Ichthys Cattle Enterprise… Real… Purposeful… Difference
Ichthys Cattle Enterprise, or ICE Cattle, exists at the pleasure of God and by His grace. We make this confession not because we want people to think they should buy cattle from us because we are Christians (please don’t), but because we want to acknowledge God in all of our ways and bring glory to Him. We cannot, in word or deed, adequately testify to the goodness God has shown to us…but we aim to. May the Gospel of Christ be clear in our words and our deeds. Our purpose at ICE Cattle is to glorify God. If we make money raising cattle then we get to make a living doing something we enjoy, regardless, HE is worthy of praise either way!
The ICE Cattle vision is to graze our cattle year round. We believe that cattle eating forage that is still attached to the soil is the most efficient and effective (and profitable) way to manage them.
In 1998 we learned about an unconventional approach to the cattle business. Up until that point our primary decision making process consisted of doing things because, “that’s the way they’ve always been done”. We learned that you don’t have to calve during the winter, that you don’t have to feed hay for a significant part of the year (or any of it) and that purchasing feed inputs is not required to operate a successful cattle business…among other things.
Amazing Graze! We purpose to graze our cattle, not feed our cattle. The cows calve in May and June on native Nebraska rangeland which is mostly native tall and shortgrass prairie. We bring the pairs home in late July to prep them for our annual A.I. project in early August. Post A.I. the pairs go back to grass or to cover crops depending upon availability. Once cornstalks are available the pairs go to stalk grazing prior to weaning. We want the calves to learn how to graze all kinds of forages and feel that having them learn how to do that by their momma’s side is most effective. Salt and mineral are the only supplements available during any grazing season. We don’t believe the solutions to a cattleman’s problems come from a tub or a feed bag. We aim to wean sometime in December or January and practice fence-line weaning to reduce stress and hasten the wean. Once weaned, the cows go back to cornstalks and the calves go to stockpiled cover crop forages for development. When stalks are depleted the cows will go on stockpiled native pasture or other cover crops until calving when the whole process starts over again. We believe 365 day grazing is a reasonable goal. Hay is not a 4-letter word…but it’s close!
Our vision is to help cattle producers produce the kind of momma cows they want. We think, primarily, the English breeds are best for the maternal side of the cattle equation.
We offer registered Black and Red Angus and Herefords and also Composite cattle which typically consist of some mix of Angus, Hereford and Tarentaise. We don’t aim to be the genetic source for everyone. If you are looking to produce moderately framed, gentle momma cows with built in calving ease, good udders and the ability to thrive on grazed forage then we think you will like what you find here. We often have momma cows still producing in their mid-teens. A cow must produce a calf every year to stay in the herd.
Three things are eternal; God, His Word and people. We cherish our people and wouldn’t work so hard if it weren’t for them.
Kristin and I have 7 children ranging in age from 17 to 4 that we are aiming to train up in the way that they should go. Homeschooling is a major part of their discipleship. Helping with the cattle is also an area of training. We don’t know what we would do without them. Even the youngest loves to go check on the cows with Daddy (thinking she will get a sucker for her efforts probably helps). David Ellis and Kyle Wagner are our only full-time hired help and work a LOT of hours to get things done. Clyde Mattson is our A.I. technician. He has a very busy two weeks during the beginning of August. Our parents and part-time employees also help us get a lot done. It takes a lot of hands to accomplish the work we complete each year and we are grateful for God’s provision in that area.
The Cattleman’s Dilemma
Everyone in the cow-calf business should evaluate whether or not their herd is becoming more and more like what they want to have. If it isn’t, where can you find genetics to get you there?
