by Joe Roybal, Editor - BEEF,
This reporter has
savored a lot of great steaks in my years covering the beef industry. But
the one Art and Merry Brownlee served up in the kitchen of their Ashby, NE,
ranch house last summer was among the best - tender, juicy and, oh, so
I complimented the
couple on the quality of their beef. Art's response was: "Well, that's
good to hear because that's what we're after here."
The Brownlees are
working toward that goal in a non-traditional way for commercial cow-calf
producers. Their herd consists of an Angus base and Braunvieh, on which
they retain ownership of most of the calves. They use a combination of AI
and pasture breeding on a total of about 1,400 of their own females
annually - both heifers and cows - and they collect blood from the calves
Those smears, identified
by the calves' tag numbers, will later be used to determine the parentage
of selected animals that perform well or poorly in a number of quality and
production traits. These traits include birthweight, replacement
performance and carcass acceptability.
That data is used to
determine future mating and culling decisions in their quest to maximize
their herd's performance - on the range, in the feedlot and in the cooler.
Meanwhile, northeast of
the Brownlees in Ainsworth, NE, Bob and Diana Sears are just beginning to
use a new DNA-based test called the GeneSTAR® Tenderness test to determine
which of their breeding stock carry genetic markers for tenderness. The
couple plans to use results of that test, in conjunction with another
GeneSTAR test for marbling, to build a purebred Angus herd maximized for
its potential to marble and produce tender carcasses.
The Brownlees and Sears
are among producers on the forefront of utilizing DNA tools to help produce
a higher percentage of better-eating carcasses, while minimizing
"outs." Both couples say that while it's tough to quantify a
payback in exact dollars, the accelerated level of genetic progress in
their herds made possible by improved end-product predictability is certainly
a positive factor.
Art And Merry
The Brownlees are
relative newcomers to the production side of agriculture, though Merry's
family - the Shadbolts - has roots sunk deep in Nebraska's Sandhills. In
fact, her family leased for 30 years the very acreage on which she, Art and
their sons - Edwin (18) and Ethan (10) - now make their cattle living.
After residing in Omaha
for 20 years, where Art worked with computers and financial cost analysis
for what is now Qwest Communications, the couple moved to Ashby eight years
ago. Before moving to the ranch, the Brownlees had backgrounded cattle and
retained ownership through family members. Yet, Merry quips: "Moving
here seemed like taking over a 747 in mid-air."
Art says the sum of
their previous experiences has provided them with a non-traditional,
analytical approach to the cattle business. Part of that approach is a
heavy concentration on gathering and analyzing performance data.
The result, Art says, is
they've found themselves "doing very much what purebred breeders do,
even though we have a commercial herd."
For the past six years,
the Brownlees have relied heavily on linear measurements of bulls and
replacement heifers, and ultrasounds of their bulls for ribeye, marbling
and backfat. For three years, they've used ultrasound to determine the
optimal feeding endpoint for the roughly 1,100 calves on which they
annually retain ownership. Four years ago, they began collecting DNA
samples on calves.
"I think the days
of the gate cut are basically gone," Art says. "The margin is
whittled down so much in this business today that we'll all be forced to
use these tools to build back the margin on the producer end."
The Brownlees AI about
1,000 females each year, not all of them theirs, before pasturing them in
groups with four or five Angus and Braunvieh cleanup bulls each in a series
of about 40 paddocks. They draw blood samples on all calves at processing,
staining it on small blotter cards identified with each calf's ID number.
Art estimates that probably
only 5% of those DNA samples will ever be used. But when the parentage of
particularly good - or poor - performing females or carcasses is needed,
they'll submit the cards of those individuals to MMI Genomics in Davis, CA.
(MMI Genomics is a subsidiary of MetaMorphix, Inc., an ag biotech company
that holds the rights to Celera Genomics cattle genome. Last June,
MetaMorphix announced a $10-million agreement with Excel Corporation and
Caprock Cattle Feeders to develop and implement economic selection tools
that will allow cattle breeders and feedlot operators to meet consumer
demands for consistency and tenderness.)
