Coast through the pastures at Rush Creek Ranch near Viroqua, Wis., at the beginning of October.
You’ll be struck by the uniformity and 12 O’clock condition of the stocker cattle, especially when you understand they were purchased one head at a time at Southeastern sale barns, sent to conditioning yards and then grazed on ryegrass before heading to Wisconsin.
You’ll also be struck by how lush the pastures are and how un-crowded they appear when you understand that depending on size, a herd of 650-900 head will graze a five-acre pasture. These cattle will rotate through the 32-40 such pastures.
Think of these as a single unit. Another herd makes its way through a different 32-40 pastures (unit) and so on. All told, Rush Creek Ranch—this year’s National Stocker Award winner—runs eight different herds through the system each year.
Reid Ludlow established the operation in 1976. His son, Matt, returned home to the operation in 2008.
Churning out pounds with quality
Fact is, the cattle at Rush Creek Ranch don’t just look the part.
“We’ve gridded our cattle coming out of the feedlot the last handful of years and they have averaged 90% plus for Choice or better, which is pretty astonishing when you think about buying a 180-200-pound calf and putting it on grass for that long,” Matt explains.
“Our nutritionist told us if you put them on a relatively high, good plane of nutrition for an extended period of time, the better the grading analytics will be.”
Matt, who also serves as president of the Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association, believes part of the improved feeding and carcass performance in their cattle stems from what he views as a sea change in the overall quality of cattle, especially since the massive cowherd liquidation during the widespread drought a few years ago.
“Most stocker operations I know of sell cattle when they get to a certain weight, or weight range. Our cattle, no matter what they weigh coming to Wisconsin, we’re shipping them all at about the same time, usually from just before Thanksgiving to just before Christmas,” Reid says.
“The other reason we’re doing that is we’re trying to have those cattle hit the April board (Live Cattle futures). So, if they can be done from the middle of March to the first of May, that’s the goal,” Matt explains.
He notes that historically there’s a hole in fed cattle supplies as average yearlings finish, before calf-feds start to make their way to rail, and as spring consumer demand begins to pick up.
Stocker by design
Reid attended Colorado State University, where he got a degree in business. Throughout his college years, he kept thinking about his dream of being in the cattle grazing business. He also spent time looking around the U.S. and working for different cattle operations, including in Montana, southeastern Colorado and at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska.
“I would ask questions of all of those people I worked for. I formulated more ideas about what might work and might not work, what some advantages were and disadvantages.”
He created a short criteria list for his operation. The ground had to be deeded acres. The operation had to be located in an area where there was sufficient rainfall or there was the ability to irrigate. Finally, it had to be in a strong market for feeder cattle.
That led him to southwestern Wisconsin, where his dad once owned property.
“This ground was basically the same price as a lot of the western ranchland, but many, many times more productive; in essence it was cheaper,” Reid says.
Then began the decades of cultivating relationships with the buyers, conditioning yards and ryegrass grazers in the Southeast that would become essential components of what Rush Creek Ranch is today.
“Our deal wouldn’t work without all of these relationships,” Reid says. “We’ve used some of the same people for 40 years and more in the South. Those buyers will come to Wisconsin to look at the cattle as yearlings so we can talk about how we need to adjust for the next year’s buy.”
Of course, the relationships also include all of those within the Rush Creek operation.
“We’ve been fortunate to find really good people who help us before the calves get to Wisconsin,” Matt says. “And, we have great people who work for us full time. We’re really lucky in that regard.”
BEEF and Zoetis sponsor the National Stocker Award. You can find the full story about Rush Creek Ranch in the December issue of BEEF.
See the December issue of BEEF magazine for BEEF's 2020 Stocker Award Winners.