Kraye Angus makes the most of Sandhills ranching
Kraye Angus has had a long history in the Sandhills of Nebraska.
It all started when Ernst Kraye, who was an adventurer, came from Germany to Nuckolls Co., Nebraska. But farming wasn’t what he wanted to do, so he made plans to go to South America.
He jumped a train that headed through Hooker County, Neb., fell in love with the Sandhills, and never left.
Ernst, who was an aggressive businessman, put together about 5,500 acres in the 1930s and 40s. He married Helen in 1933, and they had three children: a son, Fred, and daughters Betty and Nancy.
Ernst was on the edge of technology, always seeking to improve the ranch. He was the first in the area to put in an irrigation well, in 1953, the same year they got a telephone and REA electricity. And twenty years later, Ernst put in two more irrigation wells and pivots, hoping to raise 100 bushel/acre corn, which he did, in the early 1970s.
Fred joined his dad on the ranch after running an equipment and tractor business east of Mullen, and then Fred’s son, John, came back to the ranch after college. Ernst was ill, a hired man had left, and there was an opening at the ranch, so John took it.
John bought his first registered Angus cattle in 1979, the same year he graduated from Mullen High School. Ernst had had Herefords, but Fred had some Angus, and they sold them by private treaty and through the Sandhills Cattle Association’s sale in Mullen.
John married Julie in 1984. Julie, a farmer’s daughter from Wheat Ridge, Colo., came to Nebraska and helps on the ranch with nearly everything there is to do around the place.
Kraye Angus Ranch runs about 600 mother cows with an annual bull sale the first Saturday in April. They sell a pot load of steers in the fall, along with a few heifers during the bull sale.
The Krayes have six pivots of hay, three of alfalfa, two of millet, which is planted to rye in the fall, and one of native cool season grasses. The pivot of native cool seasons is mowed by the first of July, then 100 pairs are put on it for a month. They are taken off of it, allowing for regrowth, then the weaned calves are kicked out on it by Sept. 15 and left for thirty days.
Now the fourth generation, John and Julie’s son, David, is on the ranch. David, who is 31 years old, always knew he wanted to come back. He has taken over the task of choosing the bulls, perusing bull books and the internet. “He has quite an eye for cattle,” John said. “He’s got quite a breeding program going.”
When David looks for bulls, he looks for bigger frames, with length and rib shape. “These cattle nowadays are getting too moderate and not big enough,” he said. “I try to pick what works for us.” David has gained a reputation from other breeders who ask his opinion on cattle, John said. David has been able to see what’s coming around the bend, what’s in the future. He “hit a home run on a bull we used a couple years ago,” John said. The Krayes got 25 sons from PA Valor, who was the talk of the Angus breed that spring. “We had a lot of interest that year, on that bull,” John said.
John and Julie are glad that David has taken over choosing the bulls for the operation. “Our passion for it has been waning the past few years,” Julie said. “Thank God he’s been here helping out.”
Last year, David decided to take two bred heifers and two heifer calves to the National Western Stock Show in Denver, for the Angus female sale. They sold from $5,500 to $11,000, and went to homes in Illinois, California, Missouri and South Dakota. It was a good experience, he said, but something he probably won’t do again. “I wanted to go out there, just to prove to myself that we belonged (in the Angus industry). Our cattle are just as good as some of these other people’s.” It was fun, but it’s not a good fit for Kraye Angus Ranch, he decided.
The area where the Krayes ranch, in Hooker County, in the heart of the Sandhills, is a unique place, not because of the stabilized sand dunes, but because of the water table in the county. The Sandhills are on top of the Oglala Aquifer, with the water table sometimes as close as ten feet below the surface. But in Hooker County, there is no sub-irrigation, so hay ground must be irrigated. That makes for grass that is soft and “washy,” and cattle must eat more. “Cattle feeders like our cattle,” John said, “because their paunch is already stretched, so cattle go on feed faster, compared to cattle on hard grass where they don’t require so much grass.” Feeder cattle coming out of Hooker Co. will bring $5 to $10 more than cattle in hard grass country. Cattle from hard grass country may weigh the same, but their bellies aren’t as stretched and ready for a feedlot.
The Sandhills are fragile; overgrazing happens more quickly and is harder to repair than in heavier soil. The drought of 2012, when the area experienced exceptional and extreme drought, left barren spots. But with some rain the next spring, the bare spots were covered with sunflowers. It was “solid yellow,” David said. “Every spot was covered with sunflowers.” The sunflowers protected the ground from getting too hot and shaded the young grass growing, and the land has made a full comeback.
The Krayes are careful not to abuse the fragile grassland. They graze a pasture for six months then let it rest till the following fall. “We split (pastures) into half-sections, and run fifty to sixty head in a bunch, so we only have to kick out one bull with them,” David said. Cattle are left on grass as long as possible, and are brought in about ten days before calving starts. Cows are supplemented with cake in the fall, and once snow falls, they’ll be fed processed hay every other or every third day.
“We figure twenty acres to run a cow, year round,” David said. “You have to know the land, and you have to take care of her. If you don’t, you won’t have anything.”
Every cow gets one chance to get artificially inseminated, which Julie and David do, and they do more synchronizations than they used to. If the cow doesn’t settle, it is turned out with the bull and bull bred.
About eight years ago, the Krayes started pasture weaning calves instead of putting them in a lot after weaning. After calves are separated from cows, the calves are turned right back into the pasture they came from. “They go out to the last place they sucked, and they hardly miss their moms,” John said. The calves rarely wander or walk the fences. The cows are dry lotted, and “are better equipped to stand in a dusty old corral than the calves are,” Julie said. The calves don’t have near as much weight loss and are less likely to get sick. “It’s one of the smarter things we’ve done,” Julie said.
Another challenge is the costs that are being proposed by the American Angus Association. The association is suggesting that Angus breeders do a DNA test on bulls, to provide more accurate EPDs. David isn’t against the idea, but with the DNA diagnostic test, also called the HD 50K, costing $37 per head, it can get pricey. He hopes the little breeder isn’t pushed out of the business.
But he and his parents love what they do. A sale bill summary written about them called them low key people who let their cattle do the talking for themselves. “That’s us in a nutshell,” David said. “I’ve got no complaints. It’s where I want to be, it’s a way of life I’ve always wanted to do. It’s what I’m good at. It’s not really work if you love what you’re doing.”
The Krayes also have a daughter, Helen, who is a chemist in Blair, Neb., and a hired hand, Brad Wright, who is employed on the ranch as well.
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