A Montana commercial operation transitions to producing high performance SimAngusTM seedstock bulls.
By Emme Troendle
“SimAngus, Simmental and Angus breeds have always been the top of our list because of the quality of the breeds,” commends Will Townsend of Townsend Ranch LLC, “We have used traces of other breeds in the past, but when it came down to it, the trends weren’t as good as Simmental, Angus, and SimAngus.”
The Townsend Ranch, located outside of White Sulphur Springs, Montana, is situated with the rugged Big Belt Mountain Range and famous Smith River as a backdrop to their productive ranch and farmland. Townsend continues, “If you look at the $API (All Purpose Index) and $TI (Terminal Index) trends for SimAngus cattle, they have increased continuously, but that isn’t the case for all breeds.”
Townsend is the third generation to ranch in White Sulfur Springs, where they run a 1,500 head operation that is in the midst of changing from a commercial cow-calf pair to seedstock bull production. “We have been improving genetics for a long-time, so we got the idea to market and sell some of our bulls, and now we’re looking to move full-time into the seedstock business,” he elaborates.
Until about five years ago, the 30,000-acre ranch was a cow/calf, small feedlot and farming operation. The ranch would feed out their steers at their own feedlot and sell them directly to the packing plant, or they would background their calves and sell them to feedlots. When Townsend came back to the ranch after a five-year stint working for the American Simmental Association (ASA), his interest in genetics helped drive the transition to the registered operation. “Now that we are doing seedstock, we have some steers, but it is primarily for research and development. We send them to Chappell Feedlot in Nebraska, and we get carcass and feed in-take data on them.”
Townsend’s uncle, Trent, runs the farming enterprise, a large portion of the operation. They grow alfalfa and malt barley. Most of the alfalfa that is grown supports the cattle in the winter months.
The ranch has a standard replacement heifer rate of about 20%, about 300 head each year. At the end of July, all cows are synchronized and AI’d, before the clean up bulls are used. “We leave our bulls in all-year round because there is a really good market for late bred cows. At least a better market for late-bred cows than open cows. If we pulled our bulls, we would be selling more open cows, whereas we can sell the late-bred, and still have the same tight calving season — it is purely for logistical reasons.”
Calves are weaned in September and October. The majority of the bulls are marketed in the fall at 18-months or the following spring as 2-year-olds.
“We are SimAngus now, almost exclusively. On the commercial side, we do have traces of other breeds in the older cows—less than an eighth. As far as seedstock goes, we have always been SimAngus.”
In their commercial herd, Townsend Ranch used Shorthorn, South Devon, and Hereford on a small scale. “The trends weren’t as aggressive as we liked at the time. They were good cattle, but many of the breeds are smaller than Simmental and Angus—the quantity of bulls available was lower. We used up the good breeding lines really quickly, and moved in a different direction.”
Townsend continues, “If you look at the trends for SimAngus, when $API and $TI were implemented, they have increased continuously. That isn’t the case for all breeds, many are stagnant or getting worse—all of that to say we are SimAngus now.”
When asked about his favorite part of transitioning to a seedstock operation, Townsend says, “We do a lot of research and development when it comes to feed in-take, carcass, and maternal traits—fertility, udders, feet—all sorts of things. We also do DNA analysis on every bull. That’s the kind of stuff that I like — looking at the data and making the breeding decisions to get that bull to a point where he is ready to go breed cows.”
Bulls are marketed largely to commercial producers, and currently sell mostly through consignment sales and private treaty. “I have grown to love the genetics business. Our strong point is producing good bulls, but a new area is selling and marketing in a different sector,” he expresses.
A recent addition to the ranch’s selling and marketing is an online-shopping tool for their buyers. Townsend describes, “Our website, tbeef.com, is basically Amazon for buying bulls. You can sort through and pick out the traits that you want, and get a list of bulls that fit your criteria, and you can put them in your ‘cart’ that we call a ‘trailer’, and then you can go back and compare the bulls again, and purchase them right there and set up delivery.”
The website also gives the visitors genetic consulting tools such as a Herd Evaluation Tool that will break down the different aspects of a herd, videos about genetics, and a EPD and Selection Index break down.
Currently, Townsend Ranch is developing and marketing bulls in two major categories, $API and $TI bulls. They are cultivating separate lines of sires to fit two different roles for their customers. One line will be terminal bulls with high $TI and emphasis on growth and terminal traits. The second line will be maternal bulls with focus on traits beneficial in the cowherd while still producing a profitable calf in the feedlot and at harvest.
