Steeped in history, Beaver Creek Ranch dates back to 1889 where Valentine Messer homesteaded along the Heart River, 17 miles southeast of Richardton, North Dakota. Four generations later, four Messer brothers manage the diversified 1,000-head commercial SimAngus™ cow herd, 999-capacity backgrounding feedlot, and farming operation. They work together, facing the challenges of the area to create a profitable enterprise for their children and grandchildren.
Located in the center of the Missouri Plateau, the ranch is characterized by rolling hills that vary from rich, loamy soil to lower-producing sandy or clayey locations. Beaver Creek, where the ranch derives its name, drains to Buffalo Creek, then to the Heart River, which flows to the Missouri River.
The family splits management of the operation but collectively remains committed to creating quality beef for consumers by tracking data and selecting for profit.
Adapting and Evolving
“My great-grandparents raised Hereford cattle,” says Mark Messer, explaining the evolution of the family operation. Out of the four brothers on the ranch, Mark manages the cow-calf enterprise, the oldest of the four brothers running the operation; Jerry takes care of haying, feeding, and farming; Greg oversees farming and machinery service; and Scott, the youngest, manages the haying and trucking duties. All four brothers share the responsibility of the feedlot.
Each generation of Messers has made adjustments to the family ranch. The 250-head dairy was started in 1951 and removed in 2007; but, the cow-calf operation, feedlot, and farming businesses have remained at the heart of the operation.
Over the years, the Hereford cow herd transitioned to Shorthorn, spotted Simmental, and then to today’s solid red and black SimAngus cattle. Throughout the transition, crossbreeding has always been the center. Messer shares, “We have been crossbreeding since the 1970s with Simmental. We have gotten thriftier calves, and we have better mothers than what we had. It really jumped our cattle herd forward.”
“We make sure that we have a good balance of Simmental and Angus to get as much hybrid vigor as we can. Our buyers look for our calves, and they call to ask if we have sold them. We never had that in years past, people are looking forward to our cattle.”
Beaver Creek Ranch maintains a 50-50 breed split between Red/Black Angus and Simmental. “We breed every other year either Simmental or Red and Black Angus bulls so there is always a combination of not too much Simmental or not too much Angus,” Messer explains that the clean-up bull battery selection is largely influenced by maintaining breed percentages.
The Messer family produces profitable SimAngus beef while maintaining a sustainable enterprise for the next generation.
“We focus on crossbreeding because the cows and calves can be put out on the range and do very well by themselves.”
“One of the great things about the diversified family operation is that we help each other,” says Messer. “When calving is really busy, they come and help me, but then during my slow time in the summer, I can help them with harvest.”
Calving starts the middle of April at the calving headquarters, and it’s all hands on deck during the height of the calving season. Each calf is tagged and weighed. At one or two days old, the cow-calf pair is moved out of the calving pasture and onto fresh grass along the Heart River.
In June, the family brands, vaccinates, and sorts pairs over a 10-day period with a low-stress management style. The sorting pens utilize an alley and four slam gates, allowing for five-way sorting that is almost completely hands-off, reducing shouting and stress on the cattle. They weigh each calf for a mid-weight between birth and weaning before putting the pairs out on summer pasture.
“We weigh the calves to get an idea of how these calves have gained since April, and it helps us get an idea of how they will gain throughout the year,” says Messer, “We also weigh them at weaning and right before we sell them.” For Messer, getting a scale was a game-changer. He laughs, “Well, when you get a scale, you get spoiled. You can track the performance of the calves, performance of the cows, what your cows are weighing year to year. We can look at the data and make adjustments.” To better track data, Messer’s son-in-law designed a digital program to manage calf data from birth to sale. “We input the information on our phones, and when we come in at night to the calving headquarters, all the information is uploaded to the computer already.”
“When we go to market or contract these calves, we aren’t off by more than 5 to 10 pounds than where we said these calves would weigh when we contracted them. It really is a good tool to have.”
This digital platform is also used to automatically match cow numbers with calves to efficiently reunite pairs and shift them into the correct pen when sorting. “We need to efficiently work and sort cattle into specific groups for different pastures in order to best utilize our grass resources. Our low-stress handling and digital tracking method works pretty darn good for that.”
