Like many of the nearly 15,000 farmers who grow beef cattle in Wisconsin, Roy and JoAnn Wilcox were once among the state's dairy farmers whose number greatly exceeded the count of beef cattle farms for many decades.
Today, however, they are counted in Wisconsin beef herd totals with their registered Red Angus cattle which include 24 cows calving in 2015 and an expectation for 26 this year.
After about 15 years of raising beef cattle in their renovated former dairy facilities in southern Oconto County, the Wilcoxes hosted one of the seven cow/calf field day meetings organized by the University of Wisconsin Extension Service beef and livestock teams of county agents.
Stroke of lightning
During the farm tour portion of the field day, Roy Wilcox told attendees that the couple started dairy farming in 1979 with a herd that had an annual milk production average of 11,000 pounds. By 2000, however, that average had vaulted to 26,000 pounds.
What precipitated a departure from dairying that year were the lingering health effects of a lightning strike that Wilcox suffered in 1989, he pointed out. That's how the farm's 'In a Flash Red Angus' name originated. Then, and now, he works fulltime off the farm job as a welding fabricator — a skill that he has also put to good use on the farm in the conversion to raising the Red Angus.
After the departure of the dairy herd, the Wilcoxes started with some Hereford beef cattle. But, after visiting herds of several beef breeds, they settled on red genetics of the Angus because of what they noticed about the animals' disposition.
Wilcox describes himself as someone who is 'picky on genetics' rather than focusing on beef production as such. Although a few of the animals born on the farm are fed out as steers, many of the are destined as herd bulls or as replacement cows in other herds.
Even within that parameter, Wilcox will sell only the bulls which were conceived by artificial insemination (AI) as sires. For the past three years, the AI semen has been obtained from Genex sires.
Wilcox likes cows weighing about 1,500 pounds, not those at about 1,100 pounds. He strives for a height of about 56 inches.
Calves are weaned in November. Target weights for going into the winter are 600 pounds for the heifers and over 700 pounds for the bulls and steers. To maintain weight gain momentum, Rumensin is fed to all of them during the winter.
In 2014, the Wilcoxes had 80 percent of their cows conceive with the first AI. They're waiting the results of this summer's AI after hitting what might well have been the warmest period for the AI of the cows – all of which are prepared with GnRH for breeding in order to concentrate the calving period into about 6 weeks starting in mid-April.
An assist was needed at 3 of the 24 calvings in 2015. The time limit for assisting is about 90 minutes from when the calf's feet are showing.
The Wilcoxes sold the last cow which was throwing black calves. She was a very good cow but threw a black calf for each of her three calvings, Wilcox stated.
Wilcox is a stickler for having a semen test. He is surprised that other sellers and buyers are not as stringent on that point. Embryo sales to buyers outside the United States have also been part of the business.
Any finished steers are sold on a killout pricing basis through the Equity Livestock cooperative system. Wilcox does not conduct any business with livestock dealers.
Much of the day to day work with the cattle is handled by JoAnn Wilcox, who makes a lot of trips with the gator vehicle. She takes water to the calves which are in single small pie or V-shaped paddocks with their mother cow.
The cows and older calves need to come to the farmyard to drink water. On the warmest days of the summer, they come for shade in the afternoon.
After birth in pen next to the barn, JoAnn uses a shepherd's hook to remove the calf briefly for weighing. Then the pair is kept near the barn for two or three weeks. The alternative, Wilcox points out, is having calves hiding or lost in the grass foliage and being vulnerable to attack by a coyote.
When working with groups of cattle, JoAnn uses two fiberglass sticks that act like a fence to separate and move individual animals. Because the Wilcoxes emphasize docility, they will part with 'the sassy ones' not having the docile trait.
Traffic routes have been set up inside and outside of the facilities in order to move the cattle to a specific place. One destination is the versatile and convenient squeeze chute which Wilcox built about a dozen years ago in a project that took about 200 hours. One of its features is the narrowing capability, which is used when the calves are vaccinated or given other treatment.
From spring through about September, the Wilcoxes pasture their cattle on 53 acres. There are 10 paddocks, mostly on silt loam but with differences between fairly wet and drier soils.
In early August, the pastured paddock was apparently too rich, resulting in loose manure. To remedy that, Wilcox planned to feed some dry hay in a bunker wagon in which old barn gutter plates have been placed to greatly reduce the amount of hay that the cows previously pulled out and wasted.
Two of the major fields which are used for pasturing had their last full seedings in 1991 and 1996. They have a thick forage sward, which includes lots of Alsike clover; alfalfa (not grazed until it is in bloom); grasses such as brome and timothy; and dandelions.
Wilcox likes orchardgrass and would like to have more of it along with the red clover and meadow fescue that are occasionally seeded into the existing sod. He isn't too happy to notice that some Kentucky bluegrass and Reed canarygrass are creeping into the pastures.
Regarding the pasturing of cattle, Wilcox shared an experience from a fairly brief venture with his dairy herd. He found that the mature Holsteins were accustomed to being fed a prepared ration, did not take well to eating from standing forage, and quickly dropped by an average of 20 pounds per day in milk production.
Based on that, Wilcox advises anyone who intends to begin pasturing a milking herd to prepare for it by pasturing the heifers which are going to make up that herd, not to try to convert older cows to grazing.
A mixture of shelled corn with oats is available to the beef cattle at all times. A weather-proof 'wind and rain' mineral mix from Purina is placed in buckets along lanes and in pastures. A brand from another supplier was previously used but it is no longer available in the area.
During the winter, the ration can include corn silage or high-moisture shelled corn. The Wilcoxes did not grow any corn in 2015 but they have an agreement to buy what's needed from a neighbor. A small field from which a barley and peas forage crop was harvested in early summer had a good growth of sudangrass on the day of the tour.
Given the amount of time that the cattle are spending on ground and how much walking they do, Wilcox is surprised and somewhat puzzled by having had several incidences of foot rot. He believes there is a genetic link on those cases.
On the day of the tour, the cattle were being pestered by a population of house flies but faceflies have not been a problem nor have there been any cases of pinkeye, Wilcox noted. There have been a few outbreaks of coccidiosis, which the Wilcoxes believe were linked to rainfall.
And, as with any type of livestock, the Wilcoxes have had a few unpredictable animal losses throughout the past 16 years.