UNL Photo --
With an abundance of irrigated cornfields and ethanol plants, Nebraska is an ideal location to run yearlings.
UNL Photo -- With an abundance of irrigated cornfields and ethanol plants, Nebraska is an ideal location to run yearlings.


Yearlings may be one of the most under-utilized cattle enterprises in Nebraska. With an abundance of irrigated cornfields and ethanol plants, Nebraska is an ideal location to run yearlings, producers say.

“I consider Bob Price and Homer Buell two of the pioneers who took yearling operations and systemized it,” John Maddux of Maddux Ranch in Wauneta tells producers. “They developed a marketing program and feeding system that really fit the market.”

Maddux says his family was able to take that system and develop it into an efficient way of running yearlings at a low cost on their ranch. “Our basic system is we own some home-raised calves, and we buy several 1,000 western Nebraska steer calves in the fall,” he explains. “We wean the calves, and run the steers on cornstalks or dry grass supplementing them with wet distillers grains,” he explains.

Maddux says their goal is to send a 730-750 pound steer to grass each summer. “I have learned from Bob Price and Homer Buell that we have a tendency in the yearling business to be worried about how well we feed these calves through the winter,” he says. “Some people think if you feed them too well, it will affect summer gains.”

While Maddux admits that could be true up to a point, he feels compensatory gain is a perception built on the vision of 1970s genetics. “My view is with the complete change in genetic makeup of the cowherd in the last 30-40 years, we now have cattle with such great growth potential we don’t have an issue with holding them back, and not having more than acceptable summer gains on those cattle turned out to grass,” he tells producers. “We have tried to feed those steers a little better, and have found it may marginally impact summer gains, but it isn’t enough to not overwhelm the fact that we have more pounds to sell when we sell those yearlings off grass for September delivery,” he adds. “We are still paid more dollars for those steers that gross that much more.”

On the other hand, it can depend upon cow size. “If I have a steer out of 1,000 pound cow, then compensatory gain would be a much bigger deal,” Maddux says. “Those yearlings won’t have the same growth potential coming out of that smaller cow,” he notes. “In our program, we tend to send out bigger steers – our goal is 950 pounds. Some weigh over 1,000 pounds,” he says. “There will be some slide, but we are paid more for producing big steers that gross much more. It is a far more economical approach for us.”

In Nebraska, Maddux sees a “cow culture” that dates back to when homesteaders arrived in the state. Despite the acceptance of cow-calf operations, he doesn’t see yearlings catching on quite as fast. “We really do have a resource base here that should probably move us more toward yearlings, and away from cows in much of the state,” he says. 

Nebraska has a tremendous amount of irrigation and corn production, which provides an enormous resource of corn residue after corn harvest. The state also has a large infrastructure of ethanol production and all of its by-products, which provide a tremendous resource for growing animals, he says. The state also has a vast infrastructure of feedlots and packing plants within the general proximity of these feed resources. 

Chip Ramsay, who manages the Rex Ranch, has also increased yearling production over the years. Calves are weaned between October and January, based on range conditions, age of cow and cow condition. The calves are kept in groups of 1,000 to 1,500 head at the ranch until after the first of the year. “They graze on native grasses and meadows, depending upon what we have available,” Ramsay says. “We supplement them with a dry distillers grain based cake which is 30 percent protein, and meadow hay.”

All of the steers and terminal heifer calves are shipped from the ranch by March 1. The rest of the heifers are kept for replacements. “We keep a lot of heifers because we look at it as a half replacement heifer, half stocker program,” he explains. “The heifers are synchronized and exposed for 12 days. About half of them will end up bred, and the rest will become stocker cattle. The open heifers are a profit enterprise for us.”

Ramsay says the short breeding cycle has worked well for the ranch. “We have actually been at 30-35 days for the last 15 years,” he says. “Then we moved to 25 days, and now we are at 12 days. It is a management decision that I think makes much more efficient cattle. We are trying for a short breeding program with low inputs. It makes a good stocker system with calves that will really convert in the feedyard.”