For the Capital Press

LA GRANDE, Ore. -- With cow-calf production, the biggest area ranchers control is always going to be cost, Canadian rancher Christoph Weder says.

"We have control over what we produce, how we produce it and the cost, but you can't manage what you don't measure -- know your cost of production," said Weder, owner of Spirit View Ranch in Alberta province.

He started Prairie Heritage Beef Producers in Canada with the help of Doc and Connie Hatfield, founders of Country Natural Beef in Oregon. Canadian ranchers market over 8,000 head a year under the Prairie Heritage brand.

There is a lot more profit to be made, he said, by being shrewd about how you operate. In the beef cattle industry he said it has become a "grow more, grow faster, grow harder" situation.

Weder said his idea of growth is a rate that is optimal, sustainable and that matches the resources the land provides.

"If I have to buy grain to subsidize a cow to stay on my place, if I have to do some baby-sitting technology to look after that cow, then she's not suited to my environment," he said.

"Cows are four-wheel drive, solar-powered forage bio-digesters," he said. "They have a built-in header, a built-in manure spreader and four stomachs."

He said an advantage the beef industry has in agriculture is that all other livestock industries -- excluding sheep -- depend on fossil energy for feed sources and production.

"Grass is the hidden gem you have in your business," he told producers, "not the 7510 John Deere."

He said many producers want the lowest-maintenance type of cows, but buy high-maintenance genetics.

"Cheap grains in the last 40 years have led to a skewed genetic selection process. Everyone wants cows that will get the fuel efficiency of a Volkswagen Jetta but they are using genetics that will provide horsepower like a Ferrari," he said.

Besides careful genetic selection, the goal, Weder said, should be to have fertile but efficient cows.

The Weders graze 400 registered red and black Angus cows along with a commercial herd of 180 cows and 500 yearlings. Genetics are obtained through a partnership with Pinebank Angus in New Zealand.

Weder said they try to work with nature, so their cows calve in May and June, which helps minimize feed costs.

Their ranch is entirely forage-based and all pastures are perennial with no annual cropping.

"Our goal is to sell purebred bulls raised without grains -- 100 percent forage developed to maximize the grazing period without the need for expensive supplements and high input management or dependency on fossil fuels," he said.

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