A System Approach to the Cattle Business

A South Carolina commercial breeder’s business plan to manage his cattle operation.

By Emme Troendle
“It’s like any rancher: you love it, or you don’t do it.” says Joe Davis, owner and operator of J. Davis Cattle, located outside a little South Carolina town, called Westminster, on the northwestern tip of the state. “I have had cattle for close to 35 years, but I didn’t get into the ‘cattle business’ until 2001 when I retired from Duke Energy, where I was a manager for 30 years.”

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Joe Davis and Mike Hall, ranch herdsman, discussing day to day cattle operations.

Since retirement, Davis and his wife, Mandy, have developed a 180 head cattle operation built around a meticulous business plan, including three-way crossbreeding, precise forage and nutrition, carcass data, and a strict production cycle.

“When I began in the cattle business, I started off with the notion that it would be less intense than managing a nuclear power plant. Quickly, I realized that, unlike working for a large company where you have an accountant, an insurance and human resources department — in the cattle business, the rancher has to wear all of those hats. I’m the accountant, the mechanic, the tax expert, and to a little degree I have to be a geneticist, too,” he said.

“I used to go to meeting after meeting, training session after training session. I spoke with Dr. Matthew Burns, State Extension Livestock Agent, and many others at Clemson University. Over the years, I took lots of notes, and through trial and error developed a four part business plan to organize all the elements that go into—what I hope is— a successful operation.” Davis jokes.

“All the areas of my business plan came from the school of hard knocks. I learned that if I make a change in one thing, then it affected the other areas as well — it all had to interact. Sure, my father had 50 to 60 cows the entire time I was growing up, but it wasn’t like the operation that we have today.”

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2015 heifer crop

The business plan details the ranch’s three-part cow-calf, stocker, and replacement heifer operation. In March, they sell all open heifers that were in the breeding program, and in May they sell all open cows and any cow that doesn’t wean a quality calf. From May to October, all productive calves are developed, and in October they ship steer calves to a feedlot with expected harvest around December or January the following year.

“What’s unique about our operation is retained ownership of the calves to harvest. We rely on our feedlot partner to properly feed and market our calves, and then from June to September, we sell replacement heifers that are not needed. Only heifers being bred and cows nursing a calf are carried through the following winter.”

When he began breeding, Davis focused on breeding a two way cross with registered Angus and Brangus bulls. “I bred with Brangus bulls because I wanted a little bit of the Zebu line for heterosis, but I did not want to bring too much Brahman into my herd than that because we do have cold winters, we do get below freezing regularly.” Davis explains.

Later on, he expanded his crossbreeding to a rotational three-way cross by adding Simmental cattle. Today, all calves produced on the ranch are commercial SimAngusTMHT. Davis describes, “In the rotation, the female is bred, AI and natural service, to the breed of her great grandsire—the breed that she is least related to, keeping the heterosis at the maximum level. For example, if her sire is an Angus, her grandsire is a Brangus, and her great grand sire is a Simmental, then she should always be bred to a Simmental bull.”

“When I was first starting out, one of the biggest mistakes I have ever made was not understanding the nutritional needs—energy, protein— of a cow over her lifetime. I did not understand how her nutritional needs changed with her age and stage of production.” Davis said. The third portion of the business plan was designed around forage, feed and facilities for his cattle operation.

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Davis working cattle with the help of his grandson, Theo.

“Now we group females in pastures based on their nutritional need — breeding heifers, bred heifers, and first calf cows, and mature cows are all grouped separately.” They supplement developing heifers from weaning. Pregnant heifers and second-calf cows are supplemented as well, but all fully mature cows receive forage only.

This fall, they are calving 140 females, and are expecting to breed an additional 40 heifers in November and December. Davis runs a tight 45-day breeding season, and all cows, including heifers, are artificially inseminated. “For the last 15 years, we have only had one calving season. We focus on a high reproductive efficiency. We do not keep a cow or heifer that doesn’t produce a marketable calf every year — no second chances.”

When asked, Davis explained that he uses Cow Sense and Cow Com Pro computer applications to collect, store, and organize all of their herd data.  “Every year in April, we organize the data by cow and spend the better part of a day analyzing it. Selecting which heifers will make replacements, which steers to send to the feedlot, which calves to send to the sale barn, and which cows to cull.”

At the urging of Will Townsend, ASA’s former Director of Industry and Commercial Operations, J. Davis Cattle became the guinea pig for ASA’s commercial program. “We report data at every stage to ASA — birth, weaning, yearling, and harvest. In turn, we receive EPDs for each animal in the herd. We ended up being the first commercial breeder in the program. It’s definitely been a learning experience.” Davis remarked.

When he was asked about his favorite part of working cattle, Davis explains, “I think the most exciting thing about what I do is getting my carcass data back. When you look at it, the purpose of the cattle industry is to put meat on the table. With everything we do, we are trying to produce a quality product. The carcass data is the closest I get to knowing how I have met my customers’ expectations, and I know the actual value of the product I am producing. Getting the results, tells the story on whether I was successful.

“Normally, when people ask me about our cattle operation, they ask ‘Are you profitable?’ I tell them that I think I am on the right track—I share my business plan because I strongly believe that if you don’t keep good data and a good plan, it’s like playing Russian Roulette—you don’t know your outcome.

“My ranch is a work in progress; I am not saying that if you listen to my business plan you’ll make gobs of money,” Davis laughs. “However, I have built a system’s approach to cattle business. Our system is a workable system, but I know it will always have to be improved.”

Working on the Fifth Generation

Davis is the third-generation to grow up and live on the family ranch, but it wasn’t always in cattle. The first location, purchased in the 1920’s by his grandfather, started out in cotton. Davis described the transition of the farm through generations to the ranch they own today. “In the 1950s and 1960s cotton went out, and most of it was converted to either grazing pasture — or pine trees. Today, I have cleared a lot of that.”

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Davis and Hall family, left to right: Gracie Hall, Mike Hall, Debbie Hall, Jayden Hall, Joe Davis, Mandy Davis, Edna Harris, Ryleigh Davis, Theo Davis, Michelle Davis, Jackson Davis, Joel Davis.

Since the age of 10, he worked on the family operation. His father was a school administrator, the ranching and farming was a side job. He described his wife Mandy’s family ranch history mirroring his own. Her father was the high school Agriculture teacher. The farming and ranching was a side endeavor for her father as well.

When he took over in 2001, Joe and Mandy combined the two family operations, including purchasing property from an uncle and aunt on Mandy’s side. Today they graze 540 acres, split in five locations. Davis explained, “Each place has a little bit of a different story, but no one person managed all five places until I came along.”

Mike Hawl, a family friend for many years, is the ranch herdsman for J. Davis Cattle. “He started about five years ago. Mike and I plan and carry all the activities on the ranch. We discuss every decision and come to a consensus before we act. Mike is a gifted cattleman. He does all our AI work too,” Davis says.

Joe and Mandy have two sons. The eldest son, Mark, 39, has recently started working as a sales representative for two international companies. The youngest son, Joel, 36, lives on the ranch and helps whenever he gets the opportunity. He is also the owner and president of a construction company called J. Davis Inc. He and his wife, Michelle, have three children: Jackson, 14, Ryleigh 11, Theo, 6.

“When it comes down to it, I want my story to help someone.” Davis concluded, “No one should have to go through what I went through. I try to encourage younger people to use our lived experience — this business plan — so they don’t have to deal with the financial hardships that come with these mistakes.” The business plan and operation details are shared on his web site, JDavisCattle.com.