Red Angus Thrive on the Red Dirt of Kansas
By Tracey Koester, Red Angus Magazine Editorial Coordinator
Darrin Eck of Kingman, Kansas, has a vision for his commercial Red Angus cowherd – a vision for higher efficiency and increased profitability. Most would say he has already reached his goal, but he knows with diligent sire selection he can continue to improve his bottom line.
Eck, his girlfriend Elizabeth Covington, DVM, and three kids, Peyton (15), Nathan (12) and Sophia (7), are always on the move with their 600-head operation, a chemical and fertilizer business, a multi-crop farming rotation, and Beth’s veterinary work. They have three fulltime guys hired and employ some parttime labor during certain seasons.
“We are fortunate that Beth takes care of all the herd health,” said Eck. “And we work together as a team, taking care of everything like tagging and working cattle.”
Hybrid Grazing on Red Dirt
“When we have a drought, our main focus in our red dirt soil is that the cows have to be very efficient,” said Eck, referring to the terrain of their south-central Kansas ranch. “So, we are working to get our mature cow size down to 1,200-1,300 pounds or less. We are trying to breed cows that are going to be efficient to get through drier weather so we can run more pairs on less grass. We are selecting Red Angus genetics with those efficient qualities.”
The red dirt soil in their area has a limited water holding capacity because, in places, there is only a shallow layer of topsoil before hitting shale. The drought in 2011-2012 forced them to get creative with their grazing strategies. As a means of feeding their cattle, Eck relies on what he calls a "hybrid grazing" program.
“About half of our pasture is hybrid grazing. We took less productive crop ground and seeded crabgrass and Bermuda grass,” he said. “We rotate our cattle off native pasture onto the crabgrass when it comes on in early June. They will graze that until the first of September.”
In addition to grazing the crabgrass-Bermuda pastures, they will swath and bale in the same pasture the cattle are grazing. “Most years we hay about 75%,” said Eck, “but this year we were fortunate to hay all of it. We don't hay crabgrass immediately prior to a hot spell. If it's too warm, with no rain in the forecast, the grass will not regrow following haying, and the cattle will be left short for the remainder of the summer. We have to get the bales off pretty fast with the cows in there, otherwise they eat them.”
In the fall, they rotate off the crabgrass to their native pastures, and inter-seed a cover crop cocktail of rye, rapeseed, turnips and radishes into the crabgrass. “During the first week in October, we wean the calves for about 30 days, then turn them out on the cover crop where they spend the winter grazing.”
On their cotton fields, Eck seeds rye before the bolls open up. Then they harvest, remove the cotton bales and turn out their weaned replacement heifers to graze the fields for the winter.
After the cows are pregnancy checked, they go out on milo stalks until a week or so before calving starts in January. “We figure 250-300 acres of stalks for every 100 head of cows. This saves on hay and silage,” he said. Our goal is that cattle spend most of the year out grazing, and we only have to supplement with one bale and one to two tons of silage per head that year. The systems works well in our area because we don't get a lot of snow."
Replacement heifers weighing over 600 pounds also go out on milo stalks. “The cows teach the heifers how to get through and survive on the stalks.”
The feeder calves graze until they reach 900-1,000 pounds. Eck pulls them off pasture around mid-March or the first of April, and either sends them to the feedlot or sells them. Then Eck moves the cows with new baby calves at their sides back to the rye-cover-crop pastures. “It puts cows in good shape for rebreeding.”
Eck explained, “That ground doesn’t sit very long without cattle. It’s not irrigated so we rely on rainfall, and we've been very fortunate.
“Hybrid grazing with crabgrass, rye and the turnip and radish cover crops is a big portion of why we need efficient cattle,” said Eck. "Because the crabgrass is so abundant, we can increase our stocking rates during the summer. We have to be careful in the fall that the native grass is not overgrazed. Animals weighing 1600-1700 pounds obviously consume more tons of grass, and we could potentially damage our grass for the following year. We are trying to get our cow size down to be more efficient.”
They try to plan ahead for drought years, too. “Every year we are swathing more and more of our crabgrass and pushing harder to get more hayed. After going through droughts, we hate to not put up hay when we have it,” said Eck. “Crabgrass produces a lot of forage. We plan for two to three acres per pair on crabgrass for the entire summer. The stocking rate is similar on native grass since it is only grazed for a short period of time. We have turned mediocre pasture in to great pasture by allowing the native grass to rest and grow ungrazed all summer.”
Eck analyzes the markets each year to determine the most profitable method in which to sell the calves. Some years they market them on Superior Livestock Auction’s videos, other years through their Kansas-based auction barns in Anthony or Pratt. They have also retained ownership and finished them at Buffalo Feeders in Buffalo, Oklahoma. He relies heavily on the advice of Buffalo Feeders’ manager, Tom Fanning, on which is the best option for the current market situation.
