A Georgia-based commercial operation combines an emphasis on heterosis with efficient management.
By Emme Troendle
Troy Highsmith and his son, Spencer, owners and operators of Highsmith Simmental Farm, a ranching and farming operation that dates back to the late-1970s, realize that success goes hand-in-hand with good management. “You can buy the best genetics in the world,” Troy explains, “but if you don’t manage them right, give them the right feed or look after them, they won’t perform.”
The ranch, located near Pridgen, a small community in Coffee County, Georgia, has 300 acres dedicated to pasture and 60 acres of hay, split in four locations. Uncommon to the area, Highsmith’s main focus is their cattle operation, 150 head of commercial Simmental and SimAngusTM cows. To make their farm profitable, Highsmith focuses on crossbreeding, retaining heifers, and hands-on management. “The producers around home are mostly row crop farmers. Raising cattle is their secondary or tertiary source of income. Our cows are the forefront of what we do,” Spencer adds.
The ranch, which has been in the family for three generations, has maintained Simmental genetics since the late 90’s. Troy’s first experience in the cattle industry was with his father. When Troy was 26, his father rented land and purchased a few commercial cows. A year after acquiring the property and cattle, his father passed away, and Troy took over management of the cows. His affinity for cattle was the driving force behind growing the operation and advancing his herd genetics, “I really enjoy messing with cows, I reckon that I like to see them improve — the mama cows’ performance, and seeing the calves’ weaning weights improve.”
A few years after his father passed away, Highsmith moved to the property in Coffee County that he and his wife, Debbie, own today. Since the inception of the ranch, Highsmith has developed all of his own replacement heifers, and the only animals brought onto the ranch are herd sires.
“We were in the hog business for a few years, early on, and I learned then that bringing in outside animals opens up the herd to problems. I just decided I wasn’t going to run that risk,” he says explaining why they retain 100% of their own replacement heifers. “Another reason I like to use my own replacements is that I know their family lines, how much the heifer weighed at birth, and how the animal has been performing.”
Record-keeping is of utmost importance to the Highsmith’s, Spencer says, “We use CattleMax to handle our records so we can track calf birth weights, weaning weights, yearly weights, vaccination records, etc. We use the program to track our records, which is critical for our heifer replacements because we only add 10-20 each year.”
When Troy was just starting out, he utilized Barzona bulls, a composite of Africander, Hereford, and Santa Gertrudis, to use on his cow herd. Back in the 1940s, Barzona was developed to find a hearty, heat-tolerant animal that can handle the southern climate.
When his bull producer went out of business in 1997, Highsmith found two bulls at Driggers Simmental Farm, and never looked back, “Mr. Driggers has really worked with us over the years to maximize our hybrid vigor. We were breeding so much straight Simmental in the calves that Driggers suggested we get some Angus into the herd with SimAngus. I know our weaning weights have increased considerably with the Simmental and SimAngus influence.”
Highsmith also comments that temperament is one of the most noticeable changes in the herd with the addition of the Simmental and SimAngus bulls, “We can tag most of our Simmental calves on the ground with their dams,” Troy laughs, “but with the Barzona influence, they could be more temperamental. Sometimes it took one person driving the truck in circles and the other one in the bed of the truck tagging the calf. We are working the temperament out of the herd. I am sold on Simmental temperament.”
Hands-on, Joint Management
“I enjoy everything I do, but the primary reason I do this is for Spencer,” Troy expresses. While Troy handles the day-to-day management of the operation, Debbie helps as needed in the evenings, and weekend assistance comes from Spencer, who teaches 9th grade agriculture in Coffee County during the week.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in Diversified Agriculture with emphasis on animal science from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, Tifton, Spencer returned home to be closer to his father and the operation. He says, “I wanted to be able to help my father with the farm. Whenever I am not teaching, working with FFA, or helping with school trips, I am out helping dad with whatever needs done.”
The cows are split between four different locations. The heifers are kept at the home place, and the rest are divided between three different parcels. Troy believes that it comes with advantages and disadvantages, “During calving, you have to stay on your toes a little more. But rainfall is so unpredictable during the summer, you have a better chance of hitting rain in one of the four places.”
With no easy way to irrigate, Highsmith raises all of the ranch’s hay dependent on the seasons’ rainfall. “We are always two weeks away from a drought,” Troy warns, “Our soil doesn’t retain moisture, and you can go two weeks without rain in the summertime, and it gets terrible-dry here.”
Cows are allowed to graze the hay ground until the growth gets ahead of them, then they cut and bale. Weather permitting, Highsmith’s goal is to get a minimum of two round bales per acre per cutting at four to five cuttings per year. All the hay is protein tested by their county extension office.
Highsmith explains that focusing on developing good hay provides his herd the right feed at the right time, “A lot of people are all about the tonnage — how many bales they can get per acre. We go after quality. We test all our hay so we know when to be feeding the best, high-protein hay to the replacement heifers or cows when it’s most critical for them to be getting the right feed.”
Cows are all bred pasture-exposed, and in the last few years, Highsmith has started breeding a few heifers in March and April while the others are bred January through March to see how the cows and calves perform. Heifers, bred between 16-18 months of age, are fed separately from the cows. Highsmith shares the farm’s philosophy of heavier management of first calf heifers, “Some people in the area say that they don’t make a profit on the first calf, but I don’t look at it that way. We have more into the heifers, but they breed back well and wean off a good looking calf. To me, it’s worth the extra time, effort, and money that you put into them to get a higher quality first calf.”
All animals are handled using low stress methods as a part of being certified for Beef Quality Assurance. “Good management is important to us,” Spencer states, “We make sure we administer shots correctly and use gentle handling.”
Mid-fall, calving starts, and all calves are weighed, given a shot of antibiotics, and all bull calves are banded immediately. Troy emphasizes vaccination as a key to their success, “We vaccinate regularly and we keep an eye on our cattle. If you don’t put much into them, you aren’t going to get much out of them.”
Fifteen to 20 replacement females are selected a few months prior to weaning. “I have found that we get to be very selective with our heifers. We culled down to the very best,” Highsmith says.
All bull and heifer selection decisions are made jointly, but Troy explains that Spencer has taken the lead in narrowing their selection criteria, “Spencer was in livestock judging when he was in college, and we have gotten to a point where he picks out the first round, and we agree on the final selection after that.”
Highsmith’s replacement female criteria focuses on the dam’s prior performance and
pedigree, the animal’s growth and structure. Even after heifer selection, the Highsmith’s keep a close eye on how the heifer performs. “I want my cows to produce a calf every year. If the cow is having a calf every year, I give her two chances to produce a good calf or I get rid of her.”
On a normal year, Highsmith Simmental Farms wean calves at 550 to 600 pounds. At weaning, all steers and cull heifers are sold at Turner County Stockyard in Ashburn, Georgia. Highsmith has been doing business with the stockyard since the 80’s. Depending on the season’s rainfall and grass growth, weaning time fluctuates. He shares, “Most of the time we wean at about seven to eight months old. We try to have enough grass to feed them out, but we have had to wean at six months on occasion because the grass dries-up.”
As the ranch continues to grow, the Highsmith’s hope to focus more on backgrounding calves prior to sale. Spencer says, “Right now, we sell right off the cow and send them to the stockyard. A high weaning weight determines how much money we make at the end of the year. I would like to transition to where we background our calves prior to sale and possibly see their carcass results.”
Troy concludes, “For an operation to be successful, you have to put the management into it. I don’t go by the book, but the main thing is that I do the best I can.”