DALTON — Travis Van Anne is about 90 percent through with calving his herd of about 80 head on the family ranch north of Dalton.
Calving, in three parts
Van Anne says his reason for calving in late January, early February has three parts.
The first is based in tradition.
The Van Anne family had a long history of farming. They joined several other families in constructing the first grain elevator in western Nebraska in Dalton, which at the time was the only elevator west of Kearney.
Van Anne said that during the heyday of the soon-to-be fifth-generation ranch, his father, Richard “Whitie” Van Anne, used to farm several thousand acres and several pivots in the Bridgeport and Dalton area, along with 3,000 acres of wheat ground.
“The only way we could have cows is if they had babies before we started farming,” Van Anne said. “We really needed to be done calving by April 1, and have things organized because we’d be farming in April.”
Although his father died from Parkinson’s disease in 2017, Van Anne’s mother, Anna Faye Van Anne, still lives on the family homestead north of Dalton, and has a claim to fame of her own — she’s been the organist at the Dalton Catholic Church for 45 years.
The second part is based on necessity. Van Anne is quite the busy man.
A veterinarian by training and trade, Van Anne moved back to the Scottsbluff area in 2000, and traveled the Panhandle doing vet work for about a decade.
Today he resides an hour away in Gering and consults for an animal health company. He also travels often, giving lectures on beef production at various universities across the country.
He’s got five kids involved in sports and other activities, and often times when he can make it out to the ranch, he jokes it’s a little like church — he’s at the ranch one hour a week to do what has to be done, and it’s usually on a Sunday. Luckily, he gets by with the help of neighbors.
“My neighbor Scott Cape on the Mud Springs Ranch comes over and helps check water and lets me know if my cows are having any problems,” Van Anne said. “Without him, I would have a really high death-loss during calving. His heifers start calving in the middle of February, so it works out that he can help me for about a month.”
Van Anne says the third reason — and probably the most important part — is related to marketing.
“When I do retain ownership, my calves typically harvest at 14 months of age at about 1,400 pounds,” Van Anne said. “If I can hit the April market, I’m typically selling a fat calf at the peak of the market.”
In the past, Van Anne has marketed calves to Korea and Japan, but said that there has not been enough incentive with those programs in recent years.
Breeding for a tight window
For his breeding program, Van Anne uses controlled internal drug release (CIDR, pronounced “seeder”), which contains hormones that synchronize when his cows and heifers come into heat so that they can be bred easier in a narrow window. Van Anne uses artificial insemination to mass breed cows, and vaccinates, deworms and uses nutrition and synchronization about 19 days prior to turning his bulls out. For the cows that don’t take, Van Anne relies on a Charolais bull named Gary, which his uncle purchased from Hebbert Charolais in Hyannis.
Van Anne has been involved in use of sexed semen technology, and has done a number of activities with George Seidel at Colorado State University. Although this year he didn’t rely on sexed semen, he’s seen it work in the past.
“When we used sexed semen it’s about 80 to 95 percent accurate,” Van Anne said. “If we predict we’ll get a heifer, we do, and if you want to limit your calving difficulties in heifers, you’d pick sexed semen for heifers because a heifer calf is going to weigh two to three pounds less and have less dystocia and calving difficulties.”
Similarly, if a cattle producer were to rely on creep feeding calves before weaning, they could select for steer calves over heifer calves. Heifers have problems with creep feeding due to fat deposits created in their udders that will cause problems for their calves later in life.
Since about 2003, Van Anne has used CowCalf5, a software developed by the University of Nebraska, Great Plains Veterinary Educational Center at Clay Center, to keep track of the history for his calves from “the semen straw to the plate.”
His cows typically weigh 1,450 pounds at their pregnancy exam, and his steers weigh about the same at finish, a pretty high correlation.
“I’ll admit I have some calves that look kind of ugly, but I have records from several different feedlots in the area,” he said. “Typically my cows do very well at the feedlot, and the product they produce is as good as a lot of people in the area shoot for.”
But the livestock aren’t the only things Van Anne worries about. In the last two decades, his family has planted well over 40,000 trees on the ranch in an effort to get conservation practices back in place.
“We’ve been in the conservation business for quite a while trying to do it right,” Van Anne said while pointing to a tree line in the distance. “That tree row over there has been there for 100 years. It blocks the wind, and we have a pivot of alfalfa on one end of it, and that helps with erosion and water utilization having those trees there.”
In years past Van Anne’s herd grew to about 150 head, however, with the ranch’s distance from Gering, that herd size proved to be too much.
“Having 150 cows was too many, and it seems like we’re in a drought every three or four years,” he said.
“When a maid shows up to clean a hotel room, she has a checklist of things she needs to do to make sure everything is correct,” Van Anne said. “That’s somewhat like a systems approach to beef cattle management. We have to have the right cows, that fit the right environment, that calve at the right time, so they can maximize their genetic potential.”
When Van Anne weans his cows, he said they will only leave the replacement heifers go right back with their mothers after about three weeks.
“We have a multi-generational effect in our cows right now,” he said. “Certain cow families typically calve together, but that isn’t necessarily genetics.
“What happens is that the mom taught her daughter where the best grass is or how to forage in corn stalks. She taught her daughter where the best nutrition is, and they breed early because they are in good shape.”
Van Anne argues this is why ranchers should keep their own replacement heifers rather than buying them from outside the herd.
“Mom teaches her offspring how to fit her environment, and you get multi-generational effects out of that,” he said. “Cow 18 will calve within a week of the mom and the grandma, and it’s uncanny how close they calve to each other, and I think it’s because they learned where to go to get the best food.
Van Anne said he will be teaching a class on the Systems Approach at Chadron State College during the entire month of April, and that he hopes to get local ranchers interested in attending.
The next generation.
Van Anne’s oldest son, Logan, is currently a second year student at Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis, and hopes to finish his degree in animal science at UNL before returning home to be the fifth generation to run the family operation. His second oldest, Nathan, is a junior at Gering High School and often helps out on the ranch, and his seventh-grader twins, Jacob and Joseph, both hope to someday farm and ranch.
Van Anne said he feeds a lot wet distillers grain, which is the cheapest way he has found to supplement feeding his cows.
“If it weren’t for corn stalks, cattle in western Nebraska probably wouldn’t exist,” Van Anne said. “If cows can clean up otherwise wasted crop forage, then the numbers look better.”
Currently the ranch is about 1,600 acres of grass, CRP land, and 4 pivots. However, Van Anne is worried that his sons will need to double the acreage, because ranching is a 2 to 4 return on investment (ROI) business.
“Some big concerns I have for ranching are the cost to get into it,” he said. “Where property tax [in Nebraska] is about $100 per cow, and in Wyoming it’s only $5 per cow, the property tax is going to kill us in the ag world.” The ag people are carrying way too much of the burden for our school systems, and it’s either going to be the urban people or the ag people.”
However, Van Anne is not all doom and gloom about the future.
“I’d like to see more young people get back in agriculture,” Van Anne said. “If I can help do that, that’s a good thing.”