I'm a Drover: New Frontier in Cattle Quality

Charles Backus ( Steve Suther )

U.S. cattlemen have a long tradition of using management and genetics to produce high- quality cattle. Charles Backus is no exception, even in a remote desert canyon east of Phoenix. To him, it’s not rocket science, although he once worked on the NASA mission to Mars. Rather, producing high-quality cattle is a matter of necessity.

“I needed to have cattle that took less feed, produced high-quality carcasses and were adjusted to my environment,” says Backus, who purchased the Quarter Circle U Ranch over 40 years ago while finishing a career as a professor at Arizona State University (ASU).

Backus initially brought in high-quality bulls to improve herd genetics, but the land was so harsh many of the new bulls died. Then, he turned to artificial insemination and a short calving season — so the bulls only needed to be with the cows in the leastharsh pasture. Using the analytical approach he learned as a rocket scientist, he genetically tested  each heifer calf at weaning and would keep heifers in the pens until he had results. He would then select high-marbling heifers for replacement cows.

“I collected and analyzed the  carcass data from the packing plants,” Backus says. “I could see my progress each year from bringing in genetics for marbling. Then, I could monitor the calves I harvested each year and see how the average started moving up through the different quality grades.”

When NASA ended its mission to Mars, Backus moved to an academic career and switched his focus from nuclear to solar energy. Steve Suther, senior editor at Certified Angus Beef, says an interest in solar is what brought Backus to Phoenix.

“It seems crazy to think a nuclear engineer turned college professor/ provost could take up ranching in the high desert canyons and accomplish what he did,” Suther says. “Once he had the plan laid out, he just had the confidence he could do it.”

Backus, familiar with charting new territory, relished the challenge of improving his ranch in the Superstition Mountains, famous for a legendary lost gold mine. He set up plots to monitor yearly vegetation growth with the National Resources Conservation Service. When range improvement eventually plateaued, he implemented seasonal grazing.

“That was 20 years ago,” Backus says. “You can have twice as many cows for half the time with the same impact. I bought a six-month, summer ranch in northern Arizona. Then, instead of having 200 cows, I could go up to 400 cows.”

(Open house hosted by Backus on Arizona ranch.  Photo credit: Steve Suther.)

 

An expanded herd allowed Backus to improve his herd’s genetics more quickly. He only purchased bulls physically tested for high feed efficiency at a time when few in the cattle industry were measuring for that characteristic. He also only bought bulls with high-marbling genetics; however, the desert also required special attention to maternal genetics.

“I want the mother to have low milk production so they don’t waste all of their energy in producing milk for their calves,” Backus explains. 

However, Backus relied on more than genetics for efficiency. His facilities followed the guidelines of Temple Grandin, the noted animal behaviorist. Backus also backgrounds his cattle for six weeks before sending them to the feedlot and walks among them daily. Wild cattle of any kind are culled.

“If you have calm cattle,  then they’re better converters,” Backus explains. “I don’t tolerate nervous behavior.”

Backus’ approach to livestock handling is inspired by his relationship with the feedlot owner. He works with Cattlemen’s Choice Feedyard in Gage, Okla., and regularly meets with manager Dale Moore.

“We have a good relationship,” Backus says. “He collects the individual data to return to me, and he does the marketing and the hedging that I don’t know anything about. It’s been a really good relationship, and we trust one another.”

Suther says the individual carcass data helped Backus improve his herd’s marbling genetics. While the rancher’s first carcass testing yielded roughly 50% Choice, Backus kept working in the harsh desert environment.

“Fast forward 10 or 11 years, he had three times the national average for Certified Angus Beef,” Suther says. “He had maybe 10 times the national average for Prime.”

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