Everything at Collinge Cattle Co. in southeastern Kansas revolves around grass and cattle. Getting calves ready for summer turnout in the storied Flint Hills, and then managing the family’s own and customers’ cattle through the grazing season.
“We use our natural resources, and that’s native grass and an abundance of surface water. That’s the resource we need to use and take care of,” says Mike Collinge, winner of the 2019 National Stocker Award, which is sponsored by BEEF and Zoetis.
He understood that concept even back when he leased his first Flint Hills pastures to custom-graze cattle while he was still in college at Kansas State University. And he understood it in 1979, when he and his wife, Pam, bought 160 acres near Hamilton, Kan., about an hour south of Emporia. But, it would take some time and plenty of moxie to build their stake in the business.
That was a rotten time to start from scratch in the cattle business. For that matter, it was a lousy time to be established in the cattle business, as prices sagged while inflation and interest rates soared.
So, Mike started calves for others, built fence on a custom basis, provided AI service as an ABS representative — whatever it took. It also helped that Pam was a schoolteacher when they tied the knot. She still is, 40 years later, teaching sixth-grade students about science and technology.
Aiming cattle for grass
These days, Mike, son Glen and their crew only start cattle for themselves.
“It’s very hard to charge enough, on a small scale, to make the custom business work,” Mike says. “You need to be at least 5,000 head, and we didn’t think we had an advantage to do that. We try hard not to do things that we aren’t real good at.”
The Collinges procure calves — mostly heifers — from November to March through the same order buyer they’ve used for 30 years. Most come from southern Missouri.
“We try not to leave cattle at the sale barn overnight. Rather than wait to build a load, the buyer will bring them in a stock trailer,” Mike explains. “Some weigh 350 pounds, some weigh 600 pounds. It’s what we can buy for a value at small sales.”
From left to right: A few years ago, the Collinges bought the old high school football field a couple of miles up the road in Hamilton. They put in an 80-foot certified scale, so cattle can be easily and accurately weighed both coming and going. The old concession stand now serves as the weighhouse. | Mike Collinge offers some gate pointers to grandson Isaac Arnold. | Custom-built, oversized bale rings allow Collinge Cattle Co. to limit-feed hay when starting calves. Pulling hay forward each evening offers one more opportunity to check calves. | Photos by Wes Ishmael
They’ll background the bigger calves for 60 days and then send them to the feedlot. The others they want weighing 450 to 650 pounds going to grass, and 725 to 775 pounds coming off.
“So, the heavier heifers might come off the last of June or the first of July. We’ll stagger out the lighter ones.” He adds that approach also spreads risk and cash flow.
“We sort quite a bit for weight and quality, and try to sort off the better cattle to sell. Some of the plainer types we’ll keep to feed, because we feel like we can get more value out of them than what people will pay,” Mike explains.
Listen to the cattle
The homeplace they purchased was old farm ground, grown back to grass. Before buying it, Mike and his dad used a transit level to grid the area and construct a topological map. His dad also encouraged core-drilling the rock formation beneath to identify any potential problems.
“We started with steel posts, barbed wire and portable panels. Everything was portable. When we thought something was going to work, we put it in permanent,” Mike explains. “We had to move things many times and still do. We’re willing to change things to make it work better for the cattle. Cattle will tell you what works and what doesn’t work — which corner they’ll go to, which gate.”
All facilities are designed with low-stress cattle handling in mind.
“Animal husbandry was his cup of tea,” says Mike of his father, Irwin, a veterinarian, who was long in demand as a consultant. “He helped us get started here. We inherited a tremendous amount of his influence.”
That included everything from the importance of pen slope, to how to work with rather than against cattle.
“Granddad was a Bud Williams fan before anyone knew who Bud Williams was,” Glen says. “He and Temple Grandin had a big influence on how we do things. We also learned from good, old-time stockmen.”
Examples of the animal husbandry focus in facility design include Bud Boxes, release gates and a hospital pen that is the Cadillac of all of the Collinges’ pens. There’s easy access to the working facility, but it’s a good ways from the other pens. There’s a cement-sided shed with an insulated, gently sloping roof to prevent trapping heat and moisture. It also has baffles to help keep air moving when it’s hot, and prevent drafts when it’s cold.
Incidentally, Glen’s wife, Rachel, and the Collinge daughters and their husbands, Aubrey and Ryan Arnold, and Leslie and Zach Fritz, have their own careers. But all remain involved in the business, one way or the other (more later).
Pillars to starting calves
“The linchpin is the highest-quality prairie hay we can get — early-season, off of burned pasture and never wet,” Mike says.
Large round bales in customized bale rings are in each of what the Collinges call their hay pens. Calves are limit-fed hay by pulling off and making accessible the designated daily amount.
Every morning, cattle from each hay pen are walked into a central feed pen, where they receive a high-protein, high-fiber ration formulated with the help of a veterinarian and nutritionist. Then, calves are walked back to their hay pen.
Both transitions allow the Collinge crew to look at the cattle, and the cattle to get used to having folks around.
