Covering it all: Cover family adds all three sons to family business
A sharp pencil has been crucial to the success of the Cover ranch near Hyannis, Nebraska.
“My dad, John Cover, was involved in the family ranch until the day he died,” said Tim Cover, the ranch patriarch.
“He was a very sharp businessman. Throughout all the expansion we’ve done and everything else, one of the main things I remember dad saying was ‘if it pencils, it might work. If it doesn’t pencil, it won’t work.’”
John and his father started the Ford dealership in Alliance, in 1936. Today, Tim’s brother Mark Cover owns the dealership. The ownership of the ranchland is shared by Tim and his three brothers.
The family business sense is evident. A commitment to family itself is also a key to the Covers’ success. Tim’s great-great grandfather on his mother’s side (Christopher Abbott) brought his family to Grant County in the late 1800s. His son, Arthur Abbott, fell in love with the country and established land and banking businesses in the Hyannis area. “My grandmother was the only girl to this Abbott family and shared in their business. When her husband George Petersen passed away, my parents got involved in ranching.”
Tim’s grandmother served as a director of the Abbott banks as late as the 1970s but the family now focuses totally on the cattle business, with no remaining ties to the banking industry.
“We started with 75 Hereford cows. We really enjoyed it,” he says.
The family transitioned to Red Angus cattle for a time, and has now settled on Black Angus genetics.
Tim’s family lived in Alliance and he and his siblings attended Alliance High School.
“We were down to the ranch every chance we could be,” he said.
After graduating from Chadron State College, Tim “moved home.”
Although Tim and Kathy had lived just a few blocks from one another in Alliance, he was a “cowboy” and she a “city girl,” and it wasn’t until their college days that they dated – eventually marrying.”
“Ranching is what I always wanted to do,” he said. “As a kid I loved the openness, the freedom, and the horses have always been a passion of mine.” Tim particularly loved sleeping in the bunkhouse with the hired men the night before branding day.
“We started our family here and that’s where we still are.” Their three boys, eldest Chris (and wife Crystal, son Hunter and daughter Brecken) and twins Matt (wife Sara, son John) and Jeff (wife Carolyn and children Kirby and Claire) are all a part of the ranch today. Land has been added to the ranch over the years to allow for all three boys to work into the family operation.
Like their dad, the boys have a passion for roping. Tim, Chris, Matt and Jeff each claimed a high school team roping championship. Now the grandkids are carrying on the rodeo tradition.
“They are all involved in the ranch. They grew up here. They’ve been in the saddle since they were old enough to sit up. We do everything horseback,” Tim said.
Tim and Chris agree that each member of the operation has strengths, and as a group, they support one another using those gifts.
The family has a couple aces up their sleeves to help the ranch keep going through the good years as well as the lean ones.
“We have a backgrounding feedlot,” said Chris. “That gives us a bit of a crutch in dry years like this. We don’t have to sell cows right away, we can put them in the feedlot if we have to.”
Tim and Chris also pointed out that the family usually backgrounds their own calves, but they decide year-to-year if it makes sense. “It’s an annual decision. Whether we wean our calves and feed them for a while, or just sell. This year we’re selling the steers off the cow. We’re trying to get things off the grass as fast as we can with this drought. It just didn’t seem to pencil to wean the calves,” Tim said.
On the years they decide to background their calves, they usually sell the steers after 60-90 days and the heifers usually go around the end of February.
The heifers are a popular item, thanks to the high-quality genetics the Cover family invests in.
“We’ve had a good market for our heifers, going back to different herds for replacements,” said Tim. “We have a strong reputation with our Angus cattle.”
He and the boys have placed a high priority on carcass traits and maternal traits when choosing Angus bulls.
“I’ve always felt like, if you’re not buying the best genetics, your cattle aren’t the best. Your cattle are your only product. You want them to be the best that they can be,” he said.
Tim and Chris both pointed out that the family has been very pleased with the carcass data on pens of their steers in recent years. While they don’t retain ownership, they have built relationships with the buyers who usually buy their calves, which has helped them get their hands on that valuable information.
