Cattle Journal: Sandhill Red Angus, Montana
Working as a team, Andrew and McKenzie Johnson developed Sandhill Red Angus through concentrating on animals exhibiting performance, good disposition, and reliability in their herd.
Raising cattle near Froid in northeastern Montana takes savvy determination. The operation is an hour west of Williston, North Dakota, or an hour north of Sidney, Montana, amidst the rolling sand hills. The couple works together and shares responsibilities, with Kenzie checking cows or fencing while Andrew seeds or sprays crops. They farm 2,000 acres of grain and have 1,000 acres of hay ground besides their pasturelands.
Andrew believes it is getting harder for commercial operators to find seedstock animals that have attributes they desire. He said, “We breed our animals to produce functional and long-lasting cows for commercial operations, with females that are big bodied, long, and attractive. We run our operation like a commercial ranch. We strive to produce bulls that will work for our customers, and we take pride that our bulls do a great job producing females that will thrive in any environment.”
Andrew said, “I believe our cattle genetics can provide our customers great females that last. I enjoy breeding cattle that will produce great females. Our animals are functional with good feet and udders. The commercial guys appreciate that. We have guys that calve on green grass and have had a terrible time with bad udders. We have had great success in helping these customers fix these udder problems.”
As the cows drop their calves while grazing on the two-section calving pasture, it takes select genetics to provide calves that have the will to live. Calves that are born too small, or don’t have vigor, don’t survive in their program. The couple believes that registered females should be able to calve on their own, get their calf up and get them going. The couple doesn’t believe in low birth weights — they want calves that are robust and can handle the sometimes-cruel conditions of Montana. They aim for calves between 85-95 lbs. With these genetics, calves can go into Canada or Texas and thrive.
“We aim to calve the registered animals in mid-March. The commercial herd starts about the first week of April. Those calves will weigh about 625 lbs. the first week of November. This year weaning weights were down, maybe 40 to 50 lbs. lighter.”
Longevity means cows will continue to produce calves at 12, 15 or 17 years of age. “Our foundation 2715 cow is a prime example of what we believe in. She had a calf at the age of 17 without a problem, with a perfect udder and foot, and she was bred back in the fall.”
They pay close attention to the condition of the cow’s feet and legs to make sure they can handle any terrain. When the heifers go to the Missouri breaks, it’s a tough environment. It is big, rough country that their heifers have to summer in. They must breed on time and stay in good condition in some of Montana’s roughest country. There is good grass there, but the cattle have to cover a lot of country.
Fertility is important. Sandhill Red Angus breeds around 1,000 heifers every year and calves roughly 400 out. “We AI the registered heifers to some of the industry’s best bulls. We don’t necessarily breed to the most calving ease sires. We want calves that will perform out of our first calvers also. In our first calf heifers, we keep only the heifers that catch AI. Our fertility rate is great, as our registered cows usually test at about 2 to 3 percent open.”
To make the best use of their cows, “We flush a few cows for embryo transplants. From one of our best cows, Y26, we put in 200 embryos and have over 60 young cows in production out of her. We’ll have a couple hundred embryos again next spring. We won’t flush any cow younger than 6 or 7 years old.”
Providing water is a huge issue. This fall, Andrew dug in a water line to get essential water to his animals because of drought. “It’s hard to find a decent well. So, we get water from the Dry Prairie Rural Water, which is a blessing for us as it takes many gallons to satisfy that many animals. We have many different hookups.”
He shared, “We got some rain at the end of June and July, so the grains were pretty good, but the hay crop was non-existent. The pastures have been better in 2022 than 2021 but it isn’t any runaway. In 2021 we sent the bred heifers to Texas and Nebraska for the winter but ended up selling them as conditions didn’t improve.”
He said they haven’t had to fight snow since 2011-2012 and have not had a good hay crop since then. “We really have had little moisture since 2017.”
In the fall, he bought some heifer calves to replace what they sold. There is more feed available since North Dakota had better conditions. “We have some irrigated land, so we have some alfalfa and silage. But as far as hay, we got one bale to the acre on the dry land, and other fields weren’t worth cutting.”
The fall outlook seems better with rain recently falling which gives some hope for moisture going into spring.
Getting started and keeping going
Andrew grew up with his dad Floyd and his uncle Ray raising black commercial cattle. Looking for a way to provide additional revenue, he purchased two loads of registered Red Angus from Dick Hammel to start Sandhill Red Angus in 2006.
Andrew and Kenzie work with their kids to handle the ranch along with the help of his uncle Ray and his hired man, Joe. It’s a great area where neighbors help each other out with hauling, branding and weaning. The family rides horseback to check the animals but also use the Ranger and 4-wheelers.
He’s made some adjustments to feeding, purchasing some beet pulp in Sidney and leasing land to mitigate issues brought on by the continued drought.
“The biggest thing we’ve done is lease a couple of ranches, which are good places near Malta and Jordan. Water is an issue. We need a good snow year, or we could be in trouble.”
He believes, “The challenge is trying to figure out the next steps, what will keep us going in the right direction. If you make a mistake in your breeding program, it can set you back a long way. It takes many years to see if a new sire will produce cattle that will last in this environment. We don’t have as many animals as we normally would, because of the drought, which is the same for most in this country.”
The biggest challenge is keeping the cattle sound and functional. “I’m not chasing fads but providing really good females that have good, strong calves.”
One of his challenges is reaching out to new customers and promoting his animals. “I’m not good at the selling and promoting side of the business. But I grew up around cattle and know good sound cows.”
The goal for all farmers and ranchers is to provide a good life that can continue with the next generation. “Raising livestock will not make you rich but it’s a good life. The kids love to ride, chase cows and brand. They look forward to every bit of ranch life.”