The best of three worlds Vince Poppe perfects a three-way composite
Managing Editor and Staff Journalist
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The Ellsworth, Neb., man was in on the ground level of developing one of the industry’s most recognized – and first – beef cattle composites. While the whole thing was “a pretty big undertaking,” the soft-spoken Vince Poppe explains “I felt like we did extremely well. On over 1,200 cows, we added an average of about $300 per calf over high market value. It was all related to: number one, a very dedicated breeding program and secondly, the willingness to market them in specific areas.”
Building a herd from the ground up doesn’t just happen. “As far as having the concept and drive and passion to make cattle better for ourselves, it has taken us 25 years.”
While there were a number of intended secondary benefits to the well-thought-out crossbreeding program, Poppe first and foremost was hoping to address the high altitude problem known as “brisket disease.” Ranching in the high country of Colorado at 8,800 to 12,000 feet, Poppe said there are some labor-intensive ways of dealing with individual animals that develop the disease, but breeding to prevent it is a more sure-fire solution. “The way to handle this is to take care of it genetically and clean it up before they are born.”
A low PAP or Pulmonary Artery Pressure score is desirable. Poppe encourages his “high country” customers to seek bulls with a score of 44 or less. Many of the bulls in the Nine Irons sale score in the low 30s. “A PAP score can predict whether or not an animal will survive and do well at high elevations,” he explains. Animals that contract brisket disease “basically develop water around the heart, similar to a terminal pneumonia,” he explained.
Additional benefits to low PAP scores are found in the feedlot, at any elevation. As beef cattle gain weight on finishing rations, their hearts are forced to work harder and problems can arise, even at sea level. “Research has shown that as cattle get heavier there can be an increased incidence for loss in the fats in the same animals that show problems with heart disease, even at 3,000 feet.”
Producers at any elevation may want to consider low PAP scoring bulls, Poppe said. “It could expand their market because it helps insure their cattle will work anywhere – low or high elevations – and won’t be at risk when they are put on feed.” In fact some producers are returning to the Nine Irons sale for low PAP bulls after finding out the hard – and expensive way – that it really does make a difference in the high country, and in the feedlot.
Poppe explains that the Gelbvieh and Simmental breeds, being developed in higher European elevations naturally fit the bill for dealing with PAP issues. Byproducts of the English/continental cross intended to deal with brisket disease were added weaning weight, high fertility and higher conversion on feed, he said.
“We like low birth and explosive growth,” Poppe said of the ‘Black Ranches Inc., Nine Irons Seedstock’ co-op he now manages which includes six independent breeders who team up to hold an annual bull sale every April. “We breed for a specific type. This business is about building the right cowherd. I don’t care if you sell bulls or something else, you’ve got to make the right females that will be efficient on your place, whatever that is. A lot of this industry has gotten too big, too leggy which means fertility suffers. It’s hard to keep that type in proper flesh to keep them in breeding condition,” he said. Poppe said he currently has in his large, roomy feedlot a bull that hit the ground at 62 pounds and weaned at 790 pounds. They don’t feed creep. “He’ll be a 1,300 pound yearling. That is what we built and that is what we are passionate about.
“There truly is added value – the fertility in the females and bulls is much higher in composites than in purebreds, they are more prolific breeders on average and they tend to hold their flesh,” he explained.
“The need to retain heterosis in every generation requires continual outcross genetics to accomplish that goal,” Poppe explained, adding that they AI every cow and after a 45 day clean-up period, they pull bulls and are pleased to find that his setup has provided them with 95 percent conception rate, on average, over the last 20 years.
Poppe said he holds regular conversations with other Nine Irons producers about which bloodlines they will use, but ultimately breeding decisions are theirs. He has used some popular Angus sires recently including Absolute, Complement and 10x. “We breed for a type more than anything,” he said, explaining that they run Sim-Angus cows, Balancer cows and purebred Angus cows. “We don’t get hung up on exact percentages but maintaining at minimum a 50 percent Angus base is key. We are focused on making the right type of deep bodied, moderate female to put back in the herd. These composite inputs guarantee heterosis,” he said. Poppe explains that they publish the exact make-up of each bull in the catalog, but that they sell a variety of bulls including three-way composites and registered Angus.
“If you select bulls that are very alike with frame score you’ll actually be more consistent than with purebreds,” he believes. “It’s all about phenotype. We try to build them uniformly good across the board.”
