By: Amy Bickel, The Hutchinson (Kan.) News
When Mark Gardiner looks across his pastures here on the southern Kansas plains, he doesn't see the average bull.
These animals are superstars.
"The Michael Jordans of the Angus industry, or maybe we have to move it to LeBron now," Gardiner told The Hutchinson (Kan.) News with a smile.
His comment goes beyond just looks. But for decades, that is how ranchers predicted progeny, he said. Bulls were selected on purple ribbons, winning feed tests or, as Gardiner puts it, "'He was our friend Dale's bull and he said he was a really good one.'"
Yet, as Mark Gardiner and brothers Greg and Garth sat in one of their purple barns on their family-owned seedstock operation on a cold winter day, they stressed that those days of average production have been over for quite some time. Their father, Henry Gardiner, once said, "We're no better than the worst animal we sell."
That's the mantra the family continues to live by — quality beef from "gate to plate."
Henry was revolutionary when it came to leading the way in the Angus industry. In the 1970s, he began selecting traits based on merits, along with keeping detailed records in an effort to provide the best seedstock to his customers.
His sons are taking his effort a step further — DNA-sampling every animal born on their Clark County ranch. Using DNA testing, they can stack proven traits through an accelerated genetic progress to help create a livestock masterpiece — Amerca's best ribeyes, sirloins and burgers.
Sure, said Mark, the cattle business has been romanticized by many. And Gardiner Angus Ranch still looks the part of a cowboy western, with its hat- and boot-wearing men and women — sometimes on horseback — along with its wide-open spaces. But the Gardiners, like many 21st-century producers, are embracing new tools and genomics with determination.
"It just helps our batting average," said Mark.
High-end beef in the United States, the world's largest producer, remains a niche market, with about 6 percent of all cattle slaughtered grading prime, but, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it's a growing marketplace.
The effort started back in 1978 with Certified Angus Beef. A group of cattlemen found it was hit-or-miss getting a good steak at a restaurant or even at home. Ranchers, including patriarch Henry Gardiner, began compiling data and picking sires by their expected progeny differences, or EPDs.
It worked, said Mark. Henry saw improvements in the ranch's overall genetics by selecting progeny-proven bulls for traits of merit such as calving ease, weight gains and meat quality.
Work has continued ever since to produce upper-choice and prime cuts of beef as the cattle market began to pay premiums based on quality, said Bill Bowman, with Missouri-based Method Genetics, who works with the Gardiners. But it really has been in the past two decades that producers saw a payout for high-end product.
However, it often took several years to gather enough data to understand whether a bull or heifer was likely to pass on these desired traits to its offspring, Bowman said. Now, with their deep genetic database of EPDs, ranchers, through genomic testing, can validate young, unknown bulls to proven bulls without the years of breeding.
Genetic progress can be achieved in one generation. In fact, said Greg Gardiner, genomic testings allow them to assess a bull's genetic value with the same accuracy as if it already had sired roughly 21 calves. Meanwhile, customers are seeing up to $100 a head - and sometimes more - over the cash price due to producing a high-quality carcass. The Gardiners, known leaders in the industry, were among the first to begin delving into genomics and DNA testing in 1986 with a project through the University of Illinois. But it wasn't until 2008 that the ranch began using the tools it uses today. They started DNA-testing all their cattle in 2012.
"We want to continue to add value to our product and make it better," said Greg, adding the goal is "to hit those targets and try to hit all the high-marbling, high-end products that go into the Ruth's Chris and other high-end steakhouses. The restaurant business, they can't get enough of the high-quality, high-choice, prime-marbling steaks to meet the demand."
While taste is an important part of the business, it's more than just about marbling. The Gardiners' seedstock also has traits for calving ease and pounds of gain, among others.
"We don't want them to excel for one thing; we want them to be multiple-trait specialists — a basketball team of five to eight bulls," said Mark, who likens it to precision farming.
It's easy to produce a superior-marbled bull, but all traits must be in balance, he said.
"Let's say I have 100 heifers and want to keep 50," Mark said. "We can use the DNA technology to keep the right 50. Two heifers might look like twins, but they are genetically different."
So far, the ranch has run DNA tests on 15,000 cattle.
Their customers like the benefits, too. Guymon, Oklahoma, rancher Joe Mayer said he DNA-tests his replacement heifers and relies on Gardiner Angus Ranch's bull genetics, as well.
On his operation, Mayer wants to produce high-quality cattle that will pay out a premium in the end. Moreover, he wants progeny that will gain well, but won't have him out pulling newborns at midnight during calving season.
"When I was a kid, and I'm 66, we'd calve out 400 heifers bred to straight Hereford bulls and have to pull 75 percent of those," he said.
These days, he rarely has to pull a calf, he said.