Many in the cattle business, at some point in time or another, interpreted the phrase “pounds pay” to mean that you needed to shoot for the highest possible weaning weights. This philosophy resulted in many innovations. Feedstuffs were developed to meet all sorts of perceived needs and made putting on the pounds much, much easier. Those in the genetics business selected for higher and higher (and higher) weaning weights and yearling weights. This resulted in cattle that had higher and higher birth weights, frame scores and mature weights. Unfortunately this also resulted in higher death loss at calving due to dystocia. It also resulted in inefficient cows that took too much fuel (food) to efficiently produce a 50-60% weaning weight. A thousand pound cow only needs to produce a weaning weight of 500 lbs. to produce at 50% efficiency but a 1500 lb. cow must wean a 750 lb. calf to do the same. However, a 1500 lb. cow must actually wean more than a 750 lb. calf (to be equal) because she requires more than 50% more feed than a 1000 lb. cow for maintenance, etc. The larger a cow gets the more inefficient she gets, or to put it another way, the larger a cow gets the more the law of diminishing returns kicks in. We’ve had a 1900 lb. cow on our place, a long time ago. She calved once in 3 years. If she were the answer to the cattle producer’s problems we would not be in business.
So, what is the cattleman’s dilemma? How do you produce moderately framed, efficient momma cows by using conventional bulls that have been bred for higher and higher birth, weaning and yearling weights? Our answer: We don’t think you can. We think the “sweet spot” for mature cow weights is somewhere between 1000-1200 lbs. Could we be off a hundred pounds either way based on specific conditions, certainly! We will not impose what we consider to be our ideal on any rancher. We won’t tell you that you are wrong for not agreeing with us. We are simply trying to inform you of what we are aiming for so you can determine whether or not that is something you agree with…or want to try. Dam weight and frame score are two data points we aim to provide for all of our sales. The term “moderately framed (or sized)” gets thrown around a lot these days…and is relative to the definition of each person who uses it. We think a frame score of 6 or more is probably too big to be most efficient (some see a frame 7 as moderate), as is a 2 frame or smaller (though these smaller cattle can definitely work for producers in specific instances). We don’t have “small” cattle but cattle that are moderate in size and can flesh easily when forage conditions allow.
We believe cattle should survive on minimal inputs. One thing we want to be abundantly clear on is what we mean by minimal inputs. We think a bovine was created to survive on forage in the form of grazing. We think a bovine animal should have access to high-quality, abundant forage (in the form of grazing, not being fed) throughout the year, and that they shouldn’t be limited in this regard. If you want calves to gain weight then you must let them (and their mommas until they are weaned) eat good forage. Grazed forage should not be minimal. Now, a dry cow does not need the same quality of forage as does other developing classes of animals. If you have the right kind of momma cows they will “tick up” (get fat) on good forage but can also go for a time on poorer quality forage, even losing some condition, and still calve and breed back. Our cows will get too fat if we let them graze cover crops when they are dry, this is where grazing crop residue is helpful. We look at manure and monitor mineral consumption to determine when dry cows are getting low on lower quality feed. When the manure piles high and the mineral consumed quickly we know it is time to move the cows. We hope to have our cows in good condition when the calves are weaned so that they can go through the winter and possibly lose a body condition score or two and still be okay once it gets green in the spring.
When we say inputs we are describing the products that are purchased and fed to cattle: tubs, cubes, cake, hay, pellets, creep, etc. We do use salt and a good quality mineral. Feed is expensive/nutritional unit because of all of the things it takes to get the nutrients from where they originated to the cow’s mouth. Grazing is direct. We have ordered our operation so that year-round grazing is possible. We do have some hay “insurance” and use it as sparingly as possible. Many operations may not be able to do what we do in terms of cover crops but finding ways within your own operation to graze year round will be a noble destination. Don’t starve your animals, but don’t feed them either, find a way to let them graze, that is what they were made to do. We are not aware of another seedstock producer so committed to developing their cattle by grazing only. Most seedstock developers feed their animals something, from hay to tubs to pellets to even corn silage, as a significant part of their development program. We think making our cattle work for their living is essential to developing the right kind of breeding stock.