“I’m not big on showing cattle because show cattle tend to vary from the real world but for several years we did show some of these females in Denver because I wanted to show the consistency,” Poppe said. “We got several grand champions and we took away the myth that when you use a three-or-four breed composite you lose uniformity.”
Nine Irons often sells groups of four bulls – half and three-quarter brothers – at their annual sale, allowing bidders the opportunity to buy one or more at the bid price. “We are pretty unique in that approach. We have a lot of people buy entire pens so they can take them home to build a more consistent program.” Poppe said he often bids sight unseen for customers. “If they ask for my help in choosing bulls, I always recommend that folks get brothers. They are predictably going to do the same thing. That way you have an even set of heifers or a consistent set of steers to sell.” This is the main reason the producers have put so much work into offering homozygous sire groups, he explains.
This year will mark the tenth year in a row that Nine Irons producers will produce a joint sale.
Nine Irons offers free delivery or a $100 self-hauling discount. There is also a first breeding season guarantee. The Nine Irons producers believe the offering of genetics is outstanding and available at a very reasonable value. Bulls sold in last year’s sale averaged $3,800.
The bulls go to several states, with Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah representing the high elevation customers. More customers from Nebraska and South Dakota show up every year.
Genetic testing has played an important role in Poppe’s sire selections on his own composite and Angus herds as well as the cattle owned by the other Nine Irons producers. He is willing to help the other breeders select herd sires if they request it and also provides AI services to some of them.
Being involved in genetic testing from the beginning to help develop accurate tests has been important to Poppe. “I think we’ve been part of it since the beginning. I don’t expect miracles but I do think if we continue to be a part of these tests we’ll be a part of the reason they get more accuracy and information. I think to sit back and not take part of it and then complain that you are not getting enough accuracy is, well, you need to be part of the process to improve this thing. It’s based on numbers, that’s how accuracies are built.”
Blood or hair samples are utilized in the “50k” test on his straight Angus bulls. It is a “very thorough” analysis which according to the American Angus Association is derived from 50,000 gene markers and is used by the AAA to establish some EPDs.
“We primarily use this as a tool to help us as breeders make our sire selections and AI matings for the cows. That is why we do it so religiously.”
Poppe operates a bulltest station to analyze his home-grown bulls as well as bulls raised by some of the other Nine Irons producers. The composite and hybrid blood testing cards go through combination genetic testing for homozygous black and Genestar (a combination of quality grade, tenderness, feed efficiency and overall palatability score).
Additionally the bulls are weighed and checked for scrotal soundness. Focusing on soundness, Poppe is adamant about a high-roughage, low-starch diet at his bulltest lot. “We test for soundness and fertility. At the peak of our test our bulls eat eight percent corn in their rations. That is it. You can pull a calf off a mama and feed them that ration tomorrow and you won’t hurt anybody. It’s very mild. We do grow the bulls. We just don’t burn any of them up.”
“The only way you will accomplish soundness is to give them lots of room, lots of exercise and a mild roughage that is not based on corn,” he explains.
Distillers grain often provides the protein needed and then hay and straw fill out the forage requirements. “I like these cattle somewhat green and certainly no burn up from high grain level.”
Poppe said bulls developed in his large lots do not “melt” when they are put to work. He offers his buyers a 100 percent guarantee, he said, and has never had to replace a bull that “fell apart” in the pasture. “I have had to replace a few for a broken leg or other things,” he admits, but said he isn’t aware of a more complete guarantee than his in the industry.
At one point in his life he ran “seven ranches and a large farm in big country.” Poppe knows how it is to ranch in tough country and wanted to provide his customers with a product that would do the job without falling apart and without any extra inputs required. “We ranched with a lot of distance in between and kept our costs low. That means low inputs, which means less help. We didn’t have time to baby anything and we don’t believe our customers do either.”
While he and his wife have operated ranches in Montana and Colorado they now enjoy ranching and managing the bull test in the cornhusker state. “We hooked up with Black Ranches from Antioch, Nebraska, who have been here forever,” he said. “Butch owned this feedlot. Lori and I leased it a few years back and took the headache away from him so now it’s our deal.” But they stay connected to Black Ranches who hosts the sale for the Nine Irons producers annually, and also sells quality heifers and quarter horses at the annual event.
The producers generally, in total, offer about 150 bulls in the catalog, approximately 200 heifers, and about 20 geldings.
“There really are nine irons represented,” Poppe explains, even though there are six different operators.