A family-owned ranching and farming operation continually looks to improve and expand their enterprise. |
By Emme Troendle
Carson Guenzi, (pronounced gwen-zee), a fifth-generation sugar beet farmer and fourth-generation cattle rancher, maintains and manages, with the help of his family, an intricately woven diversified farming and ranching operation that dates back to the end of the silver mining rush in Colorado. Located 15 miles outside of Sterling, the Guenzi’s commercial 330-head SimAngus™ cow-calf operation butts up to the Ogallala Aquifer, straddling the line between productive farmland and wild Colorado grassland.
When the Guenzi family originally settled in the valley, they started growing and hauling sugar beets, corn, and alfalfa. Over the years, the farm expanded to include grass cattle for the Chimney Canyon Grazing Association and a handful of mixed-breed cows from the local sale barn. In 1991, Ken Guenzi’s grandfather expanded the herd and started focusing on improving genetics. “Our first few years, we had some put-together cows from the sale,” Guenzi laughs. “We had a little bit of everything, but in 1994, we started AIing and developing a more consistent herd.”
Photo: The Guenzi men, left to right: Scott, Brayden, John, Dave, Carson, and Logan.
Unlike many cow-calf operations in the area, Guenzi’s end product isn’t the weaned calf sold to the feedlot; it is the animal being shipped to the packing plant. To meet the demands of a fast-paced industry, Guenzi tracks herd data, collects DNA, and implements a progressive breeding program to make the family operation a profitable and growing enterprise.
The Irons in the Fire
Focusing on the bottom line, Guenzi Farm has a strict 30-day calving window that must be maintained for a cow to stay in the herd. In the first part of February, the heifers begin calving, and the cows follow shortly behind the first of March. If any cow or heifer falls outside the allotted 30-day window, they are sold.
“We are constantly culling, mainly because we want to keep our calving period short, so we can get to farming on time. Late-calving cows and heifers are sold to producers whose program the cows will fit better,” Guenzi explains. “As a result, we are retaining cows that reproduce quickly and throw more uniform calves. It’s not that they are bad cows, but they just don’t fit our program.”
Throughout the year, Guenzi and his brother, Logan, run the cattle, while his two cousins, Brayden and Scott, manage the farming side. But, during the busiest times of the year —harvest and calving — it’s all hands on deck for each side. He continues, “We want to make this operation run like a well-oiled machine, and with all four grandsons coming back home and wanting to be involved, we want to focus on diversifying and expanding the operation.”
Throughout the year, 1,000 stocker calves are purchased to feed out alongside the calves born and raised on the operation. By the first of April, all calves are branded, and the planting has started.
Shortly after planting has concluded, heifers are synchronized and AI bred. Twenty-one days later, around Memorial Day weekend, the cows are AI bred and any heifers that might come back into heat are bred again before being turned out with the cleanup bulls. “Stayability is huge for us. We give all of our heifers a chance to breed, but if they don’t, we will cull them from our herd and turn them into feeder heifers, which is really easy for us to do,” Guenzi shares.
When Guenzi Farms initially started AIing the cow herd, they bred primarily to Angus sires and, through heifer retention, developed a more consistent cow herd. When the herd became mainly Angus in composition, the lack of heterosis started affecting their bottom line.
“The herd flatlined when we were straight Angus,” Guenzi states. “We weren’t losing any ground, but we weren’t gaining any either. We knew it was time to make a change.”
To incorporate heterosis back into the herd, Guenzi started utilizing Simmental and SimAngus bulls to increase performance. He commends the Simmental breed on their ability to satisfy maternal and terminal traits. “I really enjoyed watching the herd improve with the Simmental influence. We are always looking for good mothers and calves that perform in the feedlot. Simmental was the answer to that.”
Adding a level of diversity to their operation, Guenzi recently built additional pens to background and finish cattle. In years past, steers were always retained and backgrounded to 1,000 pounds before being sent to a local feedlot. Guenzi explains, “We sold our calves on a live basis previously, but with a growing operation and good genetics, we thought we could capitalize on grid marketing system, and give the corporation more depth.”
This October the first cattle Guenzi developed will be sent directly to the packing plant. He plans to collect carcass data on them. “When we sold the cattle on a live basis, we never really knew how they performed, but now that we are shipping directly to the packers, we can capture the premiums and data to better improve our herd and our bottom line.”
The expansion in the operation has not changed the direction of how herd decisions are made. Guenzi says, “Even with the direction that we are moving now, we still are looking for heifers with good stayability in the herd that are easy feeders and produce calves that will perform through weaning and yearling in the feedlot. We ask our cattle to do a lot, but they do.”
Guenzi Farms recently enrolled their cattle in ASA’s commercial herd option and the Cow Herd DNA Roundup research project with the hopes that by collecting more phenotypic data, carcass data, and DNA genomics, they will be able to make selection and cull decisions in their herd a little easier.
Guenzi explains, “I knew that if we start DNA testing the cows and replacement heifers, we can hone in and select for traits that will give us good mothers and stayability while also selecting for traits that will work well in a feedlot.”
Roots in Agriculture
While the Guenzi family has been in the cattle industry for the last 27 years, the family has been in the sugar beet industry even longer. Since his immigrant great-great-grandfather moved to Colorado and settled in Logan County around 1909, the Guenzis have been farming sugar beets.
Carson’s great-grandfather, Chuck, his grandfather, Ken, father, David and uncle, John — and now his two cousins, Brayden and Scott, and brother, Logan — have all been integral parts of growing and sustaining the farming and cattle operation. Evie, Carson’s grandmother, holds the most difficult position in the operation. Carson chuckles, “Throughout the years, Grandma Evie keeps the books and keeps us all in line.”
Guenzi Farms is a part of the Western Sugar Cooperative, which operates the sugar beet processing plant in Fort Morgan, the only plant left in the state.
“Sugar beets are pretty integral to our family background. They are what kept us in agriculture and gave us the boost to start the cattle operation,” he says. Recalling the farming and ranching growth over the years, Carson credits his grandfather, Ken, for acquiring ground and building the business.
“When we were starting out, Grandpa Kenny knew it was more important to acquire land and grow the operation than it was to brag about having the best crop. He spent the money on growing the farm ground and the herd. It has allowed us to transition to improve other ways.”
In May, Carson and his wife, Erin, had their first son, Cason, the sixth-generation sugar beet farmer and fifth-generation cattle rancher to live on the ranch.
“We are always trying to improve. If you’re standing still then everyone is going to pass you,” Carson concludes. “We see every year that farmers and ranchers have to give it up. It’s pretty unique that all four grandsons came back to the operation and want to see it grow.”