A rancher's range of knowledge

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Mike Kasten doesn't follow the unwritten rule of agriculture that says he must begin every day at the crack of dawn. He's been around the ranch enough to know how and when the work gets done. So he chooses not to work before sunup.

Instead, work is just getting started at Kasten's ranch as the pleasant sun shines high above the trees at around 7:50 a.m. on a beautiful Friday.

Today's agenda is full. Kasten's cowhands, Robert James and Junior Davis -- their minds half-focused on Saturday night's calf-roping competition and Sunday's rodeo in Gainesville, Mo. -- get right to work, hoping for a short day.

The first item of business is giving vaccines to a handful of calves.

Nature provided cattle with even less brain than Winnie the Pooh, and that can be both blessing and curse to the men who are trying to produce the juiciest steak possible. Cattle are dumb enough to be herded, artificially bred, sold, butchered and eaten. But they're also too mentally inept to know how to line up in single file or turn around when they're supposed to.

Usually a loud "Hey! Hey!" is enough to get the animals moving. Sometimes James and Davis have to give them a poke with a stick to move the cattle one by one, like an assembly line, through a series of metal cages inside one of Kasten's sheds.

A rancher is more than a rancher. He has to practice medicine as well.

Kasten, a rancher now for 31 years, gives two booster shots in each animal's neck.

Kasten knows the acronym and purpose of each vaccine contained in the two shots. Some prevent respiratory ailments, others prevent a variety of other common diseases. Each vaccine has an acronym, and Kasten knows what each of them stands for and what each is designed to prevent.

When it comes to cattle, he is a walking medical library.

He's also an astute business executive, dressed in a button-down shirt, a vented white cowboy hat, jeans and a pair of boots that are polished with manure through the course of his work. He's earned numerous national awards and accolades for his operation.

Out here, near the Cape Girardeau and Bollinger county lines, Kasten oversees more than 500 head of cattle on 3,000 acres of land. He owns 1,300 acres and leases the rest. The cattle are separated in 13 to 14 groups based on what season they were born, their bloodlines, age, sex and pregnancy potential.

The groups are consistently being shuffled from one field to the next for vaccines, breeding, weaning or feeding. Each animal wears a plastic ear tag with a number. And each has a specific bloodline, a specific birth weight and recorded birthday.

Full-time rancher

Kasten is one of the few ranchers these days who can raise cattle full time. Economics have forced most of the smaller ranchers and farmers to find full-time work away from the farm. He's a hard worker -- he generally works 6 1/2 days a week -- but it's his mind, not his hands, that have kept him in the business.

He spends several hours every week on the computer, sometimes late at night after his daughters are asleep. He pays countless bills. And he pays endless attention to the news.

He's a college-educated man who understands economic risks, the supply-and-demand cycles, the world market and, perhaps most importantly, genetics.

Kasten's goal is to produce the finest meat possible. The beef industry is driven by steak lovers who demand a juicy ribeye. Beef is not a commodity and the government does not pay subsidies to help produce it.

There are different levels of beef. The elite beef is called prime. Prime steaks are the $50 variety found at high-end restaurants. Only 1.5 percent of all beef is considered prime. One rung lower on the beef scale is choice beef. It's very good beef, making up about 16 percent of the U.S. supply. Kasten hopes one day to have a genetic line good enough to produce prime beef. Currently, he produces choice, which is still better than select or standard cuts.

At about 8:20, Kasten finishes the shots.

It's time to sort the cows.

In ranching, timing is everything. In the last few years, ranchers have developed devices that manipulate hormone levels and keep cows from going into heat. By doing so, ranchers can synchronize the cows' biological clocks. Most smaller ranches only breed cattle once a year. Kasten does it twice, once in the spring and once in the fall. With the hormonal technology, the cows are kept on the same cycles, which helps Kasten's productivity.

Kasten and his longtime ranching partner, Dennis Sterner, separate the ovulating cows from the cows that are already pregnant and bring them into the same area where the calves were vaccinated earlier in the morning.

Kasten displays his versatility once more, showing he would probably do well as a contestant on "Fear Factor."

He puts a long plastic glove on his right hand and arm and a thicker rubber glove over the top of that. He then puts a rubber glove on his left hand. He dips his hand into a tub of gel then walks over to the ovulating cow.

He reaches his right arm into the cow's digestive tract. He feels around for the cow's sexual tube, trying to find the cervix. Once he finds the cervix, he feels to find the small rings in which a bull's semen would pass through.

Once he finds the loops, Sterner hands Kasten a long silver device that will deposit the semen. With his left hand, Kasten inserts the rod into the cow, guiding it with his right hand inside the animal. The sperm is deposited directly into the uterus. The metal device has a better chance of getting the cow pregnant than a live bull does. Ranchers have been breeding cows this way for 60 years.

At 9:18 a.m., Kasten strips off his gloves and tells his helpers to go fetch the horses. A few minutes later, the horses are saddled up and ready to go. This is James' and Davis' favorite part of the job.

Seventy calves and 70 cows are grazing on a high pasture. The group needs to be rounded up and brought in for weaning. Kasten and his two young cowhands hit the fields on horseback to round up the herd.

Kasten is riding a new horse for the first time today. The horse is a bit stubborn and skittish, but James and Davis ride smoothly as they chase cows from ponds and woods back toward the herd, ropes in hand just in case.

"Hey, hey, hey," Kasten says as the heard moves through one pen and into another. "Shhhht, shhhht, shhhht. Get on, get on."

