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PITCHFORK FARM IN ILLINOIS HONORED WITH 2006 BIF COMMERCIAL PRODUCER OF THE YEAR AWARD

Ken and Sara Nimrick of Stronghurst, Illinois were the recipient of the Beef Improvements Federation Commercial Producer of the Year Award at the 2006 BIF Research Symposium and Annual Meeting held in Mississippi on Wednesday, April 19. The Nimricks run a grain and commercial beef cattle operation consisting of 220 cow-calf pairs and 35 replacement heifers on 340 acres of permanent and rotational pasture. They have been on the same farm in Henderson County since 1971 on land that has been in Sara's family since the mid 1800's.

An area in which the herd excels is reproduction management through the use of estrus synchronization, AI of their replacement heifers, and limiting the length of the breeding season for the mature cowherd. Whereas many herds have continued to move their calving dates earlier, the Nimricks calve in the late spring from late April to late June. This results in a number of their heifers and all their cows calving strictly on pasture.

Their genetic program for the past twelve years have centered around the use of composite bulls consisting of 50-75 percent Angus or Red Angus and 25-50 percent Simmental or Gelbvieh. This has resulted in a majority of the cowherd being of similar genetic composition and greatly simplified their crossbreeding program. First calf heifers are synchronized and AI mated to calving ease Angus and Red Angus bulls followed with similar cleanup bulls for 45 days.

The Nimricks were one of the first herds in Illinois to adopt early weaning with this occurring at 75 to 135 days in early September. Their experience has found these early weaned calves to be very efficient and stay healthy with a good preconditioning program. Following weaning, the calves are backgrounded until mid winter with most being sold through a preconditioned feeder calf sale. However, to monitor feedlot performance and carcass quality, one or two loads of cattle are fed at a commercial lot each year.

Of exceptional importance to the Nimrick beef cattle operation is to provide the most productive, highest quality pastures to allow the cowherd to maximize their genetic potential. This is accomplished by pastures consisting of a combination of endophyte-infected, fescue-based pastures and improved alfalfa-orchardgrass or ryegrass-endophyte-free fescue-white clover mixtures. There is also a pasture with the “friendly endophyte” fescue.

Pasture performance and carry capacity has increased dramatically with the incorporation of rotational grazing and improved pasture species. In addition they keep complete records on grazing days in each pasture to monitor feed availability and evaluate grass varieties and other pasture management practices, adjusting future decisions such as grazing schedules, reseeding, and fertility.

Through the use of the Illinois Standardized Performance Analysis (SPA) Program the Nimricks realized that hay is extremely expensive to produce and reduces the potential for a profitable enterprise. Thus, very little to no hay is harvested. To expand the grazing period cool season annuals such as oats, rye or triticale are used along with the grazing of cornstalks. To help fill the slump during July and August, summer annuals such as sorghum-sudan or standing field corn are used as needed.

Another unique management practice to reduce the cost of wintering cows is the grazing of standing corn from January through March. Two items that make this work is the use of strip grazing, so cows consume approximately nine-pounds of corn each day, and the supplementation with corn gluten feed three times per week. The program is very low labor and easy to manage with about 15 to 20 minutes per day needed to handle the entire herd. Cost to winter the cows on this program is from $0.37 to 0.50 per cow per day.

The herd has been on a performance testing program of some kind since beginning with the University of Illinois BPT program in 1972. Each year they have been individually identifying animals, recording individual birth dates and weaning weights, and group sale weights since then. In addition, the University of Illinois Farm Business Farm Management system has been used for total farm records since 1972. Through these records they have seen that management practices that increase grazing days improve profitability compared with utilizing harvested feeds. Also, they have determined that land devoted to grazing forages is much more profitable than row crops enterprises and have been converting more acres each year from crops to grass.

Also, the Illinois SPA records have been valuable in helping with cost control. The operation is interested in monitoring the economics of the herd by keeping cost down such as: total cost/cow/year of less than $215; feed cost/cow/year below $145; weaned calf unit cost of production under $63/cwt; calf sold after backgrounding below $54/cwt; and purchased/harvested feed cost under $74.

Much of this cost reduction has occurred through moving close to a year around grazing program for the breeding herd by calving on grass in May and June, utilizing summer annuals as needed, early weaning in September, grazing corn stalks residue in October, November and December, and standing corn from January through mid-March followed by stockpiled tall fescue or rye until mid-April.