Since we are on the topic of inputs I want to add that we have both grass and grain finished customers for our beef. We have customers in Nebraska, Texas and California for our grain finished beef and they all claim they can’t buy what we produce anywhere else. We are a grazing centered outfit but our genetics work extremely well for grain finishing too. Our seedstock never gets grain unless they harvest a minimal amount for themselves in a corn field during the winter. We’ve found that genetics that work in a pasture will work in a feedlot but that the reverse isn’t always the case.
In order for us to graze year round we must do some planning. We plan, sometimes, up to a year in advance with some of our forages.
Our first attempt at cover crops came after we planted sorghum sudan/pearl millet into the wheat stubble post harvest. We had sorghum sudan 10 feet high by the end of the summer. This was not only good for grazing it left a lot of stem residue to cover the soil which helps prevent erosion and eventually adds organic matter to the soil. It also provides a “mulch” to the corn crop that follows the next year. Since then we have added cover mixes which include up to over 40 species of plants and seed them anytime from March to November depending on the need. If properly planned, and Lord willing, you can have highly nutritious forage available to graze year round. Our cattle can have better forage in January than in June.
I don’t know when God is going to take me off of this planet but I am convinced that when He does I won’t be satisfied with all of the udders in our herd. We’ve found it to be very challenging to have a herd with only perfect udders. We have used bulls for years that are supposed to be udder improvers and I think we are making progress.
The major challenge we have with udders comes in the form of the forage our cows are consuming at calving. Since we calve in May and June our cows are consuming some pretty high quality stuff and the udders take a hit. We think if our cows calved on lower quality or quantity of forage the udders would be better. We’ve brought in cows from short grass country that had udders rated 4 or 5 on a scale of 5 and they drop to a 2 or 3 the first year here. We do not keep cows around that have udders, even one teat, that a calf can’t nurse. We rate the udder at calving on a scale of 1 to 5. If it is a 1 the dam is gone. A 2 isn’t pretty but is functional. A 3 or higher is a pretty good udder that I can tolerate.
Real… Purposeful… Difference
Our vision is to be different for a purpose. Raising what we think are the right kind of cattle helps us accomplish that purpose.
At ICE Cattle we aim to be different for a purpose…that purpose being the glory of God. Don’t be mistaken, though our stated purpose is not to produce the best cattle possible we don’t believe we can best bring glory to God with anything less than our highest effort to produce the best cattle possible. We think that by grazing rather than feeding we can produce cattle for less. We believe that by keeping our costs low we can help cattle producers do the same. In most ag production businesses being a low cost producer is crucial for survival. The cattle business has proven that repeatedly. We want our customers to know that a portion of the purchase price of each animal we sell will go to Christian ministry, more specifically, to homeschooling widows in part through the Homeschool Foundation’s Widow’s Fund.
What is an Ichthys?!? Sound Greek to you? It is! The word Ichthys (ik’-this) means fish in the Ancient Greek language. When Christians were being persecuted and they wanted to communicate and worship with each other without being caught, they would use the Ichthys fish as a code. A Christian would walk up to another man and draw one half of the Ichthys fish. If the other man drew the other half, he would know the other man was a fellow Christian and they would be able to communicate safely. Today, the fish symbol is an open acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as Savior. The letters used in the Greek spelling create an acronym that translated stands for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, our Savior.” “But these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” John 20:31
To Treat or Not to Treat?
We don’t think a seedstock producer helps their customers by relying on syringes, tubes, pastes, jugs, applicators, bottles or whatever to intensively treat their cattle. We want to prevent disease, and if we can’t do that we want to see if the animal can recover on its own.
