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  • Megan Silveira, associate editor

To Please The Lord

How foot scores fit an Angus operation’s goals of serving the industry.

The book of Psalms is an impressive collection of prayers and songs. but for Ann Werner, there’s one line that seems a bit louder than the rest. For every beast of the forest is Mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalms 50:10).

Though their homestead doesn’t quite see each of the thousand hills, Ann and her family still wake up every day with the intention of doing their best to care for the Lord’s livestock.

In the rolling landscape of Diagonal, Iowa, Ann and Jim Werner humbly operate Werner Family Angus with the help of their four children. Joe serves as herd manager, Bonnie manages data collection and submission, Becky keeps the entire family on top of industry updates, and Clint heads the row crop side of the business. Jim and Ann have been lovingly dubbed the “chief visionary officers.”

It’s a title given with a smile, but there’s no doubt the two figureheads have the insight and knowledge to be considered powerhouses in the livestock industry.

Ann’s love for cattle came from her father, who started their Angus herd in 1928. She grew up in northern Iowa, working alongside her father at the budding cattle operation.

As a young career woman, Ann had no idea a blind date with Jim would change the course of her future.

“It was love at first sight,” Jim says, a sparkle in his eye as he looks to his wife from across the dining room table. “I got one look at her dad’s cow herd and fell in love.”

For Ann, Jim’s hometown had a similar draw.

“I love the hills and trees,” she explains with a laugh of her own. “Jim came with them.”

The two married in July of 1976. Ann brought 15 females from the original herd with her to Diagonal, and they purchased 20 other heifers. It’s been a closed herd ever since.

In the years following, the 35-head herd grew into the 600 cattle the family manages today. Half the females calve in spring, the others in the fall. Bulls are marketed to commercial customers within a 200-mile radius, and most heifers are retained.

Monday meetings became a regular occurrence around Joe’s kitchen table on the home ranch three years ago, keeping Joe, Bonnie, Clint and their parents — the family members still living near Diagonal — on the same page when it comes to management decisions.

“I like to say our favorite form of communication is telepathy,” Bonnie jokes. “But actually, that is the benefit of the family. We can read each other really well and know what we’re thinking without a lot of communication.”

Tasks on the ranch have been divided up to play to everyone’s strengths, and each member of the family, including the next generation (Jim and Ann’s grandchildren), is bound together by a passion for the work.

For Joe, there never was another option. Livestock hold a special place in his heart, and it’s a love that’s only grown since he was first introduced to the family herd.

“Cows, co-workers, I don’t know what you want to call them,” he says.

Advocacy for the industry goes beyond the cattle. The siblings have a respect for all that comes with raising livestock, and Bonnie says they’re honored to serve as advocates for the industry.

“You get to live and raise your family on a farm and in a rural community,” Bonnie explains. “You just can’t beat that in my opinion.”

The beasts of the field

Despite many of their commercial customers being in close proximity, Jim says there’s a variety of demands the calf crop has to satisfy.

“People have different tastes in bulls,” Joe explains. “You can pick about whatever type you want, and find the outliers in any of those types to fit your herd and what you’re wanting to do. If you want real big, tall cattle, you can find efficient real big, tall cattle. If you want short, thick cattle, you can find efficient, short, thick cattle.”

It’s this philosophy that drives breeding decisions at Werner Family Angus. Jim says his pasture has tall cattle, lean cattle, thick cattle, short cattle. It’s an economic choice, though he admits it’s a bit unusual. For him, good cattle are good cattle.

“If they work, we keep them around. If they don’t, they’re gone,” he says.

Jim’s personal definition of “good cattle” has to do with how hardy they are. He says his stock have to “do it on their own.” The herd has to be able to find feed, convert that feed to energy, produce a calf and raise an animal worth selling.

“That’s one reason we have Angus,” he says, “because they’re hardy.”

Although Jim likes his herd to appeal to a variety of customers, there are a few consistencies in each animal. He stresses the importance of growth expected progeny differences (EPDs).

Jim has always appreciated animals that can efficiently turn feed to pounds, and it’s an appreciation that’s grown over the years. Part of that can be attributed to his son-in-law, Craig.

When he married Becky, Craig joined the family with a pioneer mindset that matched his wife’s. The duo has a passion for ultrasound data in the industry, and Craig helped create a custom feed efficiency testing facility at the operation.

“He was the one that had the vision,” Jim says. “He built the buildings, and he started the business.”

