Ball Ranch rolls with efficiency – Leonard and Tammie Ball
for Tri-State Livestock News
The Ball Angus Ranch is cutting-edge modern yet has historic roots more than a century deep in Weld County, Colorado. The state’s leading producer of beef cattle and the richest agricultural county in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, Weld County includes the Pawnee National Grasslands 35 miles east of Fort Collins and 25 miles northeast of Greeley – windswept plains which have “witnessed the pageant of the frontier, the tragedy of the ‘Dust Bowl’ and the wonders of modern agriculture.” The multi-generational Ball Ranch, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, borders those grasslands and 400 head of their outstanding Angus summer-graze there, doing their part to maintain the “richest ag county” status.
Elmer Ball, being one of many sons in McPherson Kansas, was taken with his uncle’s favorable reports and urgings to join the Briggsdale, Colorado community. In the spring of 1914, Elmer and his new bride Etta homesteaded west of Briggsdale. To develop a source of income the McPherson College grad rode from his homestead to Fort Collins – 40 horseback miles each way—studied all week and returned to the homestead on the weekends until he obtained a Colorado Teacher’s Certificate and became the second teacher at Briggsdale.
“That got ’em through the tough times, Dustbowl years and all,” Elmer’s grandson Leonard Ball confirms. “After a few years teaching he turned to farming and ranching full time, buying more land and improving the place. He passed away fairly young so my Dad, Roland, the youngest of eight, took over and ran the ranch along with my Mom Verda. Tammie and I bought the ranch from them,” Leonard explains.
Tammie and Leonard have two children, Cody and Casey. That adds yet another generation to the ranch as Leonard explains, “Cody is 26, has a business degree from UNC and works for Noble Energy, plus being co-owner of the ranch. Daughter Casey put herself through college playing volleyball and is now a middle school physical education teacher in Greeley. We had quite a year as both kids got married here at the ranch last summer,” he says.
Reared with cattle and ranching, Leonard has experienced phenomenal changes in the business. “We were strictly Hereford all through the 1900s, until the first Angus bulls, black ones from Ken Haas, were bought in 1985,” he says. “We’ve been buying bulls from him forever now, going on the 30th year I think. Our weaning weights that had been 425 to 450 for steers are now up to 725, just off the cows at 7-8 months old.”
Ken Haas, an Angus producer from LaGrange, Wyoming, who has been selling Angus bulls for 35 years, has nothing but good things to say about the Balls as customers and producers. “Timing is everything in this business and they’ve got it right,” he said. “Someone asks me how to make the Angus business work, I just say, ‘Keep an eye on Leonard Ball. If he does something on Monday, you do it on Tuesday, and you’ll have it made.'”
Balls market their cattle privately at home. “For quite a few years in the ’70s and ’80s we sold to a family in Iowa,” Leonard recalls. “Then, years ago, as we were moving cattle along the highway, a man from Columbus, Nebraska was driving by. He pulled in and visited and said he’d like to start buying our calves. They have a five-generation family farm and we just negotiate a price. I used to send him a video of the calves but he doesn’t even want that anymore,” he says.
Over a century – from Kansas hard times through the dirty thirties into 2016 with prime weights and eager buyers – how do you make that happen?
“One of the most impressive things about our cow herd is they’re not real big. I weighed all the cows last year at preg checking and they averaged 1310, yet they’re weaning calves around 725,” Leonard says. “Another one of the main things is herd health – when you have sick cattle, ranching is not fun at all!”
“We start calving around February 10th and in order to get a really good coverage you have to have a spring vaccination program on the cows. We give them Bovashield FP5 Gold VL5 in spring and pour at branding time. At birth we give calves 7-Way and C and D (a few years ago we had a C and D problem and started this program). They get C and D three times by the time they’re sold; in the cow, the calf at birth, and at branding. We brand pretty early and also apply de-lice pour-on to calves and give 7-Way with Somnus, Bovashield 5 Gold Oneshot, plus In Force 3 nasalgen that starts working immediately. We use no implants so we can go the all-natural route if we want to. Mid-September we pre-condition the calves with C and D, Bovishield 5 Gold Oneshot and the In Force 3 nasalgen. The cows are given Scour Guard KC, C and D and we’ll pour again at preg checking, usually the end of October.” Bull management is also very important. In the fall the bulls are given Bovashield FP5 Gold VL5 and pour on. We bring the bulls into the corrals to be fed well and if the weather gets cold they can have bedding to protect them from freezing conditions.
