Purebred business with commercial focus

Tony Walden, owner of Walden Farms in southern Alabama, may be in the business of selling bulls, but his operation definitely focuses on the needs of commercial cattle producers in the Southeast. Part of that focus can be attributed to the farm's continuing ties to the commercial cattle business and the need to raise animals that perform on grass, in the feedyard and eventually meet grid specifications on the rail.

The farm has been in the family for generations and has included a commercial cattle operation since the 1920s. Most of that was in the form of running stockers on grass in the fall and selling in the spring.

When Mr. Walden took over the family farm, he took note of how well the Charolais cattle performed in their stocker operation. They handled the heat and humidity notorious of the region without falling apart. That performance piqued his interest in the seedstock business. Then in 1986, he had a unique opportunity to purchase 20 head of quality Charolais cows. From there the operation grew, and a few years ago they had over 600 females.

Those cow numbers declined a bit last year when slaughter cow prices peaked last fall. "When you get 50 cents (per hundredweight) for cull cows, it's time to sell those older ones," he says. He plans to build those numbers up, but first he wants to tweak the genetics already in the herd.

"Even if we don't build those numbers any, we want to improve the quality and keep Charolais cattle competitive in the feedyard and make them grade better," he says.

In addition to the bulls, Mr. Walden says they sold 400 head of Brangus type replacement females last year. "We have seen a growth in that market and plan to continue that." He says they procure those crossbred heifers and grow them out on grass, then use artificial insemination on some to sell as bred replacement heifers. Others are sold as open females.

But the core of his business remains the bulls. Last year, he sold 400 Charolais bulls and next year anticipates that he'll sell over  300 bulls. Over the years, he's been able to modify the size of those bulls, bringing frame size to a more moderate level to perform as needed for his commercial producers. Four years ago, those bulls averaged a 7.6 frame score. Last year, the bulls had a 6.2 average frame score.

"We're gradually bringing that down, but I don't think we want to go below a frame score of 6 because the Charolais breed is considered a growth breed and you have to have some size to get the growth."

In addition to frame size, he says that his family operation has made strides in carcass improvement. He has been collecting carcass data on his bull progeny for a number of years. He even feeds some heifers and steers himself at Decatur County Feedyard in Oberlin, Kan. "I just looked at carcass data on some heifers we had on feed and they graded well, 85 percent Choice."

He says that customers want more of that carcass information and better understand what it means for their herds. In fact, he says that one of his larger customers recently bought 30 bulls and based much of that decision on carcass information.

Most of his customers are in the Southeast, so his cattle are bred to handle the climate extremes with all of them being slick haired. Mr. Walden takes pride in his bull development and says that all bulls are developed on a high roughage ration. That way, he says, they won't fall apart when a customer puts them on grass.