Winter Cattle Journal 2019: Valley View Charolais
As Buddy Westphal reflects on his 50 years of purebred Charolais bull sales, the words “genetics” and “work” continue to resurface. Working hard to raise good genetics. Genetics that work for cattlemen. Work that makes for a good way of life.
Growing up a ranch kid in Limon, Colo., Westphal’s father had used Charolais bulls, but “I was more concerned with football and girls than what color our cattle were,” says Westphal. A rodeo scholarship took him to Colorado State University, where his focus eventually returned to cattle. After receiving a degree in animal science he worked on his master’s under Dr. Thomas Sutherland, noted geneticist (who later was held hostage in Beirut, where he was kidnapped by Islamic Jihad while teaching at the university and kept captive for more than six years). Dr. Sutherland was always “preaching about hybrid vigor, and what the European breeds would do when crossed with our cattle.” Westphal decided then that Charolais were the route to go. He went searching for Charolais cattle, and upon finding a herd in Polson, Mont., ended up with a Charolais herd and the ranch as well when the owner offered it for sale.
The ranch included a commercial division, which Westphal ran for several years before dispersing it to focus on seedstock. “The commercial end was a good chance to put my own genetics to work – I learned a lot about the Charolais business by using my bulls on my own cows. You learn to produce what you want to use, and what others will want.”
Because of calving 500 cows with limited help, Westphal says his focus has always been on easy calving, which he has developed through light birthweights and short gestation lengths. After a year of calving early in his career when the AI bred cows went long overdue and his calves were too big, Westphal went to Canada to comb through their Charolais Conception to Consumer genetic records, specifically seeking bulls with short gestation lengths. “There’s no question I’ve built up a reputation for easy calving,” he says.
Westphal details factors they have focused on to avoid calving problems: short gestation of 283 days or less, conformation, age of dam, and birth weight of dam and bull. “A large, dead calf at birth has a distressingly poor weaning weight and growth rate,” says Westphal.
Two unique facets of his business have always been selling only 2-year-old bulls and offering free delivery long before it was standard in the business. “We want our bulls to have a chance to mature, and sort out the good and cull the bad,” says Westphal. “Plus, we believe they stay sound for more years than feedlot-fattened yearling bulls.”
He learned early on that the northwest corner of Montana is a tough draw for location, so he included free delivery to entice sales. “In those days, there weren’t any goosenecks – just stock trucks with rickety frames that would only go 40 miles an hour while you’re wondering the whole time if the bull was going to jump out.”
Westphal and his wife, Lin, tally 60 days and 20,000 miles delivering bulls to a 16-state region after the sale. “It’s a great opportunity to visit some of the best ranches in the U.S., get to know the people and also get to know their cow herd.” Many of his repeat customers now rely on his recommendation to deliver their bulls, sight unseen.
Today Westphal’s son, Scott, and his wife, Amy, and their two sons, Jaden, 12, and Jace, 9, are the second and third generations on the ranch. Scott handles daily operations and while Amy teaches at a local country school, she also does computer work and outside work. “She can drive a truck and ride a horse, plus she’s a real good mother,” says Westphal.
Westphal’s philosophy continues to focus on solid bulls that work hard and earn their keep and grow off genetics, not feed. While probably one of very few people who have judged both horses (cutting) and cattle (Charolais) at the National Western Stock Show in Denver, he views the show ring as having little correlation to the needs of cattle producers. He took his role lining up the Charolais cattle at this event in 2001 as an effort to impact the future of the breed by selecting cattle that cattlemen, not showmen, would breed to.
“I joke that most of the time I like to go see who won the show so I know who not to breed to,” he says. “I look at my genetics and have to decide if I want to make bulls that I can sell one bull to a purebred breeder across the country, or sell a truckload of them to a commercial breeder who has 1,000 head of cows.”
Westphal notes the terrain of northwest Montana is tough country. “We have to use genes instead of feed – we have a cow herd that fits our environment, which means we do not have mammoth cows. We have to stay practical to fit our environment and lack of good feed.”
He continues to select herd sires for carcass traits, and recently had a group of cull heifers grade 93 percent Choice or Prime and yield 65.5 percent. Detailed weight and EPD records are kept on all cattle, one of Westphal’s favorite aspects of his work. “I could analyze records all day long,” he says. “You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.”
An annual production cycle for Valley View Ranch starts in April with a 45-day calving window, with 80 percent calving in a 21-day cycle. Anything not calved after 45 days is sold so calving is complete before irrigating and haying begins. October brings the annual “trailing home” of the yearling bulls from the pasture– 17-miles of gravel, pavement, across the Flathead River, and home. “This is a great culling tool for us,” says Westphal. “When you trail a yearling bull that many miles on gravel, then pavement, and off in the brush, you can tell who‘s going to travel and who isn’t. Those last ones in line, we take to town and cull them. Our bulls go across the scales at 18 months; this rank is used to make our sale order.”
One year saw an atypical crew of “cow-punchers” on the drive. Amy brought her students from the rural school on a unique “field trip” to bring the bulls home. “Some were on ponies, some were on good horses … there were even a few on bicycles,” says Westphal. “It was the Wild West, but those kids had a lot of fun and learned a lot that’s not found in a classroom.”
Cattle are preg-tested and sexed by ultrasound. “This gives me the option to sort by sex and also nail down exact gestation lengths, which we are very, very conscientious of,” says Westphal. Weaning occurs for three-weeks around Thanksgiving. Bulls are pastured until January, then pre-sale production starts. The annual bull sale is the last Saturday in March, and 185 2-year-old bulls cross the block. Yearling heifers are sold private treaty, with many bull customers repeat purchasers on the female side.
Westphal says it seems unreal he’s been blessed to do this for more than 50 years. “I’ve been lucky for 50 years, but I guess we’ve also worked hard to prepare for our luck. We definitely have the best life that anyone can ask for.”