A Nebraska family sets themselves apart by building on a solid family foundation and raising SimAngusTM seedstock.
by Lilly Platts
Kearns Cattle Company began selling bulls to commercial cattlemen years before becoming a part of the registered seedstock business. This background made the transition to selling registered bulls natural, as the Kearns family had established a successful program before utilizing EPDs and other association tools. Today, they have built a highly respected SimAngusTM program consisting of 500 mother cows, providing consistent genetics to commercial and registered producers across the country.
A Solid Foundation
The Kearns family came to the Nebraska Sandhills four generations ago, with Tom’s grandfather homesteading in Sheridan County in the 1880’s. This land stayed with the family and Tom grew up there. His family ran a variety of cattle through the years, including Hereford and then Chianina, Maine Anjou, and Angus cross cows.
The 10,000 acres comprising Kearns Cattle Company is located near Rushville, Nebraska, just 30 minutes from the South Dakota border. The country is best suited for cattle, and what isn’t grazed is utilized for hay ground. The ranch is in the Sandhills region of Nebraska, which is above the Ogallala Aquifer. In the great plains areas above the aquifer, the water table can be very close to the surface, allowing for subirrigation. Tom notes that while the country is well suited for raising cattle, it is unforgiving if overstocked.
Northwest Nebraska has cold, sometimes harsh winters, so cattle are fed hay throughout the season. The Kearns family puts up millet, oats and oat hay, alfalfa, sorghum-sudangrass, and wheat, much of which is utilized for winter feed. Renting fields of corn stalks allows them to feed four months of the year.
Kearns Cattle Company is a fourth generation, family-focused operation. Tom and his wife of 47 years, Deb, raised their three sons there. Today, Rick is a dentist in Grand Island, Nebraska, Bill is a CPA in Seattle, and Zach works on the ranch. Zach and his wife, Brittney, are now raising their family there. They have three children, Jackson (10), Kennedy (6), Maddox (2), and Krue, who just arrived in March.
Tom left the ranch to attend college at Nebraska Wesleyan University, later working as a history teacher for eight years, in addition to coaching football and wrestling. He took the opportunity to go back to the ranch and return to the lifestyle he enjoyed. Similarly, Zach left the ranch to attend college at Colorado State University and Chadron State University, graduating with a degree in agricultural business. He and Brittney lived in Denver for several years, where Zach managed a linen company. Upon starting their family, the couple chose to move back to the ranch to raise their family.
Zach purchased Tom’s custom haying business, which consumes most of his summer. “I always enjoyed the ranch growing up, and going out with my dad,” says Zach of his decision to move home.
Tom and Zach have created a successful team, raising high-quality SimAngus genetics. Tom’s program began with selling commercial bulls to commercial cattlemen. He began holding a sale 29 years ago, consisting of genetics from his Maine, Chianina, and Angus cross cattle. In 2004, they introduced Simmental, which has helped their program grow to its current capacity. “The Maine and Chianina females weren’t readily accepted,” says Tom. “We feel that Simmental make really good cows, their disposition is better, and they have a lot of the traits ranchers look for. They can get some heterosis and still keep the females.”
Tom and Zach credit much of their success to finding good cow families and building on them. Ford Dolly RJ Y83, a SimAngus donor, has been extremely important and influential to the program. She has generated notable progeny sales for Kearns Cattle Company, as have her daughters. This past January, the Kearns family won the Purebred Simmental pen show at the Northwest Stock Show with three bulls sired by Mr TR Hammer, and out of Dolly, and one of her daughters. They started exhibiting cattle in Denver so cattlemen could see them, as Rushville is a remote community and a long drive from anywhere. “It’s a good way for us to showcase what we have. It’s a commercial man’s show and a purebred show,” explains Zach.
The Kearns’ program is based on both numbers and phenotype. Tom and Zach both note that while EPDs are an extremely useful tool, they aren’t an all-encompassing answer to the complexities of raising productive cattle. “I think you have to use EPDs as a tool,” says Zach. “We use actual numbers a lot. There are big numbered bulls that don’t perform as well as they should. I would rather take a bull with the best actual numbers and average EPDs for our herd.”
Zach reiterates the importance of cow families to their program. “Our main focus is phenotype and what the cow family has behind it,” he explains. “Our cattle have to travel over thousand acre pastures so feet and leg structure are really important.”
The Kearns’ also believe that cattle must have eye appeal to be successful and marketable in the seedstock industry. “We’re in a big Angus community, so to get these Simmental genetics sold they have to look right,” says Zach.
Raising cattle with depth satisfies both the need to perform and look the part. “The depth of cattle is what we strive for and try to produce. Our customers want something with longevity that doesn’t take a lot of feed to maintain,” says Zach. Tom adds, “Customers want cattle that will add pounds too, they sell their cattle by the pound.”
Tom and Zach have noticed a wider acceptance of Simmental genetics in recent years, reflecting on when they began adding the breed to their program. The added heterosis, and ability to raise homozygous polled and black cattle, has contributed to this trend.
Focused on Consistency
Kearns Cattle Company has earned notice for their bulls, which are developed following their straight-forward, reliable program. Calves are weaned at the beginning of September and placed on a high-forage ration of hay and silage. With the help of a nutritionist, they build rations that are low in corn and high in energy and forage. This ration is adjusted every two weeks, with the goal of each bull gaining three and a half pounds per day. Tom notes that even with this gain, their bulls will have an average of .18 inches of back fat at the sale in March. This past March, 92 bulls sold, which was their largest sale to date.
Embryo Transfer work is heavily utilized, with over half of all calves resulting from such matings. The remainder is bred by AI. The Kearns’ sell eggs and semen on their top producers, and also buy new genetics from the top of other breeder’s programs. Angus genetics are often brought in by purchasing from other programs. “We’re always looking to improve the genetics,” says Tom. “Our goal is to raise a bull that helps an operation better their program, whether that be through heterosis, or to add pounds, or to breed better females. We want to breed to make things better for our customers.” Zach adds, “We are trying to get more females in our herd that better our program so we can provide better genetics to our customers in the future.”
Tom and Zach both point to the relationships and friendships they have developed as reasons they enjoy their occupation. “The cattle business is family oriented. My dad has had customers for 30 years and that says something about the friendships you gain along the way,” says Zach.
Kearns Cattle Company also has two full-time employees, Edward Bracken, who has a tenure of 10 years, and Scott Kelly who has worked there for 16 years. Tom notes the importance of both to the daily operations and overall success of the business.
Tom moved back to the ranch to live the lifestyle he enjoys, and Zach echoes that sentiment. “There is a lot of time and hard work that goes into getting a live calf, but that makes it worthwhile,” says Zach. “I can raise my kids here, and it’s not very often you can take your kid to work and teach them values. I get to do that, and teach them hands-on skills.”
*This article originally appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of the Register.