The Kansas Flint Hills comprise a sea of grass. When grazing season rolls around, the crew at Collinge Cattle Co. has no time to start calves. That gives pens several months of rest, reducing health challenges for the next turn.
In the evening, as hay is pulled forward in the bale rings, calves are seen again.
“You can make good wages just by looking at the cattle,” Mike says.
All of that dovetails with the second pillar of starting calves at Collinge Cattle Co., which is animal husbandry, including the environment. Filter strips of switchgrass between the hay pens capture runoff, serve as a windbreak and prevent nose-to-nose contact between pens.
The third pillar is animal health management, starting with every head being tested for persistent infection with bovine viral diarrhea (PI BVD). In addition to removing PI risk from a group of calves, Mike says, “I don’t want to turn out a PI-positive calf in a pasture that could introduce it to a neighbor’s pasture.” He also encourages all of his grazing customers to PI-test calves before shipping them to him.
From there, revaccination, metaphylaxis and all of the rest depend on the specific cattle and timing. For instance, when grass season comes around, there’s no time to start calves, meaning that pens have a chance to rest.
“There’s less morbidity, need for treatment and death loss on those first calves through pens that have been idle,” Mike says. “We don’t have time to start calves from April through most of August — and I think that helps our crew, too. When you go back to starting calves again after four months, you feel fresher.”
Growing cattle in big country
The other part of Collinge Cattle Co. is custom-grazing cattle on pastures they own and lease.
For perspective, the Collinge crew will gather and ship cattle six days each week from the first of July to early August. A crew of eight experienced cowboys is in the first pasture while it’s still dark.
They gather and bring those cattle to a shipping pen. One or two stay behind to load, while the rest go ahead to gather the next pasture. If things go right, they’ll gather three to four pastures per day, quitting when the temperature gets too high. Section-sized pastures are common.
“We rely on that crew. I’m the youngest one. I’m 33 and have been doing it for 20 years. They’re good at it and know what they’re doing, and they know the neighbors and the neighbors’ cattle,” Glen explains. The full-time crew includes Brad Martin and Larry Crane, valued members of the team for 30 years in one case, and nearly as many in the other.
“We have to gather and load them efficiently. We can’t afford to make mistakes,” Glen says. Aside from the tight schedule, he explains, “Shrink is a key consideration. The quieter and easier you can gather them, and the quicker and quieter you can get them from the pen to the truck, the better it is.”
Loading used to be a choke point, requiring most of the crew and meaning that about one pasture was loaded out each day. The Collinges posed lots of questions to everyone from truck drivers to cattle owners to handling experts, and built new pens. As long as everyone else stays out of the way, one person can load a truck in eight minutes.
Traditionally, many Flint Hills leases are priced per head for the season.
“We charge by the head per day, a little more like a feedlot does,” Mike explains. “We also charge based on weight, and whether or not the pasture was burned. We have a formula that calculates the price per head based on in-weight and days grazed.”
Throw in other items like mineral and medicine, and tracking and billing costs can get complex in a hurry. Pam has always been responsible for taking care of the records on their own cattle and keeping track of what to charge customers.
That’s easier today with PastureTracks (pasturetracks.com), a cloud-based web application developed by son-in-law Ryan Arnold. It was a case of hearing the family discuss what they wished they could do when it came to record keeping, and matching it to his IT expertise.
PastureTracks runs on smartphones, tablet and computers. It’s customizable and intuitive. You can track pastures and cattle, what was done, who did it and when.
“It has close to revolutionized the business side of our operation,” Mike says.
Caring for the tallgrass prairie
The Flint Hills in Kansas are vast — approximately 6 million acres and about 80% of the remaining tallgrass prairie. Much of the rest is in the adjacent Osage Hills of Oklahoma. That’s a sliver of the tallgrass prairie that once existed in North America, which various sources peg at 140 million to 170 million acres, stretching from Canada to Texas.
Fertile soils encouraged tillage and crop production as homesteaders and settlers headed west.
In the Flint Hills, bedrock of limestone, shale and flint near the surface discourage farming. However, the same soil produces extraordinarily strong native grass, including big bluestem, little bluestem and indiangrass. Cattle replaced the bison that came before them.
Typically, steers will gain 2.6 to 2.8 pounds per day during a 90-day grazing season, according to Mike Collinge. Figure about a half-pound less for heifers. Gain will be about 0.5 to 0.7 pounds less per day if it’s unburned pasture.
“The tallgrass prairie evolved from grazing and fire,” Collinge explains. “We continue to do the same thing, the way it has gone on for thousands of years. We feel it’s the best way to keep the integrity and preserve the tallgrass prairie. It’s highly stressful and dangerous work, but we think it’s worth it.”
Burning usually takes place in March and April. The timing is based on research, but also concentrates burning to a narrow window of time. That means smoke can end up in places like Kansas City or Lincoln, Neb., stirring up urban dissent.
Via the Kansas Livestock Association — Collinge is a past president — and other groups, the Collinges work to advocate consumer education about prescribed burning, while also advocating use of smoke management tools.