Over the Fence with Kurt Johnson by Tom Strahm

Kurt Johnson is part of a multi-generational ranching family that runs a commercial cow-calf operation in north central Nebraska. Kurt is the fourth generation of Johnsons to ranch near Stuart, Nebraska, dating back to 1929. The family’s ranching roots run just as deep on his mother, Twila’s side of the family. Twila’s grandfather, Walter K. Smith, started out with Herefords in 1941.

Today, the family runs approximately 500 commercial cows, and utilizes Gelbvieh and Balancer® genetics to help accomplish their beef production goals. The operation raises hay and enough forages to maintain the cowherd.

Twila and her husband, Ron Wherley, are still involved as Twila does all the recordkeeping and bookwork for the operation.

Kurt’s children, Amber and Paul, are also returning to the ranch, becoming the fifth generation on the land. Amber graduated from Wayne State, and is currently teaching junior high science and coaching athletics in Norfolk, Nebraska. Amber enjoys coming home to help during weaning, working calves, and moving cows.

Paul has recently returned to the ranch full time with his new bride Mikayla. Paul graduated from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln with a bachelor’s degree in animal science. Paul is now working alongside Kurt to complete the daily responsibilities of running a ranch and raising cattle.

When and why did you start using Gelbvieh and Balancer genetics?

“We started using 75 percent Gelbvieh bulls in 1994. We had been using terminal cross sires on our cows, but we wanted to start keeping our home-raised heifers as replacement females,” Kurt said.

Kurt and Twila agree that there were many attributes of the Gelbvieh breed that led them to begin using Gelbvieh bulls. Fertility, maternal ability, longevity, and docility are all very important traits in a mother cow. These females have good udder quality, but the Johnsons also wanted cows with moderate mature size and weight. They have been very happy with the results they have found in these cows while maintaining performance and growth in their calf crop.

What are some of the advantages to the crossbred cow with Gelbvieh and Balancer genetics?

These cows can raise a good calf every year, and breed back with minimal inputs. A short calving season is very important on Johnsons’ operation.

“We start calving in mid-March, and will be 85 percent done calving in 21 days. We are completely finished calving by May 1. We wean our calves in October. Weaning weights are collected and recorded for each individual calf. The calves are taken home for weaning and backgrounding. The cows run on corn stalks from November through January. We pregnancy check all of our cows in the fall. Maternal ability, fertility, and longevity are all very important to us,” Kurt said.

Structural soundness is another requirement. The furthest summer pasture is 23 miles from home. The Johnson family has a two day cattle drive to move cows to stalk fields near the ranch headquarters after the calves are weaned. “Feet and legs are important. These cows have to be able to walk.”

What decisions make up your calf weaning and marketing strategies? 

“We wean and vaccinate all of our calves. The calves are then backgrounded on a growing ration of wet distillers, homegrown roughage, and rolled corn. We want to grow and develop the calves, and add some frame but keep the cattle in desirable body condition for potential buyers.” The steers are sold at Bassett Livestock Auction in Bassett, Nebraska, and are usually marketed in January weighing 700-800 pounds.

Approximately 40 to 50 heifer calves are selected to be kept as replacements. The rest of the heifer calves are sold in mid-February.

Shane Kaczor, co-owner of Bassett Livestock Auction, explains that a large portion of the females are bought by other commercial cattle producers as replacements.

“I sort the heifers for sale as potential replacements how I would want to buy them,” Kaczor said. “More of these heifers are sold as replacements than are sold as feeders,” says Twila. In recent years, replacement heifers have been sold into six states. Kurt keeps in contact with the buyers and has numerous repeat customers.

What traits are important to you when selecting bulls, and how do EPDs influence your decisions? 

The family tries to buy top-end bulls and wants each one to be a complete package. Semen is collected on several bulls the family uses as commercial herd sires, and thus these bulls are being used in seedstock operations as well. Johnsons look for moderate framed, heavy muscled, structurally sound bulls and evaluate the EPDs on each individual.

“We want bulls with moderate birth weight EPDs because we don’t want calving problems. We have to start with a live calf! We also want bulls with moderate maternal EPDs because these Gelbvieh and Balancer females are good milkers,” Paul said. “We look for bulls with good weaning weights because growth and performance are important to us. We don’t want to buy bulls with extremely high yearling weight EPDs because we want to maintain moderate mature sized cows.”

The Johnsons buy bulls that are between 18 and 24 months old. They are maintained on hay with salt and mineral. Bulls are given breeding soundness exams in the spring before being turned out with the cows. What are some of your goals for the future? Kurt and Paul have a couple of things in mind for future improvement of the herd. “We would like to start a fall-calving herd. Also, we would like to start keeping more of the heifers, breed them, and then sell as bred replacement females,” Kurt said.

The family believes in continual improvement towards increased uniformity and consistency of their calf crop. Like most ranching families, Twila’s primary goal is to continue passing the ranch on to future generations.