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Patsy Houghton

Pioneering heifer development: Best Decisions with Patsy Houghton

It took courage, but this pioneer woman showed the world how to develop heifers profitably.

Folks in the beef business tend to think of deep space and the deep sea as the great unknown because the general consensus is that there isn’t much in the beef industry we haven’t explored. However, that wasn’t the case just a few short decades ago.

For example, by the late 1980s, professional heifer development hadn’t yet been attempted by anyone in the beef industry, yet the foundation was being laid, unknowingly, by Kansas State University research and Extension. The department was researching estrous sync by pairing Extension specialists with student interns to conduct AI and estrous sync protocols on commercial cattle operations.

One of those Extension specialists happened to be Patsy Houghton and it was from one of these beef cattle Extension research projects that she got the idea for the first-ever professional heifer development yard, Heartland Cattle Co.

Houghton earned her B.S. and M.S. at Kansas State University in animal sciences and industry and then spent two years on faculty at Cal-State University-Fresno. She also spent two years at the American Simmental Association as the youth and education manager before returning to graduate school at Purdue University to earn her Ph.D.

While at Purdue, Houghton pursued a self-proclaimed “heterosis of education” by researching the interaction between reproduction and nutrition. Her program focused on pre- and-post-partum nutrition and its effects on fertility.

Not surprisingly, Houghton attests that crossing disciplines while at Purdue was a key factor in her success today. In fact, her impactful research led to some of the equations that changed the beef cattle requirements for energy from the National Research Council.

“I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as just a nutritionist or just a reproductive physiologist. I knew I wanted to spend some time in academia but not my whole career so I set myself up for a production career in industry and I purposely crossed those disciplines. Ultimately, the nutrition and reproduction interaction project at Purdue set me up perfectly for Heartland.”

Reality hits high gear

Houghton’s work at Purdue, and subsequently at Kansas State, laid the foundation for professional heifer development – it wouldn’t be wrong to call her a pioneer woman in that respect. Once the idea for Heartland Cattle Co. emerged, she pursued bringing it to reality at full throttle.

“My wheels started turning and I thought to myself, ‘What could be possible if a person had a professional crew, complete control of the nutritional development program and a facility designed to breed large numbers of heifers?’ We could complete the full equation on the female side,” said Houghton on how Heartland Cattle Co. came to fruition.

Alongside two partners, a mere $15,000, a trusting bank and a whole lot of grit, Heartland Cattle Co. broke ground in 1990 in McCook, Neb., in the middle of a corn stubble field. The premise of the company was that Houghton and her team could manage heifers for their customers by providing detailed nutritional and reproductive management so that ranchers could focus more of their time on mature cows.

"Heifers represent the future of every cowherd but they tend to be time-consuming and problematic to manage. A rancher is managing grass and needs to get as much off that grass as possible. So, even though a heifer is the future, she doesn’t produce any saleable product for 2.5 years,” Houghton says.

“By removing that set of heifers, a rancher can replace them with comparable numbers of mature cow units and increase cash flow. We found with our customers, that in most years, they had enough cash flow from the increased number of mature cow units on their grass that they could totally pay for our heifer development program while simultaneously getting rid of their heifer headache.”

Putting the pieces in place

The return on investment didn’t stop once the heifers returned to their ranch of origin. Houghton and her team took an all-encompassing approach that went beyond development and guaranteed that all the pieces were in place for heifers to join the herd and not miss a step in the coming years.

“We wanted to step up their program in terms of correct nutritional development, get more heifers bred for them and make sure to get them bred ahead of mature cows so they had more time to rebreed in the following years,” said Houghton.

If fact, one of the biggest advantages Heartland Cattle Co. gave their customers was to increase their heifer retention rate to second- and third-calving cows by 8%.

“The biggest profit factor we could provide for a rancher was to ensure that those young cows stayed in the herd.”

If it sounds like Houghton is a problem solver, that’s because she recognizes that every business model is focused on solving someone else’s problems. Houghton attests that focusing on the details and helping your customers is a wise decision that leads to forever customers. It’s that mindset of customer service that led to a 95% customer retention rate at Heartland Cattle Co.

In the fall of 2018, Houghton sold Heartland Cattle Co. after 32 years in large-scale heifer development. Her future plans are to pursue educational-based business opportunities and teach others the principles of owning and managing their own businesses.

An educator by nature, Houghton offers a whole host of advice to young people in the beef industry itching to find their own success.

“Grow and expand as you can but remember that expansion costs money. Additionally, pay attention to the market and if you can buy low and sell high, do it. Set goals before you invest and have timelines for achieving those goals. Also, it’s really important to understand your own strengths, weaknesses and personality and line those factors up with your goals.”

It’s unlikely for Houghton to tout her career as groundbreaking – she is the definition of modest – but make no mistake; the decisions she made have dramatically increased both the profitability and quality of heifer development across the beef industry.

Frobose is director of communications, Red Angus Association of America. The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Farm Progress.

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