. "That is what we are doing. Trying to exist."
Cheney runs 400 mostly Limousin cows and carries another 100 yearlings for replacements. It was weaning day, at Cheney Ranch, and the cows were being shipped to the Miles Cattle Co., a background feedlot, at nearby Alcova, WY. The cattle then will be shipped to feedlots by their new owners.
"We will process them there, knock off the horns, separate steers and heifers and vaccinate them. We already have them sold. We sell on the video markets. We use Western Video Market," Cheney says. "They sold Aug. 16.
"We are hoping these cattle weigh between 480 and 500 pounds. We sure need them to weigh that much. We will put 100 pounds of gain on them in the 60 days, because we have them sold at 570 pounds. We are banking on them beating the 470-pound mark.
"They are a lot lighter than normal, because of the drought. It is the first time on this ranch--and I'm a third-generation rancher--that we have ever run short of livestock water. It is the worst drought we have had in 100 years."
An incident July 19 could have killed Cheney, or turned him into a quadriplegic. Instead, he considers himself lucky to be with friends and family, while weaning his cattle wearing a halo brace.
On that July evening, lightning hit a tree, at the 25,000-acre ranch, and set it afire. Seeing the growing blaze, Cheney and his daughter and a few neighbors attempted to fight it with water from a nearby stream scooped into five-gallon drums, a chain saw and some shovels.
"A couple of the neighbors who were in the volunteer fire department brought up a six-by-six to hose down the fire," Cheney recalls. "Here I was, trying to keep the fire from spreading. I was trying to cut down one tree, when the limb from a big, old cottonwood tree that had died fell on top of me.
"I get up, walk to the back of the pickup and I knew I was hurting, so they took me to the hospital. I lay flat in the back of the pickup going down the mountain and we get to the house.
"Then, my daughter loads me into the reclining seat of her little Toyota Celica and heads for the hospital. I could look up a bit and saw the speedometer doing over 100 miles per hour. We met the ambulance at the edge of town. It was an absolute miracle that I didn't sever my spinal cord.
"We found out I broke my neck, in two places. I have the exact same injury as Christopher Reeve. Instead, I was in the hospital for three days. I'm supposed to be flat on my back and not supposed to drive. There is a whole list of things you aren't supposed to do, but you can't run a ranch laying on your back.
"There is no reason why I'm here. I'm just lucky as can be. I have used every bit of good luck I have earned, so that means I'm doomed the rest of the way. But, if I can, I plan to keep going awhile longer.
"Luckily, I'm healing good. I'm careful with it. I can tell when I'm doing too much. It is ironic. I rode in saddle bronc events in circuit rodeos for years, with all those bucking horses, and then a tree falls on me and breaks my neck," he says.
(Editor's note: As of press time, Cheney was out of his brace and feeling well.)
Fire not withstanding, Cheney calls the upper parts of his ranch: "Some good mountain ground that is really good summer country."
Cheney took that grazing land through a few changes during the summer, primarily altering his grazing patterns to take advantage of water where he had it.
"We had to alter our grazing, in order to use the pastures in the spring that normally have water in the fall. We knew that those pastures were not going to have water. Consequently, it has worked pretty good.
"We ran out of water and grass where we keep our 100 yearling heifers. We usually use that pasture (where they are in now) only in the spring. So, we are actually overgrazing. We regularly have plenty of stubble left, so this is the shortest you will ever see this grass.
"We also have one pasture we used really, really hard in the spring, harder than I would like to. We never try to use it in the fall, because we hope to get some seed back from the grass. This year, we won't see that seed. We had no moisture to put anything back to seed," he says.
Cheney says he saw the drought coming, so he early contracted to purchase supplemental hay, from a farmer in Powell, WY, area, for $90 a ton and $20 a ton in freight costs.
"Probably the most important thing a manager can do is anticipate problems," Cheney says. "We saw the drought coming, and realized we weren't going to raise much, if any, hay of our own.
