Bill and June Hilbert are highly committed to learning new information and setting up their commercial SimAngus-influenced females for success.
Commercial operations run, with the care and attention to detail of a seedstock business, are worth taking notice of, and Bill Hilbert has built a high-quality cow herd using forward-thinking management techniques, dedication to improvement, and the influence of SimAngus™ bulls. Along with his wife, June, Hilbert runs a group of commercial Simmental, Balancer, and Anguscross females near Meriden, Kansas, on the edge of the Flint Hills.
Coming Around to Cattle Both Bill and June have roots in agriculture but held professional jobs before diving into the cattle business full-time. Bill grew up on a farm in Douglas County Kansas, which his great-great-grandfather Hilbert had homesteaded in 1856. As a child, he was surrounded by farm animals and spent summers helping at his uncle’s dairy farm. However, due to the financial instability of agriculture at the time, Bill knew he needed to pursue an education. After high school, he attended Baker University, and later Kansas State University (KSU), where he studied entomology. In 1968, despite being offered a graduate assistantship at Rutgers University, military service called and he eventually spent three years in the Army Security Agency, based in Germany. Graduate school stayed on his to-do list, and upon returning, Bill earned a master’s degree in entomology from KSU. This lead to a career with the Kansas State Department of Agriculture.
June grew up in Burlingame, Kansas, with parents raised on farms in Osage County during the Depression and Dust Bowl. This understandably caused her family to move away from the farming lifestyle, and June grew up not expecting to ever find herself involved with agriculture. She does fondly recall visiting her grandparents’ farm, gathering eggs with her grandmother and riding in the tractor with her grandfather. She attended college, and while on a break to figure out what direction she wanted to go, accepted a job with a financial institution in Topeka. She quickly advanced to higher positions and stayed with the profession throughout her career.
When Bill and June met, Bill had a small farm and grazed steers each year while maintaining his full-time job with the state. They soon married, and June became a part of the farm. A few years later, the couple was able to acquire a larger farm near Topeka and started running cow-calf pairs. Bill discovered that with his career and setup, it was more feasible to raise bred heifers. He also found it to be the smart financial choice. “Long story short, I had around $700 in the heifers, brought them home and got them bred, and by the fall they brought $1,250,” he recalls. This evolved as Bill was able to acquire rented pasture in the area and purchase another farm, and today he has around 70 fall-calving females.
Bill’s cow herd has genetic roots ranging from high-quality seedstock to the sale barn. “When I started putting my herd together I didn’t have the money to go put together top-genetic cows,” he explains. With a good eye for cattle, he was able to pick through these “culled” cattle and today, some of his best females stem from these original cows.
When Bill started getting into Simmental genetics, he purchased females from breeders like Sunflower Genetics (Steve & Mary Gleason), and Moser Ranch (Harry and Lisa Moser). As cow families started standing out, he kept back replacements and now raises all of the females. The Simmental breed originally became a part of Bill’s program when a friend convinced him to try out a SimAngus bull. “The following August when I was selling my calves to a local feedlot, it was night and day between the calves by the Simmental bull and my Angus bull,” he recalls.
Bill bought his first Simmental bull from Ralph Brooks, an acquaintance from officiating high school and college football, and has been using the breed ever since. Today, most of his SimAngus bulls come from Jeff Houck, Rock Creek Ranch, and one of his current herd sires is a S D S Graduate 006X son. In addition to SimAngus bulls, he also runs a Balancer bull each year. His overall focus is on maintaining the right balance of heterosis within the breeds. Bill explains that the Simmental breed has a very positive influence on his herd. “Having good heterosis leads to good growth in the calves, and the docility of the cows and calves, cow longevity, and maternal instincts are the most noticeable benefits.”
Progressive Management Bill has studied and pursued improvements in cow herd management throughout his time in the business. One of the most notable areas he has made improvement in his herd is through developing a tight calving season. After attending a seminar called “Building Better Heifers”, taught by Dr. Rick Funtson, University of Nebraska, and Dr. Bob Weaber from KSU, focused on improving fertility and shortening calving seasons in heifers, Bill adapted the techniques to fit his program. Overall, the philosophy for each female is, ‘Once an early calver, always an early calver’, and over the last seven years, on average 90% of his cows have all calved within 30-45 days.