“Having a cow that is super high $API and super high $TI is viewed as a really good thing, but it isn’t as good as people think. The indexes should indicate very different types of cattle. If you look at growth alone, having a smaller cow is better to the commercial cow/calf operation, but on the other hand having a bigger feeder calf is better. Realistically, $API is the ‘all-purpose index’, so it isn’t a true maternal index, but it would do a good job of indicating maternal traits,” Townsend explains.
“For the $TI bulls, we don’t have to worry about udder scores on daughters or other maternal traits. We can go crazy on terminal and growth traits. On the $API bulls, we can focus on mature cow size, calving ease, maternal calving ease — all maternal traits as well as terminal traits. At the end of the day, the two should be very different things. Right now, our ranch is in the process of producing the high $API bulls, very maternal bulls, but we just used some semen this year that is more $TI focused,” Townsend continues.
Last year, Townsend transitioned from working for the American Simmental Association (ASA) as the Director of Commercial and Industry Operations to working on the family operation. “It was a tough decision. I was more than happy working for the Association and the members, but I really wanted to get back to the production side,” he says.
While going to school at Montana State University (MSU) for a degree in Animal Science, Townsend started working for ASA. He recalls meeting Dr. Jerry Lipsey, ASA’s past Executive Vice-President, at a MSU function. “I went to Dr. Lipsey my senior year and asked him if there was anything I could do at the Association. I offered to clean the bathrooms, if I could sit in on some of the conversations and just learn.” Townsend laughs. “Dr. Lipsey hired me to be the field representative for the western part of the US.”
The rest of his senior year of college, Townsend went to his classes during the week, and on the weekends he would fly to Simmental sales in his region. After graduation, he was hired on full-time at ASA, later moving into the position of Director of Commercial and Industry Operations. “I worked directly with commercial producers doing bull procurement and genetic consulting. Through my time at ASA, I met a ton of great seedstock and commercial producers. I learned a lot from them,” Townsend says.
Reflecting on the mentorship he received at ASA, Townsend thanks the staff, Board of Trustees, and the members for the opportunity to learn so much from them. “There is no doubt in my mind that I basically received a masters degree worth of knowledge for free. I was paid to work for ASA, and I was the one that received a huge amount of mentorship and education that fed my interest in genetics.”
Generations and Counting
Townsend laughs as he describes the beginning of his family history. “It all started with my great-grandpa and great-granduncle saving up money to buy a motorbike, and leaving their farm in Iowa. They rode all the way to Gallatin Valley, where my great granduncle became a mountain man and my great grandpa decided to farm.”
Townsend’s great-grandfather passed away when his grandfather, Herb, was young, leaving three sons to run the farm. Herb earned a bachelor’s degree in Animal Science from MSU, and then went on to complete a master’s degree at Colorado State University. Settling down in White Sulfur Springs with his wife, Connie, Herb worked as an extension agent for a number of years, while Connie worked with the Montana Beef Council as well as the National Cattlewomen’s, later becoming the President of the organization.
The couple leased a ranch called the Willow Creek Ranch, and that’s where they built their family and cowherd. “A little while later, they purchased their own ground and have been expanding at every opportunity since.” Townsend says.
His father, Tod, grew up working on the ranch, but when he was getting ready to go to college, the beef industry made a hard-turn. “My grandpa told my dad that he should go to college for something other than Animal Science because the family didn’t think the ranch was going to make it at the time. So my uncle and dad both earned degrees in mechanical engineering. When they came back to the family ranch, it was still in business. They purchased some land, and combined it with the family operation, making what today is known as Townsend Ranch LLC,” Townsend explains. The entire family is very active with day-to-day ranch work, “Right now, my grandfather and grandmother are still helping with the whole outfit. While my father, mother, wife, and I run the cattle operation, my uncle and aunt run the farming portion of the ranch. We are very thankful for our friends and employees: Levi Burlison, Harold Bagger, and Rick Anderson, who do a little of both ranching and farming. My sister is a banker and helps with the cattle side of things a lot too.”
His wife, Shoni (pronounced Shown-ee), was an English teacher in Three Forks, but when they moved out to the ranch, she started to do the bookwork and genetic record keeping for the ranch. “We got to the point where we needed Shoni to do the record keeping for the genetic evaluation and the other cattle work instead of anything else,” Townsend comments. They have a daughter, Ember, who will be two in January, and another little one on the way.
“My wife and I are thankful to my grandparents, parents, and aunt and uncle for providing us with the opportunity to work along side them and the numerous other opportunities they’ve given us. Their life’s work has permitted us to do what we’re doing and we don’t take that lightly. I am very thankful for the opportunity that the ASA staff and members gave me. I am excited to be a part of the Association in a different facet than before — to be a breeder, and work with other breeders and the staff. By the grace of God we’ve been given countless opportunities that we don’t deserve and we thank Him for that,” concludes Townsend.