Bullish on ranching

Family raises prize Herefords on small spread in South Routt

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— Ask Dan Craig what the best day of his life was, and he doesn't hesitate. It was the day he sold D.K. Monument L1 109 for $6,000.

The date was April 4, 2002. The place was an auction barn in Columbus, Mont. And D.K. Monument L1 109 might prove to be the best Hereford bull Dan and Karen Craig have ever produced at their small ranch just north of Phippsburg.

"I've been in the business of selling bulls for 30 years," Craig said. "But that was the best day I've ever had. I've always wanted to have the high bull at Midland."

Craig was referring to the Midland Bull Test in Columbus, and the fact that D.K. Monument was the highest selling registered Hereford bull of the day by about $3,000.

You could think of the Midland Bull Test as the equivalent of the NFL scouting combine for football players.

At the NFL combine, pro football hopefuls are tested for their speed in the 40-yard dash, their vertical leap and the number of times they can bench press 250 pounds. All are considered good indications of whether the best college football players will be competitive at the next level.

The tests for yearling beef bulls aren't as varied. All they have to do is chow down and gain more weight than their peers.

If a yearling bull like D.K. Monument can consistently gain more weight per day than his peers, and do it while on a strictly controlled diet, it's considered a good sign that his offspring will do the same.

Young bulls have a chance to demonstrate their mettle as champion sires by proving they can gain weight rapidly while dining on a strictly controlled diet. They aren't likely to receive a multi-million dollar signing bonus. But they can look forward to a relatively long life devoted to procreation. And for a bull, it doesn't get much better than that.

Raising beef cattle, and especially prospering at it, can be amazingly complex Craig said. But the industry can also be expressed succinctly with a simple equation. The money you are able to take out of an animal had better be a larger sum than the money you put into it. But even if you know how to play the game, you're always gambling.

That's where the Midland Test comes in. Craig took D.K. Monument to Montana last October, and over that time, he gained an average of 3.31 pounds a day while his peers were gaining between 2.5 and 3 pounds. If the difference sounds small, think about D.K. Monument's future calves all gaining half of a pound a day more than the other steers and it adds up.

"Figure that one pound of weight gain is worth a buck and multiply a half pound by 100 steers and you're talking about a lot of money over time," Craig said.

Throw in a bonus amount if D.K. Monument's progeny are able to convert mediocre feed into the same weight gain, and the equation begins to tilt in a rancher's favor.

Money in, money out.

"Extremely efficient feed conversion (in a young bull) can produce good calves who will gain weight even with limited feed and forage," Craig said.

D.K. Monument was a gamble for Craig and he remains a gamble for his buyer, Lonker Herefords of Medicine Lodge, Kan. Craig can never be certain if the $750 he pays to take each of his bulls to the Midland Test, or a similar operation in Hesperus, will yield dividends.

"There are years when none of the bulls sell and we bring them all back to the ranch," Craig said.

Similarly, Lonker won't know if his $6,000 investment in a new bull will pay off for two to three years. That's how long it will take before calves born to cows impregnated with D.K. Monument's seed prove whether they can gain weight rapidly.

Craig's interest in raising high performing purebred Hereford bulls comes naturally he taught high school biology for more than 30 years (most of them in Steamboat Springs). Agriculture represents a chance for Craig, the science teacher, to put his understanding of genetics to practical use.

He and Karen got their start while living in Norwood in 1970. they partnered with a veteran Hereford rancher, Ed Joseph.

"We started with real good cattle and we've made them better," Craig said.

Today, he maintains just 20 cow/calf pairs. This spring they produced 12 bull calves. The Craigs also retain some replacement animals. The number of pairs has been reduced in recent years because of drought and the resulting scarcity of hay.

Dan Craig has a finely tuned sense of self preservation and when asked, he quickly comes clean and admits that Karen performs all of the meticulous record keeping necessary to keep a small purebred business afloat.

"When it comes right down to it, the women do the work on ranches," Craig said. "It has always been the women."

The Craigs occupy a niche on the fringe of Routt County agriculture. But even so, Craig says it's hard work that he couldn't survive without his neighbors' help. Carl Herold is a good example he does the artificial insemination work for the Craigs. And Craig said he couldn't make a go of it without the help of his 16-year-old son, Brandon, and nearby ranch families like the Whaleys and the Rossis.

"Neighbors are more important to us than they are in the city, because we really need them," Craig said. "We're losing those compatible neighbors (in Routt County)."

The Craigs miss the days when Routt County was a nationally recognized seed bed for Hereford bulls. Craig is determined to get through the current drought and preserve the 50 years of breeding that have gone into the 12 little bull calves in the pasture behind his house. "I'm too old to start over," Craig said. "As hard as we have to work, and with the risks we have to take, a lot of people don't think it's worth it any more."

Then, once in a long while, a bull like D.K. Monument L1 109 comes along, and makes your day.

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