While Brenda Paul runs the stocker business itrsquos a family affair The Paul family consists of Nelson from left Brenda Austin and Spencer

While Brenda Paul runs the stocker business, it’s a family affair. The Paul family consists of Nelson (from left), Brenda, Austin and Spencer.

2016 National Stocker Award winner believes in sweat equity

Timberlawn Farm grows its stocker business and harvests the uniquely potent grass of Kentucky’s Thoroughbred country by adding better management to put-together calves.

Yearlings prowling the lush pasture in Bourbon County, Ky. — about a week ahead of shipping — look like you would expect to see in a set of top-drawer, single-iron, ranch-raised cattle. In this case, they’re mostly blacks and baldies with cookie-cutter uniformity, in straight-up, 12 o’clock condition.

These yearlings are all of that, except for the single-iron, ranch-raised part. They started out here at Timberlawn Farm near Paris, Ky., as commingled, put-together calves from auctions as close as a few miles and from as far away as a few hours. They were the kind of calves that many folks consider to be high-risk. Now, they tell the story of what’s possible through the management that defines this year’s BEEF National Stocker Award winner.

Pounds on stockers is what drives us,” says Brenda Paul, who owns Timberlawn Farm with her husband, Austin. “The highest and best use of the ground here is grazing livestock.”

“The forages and the dirt are best-suited for growing livestock, vs. maintaining cows — cows do awfully well here, but they almost do too well,” Austin explains. “We can increase our margins per acre by utilizing stocker cattle on this land.”

The ground they refer to is in what’s known as the “Golden Triangle”: an area within the heart of Kentucky bluegrass country. Go about 30 miles in any direction and the soils change — but right here, locals will tell you with pride that this agronomic sweet spot has produced more Stakes race winners than anywhere in the world.

That’s as in Thoroughbreds — the horses for which this part of the world is legendary. Horse owners and trainers here can tell whether a weanling came from here or anywhere else. The unique soil, borne by the ubiquitous limestone, grows grass that is different. For horses, that means more bone and heartiness. For stocker cattle, it means more bone and pounds.

Consider renovated pastures at Timberlawn — orchardgrass, bluegrass and clover — where yearlings come off grass in August gaining around 2 to 2.5 pounds per day — as good or superior to grazing prime wheat pasture. With rotational grazing, stocking rates here run about one calf per acre.

Brenda buys the cattle through her order buyer, who happens to be Austin. It just makes sense. But that doesn’t mean she gets special treatment. Trying to turn one back comes with the same give-and-take gamesmanship any other customer experiences. Keeping her place in the order-buying pecking order means sometimes receiving off-order cattle, just like anyone else.

Using solar-powered polywire and strategically placed water tanks, cattle in most pastures will be rotated every day or every other day during the growing season.

The Pauls used rotational grazing from the start. As Austin explains, “We had a farm to pay for. When you speed up the rotation, you extend the grazing.”

During winter months, after a 28-day starter ration, cattle have winter grazing or receive haylage.

Starting young

The Pauls started building their business from scratch soon after they were married. They began putting together land of their own in the early 1990s, when obscene interest rates and too much leverage meant there was more land for sale than buyers willing to take a chance on it.

Brenda now manages the day-to-day operations, along with Jake Crider, a Texas A&M University graduate who has been part of the Timberlawn team for more than a decade.

The Pauls were no strangers to the cattle business. Brenda grew up on a row-crop farm in Indiana that included some mama cows. She graduated from Purdue University with a degree in agricultural economics and then began her career in the cattle feeding sector of the animal health industry.

Originally from Illinois, Austin cut his post-college teeth in the cattle feeding and meatpacking industries. Later, he commercialized the order-buying skills and network he’d long since developed, and became a partner in Eugene Barber & Sons, the storied order-buying business based in nearby Lexington.

Today, Austin is also a partner in the Blue Grass Stockyards Group, which owns seven sale barns, and also conducts internet sales. Technically, it was just six yards, after the organization’s flagship yard in Lexington — the long-standing crossroads for trainloads and then truckloads of cattle moving West — burned to the ground in the blink of an eye last January. In September, Blue Grass Stockyards broke ground for a new state-of-the-art facility at a location a few miles away.

