Farm Talk

April 8, 2014

Activity heats up on the prairie when you’re going to grass


Parsons, KS — Going to grass is always an exciting time, but getting ready for it is lots of hard work that involves far more than opening a gate.

And most of it happens well ahead of green-up.

“If we’ve done our job right ahead of time, there generally aren’t too many problems with cattle after they’re turned out,” says Hamilton, Kan., rancher Mike Collinge.

But getting them there is the most hectic — and important — time of year for the Hamilton, Kan., rancher and other native grass managers.

“We’d wanted to burn today, but it doesn’t look like we’re going to. Things could change,” Collinge said about 2 o’clock in the afternoon last Thursday.

But, conditions were not conducive later in the day, so by a couple hours after suppertime, he evaluated, “We only have 100 acres burned. That’s not much compared to what we need to get done.”

He quickly added, however, “We got an inch of rain last night, and we really appreciated that. It’ll get this native grass growing.”

The Greenwood County producer is always busy, but early April is the most hectic time of all.

“Two years ago, spring was way early and we had some cattle already turned out by now. This year it’s a couple weeks later. We sure hope to turn out by the 15th and have most everything on pasture the 25th,” Collinge calculated.

That’s not far off considering all of the work — hopefully — yet to be accomplished.

“We want to burn most of our native Flint Hills pastures. It’s not too late, but there’s just not going to be enough days left,” figured Collinge.

But burning is just part of going-to-grass management.

“We have mostly leased pastures with absentee owners, and take in cattle for summer grazing. It’s all in Greenwood County, but there’s plenty of work to keep me, my son, Glen, and several full-time employees busy,” he said. “We take in a few cow-calf pairs, but mainly yearlings, because they so out-compete cows.”

Acknowledging the value of burning native pastures to control intruders and improve grass quality, Collinge pointed out, “Of course, we have to check all of the fences, but the main thing right is making sure we have the cattle in the right condition so they’ll go right to gaining when the native bluestem is at peak quality.”

Although pond water has been an issue in recent years — and is still a concern in certain locales — Collinge said, “We’re in good shape water-wise from the rains we got last summer and early fall. We feel good about that, too.”

Cattle are  preconditioned, at the ranch headquarters.

“We want the yearlings gaining, healthy and going good. We’d like to have them putting on about a pound a day, not too fleshy, but not skinny either, or it takes the cattle too long to start utilizing the lush grass efficiently,” he  said.

“These cattle have two rounds of vaccinations in a 30-day period and a complete parasite control program as part of our preconditioning program,” he explained.

Health issues, the cattleman says, need to be nipped in the bud.

“We try to get the cattle completely healthy. Sometimes there are respiratory, and even nutrition and digestive, issues with certain cattle. But, we try to get all of the cattle completely healthy before turning out. Respiratory ailments are the main culprit,” said Collinge.

“There are occasions when health issues become quite serious and Duane Droge, the veterinarian at Eureka, is real good about helping us get those cattle healthy.”

Most cattle to be turned out in the next several days will be shipped in from distant locales.

“Many of these yearlings are coming from repeat customers, and most of them will have been preconditioned similar to what we do. Yet, every situation is different, and after they’ve been on the trucks for several hours that can take its toll sometimes, too,” he said. “We’ve had more cattle coming from the southeast part of the country, but there’s a trend to more coming out of the north.

“Most of these cattle are for short-season grazing, with increased stocking rates. We intend to take most of the cattle off pasture about July 15, but of course with so many cattle in so many pastures that time spreads out.”

Cattle weighing in the 575-pound range typically are allowed about two acres of pasture, while those heavier yearlings are given 2.2 to 2.3 acres per head.

It’s not uncommon for some pasture managers to find their work begins after the cattle are turned out.

“That’s not the case for us. It’s truly the best time of the year,” Collinge said. “We’re on horseback every day checking the cattle, but we don’t spend all of our time roping and doctoring. We don’t have many problems when we’ve done our work ahead of time, and we do.

“It’s a really enjoyable time for us as the green grass grows and the cattle put on the pounds. We can almost see them both grow.”

Gains vary according to the year, the cattle, and even the pastures.

“We shoot for three pounds a day, and it can happen, but  realistically our gains are usually close to two pounds a day on the average,” Collinge noted. “Even in pastures that have ‘go-back’ native grass, have been over-grazed, and others with more brush and timber, our gains can be quite similar when we stock them accordingly.”

Origination and type of cattle has some bearing on gains, but he said: “Still, the preconditioned cattle will perform quite well.”

Although four-wheelers come in handy sometimes, Collinge said, “We do all of our cattle work on horseback, so when it comes time to gather in July, the cattle are used to us. We don’t want any wrecks during the summer roundups. That defeats our whole objective.”

Evaluating record-high cattle prices, Collinge said, “They sure are offering some opportunities, if we can be quick enough to figure them out. They’re unprecedented, but sure welcome.”

Likewise, Flint Hills land values, Collinge noted, “It’s volatile and there’s probably been more native pastures traded at these levels than ever before, maybe. I don’t know if it can continue.”

A leader in the Kansas Livestock Association, Ranch-land Trust of Kansas and the Tallgrass Legacy Alliance with a heartfelt desire to work for the betterment of the cattle industry and Flint Hills grasslands, Collinge looks to continue improving and expanding Collinge Ranch operations.

“Business is good, some of the best we’ve seen. I hope it will continue. We’ve been fortunate to continue to grow and we’re always looking to expand. We never know when an opportunity will arise so we need to be ready to take advantage when it does,” he concluded.