"In a normal year, we raise 300 to 350 tons of meadow grass, on our operation, but this year, the only thing that grew was 45 tons of grass and lots of Canada thistle. Our rule of thumb is it takes one and one-half tons of hay per cow to winter up here.
"If you figure that out right, you will be a little long with the hay. Consequently, we contracted our hay early. It was very expensive. You can call buying hay for $110 a ton shipped being lucky, but that is really good management. You see a problem coming, you make a move and you do something about it," he says.
A big change Cheney has made is the breed of cattle the ranch has carried since its earliest days. He says his grandfather was a "Hereford man." As a young man, Cheney convinced his father to switch away from tradition and try Angus bulls.
"In 1987, when I bought the ranch from my folks, I started adding Limousin bulls on the cows, keeping the replacements and breeding them to Limousins. I'm starting to get too much Limousin influence, if the truth was known.
"I say that, then in the next sentence, I keep on breeding Limousins. But the breed fits my operation. It doesn't matter what breed of cattle you have, anything over 1,100 pounds would just about kill my cattle operation.
"Crossbred cows weighing 1,200 to 1,500 pounds don't fit my operation. They aren't an efficient cow. They don't utilize the feed I have to work with. A 1,600-pound cow eats half as much as my 1,100-pound cow.
"My cows raise a nice sized calf. In a good year, we can push them up to 600 pounds. That is an efficient cow, one that fits my operation. The people that won't change for efficiency will be rolled over, if they haven't already," he says.
Of the 25,000 acres on which Cheney Ranch operates, about 13,000 acres are deeded to Cheney or landlords. The remaining land is owned by the state of Wyoming or the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management. Cheney says he runs cattle with neighbors on some of the state and BLM land, since it is impossible to fence. Almost one-third of the land, Cheney thinks, is unsuitable as ranchland, although the rancher looks after it since cattle may still climb up the rocky cliffs and venture into deep valleys.
"We run in big, rugged country that is hard to gather cattle," he says. "The Limousin cow will move for you. You start hollering and bring in a couple of dogs, and I guarantee you, those cattle will start moving. They won't stand and look at you like one of them big, old, Simmental cows will. These cattle will make a lot of country in one day.
"The negative side is these Limousins get hot-blooded, in a hurry. With that, it is tough on your horses, your help and your corrals. We have had to upgrade our facilities, because our corrals couldn't hold these cattle. They are tough, but they fit my operation.
"A Limousin bull can breed twice as many cows in the same amount of time as a Hereford bull. Herefords won't move. This has allowed us to use a lot less manpower and not have to hire any help. We have a different operation than granddad did when he ran Herefords. We run five bulls to 100 cows and carry an extra bull just in case.
"Normally, we have bulls in with the cows for only 45 days, so they have to work. We test every one of them before we turn them out, plus we are on a really strict mineral program. With all these things figured in, we get about a 96% conception rate in these cows. That is outstanding for the conditions we have to work in.
"We know we have to have those kinds of bulls and that kind of nutrition program, in order for things to work. By the use salt and mineral, we keep these cattle close in. Between what cowboy work we get done on horseback and what we can control with mineral, we do pretty good, I think.
"Also, a cow in my operation has to be carrying a calf. We will preg check these cattle around Oct. 25. Any cow that is dry is out of here," he says.
While Cheney wants cattle that work for him, he is just as big a believer in breeding cattle for the consumer.
"You are behind the times if you aren't on a targeted breeding program," says Cheney. "We are trying to hit Laura's Lean Beef standards."
A seventh generation cattle producer, from Winchester, KY, Laura Freeman started Laura's Lean Beef in 1985. In alliances with the North American Limousin Foundation and the American-International Charolais Association, Laura's Lean Beef sells beef without added antibiotics or hormones, in more than 3,800 retail outlets, in 34 Eastern states.
The company also is working with Simmental, Gelbvieh, Piedmontese and Belgian Blue groups to help provide lean, heavy muscled cattle. According to the company's Website, Laura's Lean Beef prefers high percentage exotic cattle, particularly three-fourths or higher exotic cross cattle, which possess added muscle and leanness. The more defined the muscle of calves, the better they will yield grade and the greater the bonus potential.