The men funnel the cattle into a pen. It takes a while to separate the calves from their mothers. The calves and cows, for a few days, will suffer from a bit of separation anxiety. When separated, they don't just moo, they bellow their displeasure.

After they separate the calves from the cows, the men also separate five specific cows that will be tested for pregnancy later on.

Some of the calves on the farm aren't Kasten's. Several years ago, Kasten noticed that more and more smaller farmers were having to find full-time jobs away from the farm. At the same time, he wanted to increase his herd and expand his bloodlines. So Kasten formed an alliance with eight other small ranchers.

The smaller ranchers pay Kasten for the use of his bulls. In turn, Kasten weans and vaccinates their calves. He buys or trades steers from his partners in exchange for replacement cows. Kasten is able to increase his herd without having to buy more land, and the small ranchers are still able to buy and sell a few cattle. The system seems to be working well for all parties.

Analyzing cattle

Once the calves are separated, they are put through the vaccine assembly line. They are also weighed and measured.

Math teachers in rural schools take note: Numbers and formulas are essential to successful ranching. Each calf is measured at specific moments in the life cycle, including post-mortem measurements. The makeup of the meat is analyzed. All of the numbers are fed into a formula that determines what bulls produce the best calves.

The goal isn't to make the biggest cow. It's to make the best meat. Calves that grow too big are too expensive to feed, and their meat doesn't have the preferred marbling texture of meat and fat. Calves that are born too big are harder on the mothers.

So Kasten's goal is to produce cows that give birth to small calves that grow very quickly. And to do that he has to keep detailed records. The information is collected in a database that is shared with a national angus association. The association uses the information and shares it with other ranchers, all looking to improve their blood lines.

The vaccine/data processing assembly line becomes monotonous, though the calves are routinely stubborn and uncooperative. By 12:15 p.m., Kasten has recorded all 70 of the newly weaned calves into his notebook.

It's time for lunch.

Kasten walks into his home. Inside, it is open and spacious with dramatic classical music playing from the radio somewhere from the rear of the house.

It doesn't take long before his two young daughters, Drew, a preschooler, and Caroline, who just finished the second grade, walk in. Caroline is excited about her dance recital tonight; Drew wearing her tap shoes, is excited about her recital on Saturday.

Kasten was single until he was 37 years old, so he was late to start a family. Part of the reason, he says, was because he was too busy working to settle down. His ranch is not a family farm. He grew up the son of a doctor, Melvin, and a state representative, Mary.

He lived in the city of Cape Girardeau, but his parents owned farmland outside the city. When he was 10 years old, he asked for a cow and he got one.

In 1974, he took on a huge financial risk by buying about 960 acres in Bollinger County. He also purchased several cattle.

He lived in a trailer at first and later built a metal building to live in.

Eventually, he got married and built a new house. He got to a point financially where his wife, a pharmaceutical rep for 10 years, could quit her job and work at the home.

He doesn't think he could start new in today's environment. Land is just too expensive.

In the kitchen, Kasten washes his hands and then warms up two cheeseburger patties. Priscilla comes in and oversees Drew, who is standing over a boiling pot of macaroni and cheese.

The couple talk about plans over lunch. Priscilla's parents are coming up for a visit. The girls have recitals. And Priscilla is involved in planning the Artscape festival, which is only a day away.

Once lunch is finished, Kasten meets his cohorts, who are sitting outside the mouth of a shed, waiting for instructions.

"I think we'll go out and work the perimeter fence this afternoon," he says.

Where's the beef market?

The beef market has been great over the last few years, and the extra revenue has allowed him to catch up on things he had to let go during the 1990s, when prices weren't as favorable.

The market could get even better, Kasten figures, if Japan opens up its market again. Japan closed its doors after the bovine spongiform encephalopathy scare in the U.S. last year. Kasten prefers to call it BSE, not mad cow disease as it is widely known.

No U.S.-bred cow has ever been diagnosed with BSE, but U.S. ranchers are still paying for last year's scare. After rounds of bargaining, Kasten says the Japan government has agreed to open the market to cattle of 21 months or younger. No cow under 30 months has ever been known to be inflicted with BSE.

Despite Japan's involvement, the market has been good.

The perimeter fence was long overdue.

The men travel by pickup truck and tractor to a wooded area of property where they spend the next two hours stringing out barbed wire and nailing it to trees.

The woods are decorated by tall, thick oaks. The breeze rattles the tree tops and the men enjoy their work. They work efficiently, but don't appear to be in a hurry. Each has a job. Sterner drives the tractor, Davis pulls the line tight, James stands several yards away and checks to make sure the wire is tight enough, Kasten nails the wire to the post.

Davis and James make smalltalk about past rodeos, but generally the men keep to their conversation to the task at hand.

"That good?"

"That'll do."

Thwack, thwack, thwack.

Once the fence is finished, it's around 4 p.m. and James and Davis are ready to hit the showers and the weekend.

But the work isn't finished yet. Kasten has to "preg check" a few more cows. Occasionally, extension technicians come out and help with ultrasounds, but today Kasten checks it the old fashion way, in the same fashion he used to breed the cows earlier.

The pregnancy checks don't last long. Two of the five cows are now pregnant. That's 67 of 70, or 96 percent out of this group. Kasten hopes for a 90-percent rate and shoots for 92 to 93.

It's been a good day.

The last thing on the must-do list is sign the paychecks. James and Davis collect their dues and make their escape for the weekend.

Kasten has a lot of figures to punch into the computer, but that'll have to wait.

His in-laws will arrive soon. His daughter has a dance recital tonight.

Kasten's versatile and intelligent enough to know that these life moments come and go. And that work on the ranch will always be waiting.



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