Viroqua father-and-son duo win national cattle award

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Reid Ludlow, left, and his son Matt, right, manage Rush Creek Ranch in Viroqua, where they raise calves for feedlots.

Father-son cattle ranchers, Reid and Matt Ludlow, have been named BEEF Magazine's 2020 National Stocker Award winner.

With their Viroqua-based operation Rush Creek Ranch, dad Reid has been in business since 1976, with son Matt joining the operation in 2008 not long after he graduated from college. The pair raise nearly 7,000 stocker steers and heifers each year, separated into groups of 600-900 head, on a spread of 2,000 acres.

But those acres aren't actually all used for grazing at once. Matt said his dad has "perfected the art of rotational grazing". When he first started raising stocker cattle, he rotated between 40-acre pastures, but nowadays he's narrowed it down to 5 acres at a time, Matt said. He added it helps them preserve the land better, even if the practice has its costs.

"We're just trying to improve the ground at the same time we're putting weight on the cattle and trying to perform as best we can here," Matt said. "Obviously there's a cost associated with feeding cattle on grass, but ... grain prices have spiked tremendously and appear that they will stay strong at least for the foreseeable future, but we're still in a part of the country where we feel like in a given month, we can buy those feedstuffs competitively."

The Ludlows purchase their calves from auctions and other sources in the Southeastern US every fall, raise them through the spring and sell them to feedlots. Matt said 65-70 percent of the cattle at his operation are Angus, but the pastures overall are a sea of red, black and white. He said quality is the biggest factor in their purchases, and making those purchases from a thousand miles away means he puts a lot of trust in the relationships they've built with their business partners over the years.

The Ludlows buy their calves from auctions in the Southeast US, most of them Angus beef cattle. But to them, what matters is the quality, not the breed.

Matt said the biggest priority of their operation is putting weight on the animals steadily and continuously, and since Wisconsin has a longer growing season, it helps to keep the nutritional value of the forage high. Grazing in such intensely focused spaces allows them to evenly spread manure over the other pastures while they're not in use, removing the need for commercial fertilizer.

The year 2020 certainly wrought its own havoc over Rush Creek Ranch, though. While Matt said they usually sell most or all of their cattle in the spring, the winter of 2019-20 they still owned their heifers, and by the time spring rolled around with the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic, processors began filling up, leaving the Ludlows no choice but to keep the heifers on their farm until something opened up.

"If memory serves, that was not a good time to try and have a lot of cattle and push them through the processing plants," Matt said with a laugh. "We had cattle I tried to market the first week, first 10 days of April and the plant just kept saying we can't get them in this week. The cattle ended up going to the processing plant the week of Fourth of July."

However, Matt said people were feeling optimistic around the start of 2021 with the market picking back up during its recovery from those earlier 2020 months. He said that demand, both foreign and domestic, has stayed steady as ranchers and meat processors work through a months-long backlog of orders. But the fact that grain prices are "astronomically high" still gives him a sense of concern. Weather, he said, will also play a major role this year.

Matt says the relationship between father and son, both personal and professional, has been great. Matt went off to college in Denver to study finance and economics in the early 2000s, but always knew he'd be back to work at Rush Creek – and he was after a few years of working in Colorado. Now, Matt has three sons, and he plans on taking over the operation as its next successor.

"There's people you talk to that say, 'I haven't talked to my parents in so long, I don't get along with (them),'" Matt said. "But with my dad, you know, whomever you're working with you're going to bump heads with them once in a while, but I'd much rather have it where you're working together every day, get to see each other, talk to each other."

Matt Ludlow said his dad Reid has "perfected the art of rotational grazing." He now has his cattle rotate between 5-acre pastures.

Consumers and our children need to be better educated on agriculture's role in our lives, Matt said. He noted that the pandemic has caused people to think more about where their food comes from, creating an opportunity for producers to form a relationship with their consumers. While the Ludlows don't sell directly to consumers most of the time, Matt said it's still important that there are no "secrets."

"When there's something personal there, I think the product just tastes better. It's nice to know where it comes from," Matt said. "People want to know the story of where their food comes from. I think COVID really pushed that. There's a lot more people that have never asked us before what we do ... they are more curious and wanted to know what it all entails."

Matt said he's glad he and his dad are getting recognition in a state that is known for its dairy industry almost more than anything else. He said it's humbling to have "a little bit of light shined on our industry."