Higher numbers via leased ground

Stocker cattle have always been the core of our business,” Brenda emphasizes.

In general terms, the goal at Timberlawn is to put 350 to 450 pounds on every calf. The Pauls buy and ship cattle year-round. Across a year, the goal is to harvest 500 to 600 pounds of beef from every acre.

“We try to buy an animal that has been — for lack of a better term — neglected in some form or fashion — not a highly merchantable type of calf,” Austin explains. “We upgrade them by adding sweat equity into these cattle as we straighten them out, assemble them, match them up and get them to grow.”

Brenda buys the cattle through her order buyer, who happens to be Austin. It just makes sense. But that doesn’t mean she gets special treatment. Trying to turn one back comes with the same give-and-take gamesmanship any other customer experiences. Keeping her place in the order-buying pecking order means sometimes receiving off-order cattle, just like anyone else.

“We buy numbers based on the size of paddock or field we have for them,” Brenda explains.

Timberlawn Farm eschews titles, but Jake Crider (right) is Brenda Paul’s right-hand man in managing the stocker business on a daily basis. Jake also manages Timberlawn’s cow herd. In addition to their own ground, the Pauls continue to develop a broad network of area equine farms where they also graze cattle, typically in rotation with the horses. These equine farms are the meticulously kept, limestone-walled, security-gated Thoroughbred fiefdoms that dot the landscape in this part of the world.

Not so long ago, equine farms that also had cattle were the exception. In recent years, Brenda explains, more of them began adding cattle to their operations, either through ownership or by way of leasing arrangements such as those offered by Timberlawn.

“Being in the Thoroughbred business ourselves, we understand the uniqueness of equine farms, and we incorporate their specific land use and operational needs into our operational protocol,” Brenda explains.

Arrangements with the various equine farms are unique to each operation and come with specific requests. For instance, Crider explains that one of the farms wants the ear tags of the cattle grazing there to be of the same hue as their racing colors.

While some stocker producers might find such details off-putting, Crider explains it makes no difference to Timberlawn’s management; if it’s something that adds satisfaction to a grazing partner, then they’re keen to oblige. 

Back to basic health management

As in any stocker operation — especially one that deals in high-risk sorts — cattle health is the never-ending challenge. At Timberlawn, Brenda explains, it has been a circuitous journey.

“We were doing everything we thought was right,” she explains. “But we weren’t happy with the numbers. It seemed like we weren’t really doing any better than two decades earlier when we were using lots fewer products.”

Understand that Timberlawn collects and mines all sorts of data. For instance, Brenda can tell you the relationship of cattle health to the frequency of use of handling facilities at various farm locations.

After plenty of soul-searching, as well as visiting with experts Brenda trusts as advisers, they returned to a more basic approach.

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As an example, using metaphylaxis was a routine protocol at the time. By common definition, it made sense for high-risk calves. But, Brenda says they found themselves second-guessing too much about whether they’d given a sick-looking animal enough time or too much time since the treatment on arrival.

“We quit trying to justify why the cattle should be sick,” she explains.

“Rather than trying to make them all fit some preconceived box of management, we went back to letting the calf have some input,” Austin says.

One of the trusted sources Brenda swaps ideas with is Robin Falkner, technical services veterinarian for Zoetis. He describes the evolution in health management at Timberlawn as identifying and managing the finer points of biocontainment.

“Many veterinarians mistakenly think a high-risk animal is the product of what a cow-calf producer did or didn’t do,” Falkner says. Instead, he explains that management between the time the calves are sold and arrive in a new environment they will accept is critical. Management systems and the associated stress can turn moderate-risk calves into high-risk ones.

Changes at Timberlawn included reducing the time calves spent in receiving pens to 18 to 24 hours. Plus, Brenda tries to minimize having cattle stand overnight at the sale facility. After processing, calves are kicked out to the pasture they’ll graze for at least the next 30 days. The group in each pasture will typically include no more than two or three days’ worth of cattle purchased.

“We want to contain the group’s pathogens to that group,” Brenda explains. “We also want them to only have to figure out the pecking order in that group one time.”

All of the changes are aimed at reducing cattle stress and allowing the animal to fully use the vaccinations.

“Pulls are easier and earlier when the cattle are relaxed,” Brenda says.

