Separate (But Together)

November 2, 2011 07:54 AM
Separate (But Together)

A Montana family comes together to grow farm operations individually

The majestic Rocky Mountains can make any view beautiful, but the white Charolais cattle grazing before Brett DeBruycker are his idea of natural beauty.

"The northern plains of Montana are as close to a cattle-raising mecca as it gets," DeBruycker says. "The mild summers, cool weather, higher altitude and native vegetation combine to create a near-perfect environment for raising premier breeding stock."

DeBruycker should know—he and his family run the largest Charolais operation in the country. Brett’s parents, Lloyd and Jane, started with their first Charolais cattle in 1963, and the operation grew as cattle were added by their children Mark, Jacque and Brett and their brother-in-law Joe Campbell (married to their sister Cathy). Together, they run 2,000 cows. As a family, they market females and more than 850 bulls each year through their annual bull sale and private treaty.
While their success is due to the family operation as a whole, the nuts and bolts of the operation are still mostly divided. The DeBruycker and Campbell families have never incorporated their cattle operation or their farming operations, but Brett, Mark and Lloyd have set up a formal partnership for their feedlot.

The DeBruyckers divided their operation into what the corporate business world calls "profit-centered" accounts, meaning each section of the operation is a stand-alone entity that must prove its muster on the balance sheet.

The familial operational design lends itself to being more flexible if one family decides to grow, change or stop any part of its cattle or farming practices. It also helps reduce stress on family relationships, letting each family chart its own path, DeBruycker says.

Cow–Calf Centered. "In the Charolais portion of the operation, we are a family operation but not a corporation; nor are we a partnership. We each own our own cattle, pay the bills and reap any rewards of those females. However, we have chosen to market the offspring from those cows together. DeBruycker Charolais is really a marketing arm for the family," DeBruycker says.

Behind the success of the family’s bull operation is a structured cow management system. Winter calving takes more labor and hay to keep cows in peak milk production, but it is those calves that make up the bulk of the annual bull sale.

Fall calving has shown financial benefits, however. Some customers wanted a selection of older bulls at the sale. This year, 18-month fall bulls averaged approximately $1,000 more than spring bulls. You can see more sale results by visiting

From the first year, productivity of the cow is top of mind. Heifers are synchronized and AI’d the first year. "Even with a short breeding window, we can achieve high conception rates—95% or higher," DeBruycker says. "We’ve done a lot to breed fertility into the herd through breed characteristic selections and quality animals. We worry as much about the quality of our females as we do about our bulls."

The cowherd is managed a bit differently. After their first calf, cows are not AI’d until their third calf is on the ground. This gives the cows two years to develop to their full size and maintain their body condition. Bull breeding has also been shown to improve conception rates for younger cows, DeBruycker says.

"I truly believe that we utilize herd bulls that are as good as any bulls in the Charolais breed that others AI to. We’re just not using them to their potential because we are unable to use them all AI," he adds.

Managing production records takes time and attention to detail. Information is entered into a Microsoft Access program that Jacque and brother-in-law Chris Wend designed.

"The database can spit out as much information as we can gather," Brett says. "I’m always driving Jacque crazy, asking for different breeding or performance reports, trying to find ways to improve our herd genetics. Our bull sale catalogue is generated from those records as well."

The DeBruyckers track calving weights, breeding dates, growth data and progeny information. Soon, they intend to add a record field for udder scores and nontraditional performance aspects, such as breed performance and temperament.

Profit-Minded Feeders. The DeBruyckers take that quality mindset with them into the feedyard. Brett, Mark and Lloyd have a formal partnership agreement on cattle placed in the feedyard, since the majority of the placements are either owned or purchased together. While they offer custom feeding services, few producers in the area choose to feed out their cattle.

The DeBruyckers keep the feeding operations separate from the cow–calf operation. A full-time secretary maintains a Microsoft Access–based ledger of performance data, and a QuickBooks file is used for standard accounting paperwork.

Like every other sector of the family operation, profit is the focus. For the feedlot, it comes down
to feed availability and cost. With not a single stalk of corn on the horizon, the DeBruyckers use local supplies of barley and malt barley byproducts as their main feed ingredients.

"People wonder why we don’t just grow our own feed for the feedlot," Brett says. "We try to raise high-quality winter wheat, barley and hay, in the hopes of not feeding it in the feedlot. The feedlot does best economically when it is feeding off-grade products that didn’t meet the qualifications for malting."

The Right Mix of Family and Business

There is no one right way to organize a family business, says Dick Wittman, who consults with many large-scale farm operators and manages a farm operation with three other family partners near Culdesac, Idaho. However, he says, the more complex the operation, the more complex the family business situation can get.

"It is fine to have different groups within a family enterprise that have different ownership arrangements and business purposes—the critical challenge is to ensure that compensation for labor is fairly matched with job responsibilities and market benchmarks, and that returns to the owners are based on capital provided by each party," Wittman says.

In any farm business, the key is to have an analysis of the profitability and cost of operation for each manageable segment or profit center, he adds.

"Paying attention to arm’s-length or market-based pricing in inter-entity transactions is a prudent policy in any family-based farm business," he says.

Top-Quality Grain

Separate but together 2The DeBruyckers handle their wheat and barley operations much like their Charolais cattle—they do not partner: Each person owns or leases his or her own land and equipment and offers labor or machinery help if needed.

"We choose to operate together because it’s just a more efficient way to get the job done," says Brett DeBruycker. "We all believe that helping other family members is a top priority."

The DeBruyckers make extensive use of GPS technology for applying herbicides and seeding and intend to incorporate the technology into their harvesting practices as they update their fleet.

DeBruycker says he’s looking to update their record-keeping abilities to a computer system, such as SST Software ( This will allow them to incorporate all of their GPS maps into the computer database, as well as wirelessly transfer production data from their John Deere tractor monitors and Topcon sprayer monitors. "It’s just one more way for us to be more efficient and more productive," he says.

"This type of family business arrangement works for us because we are so expansive in different areas," DeBruycker adds. "We’re trying to be the highest-quality producer possible, whether it’s in Charolais cattle, our wheat or barley crops or feedlot cattle performance."

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