Spickler Ranch South: Crops and cattle work together
Spickler Ranch South is nestled in the James River Valley in east-central North Dakota. The ranch, operated by Nathan and Emily Spickler, along with their four young children, Haylie, Trace, Kadence and Quaid, with the help of long-time employee Austin Johnson, strives to optimize the resources they have while maximizing the production and efficiency of the Angus cattle and the land they run on.
Spicklers run a cow/calf seedstock operation in which they offer Angus bulls and females to commercial and registered breeders. The registered Angus operation markets their cattle in early May. Nathan admits it’s stressful to watch bull sales all spring and wonder if anyone is still going to need a bull when their sale rolls around. “We try to really engage with our customers and make sure they’re happy with the results they’re getting with our genetics. There are so many avenues to buy bulls ahead of ours that it’s really necessary to know our customers’ needs,” he said.
That customer-centric approach has resulted in a high customer rate-of-return.
Their May sale wasn’t planned as a need to be different. It was the result of trying to figure out how best to market their March- and April-born bulls. “With the nature of our sale, being in May, right near turnout time, we must manage our bulls appropriately,” Nathan says. “Our bull development is very much a marathon process. With a seven-month development period, our bulls are brought along slowly. After yearling data is gathered in February, they are continually backed down on energy to the point that they’re on a very forage-based diet when we market them, which allows their transition to grass to be very smooth.” That’s good, because many of their bulls go from the sale pen to the pasture with the cows.
They don’t use creep feed, which allows them to see a true picture of how their cows are performing, without supplements. Since their primary focus is on having females that do their jobs well, that’s just one more way they can help inform those maternal performance decisions.
They wean their calves young, around the first of October. That allows the cows to dry up and add body condition while they’re grazing the lower protein native grass and cover crops. “We’re able to get our cows to a point in their fall range, where they’re back in the shape we want them, so in the winter we’re just maintaining them on a dry hay diet,” Nathan said.
Spicklers use an extensive embryo transfer program, implanting about 100 embryos a year. They AI every female that isn’t serving as a recip, following up with another round of AI. “We try not to use a lot of bulls, but really zero in on a few sires that we think are going to propel our program forward,” Nathan said. “That will allow us to offer large sire-groups of bulls that are full, three-quarter and half brothers.
Their highest priority is to have females that earn their keep.
“Our cows absolutely have to be able to take care of themselves,” Nathan said. In the climatically variable environment Spicklers operate in, their cows have to be strong in the convenience traits that have made the Angus female so popular. “Good udders, great mothering ability, and the ability to calve on time annually are a must for the females that stay in our herd,” says Nathan.
With rigid culling and a no-tolerance policy for maternal shortcomings, the strength of the cowherd can confidently back the genetics they offer for sale.
Nathan’s heritage in offering Angus seedstock traces back to Hereford roots, as his parents, Harold and JoAnn Spickler, offered Hereford bulls at auction in the 1970s and early 1980s. The Hereford cattle were dispersed in 1983, the same year Nathan was born. ”My parents must’ve somehow known that, even at an early age, my passion would be Angus cattle,” Nathan jokes. After the Hereford cattle were dispersed, the ranch was stocked with commercial Angus, until the mid-1990s when Harold had the opportunity to purchase an entire set of registered Angus females. Those purebred bulls were marketed privately until their family’s first sale in 2000. That was the beginning of the May sales.
In 2003, Harold died of cancer, leaving the ranch responsibilities to Nathan, who was in college at the time, and his older brother Justin, who was home at the ranch. “Justin and I assumed all the responsibility of the ranch. We marketed cattle together until the spring of 2017,” Nathan said.
In 2014, an opportunity arose for Nathan and Emily to settle seven miles south of the home ranch, moving onto their current location, where they have been holding their sales since the spring of 2017.
The ranch Nathan and Emily bought includes enough tillable land for them to be able to produce nearly all the feed they need, requiring only straw and corn stover to be purchased. While the land they’re on is productive, it took some creative thinking to figure out how best to maximize the yield for their purposes.
They grow alfalfa, grain hay, rye and corn for silage, millet and sudangrass, and most of it their ground is double-cropped. “We’ll seed winter rye in the fall and silage that in June. We then follow that crop with a warm season grass, under seeded with turnips and radishes. ” Nathan said. “This year we just grazed our second crop, some years we can hay it and then graze its regrowth. We’re absolutely trying to maximize production out of every acre.”
They used to monocrop, seeding oats and cutting it for hay. But now, no matter what the crop, they always follow-up with a grazeable second crop. Some years it works better than others, but it’s always worth doing in trying to optimize the lands productive abilities.
They’ve also added a lot of cross-fencing, cutting the place into approximately 80-acre parcels, so they rotationally graze everything, moving generally every 10 to 14 days. Their goal is to always have regrowth to move the cows into, but they rest some pastures all summer, saving that for fall grazing. They’ve done some water development, adding pipelines that tap into a rural water development. “That investment has paid for itself. It’s been wonderful. The fresh water is well worth it.”
Most of the time they graze until mid-December, unless the snow is too deep. Between native pasture, crop residue and cover crops, they want their cows to be self-sufficient as long as possible.
Given the wide-ranging jobs that go along with an intensive farming and ranching operation, Spicklers are thankful it’s something their family can enjoy together.
“My wife works alongside me everyday. Emily is involved in every aspect of our ranch.” Emily’s roots are also in purebred cattle, growing up on a registered Red Angus ranch. Their kids are learning the business as well, helping first-hand with all that goes into a seed stock operation. “At the end of the day we know we are truly blessed. We get to work together as a family, always being mindful to glorify God in all we do,” says Nathan.
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