An Old-School Head Start

An Old-School Head Start

For Carson Horner at Haskell Feeders, backgrounding cattle is about quality not quantity.

“Everyone is looking for a silver bullet and there isn’t one,” says Carson Horner, managing partner of Haskell Feeders, Rochester, TX. “The industry has gotten away from quality in the name of quantity. Simple animal husbandry is becoming a lost art, and that includes everything from cleaning water troughs to cattle handling.”

Horner has been around high-risk calves most all his life – growing up, he worked for folks in different facets of the business. That includes receiving and processing calves at Cactus Feeders.

He got a degree from Tarleton State University, then leveraged his lifelong practical experience by graduating from Texas Christian University's intensive Ranch Management Program. Seven years ago, he built and managed a backgrounding yard at Rochester for Gottsch Cattle Feeders. In February 2012, he built and began Haskell Feeders, a custom preconditioning and backgrounding yard with a 2,500-head capacity.

“I’m fixing to be 40 and I’m finally not a rookie anymore,” Horner says. This statement comes with pride, not boasting. He grew up among old-timers where you were expected to listen rather than be heard. Offering opinion and advice was a privilege based on years of experience, not idle chatter.

Like this sector of the industry,  Horner says, “This facility is built for people to stockpile calves, get them over sickness and ready to move on to the next stage of production.”

Cattle arriving here range from 250-lb. flyweights being straightened out for grass or wheat pasture, to 7-weight cutter bulls being readied for a short summer grazing season. Cattle will be here for as few as 30 days to more than 100 days through wheat pasture grazing in March andApril. Haskell Feeders has a lot of wheat ground at its disposal.

There's no cutting corners

Forget hard-earned lessons, cut corners and next thing you know, Horner says, “you’re in a wreck, and guess what, you’re the one who made it.”

That’s why Horner is a stickler for managing cattle based on working with them and their innate behavior rather than trying to overwhelm them with manpower and a clock.

Consider the fact that Horner hasn’t had a hospital pen in eight years; he hates them. Here, cattle are pulled and treated, and then returned to their home pen.

“Cattle develop their own peers and pecking order,” Horner explains. “If we stay ahead of them, they’ll feel better back in their home pen and won’t walk the pen as much. A hospital pen gets added to every day, so it’s always different with different peers and a different pecking order.”

Cattle pulled and treated twice or ostracized in their home pens go to what Horner terms a rehabilitation trap, with other peers from the same pen. If those cattle rehab, they go back to the home pen.

Consider, too, Horner’s focus on nutrition, both the ingredients and volume.

While ration cost is always a factor, Horner says, “You’ve got to have a ration with palatability and quality. You have to find something your lightest calf will enjoy eating.”

Haskell Feeders' ration ingredients here include wheat hay and wheat silage, along with Rumensin®, vitamins and minerals. He likes distillers grains, too, but the drought has made them tough to come by.

Horner and his crew feed once a day, but read bunks twice every day. “I want them to stay a little aggressive. When they’re filled up all the time, you start to get more pulls,” he says.

Slow and steady saves time

When cattle arrive, the focus is on gentle care and giving calves a chance to get their feet back under them. They rest for at least 12 hours, and have access to fresh water and quality coastal bermudagrass hay.

“Stressed calves have to get rehydrated and have something quality in their gut to stimulate the bugs in their rumen,” Horner says. “Without those things, your processing program doesn’t matter.”

Water troughs are religiously cleaned every other day, and every set of calves starts their time there with clean troughs.

“If we have dirty water and bunks, we can’t manage the cattle to their potential – no way,” Horner says.

After processing, calves – always maintained in the same load-lot group – go to smaller traps. There they receive 2-3 lbs. of hay/day for seven days, along with a starter ration.

“They’ll get bunk-broke to a hay wagon faster than a feed wagon,” Horner says. “They’re craving hay and we give it to them. Plus, hay is expanding the rumen.”

