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Diversity and innovation

By Tom Smith
Reprinted from 1999 Breeders Edition

  If you had to pick the one word that best describes the Starr family's beef business pursuits, that word might be "diverse." With two registered seedstock herds plus commercial cows, marketing of fed cattle, and a thriving club calf business, you might think third-generation rancher Eldon Starr's plate is plenty full. But sons Scott and Kevin share in these endeavors, so Eldon and his wife Kathy, manage a bull semen sales enterprise on the side. And Eldon does a little custom AI work for his semen customers, too.

  These very busy people headquarter on Cedar Top Ranch, near Stapleton, Nebraska.

  While their roots run deep in the Sandhills, where many producers cling to time-honored traditions, the Starr family is known for technological innovation and progressive practices. Eldon Starr says that's all part of maintaining business diversity, claiming there is nothing very new about that concept.

  Starr ranching traditions date back to Eldon's grandfather, a Texan who ventured into the hills near Mullen, eager to make his fortune in farming and cattle. The fragile dunes proved impractical for row crops, so the Starr patriarch vowed to leave the sod right-side-up and concentrated on grazing cattle.

  Eldon's father, Milton, followed suit when he and his new bride established their own ranching operation in 1938. The couple rented and eventually bought land among the rolling hills near Stapleton that would be the nucleus of today's Cedar Top Ranch.

  "Dad ran straight Hereford cattle for a long time and he even maintained a registered herd for a while," tells Eldon. "He went back to commercial Hereford cows and started crossbreeding with Angus bulls.

  "Back then, quite a few of the calves were grown on grass until they were 2-year-olds," eldon adds. "Dad showed cattle in Chicago and built a reputation for quality. He established some enduing relationships with cornbelt feeders in Indiana, Illinois and Iowa, and they bought his cattle at private treaty for years."

  Milton gradually expanded the Nebraska operation, and added a ranch in South Dakota. After Eldon graduated from college in 1968, he and his wife, Kathy, moved there, near Farmingdale, to manage the northern spread.

  Being city born and raised, Kathy wasn't accustomed to ranch life and such wide, open spaces. She remembers that one pasture encompassed 13,000 acres. She pitched in to help Eldon tend to more than 1,100 cows, marveling at the area's diversity. Located along the fringe of the badlands, the ranch was bordered by the Cheyenne River and headquarters was located near Rapid Creek.

  "The house we lived in was built by Pete Lemley, who was a really colorful and historic character. The ranch had once been part of his Circle Bar operation," says Kathy. "We were there for a year before moving back to Nebraska."

  "Dad and I traced places," Eldon continues. "The exotics were pretty new then, and I had already learned artificial insemination from my brother, so I started experimenting with Simmental and Maine-Anjoy on our mostly black baldy cows. We sold bulls and females through multi-breed sales in North Platte, offering half - and 3/4 - bloods, up fullblood Simmentals. Demand was good and it worked well for about 10 years.

  Extensive use of AI meant semen had to be purchased in volume so Eldon became a dealer of semen from the prominent bull studs and private sources. Semen sales grew and expanded to include custom AI service. More recently, embryo transplant technology was added to help hasten the desire to upgrade quality, particularly among the registered cattle. During the last few years, custom embryo transplant service has been offered, too.

  Eldon first tried Gelbvieh sires in 1971 and, favoring the breed's moderate size, maternal traits and carcass characteristics, he focused on development of a registered Gelbvieh cow herd. Commercial cow numbers continued to expand as well, with some continued use of exotic sires to raise club calves. That specialized market has continued to grow over the years.

  "We started breeding a portion of our registered and commercial cows for fall calving, too," Eldon adds. "some bull customers didn't want ot buy yearlings, and I didn't want to sell 2-year-olds, so this was a compromise. We also wanted some fall-born club calves to fit the market down south."

  The early 1980's saw Cedar Top Ranch's current marketing pattern take shape. Simmental seedstock sales were phased out and replaced with Gelbvieh. To fit the industry trend toward moderation and the emphasis on carcass quality, a registered Angus herd was established to further expand the seedstock market. Club calf business had grown to where sales shifted from private treaty to an annual October auction of 100 to 125 head. Marketing of most commercial calves occurs after they are finished in custom feedlots.

  "We've built our numbers to where we can carcass test our sires with calves from the commercial hers," Eldon offers. "Carcass data is used to direct future breeding decisions. Balanced trait selection still emphasizes maternal traits and performance but also lean yet adequately marbled carcasses with medium-sized ribeyes."

  Today, Scott and Kevin handle day-to-day management of the ranch. They oversee calving of nearly 1,800 spring-calving females and about 200 fall-calvers. To make optimum use of ranch resources, over 30 miles of pipeline have been installed to provide water needed to implement a semi-intensive summer grazing program. cornstalks are rented to winter cows from November through February.

  "Hay is harvested from leased alfalfa ground and we usually put up some native hay, but that depends on the hay market. When hay is cheap to buy, we'll do that and graze more of the grass we might otherwise cut," says Eldon.;

  The work schedule also includes readying bulls and females for show, then traveling to events including the National Western, Black Hills Stock Show, and beef expositions in Iowa and Nebraska. The show string advertises the seedstock enterprise. In addition, Starrs produce videos to promote sales of seedstock and club calves.

  The boys aren't involved with the semen sales, and I don't know if they will want to go with that some day or not. You have to put in a lot of 18-hour days during a four-month period each year and temporary help is hard to get and harder to keep. We usually try to keep one full-time married man, but we don't have one right now." confides Eldon. "The boys are handling the load. They come to me in a pinch, and for advice, but the best way to learn is to do it. They are."

210 Starr Drive - Stapleton, NE 69163
Phone: 1-800-535-6173 or 308-587-2348
FAX: 308-587-2248