Art reports that 50% of
the time one test will determine parentage. Otherwise, two tests are needed
to reasonably assure parentage. Each test costs $15, which Art
characterizes as an "investment" cost.
"At this point, I
can't say it pays for itself, but as far as shaping your herd for the
future, I don't find it outrageous," he says.
Art says his goal is to
"find someone further down the line, either a harvester or retailer,
who recognizes that outs cost them time and money and desire supplies that
are beyond average."
Upon determining the
parentage of a particular calf, Art says both the dam and sire of that calf
are considered in their final decision.
"You have to ask
yourself how much is due to the cow and how much is due to the bull? So we
look at the cow's history. The analysis aspect of this is continuous
because if you don't attempt to take everything into account, it's
worthless," Art says.
He adds that through DNA
typing and other management strategies, his cattle have performed better on
quality-based marketing grids. Four years ago, he points out, they recorded
5% USDA Standards. In 2002, Standards were considerably less than 1%.
seen fewer discounts, but I can't say it's due solely to DNA typing because
there are so many variables in this business," Art says. "But it
does allow us to close another variable. The more you can close, the more
accurate you can be in what you're trying to accomplish. Certainly,
however, you have to consider other year-to-year factors environment, feed
The Brownlees' carcass
target is a USDA Choice. They strive to produce "a complete package
that will give us the option of a Select or Choice grid," he says.
Art says one downside of
DNA typing is the time interval between collecting samples and actual use
in selection decisions.
"If you've got good
- or poor - carcasses hanging in the cooler, it's generally been 2½ years
since that animal was bred," Art says. "Still, if it's a bull we
decide we don't want to keep, it allows us to cut at least one and maybe
two years out of its production in our herd.
"And if it's a bull
that works well with our herd, we can collect him. Even if he's dead, it
gives us some insight into the bloodlines that work for us," he adds.
For more on the Brownlee
operation, check out the Web site at www.jhlbeef.com.
Back to Top
"The Shifting Sands
of Time Bring Braunvieh to the Sandhills"
by Marilyn Brink, Editor BRUANVIEH
WORLD, Summer 1999
a third-generation Sandhills ranch girl whose grandfather homesteaded in
the area in 1885. He's a city boy from Omaha who left 20 years in the corporate
world to take on the role of rubber-tired cowboy. Together, Art and Merry
Brownlee form a unique team of hands-on owner/manager of The JHL Ranch at
Ashby, deep in the Sandhills of northwestern Nebraska.
confesses, "I have sand in my boots and between my ears." Her
grandfather homesteaded near Merriman, which is northeast of their current
home. He was a rancher as was her father, who held the lease on the JHL
ranch for 30 years before the family was able to purchase it five years
ago. It's an area rich with cattle history as the land is ideally suited
for grazing livestock, but not farming. The blowing and shifting hills of
sand may resemble a desert to the casual observer, but it's a beautiful
country that supports a strong grass seemingly custom designed for cows.
And in the valleys below, the Ogallala Aquifer brings ground water to
within 12-20 feet of the surface, ready to be tapped by windmills and
and Merry met in college at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. They
married six years later and lived in Omaha for the next 20 years, focused
around Art's corporate job with U.S. West. Merry, Art and the family, which
grew to include Eddie, now 14, and Ethan, 6, continued to travel back and
forth the nearly 400 miles to the ranch for spring calving and fall work.
But after purchasing the JHL and becoming more directly involved, they made
the move to pull up roots in Omaha and make the Sandhills their primary
grew up with the phrase hammered in my head over and over," Merry
says, "'If you weren't raised on a ranch, you'll never learn how to
ranch.' And so when I married Art, a city boy, I went to the city with him.
