In high school, Zak O’Brien discovered and decided on raising Brangus cattle. Naturally, after he graduated with an animal science degree from Kansas State University, he bought his Rock Creek Ranch near South Coffeyville, Oklahoma, met and married his wife Cortney, and settled in to raising the commercial Brangus cattle he enjoys.
But enjoying cattle does not limit O’Brien’s expectations for productive cows and efficient feeder steers — a dedication to quality that earned Rock Creek Ranch the title of Commercial Brangus Breeder of the Year in 2015.
“I expect my cattle to do well but I don’t plan on it because you just never know,” O’Brien said. “I don’t want to talk them up or nothing — these cattle either do it or they don’t.”
O’Brien’s cows average 1,200 to 1,300 pounds and gain their weight on little more than grass. As heifers, they are artificially inseminated to a calving ease bull and then left with a clean-up bull for 30 days, and after 30 days all of the open heifers are sold.
Mature cows are allowed 45 days with one of O’Brien’s Brangus or Ultrablack bulls before they too are ultrasounded and culled. It’s a tough protocol, but one that has allowed O’Brien to create replacement females as well as feeder steers that excel in any environment.
“A lot of people think a Brangus is anything that’s got long ears on it but they’re thinking of cattle from South Texas or something,” O’Brien said. “They feed as good as anybody’s and they grow hair just fine — saying they don’t is just a myth.”
O’Brien retains ownership on his steers through Tiffany Cattle Company, a feedlot near Herington, Kansas. He uses the data he receives on his steers’ efficiency and grade each year to make decisions for his herd and to improve in the coming year.
“When I first started sending my cattle to Tiffany’s, I think he expected them to take a little longer to feed out because they had some extra ear,” Zak said. “After they fed well and had very few yield grade 4 or 5 animals, now they expect them to do as well as I expect them to.”
At 92 to 95 percent Choice, O’Brien’s steers are a reflection of his management and attention to quality genetics. As cattle profit margins narrow, attention to efficiency is beginning to set Rock Creek Ranch apart.
“My last set of steers that came through the feedlot in the heat of the summer fed for right under 71 cents cost of gain,” O’Brien said. “The average of the feedlot was 78 to 80 cents for the best steers the feedlot had — so my steers put on 100 pounds of gain for $10 less than any others.”
While steers like those only get an “alright” stamp of approval from O’Brien, he has his reasons for being picky about the kind of cattle he raises. As he and Cortney raise their four children, Hadleigh, 14, Kayton, 13, Landry Jo, 11, and Owen, 8, they need a ranch environment that allows the kids to be involved both with the cattle and in school.
“The kids all work cattle with me whenever we work cattle and that’s one of the reasons we select bulls with good dispositions,” O’Brien said. “They are all very involved in school and FFA projects but when it comes time to work, they’re ready to lend a hand.”