Environmental stewardship is also emphasized by the Nimricks and consists of utilizing Management Intensive Grazing, converting much of the crop land into pasture, and installing erosion control structures where needed. Also, as part of the pasture improvement program they are in the process of developing natural springs and extending water lines to various areas to eliminate using ponds and streams.

Individuals who have had the opportunity to visit the Nimrick beef cattle operation realize that Ken is extremely knowledgeable about his operation and the overall goals of a successful cow-calf enterprise. Ken Nimrick summarizes the goals of his operations in what could be identified as a “mission statement.” Areas he concentrates on are:

“To maintain reproductive rates, while controlling feed and overhead expenses by improving and managing pastures, minimizing machinery and building expenses, utilizing a low cost wintering program, and grazing as many days of the year as possible.”

He further elaborates that, “Investments in pastures, genetics, and preventive health have been the most cost effective.” Also, his efforts in genetics are geared toward, “Improving convenience and carcass traits since the reproductive and growth traits are now adequate.”

The Nimricks continually study their base herd and select sires that will improve traits that are most deficient. For their heifers and mature cow herd they want a trouble free, low labor calving season. They feel growth and milk is now adequate in their herd so in recent years have begun to place more emphasis on some of the more subject traits that are important to their low input system such as moderate frame size, body capacity and fleshing ability, thickness, masculinity, mammary structure, and disposition. They are also placing more emphasis on carcass EPDs and scan information.

Ken Nimrick is also known as Dr. Nimrick to his students at Western Illinois University where he serves as Beef Cattle Professor in the Agriculture Department. Responsibilities for his day job include teaching Animal Science courses, member of the Agriculture Field Lab Committee, managing the WIU cow herd, conducting research on beef management and grazing systems, supervising the WIU Bull Test Station, organizing and hosting the Western Illinois Grazing Conference, and speaking at various beef industry events and grazing programs. He also serves the Illinois Beef Association as a member of the research committee and as ex-officio board member.

Since Ken is gone a number of days, assistance is provided by the Nimrick's daughters and son-in-laws Kristin and Alan Durkee of Stronghurst and Amy and Brian Johnson of Roseville. This help allows him to share his many years of practical experience and expertise with future producers and leaders of the Illinois beef cattle industry.

The Commercial Producer Award has been presented to outstanding cow-calf firms throughout the United States and Canada since 1972. There has only been 35 firms selected for this award since 1972 with many being larger ranches in the plain or western parts of the United States. The Nimricks are the first commercial cow-calf firm to receive the award from Illinois.

The University of Illinois Extension and Illinois Beef Association serve as the sponsoring organization for the Beef Improvement Federation from Illinois.

Source: Dave Seibert, Animal Systems Educator, University of Illinois Extension (309-694-7501 Ext 224)

SIDEBAR:

Some of the more significant changes to Pitchfork Farm operation in recent years:

Intensive and flexible pasture management – Improved pastures, management intensive grazing, converting row crop land to forages, and extending the number of grazing days has greatly increased pasture production and lowered cow feed costs.

Early weaning – allows cows to regain some body condition going into cornstalk grazing and winter resulting in lower feed cost; allows flexible calf management as calves can be put into a feedlot situation and convert feed extremely efficiently; or can be weaned on grass for low cost gains and ideal body condition if sold as feeders or retained as yearlings.

Grazing standing corn as a winter feed source – Has greatly reduced cost of winter feed compared to hay or silage. Less labor and machinery needed.

Composite bulls – simplified crossbreeding system by not having several breeds to keep separated; allows combining antagonistic traits and still produce a consistent product to manage and market; allows herd to be run as a large group giving much more flexibility in pasture management.

May and June calving season – less calf losses from exposure, scours and respiratory complications; reduced labor and building costs; lower feed costs since cows are going through winter in stage two of gestation rather than stage three or lactation.

Important technologies that have helped Pitchfork Farm meet its goals:

Large scale genetic evaluation – has allowed the development of EPDs which have greatly aided the accuracy of our bull selection process.

AI and estrus synchronization – has reduced our costs by allowing us to mate most of our first calf heifers to calving ease sires without actually owning and maintaining so many special use sires; getting more heifers bred early in the season gives them a little extra time to rebreed as two year olds and still fit in with the mature cow herd.

Use of computer – has allowed us to keep accurate production and financial records that are instantly available for analysis and decision making; use spread sheet analysis to combine actual cattle and forage production and financial data to evaluate potential management changes that would both decrease unit cost of production and increase total production on our land resources.

High quality and dependable electric fence systems – have given us a low cost way to manage our grazing system.

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