Simmental Since the Start

A North Dakota family continues their multi-generational devotion to the Simmental breed.

by Lilly Platts

Situated in the Missouri River Breaks, northwest of Bismarck, North Dakota, Mandan Lake Simmental has been involved with the breed since its first appearance in North America. Sires like Galant, Bismark, Pacific, and Parisien were the first genetics introduced, and the Staigle (stay-GLEE) family has been rolling with industry changes ever since, building a successful multigenerational business. Just over half of the females are commercial, which provides a critical insight into what customers need genetically and the current market they are dealing with. The newest generation is growing up on the ranch which drives the family to create a sustainable business for years to come.

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The Staigle family, left to right: Charles, Janet, Wade, Merri, Conley, Amber, Laramie, Daniel, Ethan, and Logan.

North Dakota Roots

Wade Staigle’s family homesteaded in the area, eventually focusing on raising cattle and farming. When Wade’s father was 17, his father passed away so he began farming and ranching with his mother (Wade’s grandmother, mother of ten children). Wade was born and raised on the ranch, which was a cow/calf operation. After attending a trade school he and his wife, Merri (married in 1984), leased a neighboring Hereford-based commercial program while also maintaining a small group of registered Simmental cattle on the family’s place. The agricultural downturn of the 80’s encouraged Wade to take the opportunity to purchase an AI business selling semen for Minnesota Valley Breeders. In 1992 he was offered a district sales position with ABS, so he and Merri sold the AI business and took the opportunity to learn as much as they could about that facet of the industry.

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The Staigle family AIing cows in the spring.

In 1997 a customer was retiring, allowing Wade and Merri the opportunity to purchase the Brown’s Simmental herd, located in Sterling, North Dakota. With a young family, they decided it was the right time to start ranching full-time. Eventually purchasing a section of his grandmother’s land and the family ranch from his parents, Charles and Janet, the Staigles continued building their business, Mandan Lake Simmental.

For the Long Haul

Despite the dramatic changes in the Simmental breed throughout the years, the Staigle family endured. Wade’s uncle, Bill Staigle had introduced the breed to the program, AI’ing his first cows around 1969, and participating in the first North Dakota Simmental sale in 1970. His father began AI’ing his cows to Simmental sires the following year. The family immediately addressed the calving ease problems that came with the first Simmental genetics. Their smaller-framed cows had to endure long winters and survive on rangeland, so they had to figure out how to make their Simmental cows fit the environment. Into the 1980s, the Staigle family found themselves in disagreement with the industry’s big-framed, tall, shallow-bodied cattle. “We stayed with the moderate-framed cows with more red meat,” Wade recalls.

Producing solid-colored cattle soon became the breed focus. “The next transition was to take the spots out of the cattle, which I would attribute to the early 80s situation because those cattle wouldn’t finish until they were 1,600 to 1,800 pounds. Simmental were labeled as too hard doing, having too much frame, and not enough muscle,” explains Wade.

Because all spotted cattle were associated with the Simmental breed, being on top of the color change and breeding in solid-colored genetics allowed Mandan Lake Simmental to survive this change. Having also been on top of the calving ease problems and resisting the extreme body-type, the Staigle family set their operation up for success. They now run a combination of red and black cattle and still focus on moderate-framed, deep-bodied cattle.

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A Mandan Lake Simmental pair representing the type of cattle the Staigle family strives to breed.

When asked why they chose to stick with the breed, despite the extreme changes and occasional volatility, Wade explains, “I have worked with every breed through the AI industry, and Simmental has been the most well-rounded genetic base. With what our association did to straighten out the problems we had, a strong base of board of directors, competitive breeders, the maternal aspect of the cows, disposition, growth, and what our customers want, that’s what has kept us with Simmental.” He continues, “There are so many options in Simmental that you can have growth and a female you can use. If you need to change your program there is enough versatility in the breed you can do that.”

Cow Power

Today, Mandan Lake Simmental operates around 9,000 acres of owned and leased grassland, 1800 acres of cropland, and a registered herd of 350 cows, and a commercial herd of 425 SimAngusTM females. Each year, 200 purebred and commercial heifers are retained. The Staigle family partners with the Hansen family to put on the Dakota Xpress sale the third Friday of February each year, selling 140 registered bulls, and 60 registered bred heifers. Cattle are also consigned to the North Dakota Showcase sale each December.