Most cattlemen would probably agree that treating cattle when they are sick is a good animal husbandry practice and is necessary for being considered humane. Our take is probably a bit different. We believe that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and that cattle get better or they die and most, overwhelmingly, will get better if you simply leave them alone. Please take note, I am NOT referring to treatments that would save an animal from an acute disease such as a respiratory infection or scours or from a severe injury. You can’t be profitable if you lose calves (or other animals) to those issues. My point with these comments is that treating for some things like flies, worms, pinkeye, lice, hoof problems and others prevent an animal from beating those things itself with the genetics it was given. We believe it to be a bedrock issue that seedstock producers must be harder on their cattle than are commercial cattlemen. We speculate the opposite generally happens and that seedstock are too pampered. For example, if you’ve paid a hefty price for a registered animal what are most going to be willing to do to keep it in the herd? By not treating for many of these issues we can sort out the inferior genetics. Hypothetical: Would you rather buy an animal that has clear eyes or a cloudy eye? This is a trick question to some degree. Let me put it this way: Would you rather buy an animal that has a clear eye because it was treated, repeatedly, at the cost of time, money and effort or would you rather buy an animal that has a cloudy eye that won’t affect performance one bit but has healed on its own? My answer: I’d rather buy an animal with clear eyes that never got the disease. We have some cloudy eyes from cattle that were not treated but healed on their own but, mostly, we have clear eyes from cattle that never got pinkeye. We believe prevention, through quality forage and a high quality mineral, takes much higher precedence over treatment. We don’t believe we are inhumane but we do believe our philosophy in this area is good for our customers. Creation will help sort out cattle that don’t belong as seedstock.
By not treating cattle we put a selection pressure on them that is rare in the industry. We believe that if you supply forage for cattle to graze, fresh water, salt and a good mineral you have done your “part”. It is up to the cattle to do the rest. If cattle can’t make it on those 4 simple things, regardless of climate, breed, size or any other factor, then they may not be suited to produce beef (and they may be losing you money). At the very least they are not suited to produce seedstock that is used to produce beef. If your seedstock is not coming from a source that puts extreme selection pressure on their cattle, especially if it’s not more pressure than you put on your own cattle, you should probably be saving your own bulls. We have several bulls and heifers that develop an “issue” while being developed. They get better or they get gone. We are not interested in passing our problems along by masking them with props or medicine. Note: we do not believe that starving cattle is a form of selection pressure but of insanity. Bulls and heifers must have enough forage to develop properly. Don’t blame the genetics if cattle are shorted on forage. The saying “if one can do it they all should be able to” does not apply here. If you don’t have enough forage then you are simply selecting for the fastest eaters. If you have too many cattle for the forage available please sell some of them or lease more grazing land. Be very cautious about buying hay to keep your herd together. It can be very costly to feed yourself out of a drought and you can’t starve profits out of cattle.
An Operation in Transition
Our operation is, and we expect always will be, in some form of transition. We are transitioning to our own website and are planning to sell cattle directly. We have 7 children who each have different interests and some are transitioning into working within the operation.
Pharo Cattle Company: We recently ended our relationship with Pharo Cattle Company as cooperative producers. Beginning in 2003 we leased a herd of registered Red Angus cows from PCC. Over the years we ended up leasing registered Black Angus cows and composite cows from PCC as well. As terms of the lease we kept all of the heifer calves and split the bull calves with PCC. Most of our cows have Pharo Cattle Company genetics on both sides of the pedigree. We have sold hundreds of bulls through Pharo Cattle Company sales and they have been very well received. I am thankful that Kit Pharo trusted us to steward his cattle.
Our operation is still, primarily, a crop production enterprise. We continued the transition to no-till that my father, Robert, started in the 1980’s. We started spreading cattle manure in 2008 and, shortly after, started incorporating cover crops into our rotations. We are now transitioning some acres to full-time cover crops in order to graze them. Some acres on our farm, which have produced a grain crop for the past 100 years, are now only being harvested by the mouths of cattle. We are excited to see where this will lead. Soil health is of critical importance to us. We believe the transitions we have made, and are making, all contribute to healthy soil. Our vision is to leave the land better than when we were given stewardship of it. When I look at our soil I can see 7 young faces looking back.