“Our feed program is mostly native grass, with a mineral tub and an ADM 30 percent protein,” Leonard says. “It depends on the year, if we get covered up with snow we have to feed. We winter about 260 cows on a three-section unit that hasn’t been grazed all summer, and try to stay in there from early November to the first of the year; then move them closer to home. In the pastures right along Crow Creek fingers come off the Pawnee National Grasslands where there are lots of draws that provide some shelter and where Blue Gramma and Buffalo grass really thrive on summer rain. If supplement is required due to weather we cake if there’s plenty of grass; if grass is short we supplement with sorghum hay and millet and protein tubs, no alfalfa,” Leonard says. “We raise 500 acres of White Wonder Millett and sorghum we put up ourselves, and we buy some alfalfa. Normally we don’t feed any alfalfa until the calves are about a month old; our cows milk so well the calves can’t handle it.”
The state-of-the-art Ball Angus Ranch operation includes two steel buildings with 16 pens along the sides and a large common area down the center where cows about ready to calve can come in. “We’ve gone to the time and expense to have facilities to in-house probably 50 pair overnight. We calve at two facilities and everything goes through the barn,” Leonard says. “Most calves spend their first night on wheat straw in a stall with their mother. The next morning we let the cow out of the pen while we give them a shot and ear tag and then put them back together. After we feed and move the pairs out we clean and re-straw those stalls, ready for the next draft.”
Depending on weather and the condition of individuals, those pairs leave the barn for big pens with good windbreaks that are strawed. When the pairs are good to go, they are moved out to pastures. When there are about 70 pair in a pasture, they are moved into a half-section pasture, where a full round bale of the sorghum or millet or one big square of alfalfa is just right for that many.
“We work 70 at a time to vaccinate, brand and cut toward the end of March. They’re all the same age and size, no little guys in there to get stressed – they heal up and we move to the next half section. We have seven or eight of those we go to with 70 pair in each,” Leonard says.
“Once everything has calved, around April 10th, we move to fresh pastures that haven’t had any cattle in them all winter. We have eight of those breeding pastures where we put two bulls with 70 pair in each, and they’re a half mile apart so no common fences for the bulls,” Leonard says. “We cake or feed hay as needed during breeding and use Breeder’s Cake All Natural Mineral that we buy in Greeley. If the grass is poor we may even use protein tubs and feed some alfalfa. We don’t move them until the summer grass is doing well, usually about the last week in May.” After the bulls have been out for 30 days with the cows, they pull a few bulls that need rest. They then put about 50 cows to a bull as by this time about 75 percent of the cows are bred. By doing this, they can protect the bulls from fighting and getting hurt.
The Ball Ranch has a 414 head summer permit with the Crow Valley Livestock Association on the Pawnee National Grasslands. “Grandpa was president of the Crow Valley Livestock Association in 1938,” Leonard says, “but because he was a teacher the secretary/treasurer suggested they switch offices because it would be easier for Grandpa to do the bookwork, so they switched.” Leonard’s dad, Roland, served as President of the Association for 25 years and Leonard has been the president of the Association for the past 10 years. Grazing there is a Ball Ranch tradition that goes hand in glove with their many modern innovations.
The Ball Ranch uses some rotational grazing and Leonard likes it, but says, “Water determines what we can do with our cattle in this area, and the whole rotational thing depends on availability of water.” There’s more water on the home place, and well depths there are “about one joint of pipe,” up to 200 feet a well. The water is mostly raised with windmills, however some wells utilize electric pumps. “I would like to have some solar wells with big storage tanks. Maybe that’ll be one of my next projects,” Leonard said.