“The book on cattle health is written during the first week,” explains Falkner. “You’re just reading after that.”

Rested pastures

The folks here also try to rest pastures at least 30 days between cattle groups.

To accomplish all of this, Brenda explains, “We must have treatment facilities closer to the cattle, so that meant building more traps and feeding pads.” It also meant building more facilities to use in processing and treating cattle. Much of the latter involved renovating existing tobacco barns.

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“Brenda manages outcomes rather than the process,” Falkner says. He likens it to knowing how to cook, as opposed to following the steps in a recipe.

Moreover, Falkner says when most people think of managing outcomes, it’s the direct-line approach, like managing bovine respiratory disease (BRD) morbidity with an injection. Instead, he explains that Brenda focuses on outcomes such as: early acceptance of environment, peers, and personnel; reducing soreness associated with marketing, transportation and processing; pathogen exposure; and achieving consistent, early feed intake. 

“These outcomes not only reduce BRD morbidity directly, but they make well cattle easy to identify, reducing unnecessary and wasted treatments,” Falkner says. “By focusing on creating easily identified wellness outcomes instead of finding sickness, a stockmanship vs. doctor mindset predominates management, and BRD outcomes are exceptional.”

Timberlawn still uses metaphylaxis for some sets of calves, but Brenda and her crew are more confident that they know which calves to use it on because of stepping back to re-evaluate overall health strategy.

Besides improving all of the usual metrics — pulls, re-treats, deads, etc. — Brenda explains, “Every one we don’t have to treat opens up more time for our labor force to be more productive.”

If you want to travel a loop to all of the places Timberlawn grazes cattle and back again, it’s about 60 miles.

When you drive the narrow roads here and see a red Chevrolet pickup with a four-wheeler in the bed, it’s most likely one of the Timberlawn crew. The four-wheelers are preferred over horses in the name of convenience and time. The common color for the fleet of pickups makes them easily recognized at the horse farms where they have cattle.

These stockers are ready to take a road trip to a feedyard in Kansas. While they look like single-ranch calves, they’re put-together cattle from different sale barns.

The day-to-day crew is Brenda, Crider and four other full-time and part-time employees. The Pauls’ two sons are also heavily involved in the operation when they’re not in school. Spencer is a sophomore at Texas A&M University. Nelson is a junior in high school. There’s some other help along the way, but that’s basically it.

Consequently, Timberlawn contracts out some of the sporadic, labor-intensive necessities like fencing and water-line maintenance.

“It works better when we stick with what we do best, which is care for cattle,” Brenda explains.

Lots of folks are busy from first light to last, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a crew so constantly in motion as this one. No rush, no sense of panic, simply constant, deliberate motion aimed at accomplishing all that must be done.

Brenda starts each day with the crew as early as 6 a.m. and as late at 7 a.m. to sort out the day’s game plan.

Leveraging existing resources

After the stocker phase, the Pauls market the cattle to themselves, and then ship them to feed in Nebraska. Brenda says committing to retained ownership exclusively was one of their biggest challenges in recent years. Doing so offers them advantages, though, including more flexibility in their stocker operation and the potential to leverage the value they’ve added to the cattle.

“Because we own the cattle all of the way through to finish, whether we buy them or raise them, we never escape the fact that we are raising beef for the food chain,” Brenda says. Frequently, she hosts tours of the farm, explaining their operation and practices to a wide range of groups, from food editors to fellow producers and students.

Retained ownership also includes calves from the Pauls’ own fall-calving and spring-calving cow herds — cows bought in the late ’90s as a countercyclical move based on the drop in calf numbers they saw coming.

The difference is that these homegrown calves are shipped as soon as they’re straightened out in order to leave more room for stocker cattle. As Brenda says, it’s a decision that allowed them to grow without having to add more acres.

The Pauls exploit the same opportunity with a few horses of their own. Besides owning a few mares, Austin explains, “We also pin-hook some weanlings and make yearlings out of them for resale. It’s very similar to what we do in buying a calf and selling a yearling steer.”

“There are a lot of similarities between the cattle business and the horse business,” Austin says. “Both cattle and horses make very good use of our available forage resources. We’re grass farmers — they’re just the combine.” 

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