Unique irrigation system provides key for forage, beef production

Terry Arledge and David Shanahan came to the cattle business from distinctly different directions.

Arledge grew up on a row crop farm in Milan County, Texas, near Rockdale, riding a tractor from daylight to past dark. He figured agriculture had to offer something better, so he got into the cattle business.

Shanahan started out 2,000 miles to the north and east, in New Jersey, with interests far removed from agriculture, even farther away from cattle. He got to Rockdale by way of a Texas A&M engineering degree, a successful but brief career in telecommunications in Houston and a land venture that eventually brought him into contact with Arledge.

They joined forces some 10 years back with a feed mill and then founded the United Cattle Company. The potential to irrigate forage and provide economical gains for stocker cattle was a catalyst that pushed them together, and it may be the force that keeps them expanding.

Irrigation allows the partners to buy cattle year-round and to take advantage of lightweight, less expensive calves. Stocking rate per acre increases, death loss drops, and year-round feed is predictable.

“Having the feed mill opened our eyes,” Shanahan says. “We realize the cost of a pound of gain and if we get a good part of that from forage, it's like getting it for free. Forage makes us considerably more efficient.”

“It's hard to overstock a pasture we can irrigate,” Arledge says. “We get a 10 to 1 better stocking rate with irrigation.”

A 5 to 10 animal per acre rate is not uncommon. Depending on the year, cattle prices and timing, United Cattle Company may run as many as 38,000 head at a time.

“We've been down to just 12,000,” Arledge says. “If we really want to own cattle, we push irrigation, perhaps applying one inch per week or more. If prices are low, we'll cut back on cattle numbers and water less.”

“Without irrigation, we would not be in the cattle business this summer,” he says. “It's been too dry to grow grass and we could not have bought cattle without irrigation.”

They're fortunate to have good water on almost all their ranches. “We can get 1,000 gallons of water per minute from a 50 foot well,” Arledge says.

“We also have riparian rights to the Little River,” says Shanahan.

He likes the technical side of the business, working with irrigation systems and growing the grass. Arledge likes working cattle. “When I first got started with Terry, I had always run cattle on dryland range. But I bought a ranch in Milan County that had a good stand of coastal bermudagrass and an old well, dug sometime in the 1950s. It produced a pretty good water supply, so we ordered a center pivot system and irrigated the coastal.

“I was impressed that we could stock five to 10 head per acre 365 days a year by irrigating the grass and planting oats, notill, for winter grazing.”

That system works for most of their irrigated acreage now. “We know we can get the oats up, because we have irrigation,” Arledge says. “We start planting in late August and may not finish until late October.”

They've also discovered a new bermudagrass that has improved feed efficiency. “Tifton 85 bermudagrass has more leaf area than coastal and provides more protein,” Arledge says.

“We hope eventually to have most of our pastures in Tifton 85. We planted 3,000 acres this year and are still putting out sprigs.”

Arledge and Shanahan have devised a unique system to bring in lightweight calves and precondition them to their system. “We buy 250 to 300 pound calves and put them on a 2,500 acre ranch we've had for about a year and-a-half,” Arledge says.

They've set up 23 small pens, about five acres each, on that ranch. Each pen has a single-span Reinke center pivot irrigation system to water the Tifton 85 bermudagrass.

“We'll background these lightweight, at-risk calves for 45 to 60 days,” Arledge says, “and then move them into larger pastures. Good quality forage is the key to getting these calves straightened out. They will eat grass before we can put them on feed.”

Arledge and Shanahan say death loss on these lightweight calves is about half what it would be without the high quality forage. “We cut our vet bills considerably, too,” Arledge says.

They also plant no-till oats in the small pens for winter forage.

“We apply nitrogen through the system and add medication through the calves' drinking water,” says Terry's son Troy, who also works with United Cattle Company. “It's almost like a chicken operation.”

“We devised these small irrigation units with help from Reinke,” Shanahan says. “We're distributors for Reinke and they helped us design these small systems. Each is a single-span, electric drive unit.”

They have a one-mile stretch of small holding pens and are working on another two-mile stretch of pens that should be ready next spring.

After the calves are processed and get healthy on forage, they move them to larger pens, about 100 acres, also with irrigated forage and bunk feed approximately 1.5 percent of their body weight per day. Most irrigation units water about 100 acres. “We have one that covers 500 acres,” Arledge says.

United Cattle sells sell most of the stock to feedlots. “But we feed some here,” Arledge says. “I like to feed cattle. After we've done all the work on the calves, I like to go ahead and finish them.”

“We're permitted to feed out 30,000 head a year, but we have a layout for only 15,000,” says Troy. “We also supply 3,700 calves to the National Cutting Horse Association.”

Ample water and good soil create a favorable environment for Shanahan and the Arledges to put efficient daily gains on cattle. But the technical expertise and willingness to experiment with innovative ideas have allowed the United Cattle Company partnership to turn average ranchland into a highly productive beef operation.

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