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Planned grazing, low-input cattle keys to ranch’s profitability

Jesse Bussard Published on 01 July 2013
Pharo Cattle Company

Drought has gripped much of eastern Colorado to some degree or another on and off for the past 12 years.

Because of this, many cattlemen have destocked herds.

Some search desperately for hay to keep the remaining cattle they have on the range.

However, even with these challenges some producers, such as Kit Pharo of Pharo Cattle Company (PCC), have taken a different path.

This Cheyenne Wells, Colorado, seedstock producer of Black and Red Angus, Hereford and composite bulls subscribes to a different philosophy than most.

Pharo strives to select and breed cattle that he believes are different for the right reasons.

He describes cattle developed through his breeding program as more naturally adapted to their environment and capable of surviving on the forages and other natural resources his ranch produces with minimum inputs.

Pharo’s interest in the cattle business started at a young age growing up on his family’s small ranch in eastern Colorado.

However, due to the operation’s small size, there was not much opportunity for him to become involved in it.

PCC Red Angus bull Johnny B Good
Instead, Pharo went to college, competed in rodeo and even worked at a feedlot for a time.

During this time away from ranching, Pharo continued to desire to get back to the land and cattle.

So in the early 1980s, after spending five years in retail selling renewable energy products, he finally made his dream a reality.

In 1985, an opportunity arose for Pharo and his wife, Deana, to rent some grass.

The couple started out renting 3,000 acres of grazing land and purchasing a herd of commercial cows, doing so with the intention that their new business venture in ranching had to be profitable if it was going to work.

“It didn’t take long for me to realize that the number of cows I had and could run wasn’t going to be enough to support the family,” says Pharo.

“The way we were doing it was the way everybody else was … feeding two tons hay to each cow along with a protein supplement for 60 to 90 days every winter and calving in March and April.”

To put it simply, how the ranch was being managed and operated was not profitable. Pharo realized this fact and began looking for ways to improve.

Through this pursuit of a better way, he was befriended by several ranchers who subscribed to a low-input philosophy on ranching.

“They were challenging the traditional ways of doing things and were able to make money doing it,” says Pharo. “They were making money when most of us weren’t.”

Pharo began following these individuals and learning from them. These low-input ranchers went on to serve as a vital management advisory board to PCC during the late 1980s.

Through this study and collaboration of management tactics, Pharo was able to come up with three key changes in ranch management he made that were essential to his ranch’s profitability over the years.

PCC cattle
The first change involved implementing proper grazing management.

This included rotating pastures and significantly reducing harvested feed use. “We’re in the solar energy business,” says Pharo.

“The more sunlight we can capture and then convert into grass and then into beef, the better off we are.” He believes that traditional ways of grazing (continuous) are ineffective.

Through planned rotational grazing, he was able to increase his ranch’s grass and beef production per acre by nearly 50 percent.

The second phase of change Pharo conducted on his ranch was to begin calving in sync with nature, switching from March calving to late-May through early June calving.

These changes combined with those made in grazing management allowed PCC to stop feeding hay and protein supplement, which in turn significantly reduced their cost of production per cow.

Since experiencing these results, Pharo states, “It just does not make sense to feed a cow and calve her out of sync with nature.”

The final key change was cow type, which involved key breeding selection to match the cattle to the ranch’s forage resource base and in turn produce a more naturally adapted animal. All of this came together fairly quickly for PCC.

“We realized that while the industry was selecting for more and more growth, more and more size and more and more milk, basically they were selecting for cattle that required more inputs to stay in production,” says Pharo.

True to his herd-quitter mentality (a term Pharo coined), Pharo decided to take his cattle’s genetic program in an opposite direction.

Pharo decided the ranch would produce cattle that could survive strictly on the forage resources produced on the ranch. The cattle would have to fit their environment instead of artificially changing the environment to fit the cows, a non-traditional approach when compared to others in agriculture.

PCC Bulls
When asked about the reasons behind the change in cow type, Pharo states, “The problem was when we were buying bulls for our commercial cowherd we could not find bulls that would take us in the right direction.”

This intense focus on higher-producing cattle led to higher weaning weights, which in turn increased cow size and finally the amount of feed a cow consumes.

“We saw this as an opportunity, that if nobody else was doing it,” he says, “we would become that seedstock producer – producing that type of bull for our ranch and others.”

These management changes have led PCC to become seedstock producers of a type of cattle, smaller-framed, low-maintenance, adaptable, hardy and efficient, able to survive on what the ranch provides while still producing a desirable end product on the rail.

With a focus on these key items and the support of his friends and family, the ranch has been able to go from selling only seven bulls in his first bull sale in 1991 to successfully marketing 700 to 800 head of bulls annually.

In addition, his continued strong focus on reducing and eliminating inputs has allowed his ranch to remain profitable during difficult periods.

With this rapid growth, Pharo has expanded his operation to create opportunities for other ranchers to become cooperative producers.

This has allowed PCC to focus on adapting its genetics for a multitude of environments and forage bases.

“As long as they follow our philosophies, keep inputs to a minimum, make no excuses for cows that don’t wean a calf every year and use our genetics, we can market their bulls through our program,” he says.

All of Pharo’s bulls are developed without grain and most are developed strictly on grass. Currently, approximately 400 bulls are developed on grass in eastern Colorado, another 100 or so on grass at a high-elevation ranch in Wyoming and another 100-plus on endophyte-infected tall fescue in Missouri.

When asked to describe the right size and type of cow, Pharo will tell you, “She’s the kind that can get by on nothing but grass. She’s the cow that nature would rather have instead of a high-input cow.”

If we truly want to be profit-minded and sustainable, Pharo believes we must run more cows of the right size and type (smaller framed, more efficient) and instead focus on sustainable profit per acre.

Like Benjamin Franklin said, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” The easiest money a ranch will ever make is the money it does not spend.

Cattle that are adapted and able to survive on what the ranch produces with minimum outside inputs will in the long run make the ranch the most money.  FG

Bussard is a freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana.

FIRST:Pharo Cattle Company was started in 1985 by Kit Pharo and his wife, Deanna (shown left to right). His son, Tyson (shown); daughter-in-law, Sky; and granddaughter, Braylee; are also part of the family operation.

SECOND: PCC Red Angus bull Johnny B Good has the classic appearance the ranch wants to produce.

THIRD: Creating a network of cooperative producers across the country has allowed PCC to develop and adapt their cattle to many environments and forage bases, such as this cow shown grazing endophyte-infected tall fescue in Missouri.

FORTH: All PCC bulls are stringently evaluated before each bull sale using a unique scoring system which focuses on criteria such as disposition, fly resistance, carcass traits and calving ease, among many other traits. Photos courtesy of Jesse Bussard.