"We are looking at a five to 10 cents a pound bonus if we can hit the standard. That is the target we are working toward," Cheney says. "We are raising a superior product here, that is all natural and the right kind of cattle. We held onto our calves one year and we know how they are yielding and grading.
"We know their feed conversion rates. We know how well they do in the feedlot. We have our data and that is what helps us make our bull selections.
"We buy bulls from Tomahawk Limousins, in Billings, MT. Terry O'Neill, who owns the ranch, is very involved with Laura's Lean Beef, and we are trying to match our calves with their calves. So, between the two of us, we are looking at 2,000 to 2,500 head to place into the Laura's Lean Beef program each year. We get attracted to them."
Cheney says Laura's Lean Beef is sold mostly east of the Mississippi River, but does not mind, because he says this type of alliance is the thing of the future today.
"You have to prove you have a superior product, in order to market your cattle. How do you get to the point where McDonald's and Burger King became the empires they are? They did it by starting small and getting bigger and more successful. Laura's Lean Beef and any corporation has got where they are through advertising," he says.
That is why Cheney is a supporter of the beef checkoff, saying the $500 his operation is assessed when he sells his calves and cows are united to make a strong industry voice.
"That $500 may buy me a 30-second spot on the radio somewhere. That won't go far. If I put my $500 with everyone else's money, then we have some money to target a nationwide campaign to get where we need to be," Cheney says.
"We have to have the consumer informed to know the difference between a chuck roast and ribeye steak. The consumer needs to be educated.
"I ask the people who get all upset over the checkoff: 'What have you done to promote beef?' Keep your dollar; now go promote your product. Show me how you have done anything to help promote research, information, promotion or anything else. I'm not afraid to pay the dollar, because I can see results," he says.
Even if the drought is placing a hardship on producers, the checkoff should continue, Cheney says, because advertising will help make consumers aware of the large amount of beef that will be available, at inexpensive prices, over the next six months.
"I think we eventually will absorb the blow in the cattle business, and besides, let's let the consumer win one for once," he says. "If it will help somebody buy steak or hamburger that wouldn't ordinarily buy it, it helps the industry. If they ever got a taste for beef, instead of chicken, he will buy from us and won't mind a little extra cost when there is less beef later."
Also helping to ease the financial blow to cattle producers, Cheney says, is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's emergency livestock feeding assistance programs. Chaney is chairman of the county Farm Service Agency committee.
"I know how hard our office staff, in Casper, has worked to get us emergency feeding assistance," Cheney says. "I have been on and off the county committee for 15 years, and this is by far the best emergency feeding program I have seen.
"It is going to do what it is designed to do; only it will take a while to get implemented, so we are a little behind than where it should be. It should have been approved 30 days earlier than it was.
"I feel guilty about that, because I'm a link in the chain to the government. Still, for a government program, it has been speedy in getting started.
"This will work by extending the forage around here, so the ranchers won't have to cull as deeply as they would otherwise or liquidate outright. I, myself, would have liquidated 150 cows without this program. As another example, I have a neighbor who likely will keep 60% of his foundation herd, rather than just 30% otherwise, because of this program.
"This program works. It is one of the few that will really do as it is intended to help people out here. The cows I will have to sell will not be in an overflooded market, so I may get a few more cents per pound for them that I may not have otherwise. It still will be a big market, but I won't be adding fuel to the fire," he says.
Cheney says he has attempted to diversify his operation in little ways to make every dollar count from his operation, clearing a few trees each year to sell as firewood and leasing out the hunting rights of his ranch to outfitters.
Still, Cheney is hoping the skies will open this fall and winter to bring his ranch good grass this spring. He chafes at any suggestion that he should quit ranching, in anticipation of a continued drought.
"No environmentalist can tell me they have more interest in my ground than me, cause this how I make my living."