Well nowadays, a rancher has to be so much more than a stockman. He's got
to be the businessman, the accountant, he's got to be the mechanic. We
learn what we can and deal with the rest. So Art's a rubber-tired
cowboy." They use their differing backgrounds to their advantage with
Merry being the one who prefers to jump on a horse to work cattle, while
Art's expertise with the business end complements her strengths. Merry, her
sister and her brother all now ranch on land that her father had owned or
leased. In an area where black cows are the norm as you top hill after
hill, Merry says, "I'm the outcross in the family! About 9 years ago,
my sister had gone to the Denver Stock Show. She saw Harlan Doeschot's
Golden Link Simmentals, and they were beautiful Simmentals. She went over
to look at them and saw these little brown teddy bear Braunviehs. She
called me up and said 'we've got to go to this bull sale.' So I met her
down by Lincoln and went to the sale. We sat down and I was smitten. I
don't know if Art would say 'smitten' was his term, but he was tolerant and
that was when we got "Brownie," and another bull, our first
wanted to get some more depth to our cows," Merry says. "That was
one of the first things that appealed to us about the Braunvieh was the
heart girth they had. They looked like they could carry some meat. So
"Brownie" came home and has been doing his job ever since."
For the next few years, they used percentage Braunvieh bulls cautiously,
buying a couple bulls every year while collecting carcass data on the
calves and watching the Braunvieh-sired replacements in the pasture. The
Braunvieh pulled their own weight, plus some, and last year a third of
their bulls were Braunviehs, a third were Angus and a third Gelbvieh. This
year, half the JHL bulls were Braunvieh and half were Angus.
don't have the extra groceries available," Art says. "Everything
but prairie hay has to be shipped in. It's one reason we like the Braunvieh
breed - they are very efficient animals. The Braunvieh bulls come off the
range and into summer a condition score or 2 better than our Angus or our
Gelbvieh bulls. We think that will translate into the cows as far as feed
conversion and efficiency. Ideally, that's what we'd like to be is a more
muscled Angus that is like a terminal cross as far as muscling and putting
on weight, but at the same time has efficiency and fertility for the female
line. We'd just as soon work toward more efficient stock, have more cows,
less size on the calves and put the weight on in the feedlot."
Brownlees have been selling their finished cattle on a grid through
alliance programs for seven years. "We just felt there was an
opportunity there," Art says. "Why should we hand the money to
somebody else to feed our cattle - just take it on through. We started
small; we didn't know what we had. I think now for us, it's accountability."
of their cattle are fed for a "select" program, with the biggest
premiums paid for ribeye size and ribeye area per hundredweight. But Art
and Mary stay focused on keeping plenty of marbling in their cattle to be
able to move into choice programs.
me, it's distancing yourself from a commodity," Art says. "As
long as you're in a commodity, the commodity dictates the price. If you can
somehow differentiate yourself from the commodity because your quality is
better, then the market's huge. If indeed we do want to switch to a choice
program, we're trying to be in a place where our cattle can go to
choice." The Brownlees have had Braunvieh cattle go prime that were
fed in a program for select; one hit prime after only 80 days on feed.
summer, a group of JHL Braunvieh feeder cattle had a quality grade 25%
higher than their Angus counterparts and a larger ribeye area. They're
shooting for Select+, Yield Grade 1s and 2s with a 14 in. ribeye area and
less than .4 backfat on calves averaging 1,150 lb. They're already
averaging a better than 13-in. ribeye and both a quality grade and yield
grade less than a 3.0.
of our major concerns in the beef business is we'd like to be able to see
that every one of our carcasses is a good carcass - good tasting meat,
tender," says Art. "We collect carcass data on everything and use
DNA checks on the top percentage and the bottom percentage of our carcasses
to track them back to the bulls. But when you think about it, by the time
you collect carcass data, that bull's already got his third calf crop
coming. What we might be able to do is cut two years off that bull's useful
life, or stay away from a whole line of bulls, but it just takes so long to
know whether that end product is there.
says one thing they appreciate about Braunvieh is their versatility.