“Tom has helped our family for many years. He has a good feedlot and is a great manager. He does it right and I value his opinion.”
“A lot of cattle are coming off wheat fields the first of March. If we can graze longer and sell in May, we sometimes hit different markets and better prices,” said Eck. “Tom helps me a lot to determine where to sell. We look at markets and then decide whether to sell them at the barn or send them to the feedlot.”
Because the pandemic hit in 2020 and markets kept dropping during March, they decided to keep the calves until the end of May. They also sorted off 20 of the bigger steers and finished them to sell meat direct to consumers.
“They went on corn right after graze off,” said Eck. “Getting to see the quality of finished product and their marbling is impressive and has opened up my eyes to another way to market.”
They plan to sell at least 10-20% privately direct to the consumer and hope more small, local packing plants start up for direct-consumer processing.
“Everybody we’ve talked to has been just thrilled with their beef,” he said. “It’s nice to contribute and sell directly to the consumer and build those relationships. If any one of them wants to come out and see our cattle, we’re happy to have them on our place.”
Eck also sees additional marketing opportunities. “We’ve sold on the grid before, but after seeing first-hand how our Red Angus steers finished, we will strongly consider retaining ownership and marketing our steers on the grid again.”
They also retain their cut of replacement heifers, sell the bottom end as feeder and market 50-70 open heifers privately. “They are calf-hooded, PI BVD tested, and have had their pre-breeding exam and vaccines. Basically, ready to leave our farm and go in with the bull,” added Beth.
Red Angus Advantage
Red Angus work well for Eck’s operation. They select for efficiency and maternal traits. “We like having heifers that you don’t have to worry about during calving. We have everything set up on tiers, so we calve from mid-January to mid-March, then the chemical business and farming picks up in March.”
Eck said it can get cold in January when they are calving. “We might get a cold snap of high temps in the 20s and lows around 0 degrees,” he said. “The past few years we’ve been more in the 30s and 40s which is nice because we calve outside.”
If a calf does get chilled, they bring him in to the shop to warm him up. They also have a portable four-stall shed on skids that they use if they need to assist a calving.
The only wind protection is the abundant cover of grass from the summer before which can stand 3-5 feet tall, providing good shelter for the young calves. “My only complaint about Red Angus is that the calves match the color of the cured grass perfectly and it’s hard to find them,” laughed Eck.
The kids help with the cattle and their gentle disposition is a major advantage. “Peyton helps keep the spreadsheet updated while we are calving because those records are important when we sell 2-year-old heifer pairs,” said Eck. “Nate helps run the headgate and gives vaccines, and Sophia puts buttons on the EID tagger or helps direct calves when we are sorting by weight out of the chute.”
The kids each have their own cow, too, and the revenue from their calves goes into their Smart 529 college funds.
“Good disposition is handy – everything moves so easy when we have to put them on a new pasture or move them around during calving,” said Eck. “They don’t get riled up or stir up the entire herd if we need to walk a heifer through the herd to get her in during calving.”
They still have some black-hided crossbred cows that they are phasing out. “The Red Angus cows have a much better disposition, plus we can’t run the black cows in the hybrid grazing paddocks because we don’t have any shade trees in there,” said Eck. “While the red cows were out grazing, the black cows would push through a five-wire fence into the neighbor’s pasture to get to the trees or they would tear up the stock tanks to stand in the water.”
Tags & EID
Eck has used the Red Angus yellow Feeder Calf Certification Program tag for several years and has recently added the electronic identification component. “We thought adding the EID button would help when we marketed them on Superior,” he said. “It adds transparency and traceability.”
The process and the paperwork are easy. “It doesn’t take long to fill out the information, scan the EIDs and send into the Red Angus Association of America.”
They have also EID’d their entire cowherd. “We invested in our chute set-up to include the scale and monitor,” said Eck. “It enables us to track the weights of our cows in the spring and fall, the weaning weights of the calves and then the sale or finished weights of the calves. It’s interesting to see what each cow is producing, and it syncs to my phone through Bluetooth so that I can look at my records on the go.”
Beth added that from a veterinarian side, Kansas is trying to get away from the metal clips and utilize the technology of EID.
The Eck family plans to continue selecting Red Angus genetics with good maternal traits, moderate size for efficiency and high-quality carcass merit.
“We are trying to keep that cow size from getting out of hand, so they are efficient on our hybrid grazing system,” said Eck. “We love the maternal characteristics and mild dispositions of the Red Angus females. They are just so easy to handle.”
Marketing locker beef direct to the consumer also opened up their eyes to another revenue avenue. “We now have multiple ways to market our feeder cattle – video auction, sale barn, private treaty, on the grid or through the locker plant. It was very reassuring that our genetics are on the right track when we could see the high-quality carcasses hanging and grading high Choice or Prime,” concluded Eck. “We are excited to feed out more steers this coming year.”