Ranchers can’t begin pursuing profits in their beef operation until a live calf is on the ground. That’s the principle philosophy that has guided Doug Harsh over the last 20 years as he developed Dusty Prairie Ranch and his 350-head Amerifax beef herd outside Bartley in southwestern Nebraska.
“Calving ease and strong maternal instincts are two of the prominent traits in the Amerifax breed,” Harsh says. “After I graduated from college I intended to look at a Maine Anjou herd. When I went to buy my first cattle in 1978 the breeder had some Amerifax cattle too. I was so impressed with their size and muscling that I decided to work with them instead.”
The Amerifax originated in the United States, a cross of 5/8 Angus and 3/8 Beef Friesian. The Beef Friesian came to the U.S. in 1971, having a nearly 100-year history of being bred for dual production.
Amerifax hides are either red or black and the cattle are polled. The breed has a shorter 274-280 day gestation period, which means calves weigh 65 to 85 pounds at birth. They also have a long-muscled conformation that contributes to calving ease. Amerifax females and bulls also have a large pelvis, an additional calving advantage. The breed society was formed in 1977 and the Amerifax Cattle Association is located in Hastings, NE.
“The breed is primarily found in the Midwest states like Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, South Dakota and Wyoming,” Harsh says. “Many Amerifax breeders have brought more Angus blood into their herds. I haven’t done that. I liked the idea of keeping more pure genetics so my herd is very close to the genetics found in the original breed.”
As Harsh began building his herd, he found the Amerifax cattle to be very hardy, thriving on the forage found on his 2,500 acre ranch and the few supplements he provides in winter months. Calving ease and vigorous calves that grew quickly and weaned at above industry average weights further convinced him that he had selected the proper breed for his operation.
“When I was growing up, dad would get up between 2 and 4 a.m. to check cattle during calving season,” Harsh says. “I’ve found that the Amerifax breed rarely experiences calving problems. We generally calve about six or eight miles away from the ranch and check cows once each day. That method fits well with the rest of our work load and the cows do just fine, too.”
Over the years, Harsh found that bringing in herd sires from outside his own herd was counter productive. He ended up with some undesirable genetic traits that kept him from reaching production goals. For that reason, he began selecting sires from within his own herd and finds he is able to maintain the desired consistency through this practice.
“We don’t use direct line breeding,” he says. “But we can maintain the disposition and genetic consistency by matching cows and sires to continually improve our calves a little bit every year. We can trace 75 percent of our genetics back to one bull. We know how well that bull’s progeny did in carcass quality, so our outcomes are pretty predictable. When we brought in outside sires, four or five years later we were seeing traits we didn’t want in our cows. There were things about that bull’s gene pool that we weren’t aware of. Now I make small changes every year, steps that take me closer to my goals. That’s proven to be pretty successful.”
Among other things, Harsh has developed cattle with above average capacity to convert forage into gain and has found a ready market for cows in Missouri.
“That state has tons of grass volume,” Harsh says. “Putting cattle on it is a good way to utilize that resource. With cows out of my herd the cow/calf producers there have been able to add 120 to 150 pounds to their calves because of the animals’ capacity to utilize that forage. Most of my customers sell at livestock sales, so they really appreciate the consistent size and quality of calves out of our bulls. Over the years we’ve tracked carcass quality coming from our genetics and find that when those cattle go to market, about 80 percent of them will grade choice or better and bring at least $5 per head above the base carcass price. That’s the kind of quality and income opportunities we want to pass on to our customers.”
On average, data Harsh has gathered on his cattle indicate that the weight difference between animals is 15 to 20 pounds. That kind of uniformity makes both sellers and buyers happy.
“We’re finding that our cattle grade just as well as any of the Angus breeds,” Harsh says. “The consistency and uniformity of our calves has been a strong selling point.”
Harsh has conducted carcass testing for the last 20 years to document the quality of his cattle. That data has been gathered from more than 3,500 head throughout the years. He has also relied on results from Great Western Beef Expo competition to measure and benchmark his own success in reaching goals for quality and profitability.
“For the past 25 years, through 2007, the Expo implemented the Net Return competition,” Harsh says. “For five years I used that program as a tool to analyze my production results. For the last five years they held the competition, I was either at or near the top of the competitors. I usually selected some of my largest calves, but I didn’t give them any preferential treatment because I wanted a sound measure of my overall success. By taking part in that I understand my gene pool better and identified what I needed to do to improve my herd. It demonstrated to me that calving ease and genetics that excel in the feedlot are the key traits I want in my cattle.”
In the Great Western Beef Expo Net Return competition, Harsh achieved some amazing results, taking Reserve Overall Champion in 2002, 4th and 10th place 2003, Reserve Overall Champion in 2004, and Overall Grand Champion in 2006.
Throughout the years since he started his own ranch, Harsh has recognized the need for him to share his knowledge and understanding of his genetic pool with his customers. For that reason he offers assistance in developing a breeding plan to help them reach their production goals through use of his genetics. He also offers an option for buying back Dusty Prairie Ranch progeny through the Retained Ownership Alliance.
“Our Beef Expo results show our cattle brought an average of $96 per head more because of high average of meat grading choice,” Harsh says. “These are low maintenance cattle that produce high quality results. You can make money with these genetics.”
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the June 19, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News