By Jim Stafford
Copyright © 2013, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
Express Ranches founder and owner Bob Funk was almost giddy on a March day in 2006 as he took his seat in the grandstand of the ranch’s Yukon show barn.
Funk was anticipating the bidding frenzy that was about to begin for a black Angus bull entering the ring at the Express Ranches Spring Bull Sale.
A hush came over the crowd of more than 400 when the purebred Angus bull identified as “Lot No. 208” in the sale catalog was led into the ring. I was seated next to Funk, who flipped open the catalog for me and circled some key statistics that were listed below the photo of the bull.
Auctioneer Eddie Sims launched the spirited bidding, and when it was finished bull No. 208 had brought $263,000. A Montana rancher paid that mighty price — an Express record at the time — for a two-thirds share of the prized bull.
That’s all history now, but the memory of the sale prompted me to revisit the Yukon ranch recently to ask Express Ranches CEO Jarold Callahan how the Montana buyer could make the economics work on a single bull like that.
You might not want to read the answer out loud if your grandmother is in the room. The buyer made his money by selling straws of frozen semen taken from the bull.
“His straws sold for $40 each,” Callahan said. “If you sell enough straws then the bulls become very profitable.”
Express generates up to $800,000 annually through the sales of straws, so it’s a very big business.
Express Ranches uses high-tech breeding techniques and genetics testing to determine the best candidates to produce superior offspring. In terms of numbers sold annually, it is the nation’s leading seller of purebred cattle, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
Because the genome of cattle has been mapped, scientists can pinpoint genes in an animal that will yield such traits as easier birthing of calves, higher anticipated weight gain, superior quality of meat and more.
“It is all powered by DNA,” Callahan said.
Express draws a blood sample from each animal, and geneticists at a company called Zoetis provide the genomically enhanced forecast of how its offspring will perform against the breed’s trait averages.
At Express, cattle are bred through new embryo transplant techniques, allowing the ranch’s reproduction manager, Roy Middleton, to harvest and fertilize multiple eggs from a genetically superior heifer or cow.
“We have our own embryo transplant center here,” Callahan said. “We try to avail ourselves of all new technology. We can now do in three years what used to take 20 years to do.”
Genetically selective breeding continues to yield superior animals and higher prices. This past spring Express set a record when it sold one-third interest in a bull for $340,000.
The impact of advanced genetics on the state’s economy is huge as beefier cattle with Express genetics filter into commercial herds, Callahan said. Ranchers can earn higher prices at the sale barn.
“My fascination with the purebred cattle business is that you are not selling a commodity product,” Callahan said. “I have a chance to make a $1,500 cow worth $3,000, and if I get really lucky, (I can) make it worth $200,000.”
Jim Stafford is Communications Specialist with i2E, Inc., here in Oklahoma City.