The family also uses the AngusLink program, which requires an electronic identification tag. The program maintains information about the sires of the calves, and more. The ranch chooses the level it wants to be involved, which can include BQA certification, non-hormone treated cattle, Global Animal Partnership, and other options. “It’s a neat program,” said Chris. But he and his wife Crystal are quick to credit Tim and Kathy for a tremendous amount of paperwork to make it come together.
Chris says that while that program and others have served them well, he still sticks to a couple of simple, solid truths that help keep the ranch in the black.
“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” he said. “There are a lot of programs, a lot of incentives, but we have to remind ourselves, what we’re doing isn’t broken, we’re not failing. We stick to what we’ve always done and don’t get too far away from that. These are reputation cattle and the buyers know that.”
Crystal points out that another simple but effective key to the ranch’s success is keeping their labor costs to a minimum by putting in a lot of sweat equity.
“We were just talking about our upcoming week. We will be building a load out chute. It made me realize that a big part of our operation’s success is being able to save money. We don’t hire out to do many day jobs. We put up all of our own hay, do all the fencing, build windbreaks, sheds, corrals, concrete work, equipment repairs, and more. We try to outsource as little as possible. It saves a lot of money when we can do it ourselves,” she said.
Tim and Chris are in agreement that, purely financially speaking, they are not compensated for their time in the ranching business. But that’s ok.
Tim appreciates that many deals – some worth millions of dollars – are still made on a handshake because a good share of people in the agriculture industry are that trustworthy.
“The biggest benefits are the freedom of doing what you want to do, understanding of a work ethic. If it’s snowing, blowing, or cold, you still have to take care of the animals,” said Tim. “My sons are the sixth generation on this place. My oldest grandkids now are tremendous help. At 9 and 11, I’d rather have them horse back with me than many adults. And the younger ones will be there soon. They know a snow day doesn’t mean fun and video games. It means hard work. But it’s worth it.”
Nobody gets into the ranching business to get rich, said Tim, and he said his daughters-in-law have work off the ranch to help make ends meet as well. “It’s the other benefits. You aren’t going to be in this business to make money. You might be cash poor and capital rich, but it’s the benefits, the way of life. You’ll be rich with opportunity.”
Tim and Kathy, and Chris and Crystal point out that many young families in their area have returned to the ranching community, which they appreciate seeing.
But it’s tough to make land purchases pencil out, Tim said. “It’s getting to where you have to be creative to make it work.” And competing with corporations makes it more difficult. “We’ve had a lot of corporates buying land. I hate to see that. Once that lend sells, it will never go back to family ownership. If someone loses a family ranch, they’ve lost their livelihoods.”
But ultimately Chris and Crystal say their kids are learning invaluable lessons on the ranch. Their son’s cow calved in a blizzard, and when they saw the cow running around, they went searching for the calf, which they found “in a snowbank, basically dead,” said Crystal. After their 11-year-old dug the calf out, warmed him up, fed him, dried him off, they explained to their son that “he’s either going to have the will to live, or he won’t.”
Crystal says the story had a happy ending – the calf is alive today, and thriving – but “not many kids get to experience that.”
“He knows that if he hadn’t been out there, if he’d been in the house watching tv, that calf would be dead. It’s good for them to see that. And it doesn’t always work out the way we want it to, and it’s good for them to see that, too. I think they learn compassion; they learn to have a soft heart and be empathetic toward life in general. They learn respect for others and they see how fragile life is.”
Chris adds that family ranches selling high quality cattle ought to be paid for the premium product they are marketing.
“There is such a demand right now for good quality beef. Ranchers need to be compensated for the good cattle we are raising. Whether it’s COOL or something else. Sandhills beef is known worldwide as a high-quality product. We buy bulls from the best breeders in the world. There has to be something that separates us from the lower quality beef out there,” he said.
The advice Tim has for his boys is something similar to his own father’s advice. “If it doesn’t pencil, you’d better look at a different option.”
But he adds that there is more to it than even choosing the right bull and building your own H-braces.
“Honesty and integrity are something we all believe in,” he said. “And, you take care of the animals. That is just understood.”