Winter Cattle Journal 2019: Bobcat Angus
January 16, 2019
Sometime around 1985, amidst football helmets, cowboy hats, and a blue and gold mascot, ideas for collaboration began to form among three Montana State University "farm kid" athletes. What came from that partnership was Bobcat Angus, today one of Montana's successful purebred Angus ranches, which continues to grow with the next generation coming home.
Brothers Bryan and Ernie Ratzburg, of Galata, Mont., were fourth generation dryland farmers and commercial cattlemen. Both played football for the MSU Bobcats with John Goggins of Shepherd, Mont., whose family had been in the purebred cattle, ranching and auction business for decades. After their degrees were on the wall and football games watched from the stadium, the three formed a partnership to expand the Ratzburg business using Goggins Angus genetics. The likely moniker? Their college mascot.
Cows and plows
The Ratzburgs grew up with cattle, but farming was their mainstay. After returning home, Bryan branched out to expand the cattle and Ernie managed the farm side. Today they run 500 registered Angus mother cows and a commercial herd of around 1,000 head. The farm has grown to include malt barley, durum, winter wheat, lentils, canola, hay, and corn silage, and they've built a 2,000-head feedlot near the farm feedbase. In fall they truck most of the cows from the main cattle operation in the harsher, Sweet Grass hills near Galata where Bryan and his family are based, back to the home farm near Conrad, where Ernie and his family live. The 70-mile drop in latitude offers milder climate and ideal winter grazing on field residue. This diversification adds synergy that couldn't be achieved by two independent operations.
"It works out really well to run the two places together," says Ernie. "If the cattle aspect were strictly on its own, we would only be about a 600-cow operation, but we've basically doubled that by being able to winter them down here."
Two-thirds of their registered herd calves in the spring and one-third in the fall. They artificially inseminate for six weeks in May and June, and sell bred heifers in their production sale in synchronized, sexed and 10-day calving lots. Weaning comes mid-October. All heifer calves are backgrounded at the feedlot, with a couple hundred head sold at their January sale. Steers are marketed through the Northern Video Auction. This January will be their 14th production sale, with an expected 90 2-year-old bulls, 50 fall bull calves, 60 yearling bulls, 850 head of bred females, and over 200 head of Bangs vaccinated heifer calves. They also sell all coming 8-year-old cows each year in order to turn genetics over faster.
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EPDs and improvement
Every animal in the Bobcat Angus sale is 50K genomic tested, with many of the mature registered cows also now in the database. "Having full genomic EPDs helps us accelerate our breeding and culling decisions," says Bryan. Along with their personal parameters, they pay a lot of attention to $B (beef value) and predicted carcass traits.
"I'm really a solid believer in science," say Bryan. "I've seen results since we first started using 50K, and I believe it is only going to get more and more accurate every year." He noted a case of four full brother flushes they took to Denver – all with genomic data. Theoretically, flushes should be equal, "But when we looked at them, phenotypically, there were differences. The fun thing was the 50K nailed those physical differences every time – the EPDs correlated directly. That's when I really became a believer."
The Ratzburgs won't buy an outside bull unless it is 50K tested. "With the investment cost of some of these bulls, we don't want to roll the dice. We want information before we buy it, no surprises."
Commercial at heart
The bull business isn't an easy one to break into. "You really have to have slow growth and build customer trust in this business," says Bryan. "A lot of people tell us we've done well in our relatively short time period, and we know if our customers come back for three or four years, we're doing something right."
Vern Frey of Frey Livestock Sales & Service in Towner, N.D., works with the Ratzburgs promoting their sales and expanding their marketing base. He says the Ratzburgs are to be commended for their progressive work in genomics and embryo work. Additionally, he says they are matching traits to real world scenarios and environments. "They are raising cattle that fit the needs of their commercial producers, who are interested in both improving their cow herds and their bottom line."
"I've always told people I'm a commercial man at heart," says Bryan. "It's fun to look at our commercial cows, they're pretty predictable and consistent." This consistency has been built through years of AI, and "mass producing" bulls he liked, including Leachman Right Time, WK Bobcat and Musgrave Big Sky. "When we take our 2- and 3-year-olds and our 8- and 10-year old cows to town, our customers see what our genetics are doing on a commercial basis. That's been our model from the time we started our production sale."
When talking to either Bryan or Ernie, it's easy to see how the success of their operation is tied to the positive and progressive outlook both share. Both agree politics, land prices and labor are challenges within the industry, but technology and sophistication within ag have created an exciting future.
"Back in the '90s when I came out of school, if I hadn't had an operation to go home to my options were to work for $17,000 a year as a hired man or be an ag banker," says Ernie. "Now days kids out of universities have multiple jobs waiting. It's refreshing to watch it evolve."
The Ratzburg operation is a model of a true family business – in particular, one that has put a lot of work into planning for successful generational transfer. Bryan and Ernie's parents, Karl and Roberta, are still involved, with their dad operating a tractor most days of the year. Bryan and his wife, Cathy, and Ernie and his wife, Jayne, each have three children. The oldest four of the six have or are making plans to come back. In addition to having the wisdom to build a team of outside resources, the Ratzburgs have the fortune of diverse interests and niche fits among the next generation.
Bryan and Cathy's oldest son Cole completed a master's degree in cattle reproduction and nutrition – his emphasis is in the genetic work and embryo transfer. Second son, Kamron, is finishing up vet school and is engaged. He plans to oversee herd health as well as practice locally. Daughter Rebecca is interested in health care, with many options ahead. Ernie and Jayne's oldest son, David, has a degree in ag business and will be married in February, and their middle son Justin will graduate in diesel mechanics. Their youngest son Richard will graduate from high school this spring. Within the past year the Ratzburgs have bought out the interest of Goggins, as he opted to move his focus closer to home as well.
Beyond family, the Ratzburgs value outside consult and their network is wide.
"In my opinion you have to take advantage of every piece of advice you can get," says Ernie. "The more knowledge you have before you enter into something, the better real-life experience you'll get out of it."
Bryan says it's critical to have a good legal structure, good entity structure, a good accountant and a good banker. "And you better be willing to not retire early – it takes a lot of effort.
"My Dad is 78 and still loves doing this. I see myself the same way; we'll never retire totally, we'll always be involved until our time is past."