"BEEF magazine just came out with a series of studies that MARC at
Clay Center, Neb., had done. They compared a variety of breeds and
Braunvieh, as a continental breed, was a moderate. It's in the top five for
marbling, muscling and on down the list. It's such a versatile continental
breed that we can cross it on our Angus and improve the muscling, improve
the cutability and not give away too much of some of the other traits we
lose with the extreme continentals."
can't see that they have hurt us at all anywhere," Art says. "I
don't know if it's a good marketing ploy to say that, but really, it's a
big statement to make. It's always harder to show positives, but to me, one
of the biggest benefits you can really see is that the Braunvieh haven't
hurt us. They give us an outcross. We don't think we have any special
problems, so we don't have to go out and fix any problems. And we've
improved the ribeyes more than half an inch."
Brownlees have been taking linear measurements to help them in their
selection and to evaluate the progress of their herd. They give a lot of
credit to Jon Immink of Golden Link, who got them started with linear
measurements, and to Dr. Mike McDonnell, one of the experts in the linear
field. The two men have worked with them to formulate their thoughts on
where they want to be, to prioritize trait selection and to help them focus
on what they want to accomplish through the measurements. "We
linear-measured our replacement heifers the last two years," Merry
says. "It's a fascinating way of looking at your cattle. Over the
years a lot of people have developed an eye so they can see a lot of it.
When you stop to think what a real feminine cow looks like, she's going to
have that kind of wedge shape. She's going to have the deeper flank and be
wider across the hip. Well, we can measure that and use that as a
measurement for femininity." Art adds, "Linear measurement is
kind of a way of putting a actual measure to something that common-sense
wise, people know."
of the things that we've been looking for is that bigger heart girth,"
Merry says. "Because we don't pamper cattle out here, they've got to
get out and rustle on their own and it appears to be the deeper the heart
girth in comparison to their body length, the more storage they have and
the better they get along. And I think we really see it between our
yearling Braunvieh bulls and our yearling Angus bulls. The Angus can be so
long that they have proportionally smaller heart girths, less volume. When
an Angus yearling comes out of the cows after 60 days, he's just a wreck.
Then our little Braunvieh bulls come out and look so good we kind of wonder
if they've been doing any work." That hardiness carries on through the
older bulls, too. "Last fall when we pulled the bulls, I realized
"Brownie" was getting older and his days were numbered,"
Merry says, "so I looked for signs of him being whipped out. We
gathered up this herd of bulls and "Brownie" didn't care where he
was in the pack. He just took up his position in the middle of the herd and
we walked back for the 7-mile hike, and it got hot before we got here. We
had Angus bulls that were dropping back huffing and puffing, but
"Brownie" just kept hiking. Eight years old and he was going back
home. By the time we got down here, he was one of the first bulls through
like to see more Braunvieh - more opportunities in every aspect of the
business - more Braunvieh available for purchasing heifers, purchasing
bulls," Art says. "I think the people who might look at Braunvieh
are the people headed down the road that have a vision in mind."
Brownlees are receptive to modern technology but are careful not to push
mother nature too far in this fragile environment. They A.I. their heifers,
check the cattle with 4-wheelers and use their computer to analyze the data
they collect. But they also work cattle on horseback, rely on a steady wind
and windmills for water and let the cattle take care of natural pasture
fertilization rather than apply chemical fertilizers to their meadows.
"Some people are fertilizing the meadows, but we don't," Art
says. "It should be safe to do it, because research has shown exactly how
much a plant should capture before fertilizer gets past the grass roots so
it won't get to the aquifer just a few feet below. But we don't want to
chance that and leave a legacy that you can't drink the water because it's
got nitrates." And there's reason to be cautious - the Sandhills still
show the scars where homesteaders broke the ground and tried to raise crops
in the early part of the century.
article about this place is not a story about us. We're just a small link
in the chain," Merry says. "We're in it because we like the
lifestyle, the livestock. How many other "businesses" can you
work in side-by-side with your family? Out here most of these kids are too
tired to get into trouble. Do we think we're going to go out there and make
any major changes? Probably not. If we can improve the ranch and improve
the cattle, that would be an accomplishment. It's a good way to live. It's
an honest living. When you're dealing day-to-day with the forces of nature
and the intricacies of genes, it keeps you humble."