"It is one thing to tell someone, 'You have really good cattle,' and it is another thing to be able to prove it. This validates that we are right," he said, noting that in the past "I used a bull or two that I would have never used if it had been DNA-tested."
Genomics and other tools make it easier to hit the benchmarks their customers expect, Mark said.
"Our job is to select the right ones and multiply the best ones," he said.
In the arid panhandle, said Mayer, his operation wasn't always geared toward the high-end marketplace. For years, he produced for the prevailing commodity market - not getting paid extra if his cattle graded high.
At the time, he said, "The whole industry was a commodity market, and it didn't matter how (our cattle) hung on the rail."
With motivation — and bonuses — now to raise better cattle, Mayer needed good genetics.
His family was a "straight Hereford outfit," as Mayer puts it. Early adopters of artificial insemination, the family tried using several breeds, including Charolais, Limousin and Gelbvieh, but in the early 1990s, the family decided to go "straight Angus."
In 1993, Mayer and his father headed to Ashland to look at Henry Gardiner's bulls.
"They pay attention to marbling, carcass size," he said, adding, "In terms of marbling, Gardiners are at the top of the heap."
He worked with the Gardiners as an embryo-transfer recipient herd for several years, he said. When drought parched the prairie and water supplies in 2011, Mayer sold every cow he had.
Now, Mayer's family operation, which has been in the beef business since the 1880s, is among the first ranches to adopt genomic testing as a way to rebuild his herd, relying on Gardiner seedstock.
Mayer sends calves to Triangle H, near Garden City, a Certified Angus Beef partner yard operated by Sam Hands. After slaughter, he analyzes the carcass results to determine breeding.
"It really does work, that is for sure," Mayer said. "Nothing is 100 percent, but the genomic testing helps your odds a whole bunch. Getting data on your calves, you know it a lot quicker if it is going to work or not. It helps you from making mistakes."
More are beginning to see the benefits of DNA testing, said Bowman.
"They recognize the value they can derive from testing," he said.
According to the American Angus Association, about 1.3 percent of the association's registrations were genomically profiled in 2010. In the past year, the number has grown to about a third of registrations, or more than 200,000 Angus cattle.
Hands has an appreciation for good genetics. It's how he got into the feeding business. For years, his family finished cattle out at a commercial feedlot but became frustrated enough that they weren't paid for quality.
"They were all bringing the same price," he said of the multiple grades of cattle funneled to the packer.
Good genetics is one thing — but quality and meat gain also depend on how it is raised and what is fed. Hands started Triangle H.
"Our objective at the feedyard is to make sure cattle reach their genetic potential," he said.
His family began working with the Gardiners in 1990.
The results of working to improvement genetics is noticeable: At one time, his cattle were grading 50 percent choice, but these days "we are 100 percent choice, with a number of those being prime," he said.
Mayer said his cattle rarely grade select.
"We are almost 100 percent choice," Mayer said, adding he averages about 16 percent prime. "We have made more progress in the cattle business in the last five years than we did the preceding 120.
"People like a good steak and they are willing to pay for it," Mayer said. "My theory: Raise good steak."
That is Gardiner Angus Ranch's motto, too. After all, said Mark Gardiner, it is about the customer. He and his family are just using the tools available to improve quality and to help guarantee an excellent eating experience.
"Consumers are what control our market," said Sam Hands, who operates Triangle H feedyard near Garden City. "Today's consumer has more buying power and they want to know more about the product and good eating experience.
"The whole complexity of it — that goes from conception to consumption — and how we optimize and maximize the performance along the way but deliver a product to the consumer that is desirable and a great eating experience."
According to a December 2015 beef trend report by J. Daryl Tatum, an animal science professor at Colorado State University, from 2009 to 2014, growth in consumer demand for premium-quality, Certified Angus Beef increased by 112 percentage points, while choice beef declined by 2 percent.
Meanwhile, according to Certified Angus Beef's Supply Development division, sales of the CAB brand product reflects unceasing demand for quality Angus beef. In the past fiscal year, the brand reported its ninth consecutive year of record sales - about 900 million pounds a year in 50 countries.
Meanwhile, according to the American Angus Association, Kansas packers went from 50 percent choice and prime 10 or 15 years ago to nearly 75 percent today. The Certified Angus Beef brand acceptance rates, part of the criteria for marbling at the premium choice level, has improved as well, from less than 15 percent 10 years ago to 26 percent in 2015.
Packers pay more and more premiums for those cattle — more than $50 million a year, according to packer surveys tracked by Certified Angus Beef - and that's incentive for producers to keep raising the type of quality Angus cattle that supports consumer demand for high-quality beef, according to the CAB supply development division.
Tatum, meanwhile, reported producers received an average of nearly $14 a hundredweight for prime grades over the past few years. For premium choice, the average was about $3.60 a hundredweight.