To achieve this, Bill first uses feed to kick females into estrus. Prior to the preparation for breeding season, females are sustained on feed intended to maintain but not increase condition. Then, two to three weeks before breeding, Bill starts taking grain to the females and bumps up their nutritional intake so they gain around a pound a day. This triggers them to prepare for estrus.
After this, bulls are turned out and Bill keeps a close eye on which animals are bred in the first week. Females that weren’t bred in this window will be synchronized with Lutylase®. This process continues for 30 days when bulls are taken out. Cidr’s are also utilized to get females cycling together. Bill uses Funston’s technique to also move up heifers and young cows to calve earlier in the next season.
Bill also puts a significant emphasis on nutrition, explaining that he spends more time and money on studying and implementing his program than most commercial producers. “It costs just as much to feed a poor quality cow as a high-quality cow,” Bill says.
However, he has seen such a significant benefit from paying close attention to good nutrition that he is now a fervent believer in feeding his females well. In addition to using feed as a tool to create a short calving season, every calf, replacement and first-calf heifers are given Multimin 90, and extra money is spent on specific lick tubs, which are designed to prevent scours. As Bill says, ‘You can’t sell a dead calf,’ and he has seen good nutrition make a significant difference each year, “A good nutrition and vaccination program will prevent a lot of problems. Having good working facilities and using low-stress handling procedures also are extremely important in maintaining the safety and health of both us as operators as well as the cows and calves.”
With Bill and June being the owners and operators, each female has to be productive and easy to work with. During calving, the cows are checked daily, and when a calf is born, they are given Multimin 90 and tagged. “Having good quality and extremely docile cows makes everyone’s task much easier. That includes us as owners, the cows, and anyone else that has to handle our cows and calves,” Bill explains.
Overall, a commitment to progress has guided the Hilbert program. Classes, advice, and research from the Kansas Livestock Association have been irreplaceable, and Bill is an avid consumer of research and information from KSU, the University of Nebraska, breed association publications, and much more. Bill is always aware of local animal health issues and follows the KSU Animal Science and Vet Association closely — for example, after a breakout of Anaplasmosis, June now meticulously changes each needle for Bill when they vaccinate and synchronize their cattle.
It Takes a Team
In the same spirit of progress, Bill makes a point to share his tools and passion for the beef industry with neighbors. Any good females that don’t breed back in the desired time are sold as bred females to the neighboring Steve Buss family, where the kids are using their cattle to save money for college. He also shares his bulls with two neighbors, solving both the Hilbert’s issues of not having a good place to keep them and the neighbor’s need for a herd bull. Additionally, the owners of these small neighboring herds are able to take advantage of high-quality genetics by keeping replacement heifers out of his bulls. Throughout the years, Bill has shared bulls with neighbors with closed herds, rented pasture, shared pasture, and made the community a major part of his program.
June is a vital part of the program, providing daily help and overall support. She jokes that before meeting Bill, she would have called anyone who said she would end up on a farm crazy. She soon found herself in love with the lifestyle and the fact that each day on a cattle operation is different. After retiring from her full-time job as an administrative assistant at a bank, she changed her job title to, ‘Bovine Fugitive Apprehension Agent’, ‘Bovine Breeding and Planned Parenthood Overseer’, and ‘Certified Bovine Midwife Assistant,’ among others and all depending upon the day.
Her sense of humor and love for adventure have no doubt made her partnership with Bill on the farm successful, and after accumulating years of stories, people started encouraging her to write a book.
“I started just kind of on a whim,” she recalls. “My early years of my time on the farm, I would go to work and tell coworkers about my adventures and mis-adventures. Someone said ‘you should write a book’, and it was a few years before I sat down at the computer and opened a word document.”
In 2013, One Cow Pie At A Time was published and is both a humorous account of life raising cattle and an important, positive portrayal of where the nation’s beef is produced. As one reviewer said, ‘Never again will I complain about the cost of my T-bone steak!’.
Daily farm life keeps Bill and June busy, but in their free time, they enjoy gardening, watching KSU sports, the Kansas City Chiefs and Royals, fishing, and their Golden Retriever, Cricket, who accompanies them on ranch adventures.