A different take, Bush family takes an alternative approach
Ten Sleep – Nearly 30 miles from Ten Sleep, Maurice Bush and his family run a cow/calf and yearling commercial operation on land that his family has been on for the past 100 years.
“My granddad came up and bought land up north of here in 1898, and we’ve been here ever since,” Maurice says. “He immigrated from France.”
Originally, the family herded sheep in the region.
“They trailed sheep all over the country,” he explains. “We would winter and lamb them down in Worland in the valley, and then move up here for the summer.”
They have remained in the stock business, although today, Maurice, his wife Kathy and son Myles run cattle and raise hay.
Making a switch
“We had sheep until I went to college in 1967, but at the time, we couldn’t make any money on sheep,” Maurice comments. “We started raising cows and have been doing that ever since.”
After selling the sheep, he also notes that they also sold their farmland near Worland.
During his college years, Maurice says he learned how to artificially inseminate cattle and decided he would AI their cows each year until the practice became too labor intensive and impractical for him to do on his own.
Since then, they have used bulls that provide genetics leading to animals with good carcass traits.
Genetics and replacements
“When we are looking for cattle, we are looking for the carcass,” Maurice mentions.
They send calves to Decatur County, Kan., where they are slaughtered and hung on the rail.
“We’ve been doing this for 20 years, and it works well for us,” he says.
Maurice also notes that he takes a unique approach to buying bulls. Rather than attending bull sales and selecting stock, he simply calls seedstock breeders and requests a certain number of bulls.
“The breeders know their cattle, and they are concerned about their reputation, so we get good bulls,” Maurice says. “Then, we don’t have to go to the auctions and bid against our neighbors.”
Rather than investing large amounts of capital, time and resources into raising replacement heifers, Maurice also notes that he buys replacements from the Padlock Ranch each year.
“We haven’t raised replacements for years,” he says. “The huge amount of money that goes into a replacement heifer isn’t worth it.”
Because Maurice notes that he, Kathy and, more recently Myles, are the only labor on the farm, they have taken steps to make improvements and ease the amount of labor required.
“One thing we did almost 22 years ago was move to fall calving,” Maurice says. “It has worked well.”
Rather than spending 60 days and nights awake waiting for cattle to calve, they allow the cattle to calve in the fall when less labor is required.
“We got the idea from the outfits in the Sandhills of Nebraska,” he explains. “A lot of the big outfits out there have been fall calving for years. It is easier, so I asked myself, ‘Why can’t we do this here?’”
He also adds that Mike May from Antler Ranch near Meeteetse influenced him to try fall calving to save labor.
“Mike also used what he called natural weaning, where he wouldn’t actually wean the calves, leaving the mothers to kick off the big calves when new ones were born,” Maurice explains. “We tried that for several years, and it worked for some of them.”
However, because not all calves were being weaned effectively, Maurice says they discontinued the practice.
They continued to move up their weaning dates until settling on the beginning of January.
“After we wean, we take the calves to Worland and feed them separately from the cows,” he comments. “The cows don’t need anything extra to eat for the rest of the winter.”
The Bush family also runs their yearlings on pastures near the ranch, and they raise enough hay to feed an average of 300 cattle during the winter. They pivot irrigate their hay meadows to increase efficiency.
“We are just trying to squeeze a little more out of these cows,” Maurice says. “We calve in the fall, so we have higher calving percentages and less labor. Then, we run the yearlings over, so we see a little bigger margin there. We have another premium we see when we take them to the rail.”
“We just keep struggling and making it through,” Maurice comments.
Challenges and benefits
Maurice says he feels fortunate to not run on any BLM lands, rather utilizing deeded pastures to graze their cattle.
With the rest of the challenges they face, he mentions that they do all they can to make things work.
“The markets and the weather are all challenges,” Maurice explains. “We are all rich in land, but we don’t have money, and the margins are slim.”
Increasing expenses in terms of fuel, equipment and other inputs put ever-increasing pressure on the operation.
Drought also provides a continual obstacle, he notes.
“This summer, there was 18 to 20 miles along this road where no grass was growing,” he says. “Then, in the fall, we had two feet of snow at the beginning of October.”
Planning for these unpredictable extremes is nearly impossible, Maurice says, adding, “The drought is really killing us right now.”
Maurice notes they have undertaken a number of efforts to improve their management and cattle.
“Myles and I signed up and took the Master Cattlemen’s class,” he says, “and we did an enterprise analysis on our operation.”
They look at the data available to try to make profits where they can.