Once sorted, cattle are dispersed into grazing areas from the middle of June through the middle of October. Each pasture ranges in size from 160 to 640 acres and maintains 30 to 100 cow-calf pairs. The grassland is surrounded by cropland, the latter of which is grazed after harvest. Mark says.“We are firm believers in the range cow. We need a moderate-framed cow that can sustain herself with a calf. These cattle have to thrive out here in our environment.”
(Pictured to the right: Mark Messer weighing and ear tagging a new-born calf.)
All yearling heifers and cows 4-years-old and older are synchronized and AI bred prior to being put out with the cleanup bulls. When selecting AI sires, Messer uses Red Angus, Simmental or Angus bulls. Clean-up sires are red or black SimAngus. “We use a lot of AI to capitalize on proven sires and more quickly advance our cowherd to the next level. We are developing calves that our buyers call for, and better replacement heifers.”
To keep conception rates high and improve cow condition, Messer doesn’t AI breed first-calf heifers to allow them to put on more weight and recover from their first calf. These females are pasture bred to decrease handling and number of times through the chute. He says, “When we AI, it can be a little too much on the first-calf heifers while recuperating from carrying and birthing their first calves. We want them to recover well and breed back earlier and easier. It has improved our conception rates quite a bit and their stayability in the herd.”
Each year, 200 heifers are retained in the herd. The rest are marketed as commercial replacements carrying top-of-the-line genetics. “The cow is important to us because she is the one making us money for the next 10 years.” Messer explains that quality, conception, calving ease, and carcass are the forefront attributes of cow selection.
“We have records on each cow. We want a heifer who comes from a good mother, breeds back and calves easy, and produces a calf that our buyers want. If she doesn’t have a calf each year, she is gone. We track cow performance too, and we cull the ones that aren’t doing their job.”
Calves are weaned mid-October. They are sorted into three groups by size on one side of the feedlot, and to reduce stress, they share a feed bunkline with the cows. “The calves are sorted by size and don’t get pushed around by larger calves. They gain well enough that the small calves will catch up with the medium calves and the medium calves catch up with the first group in no time at all.”
Steers are typically backgrounded to 750-800 pounds and sold locally or contracted each year. “Depending on the year, we may contract a part of our calf crop to take advantage of a good market situation.”
Messer enjoys the flexibility of owning a backgrounding feedlot with his commercial operation, “We can offer our customers to feed calves for a certain amount of days after weaning, or sell them right off the cow. If we were a custom feedlot we wouldn’t be able to do that.”
Environmental and Sustainable
“It’s a great feeling to be able to calve on our great-great-grandfather’s homestead. We have been able to provide crops and protein from this land for over 100 years,” says Messer.
A few years ago, the feedlot was remodeled to ensure that drainage didn’t contaminate streams and rivers, and reduced muck. The environmentally-focused update benefited the cattle, wildlife, soil, and water. Mark comments, “There is no water contaminating, and we incorporate the manure back into the land to reduce fertilizing costs. It was a challenge to create a feedlot that covers this much ground where cattle would never be muddy and always have a clean place to lay, but we did.”
To promote sustainability on the farm side, Beaver Creek Ranch implemented no-till farming to prevent wind erosion and has been rotating crops for at least 20 years, including variable-rate seeding and fertilizing.
“Precision agriculture is a lot like cattle selection. With cattle, you use genomics, and in agriculture, you test the soil. You use the technology available to make the best decisions to sustain the cattle and agriculture on your land,” says Messer. Two of his nephews are agronomists who help on the farm in addition to working for local businesses.
Each year, 15,000 acres of owned and leased ground is cultivated for corn, soybeans, canola, lentils, peas, wheat, and barley. Cover crops such as oats, field peas, radishes, and turnips are used to improve the soil and graze cattle.
The Messers seed plots for wildlife in fenced-off places around the ranch to keep wildlife away from cattle and the feedyard. “Some of the land we have now, 25 years ago, there wasn’t a deer or pheasant on it, right now it’s gotten to the point to where there might be too many deer and pheasants. It really opens your eyes to a lot of things, and sustainability is a big thing.”
Messer concludes, “This land has to be here for our sons, daughters, and our grandchildren. Just like our great-great-grandfather in 1889, he was thinking the same thing. We want to be able to make this land sustainable and productive for generations after us. If that isn’t sustainability, we don’t know what is.”