If you want to work for Horner, leave your hotshot at home. Besides basic animal care, Horner explains, “it’s all economics. If you use a hotshot, you have to worry about placement of injections and bruising; and it will take twice as long to get them settled down and started on feed.”

After seven days, cattle go to larger traps where they each have a minimum of 2 ft. of bunk space. “Even with a tight set of calves weight-wise, certain calves will be more aggressive than others. We don’t want them having to compete for bunk space,” Horner says.

Though he understands the temptation of overfilling a pen, that minimum bunk space and its effect on cattle health and performance is why Horner won't exceed his facility's capacity. “I’m not going to sacrifice the performance of someone else’s calves by bringing in more cattle than we can handle with peak performance,” he says.

Facts beat guesswork

Processing is performed 12-24 hours after arrival and includes metaphylactic treatment with Micotil®, a product Horner started using in 1993.

“My whole deal is to stay ahead of the cattle (health),” Horner says. “If you ever chase cattle, you’re in a wreck and you can’t pull enough cattle to get ahead.”

“Micotil gives every head an even start. It does a good job of getting every head on page one together. And the three-day duration gives me a chance to get everything bunk-broke and on feed.”

Horner says he doesn’t want a longer duration in his metaphylactic treatment. If they calves look like they need to be treated at the end of three days, that’s what he’s going to do.

“Micotil revolutionized the way we doctor cattle; it was the first low-dose, multi-day antibiotic,” Horner says. “If I can save $5/head on health costs, even if I have to pull 30-40% in the fall, I'm money ahead.”

It also addresses his ongoing challenge of labor. “You can’t teach someone to care,” Horner says. He’s blessed with a dependable crew, as well as a family that he counts on – his wife Tish, and daughters Harley and Shelby.

Incidentally, Horner has found his best employees among those with no prior experience reading bunks and doctoring cattle. Since these recruits have no prejudices, it's easier to teach them what to do and, more importantly, why to do it, he says.

Keep in mind that Horner uses scales to weigh cattle and custom-dose Micotil (according to label directions), as well as all other products used at Haskell Feeders.

“The main reason I went to a custom dose is that if you order steers weighing 425 lbs., cattle in the pen will range from 350-475 lbs,” Horner says. “When you dose on the average, you’re spending too much on the lighter cattle and doing an inferior job on the heavier ones.”

Of course, matching the dose to individual cattle weight saves money on the product and enhances product efficiency, but Horner says that’s really the icing on the cake. For him, most of the goodie comes with being able to more accurately evaluate the worth of products and his own management.

“If you run 300 calves, you've more than covered the cost of the scale,” Horner says.

Though Horner says there's no substitute for a scale and custom dosing, he recognizes that the flexible dose rate for Micotil means folks using metaphylaxis based on average weights have more opportunity to get the coverage needed for the entire pen.

Prove it every day

“I treat every head of cattle here like it was mine, like I wrote the check,” Horner says. “You have to believe in your program and prove it to yourself that it works every day. My deal is quality, not quantity.”

That’s not cheap talk, either.

In the spring and summer, his goal for pull rates is a maximum of 20-25%. In the fall, the goal is a maximum of 30-40%. No matter the pull rate, Horner strives for less than 1% death loss. This is on high-risk calves mind you, all sorts and weights coming from every direction possible.

Like everyone else, Horner runs into wrecks where pen death loss runs higher than 1%. But, since first establishing and using his current protocol eights years and some 68,000 head ago, his death loss in total continues to be less than 1%.

“I still get so mad when I lose a calf, just like when I was 21,” Horner says. He still posts his own deads to make sure his rationale and treatment were correct. That’s all part of the detail that goes into basic animal husbandry.

“Especially with the tight margins today, I don’t understand why simple animal husbandry is neglected,” Horner says.

 “Sit down and figure out what you’re doing in terms of quality vs. quantity. As fast-paced as this deal can get, what are the rewards of quality vs. what you lose with quantity?” Horner asks. “We need to get away from this silver-bullet syndrome. It’s not any one thing that makes it work. There are lots of things we can’t control. Why not control the things we can?”