Bulls are developed on a custom ration of oats, corn, silage, corn distillers, and mixed hay, each grown and processed on-site to provide soundness and longevity to new owners. Females and bulls are selected for type, feet, legs, and overall soundness. Bulls are ultrasounded for carcass traits prior to the sale and genetically tested for other traits.

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North Dakota winters are often frigid, and the Staigle family breeds cattle that can endure in this environment.

Overall of these usual selection criteria, Wade focuses on the dam of each animal. “The first thing that has to happen in selecting a bull or a female is I look at the record of the dam that produced that individual. We have found that cattle breed more so to the dam’s type and kind, whether it be body condition or disposition. They transfer traits on just as much, and I believe even more so than the sire.”

A Well-rounded Approach

In addition to a large seedstock operation, Mandan Lake Simmental maintains an even larger commercial herd. The registered females are managed with the commercial herd, fed the same, and expected to uphold the same productivity and longevity. “We feel that the registered cows have to be just as economically sound as the commercial cows in our operation,” says Wade.

Running commercial cows also gives the Staigle family a window through which to see their customer’s challenges and needs. “We need to understand the day-to-day of the commercial industry,” explains Wade. “Having the commercial aspect here allows us to see where the commercial industry needs to be. If you are invested in that sector of the industry it keeps you in tune to where the market should be. We use feedback from our customers to improve our commercial and registered herds.”

Wade’s passion still lies with the seedstock sector of the operation. “There is nothing more satisfying than making a good individual that other breeders would like to use. Our goal here isn’t to just to make one good individual, but to make each cow better than what she is.”

All females are enrolled in Total Herd Enrollment, and for many years Mandan Lake Simmental has participated in the Carcass Merit Program. Merri manages the bookkeeping for the ranch and is responsible for keeping up with the submission of data, with help from family, which is no small feat for a 1,000-head operation. In addition, she works as an occupational therapist during the school year, and as Wade expresses, she is an integral part of Mandan Lake Simmental.

Relying on the Range

Mandan Lake Simmental gets its name from a creek system that runs into Mandan Lake. The grass in this area is extremely productive, and Wade points to the fact that the largest concentration of bison in the US over 100 years ago was in North Dakota due to this. “We have some of the best grass in the state. Around the first of September, the grass has nutrients similar to creep feed which makes it a productive cow/calf area.”

Calving starts around March 25th, and cows are calved out on spring pasture. Stocking rates are between ten and 12 acres per cow during the summer, and Wade emphasizes that they do not push this number on a good year. The grass is managed the same across years, good and bad, to ensure the rangeland stays healthy and can last during dry years. The area went through an extreme drought in 2017 and Wade recalls seeing the benefit of their grazing plan when they were able to keep all of their cattle while neighbors sold cows, had to lease any available ground, or shipping cattle elsewhere to have them fed.

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Cows being moved to fall pasture.

The grazing itself is also managed carefully. Utilizing rotational grazing, most pastures can be grazed twice in a year, and during a good year, three times. Cows are not turned out on the native grassland until June 10th to allow the grass to get ahead of the cows. This allows the cattle to graze until the first of December, so long as heavy snowfall doesn’t push them to start feeding hay earlier. Temperatures ranging from 20 below zero to 100 above can be challenging and reinforces the need for cattle to be resilient. Timely rain, around 15 inches per year, allows for crops like sunflowers, oats, wheat, alfalfa, and corn, which the Staigle family produces for feed.

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Crops, such as corn, are an important part of the family operation.

Mandan Lake Simmental works closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and recently was selected by Oliver County for the North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation District’s 2018 Achievement Award. These efforts add to the economic viability of the operation, but above all else, Wade wants the ranch to be around for his grandchildren and generations beyond. Mandan Lake Ranch consists of Wade and Merri; their oldest son, Daniel, is a full-time partner on the ranch, his wife Amber, who is a registered nurse, and two small sons, Laramie, 3, and Conley, 9 months; as well as their middle son Ethan, who is a full-time partner on the ranch; and their youngest son, Logan, who is employed in Bismarck and helps out when able. Wade’s parents are retired and continue to live on the ranch, helping out when possible.

Mandan Lake Simmental has seen the breed through many changes while focusing on creating cattle that work for the land, their customers, and toward their goals. Wade says, “We enjoy making great cattle. Driving through the herd and seeing success, and the future of each calf crop is the most rewarding.”