C magazine

How a strong nutritional foundation leads to healthier calves

An aerial photo of Thaler Land and Livestock, a cow-calf ranch operation in Wyoming.

Thaler Land and Livestock has been in Brandy Evans’ family for 105 years. The ranch has always revolved around sustainability and innovation.

Aug 30, 2021

How calf starter feed is developed

New Payback® feed products often start with a simple conversation.

“Our nutrition consultants hear about a need a customer has and then we try to bridge the gap between where they are and where they need to be,” says Lance Kennington, animal nutritionist for CHS. 

Head Start, the feed Kevin and Brandy Evans use to get their calves off to a healthy start, was developed that way. Many ranchers were creep-feeding calves on pasture. Once calves were weaned and placed into feedlots, some didn’t transition well to total mixed rations (TMR), which combined grain, silage and hay.

“Calves eating grain, silage and hay are like little kids eating pickles,” Kennington says. “Most of them will like pickles eventually, but no one likes pickles the first time.” 
Calves who eat creep feed while still with cows on pasture will eat pelleted creep feeds, but those feeds are typically seen as a supplement to grass and milk, not a complete feed. The Payback team began developing a pelleted feed that would provide more complete nutrition.

“We wanted to develop a feed calves would readily eat so they weren’t so stressed when weaned,” Kennington says.

Once Head Start was developed, CHS ran field trials before rolling it out.

“We are continually looking to improve products to make them fit new situations,” Kennington says.

As ranches pass from one generation to the next, the new owners have a vision to grow and improve. For Brandy and Kevin Evans, that vision has evolved over the years to include a comprehensive nutrition plan for their beef cow-calf and backgrounding operation. 

Their ranch, Thaler Land and Livestock, based near LaGrange, Wyo., has been in Brandy’s family for 105 years. She and Kevin worked alongside Brandy’s parents, Dennis and Sandra Thaler, for many years after Brandy and Kevin were married. When Sandra was diagnosed with cancer and passed away in 2017, Dennis stepped back. Now Kevin and Brandy manage the operation.

“Dad said, ‘I’ve had my chance and now it is yours to take the ranch in whatever direction you want to go,’” Brandy says. “We still call him daily to use his expertise, and we work hand-in-hand on many projects as we bounce ideas off each other.”

Kevin, who grew up in a ranching family south of Denver, Colo., met Brandy when he purchased a small ranch adjacent to the Thaler ranch. The story Brandy likes to tell is that they met when she was selling him fruit as part of an FFA fundraiser. They were married in 2004.

What to feed calves after weaning?

“When I think back to when we started, I remember being hesitant to make any major changes, even though I knew they would work,” Kevin says.

As Kevin and Brandy grew more confident in their management decisions, they started looking at the ranch with an eye to the future. Past generations of Thalers had always focused on conservation as a central driving force for the ranch. Dennis built on that reputation and is respected as an environmental steward, grazing innovator and agricultural leader.

In 1996, Dennis applied for an AFO/CAFO grant to build a small feedlot and the family began backgrounding some of their calves. By the late 1990s, Kevin wanted to expand the backgrounding operation and focus on herd nutrition. As the operation and plan developed, they explored different markets and sale weights.

“Kevin is phenomenal with nutrition,” Brandy says. “We make a good team as we work to get better each year. We never want to settle for average or mediocre.“

“We’ve always taken care of every acre of grass,” she adds, “and as we continue to expand the operation, we are finding that focus on nutrition is trickling through the entire life cycle of the animal. That means less labor and better gains.”

Thaler Land and Livestock now includes a 1,400-head cow-calf operation and backgrounding about 1,000 calves each year. They raise primarily Charolais-cross calves, along with some Angus and Herefords. 

Calf nutrition experts

Kevin learned about CHS Animal Nutrition from his local cooperative, WESTCO, based in Alliance, Neb. He began working with Eric Bock, sales manager at Western Feed, a CHS-WESTCO joint venture, to develop a nutrition program that met their needs. Bock approached Kevin about feeding a pen of calves on Head Start, a starter ration from Payback® feed, a CHS brand. The trial included 40 steers. Everyone was happy with the results. 

“We use Head Start as a 30-day starter program to get our calves off to a good start right after weaning,” Kevin says.

“The first 30 days of weaning can be pretty stressful. It’s a critical time, so you want them eating. Getting as much gain out of them as possible in the first 30 days sets them up for good health from there on out. A healthy gut will help them grow better.”

A nutrition consultant wearing a black Payback Nutrition jacket feeds calves.
Todd Olson, nutrition consultant, CHS, helps Kevin and Brandy Evans tailor a flexible nutrition plan for their calves to meet the ranch’s changing needs.

When Bock moved to Dickinson, N.D., in 2012 to manage the CHS Animal Nutrition feed plant there, Todd Olson took over as nutrition consultant in the area. He and Kevin clicked, and Kevin says they’ve had a great partnership ever since.

“Todd’s a been a great asset,” Kevin says. “I throw a lot of curveballs at him, but he set us up with a plan that allows us to be flexible.” 

Before they started feeding Head Start, Kevin said they were pulling 15 sick calves out of their pens each day. Now, they pull one or two, and those are usually the same calves with chronic issues. Kevin and Brandy have four full-time employees. Brandy says keeping calves healthy makes employees happier and helps prevent crew turnover.

With Head Start, Kevin’s goal is to see calves average 3 to 4 pounds of gain per day. They feed the calves to about 850 pounds.

“I think we get repeat buyers because they know our cattle will grow for them and that they’re healthy,” Brandy says. “They know we did everything we could to keep the animals healthy and put the best genetics possible into them.”

Evolving the calf operation

The operation’s nutrition program, combined with rotational grazing and an emphasis on sustainability, has put Thaler Land and Livestock in a good position for the future. Kevin and Brandy are always on the lookout for educational seminars and connections that will help them evolve their operation for the next generation. As Kevin and Brandy raise their sons, Hadley, 12, and Hudson, 8, on the family ranch, they look out across their pastures and see a bright future ahead.

“We want to be as sustainable as we can, so no matter what the weather or economy throws at us, we are prepared,” Brandy says. “We are always looking for opportunities to grow and learn.” 

A photo of Brandy and Kevin Evans with a tractor loading a truck full of calf feed in the background.
For Brandy and Kevin Evans, Thaler Land and Livestock, LaGrange, Wyo., feeding Head Start for 30 days right after weaning gets their calves the right nutrition from the start.

 

Check out the full Summer 2021 issue of C magazine with this article and more.


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