Their two barns can hold up to 400 head. With 48 bunks utilized for three-month cycles, Joe says the family can test about 1,000 to 1,200 head of cattle each year if all runs smoothly.

Different breeds of cattle are fed, and though Bonnie has an appreciation for cattle that put on weight easily, she says there’s a clear standout when it comes to feed efficiency.

“Angus is number one for a reason,” Jim adds.

To the Werners, however, The Business Breed is more than just home to an efficient animal. Bonnie says she and her family are proud to be tied to the American Angus Association — an organization dedicated to breed improvement and data collection.

In the last 15-20 years, Ann says there’s a visible difference in the quality of feet on seedstock cattle, and it’s not a good one. So, when Becky first told her parents about the new research foot score EPD, they knew it was something they had to take part in.

“Genomics are a great tool, but without the phenotypical data, they’re worthless,” Jim says. “The more phenotypical data you have, the better.”

Bonnie printed off the guide released by the Association and watched an Angus University webinar. At one of their familar family meetings, a plan was sketched out for the collection of this new data.

A lot has changed since that initial day of working cattle, but Bonnie says it’s change she expected. Now, everyone knows their role, and data collection is just another step in the day’s work.

“Are you going to be great the first time? No,” she says. “Just do it. Find what fits your operation.”

Before breeding or at weaning, when cows exit the chute onto a clean, concrete floor, Joe will stand off to the side of the alley, laminated guide from the Association in hand, and watch cows walk toward him. He studies the claw as the animals come toward him, and then looks at angle as they walk past.

Once the animal is out of sight, he’ll call out three numbers: claw, angle and docility. The order matches what is printed onto a chart made by Bonnie, and the “recorder” for the day acts as a scribe. The process is repeated for each animal in a contemporary group, and additional data is gathered simultaneously such as body condition, weight and hip height.

When the chuteside work is done, Bonnie takes the chart and heads to the computer. She merges all the data points and numbers into a spreadsheet and uploads that to the AAA Login page. She likes to send in whole contemporary groups at a time and aims for data submission less than a week after it’s collected.

The entire process has helped identify animals that need to be culled, Joe says. Animals with a score of 8 are culled from the herd immediately. (There’s a 1 to 9 scale for both claw and angle, where 5 is ideal.)

Collecting and evaluating foot scores has changed the way Joe studies cattle, too.

“Feet are now the first thing I look at, then I work up,” he explains. “It’s ground, up.”

Though there are a lot of numbers, Jim says it’s easy to see what the foot score EPD is doing for his family and for the industry.

“We like data. It takes time, and it takes labor,” Bonnie adds. “It’s an expense, but it’s a justifiable one and well worth it.”

The decision to embrace Association efforts like this foot scoring system is a way Jim ensures the herd is heading in the right direction. While he says he’s still not where he wants to be, there’s no denying the data collection is propelling the herd forward.

Better feet mean better cattle, and better cattle typically mean happier customers.

“We get fewer complaints [about feet] today than we did five years ago,” Ann says. “And the ‘why’ we collect is for our customers. Really. It’s ultimately for our customers.”

But Ann also knows better feet mean healthier cattle, and that thought leads her back to the one special verse in the book of Psalms.

If there’s a way to better care for God’s creatures, then it’s what the Werner family is going to pursue.

“We’re stewards of the land and the Lord,” Jim says. “With that mentality in mind, you want to do the best job you can. So, we do it to try and please the Lord.”

Getting Your Footing

Ready to start scoring? Brush up on the guidelines set by the Association before heading out.

Bulls or heifers must be at last 320 days of age before they are scored.

Cattle can be scored annually, as foot structure changes with age. Scores are adjusted for age as part of the analysis. Foot scores should describe animals as they are at the time of scoring, without consideration of age.

Animals must be scored prior to hoof trimming. When there is variation among an animal’s feet, score the worst foot for both traits combined.

Download the guidelines here:

The foot score EPD is huge for the industry, says Bonnie Larson, Werner Family Angus. She and her family have been collecting and submitting scores since this EPD was first introduced, and they’ve learned a few tips and tricks along the way.

Be prepared.

From Angus University webinars to the poster pinpointed previously, Werner says the Association provides more than enough information to help a beginner collect the scores. The secret is in the prep that happens before cattle are even involved.

“Print out the sheet from the Association,” she says, “and make sure it’s laminated.”

This will allow the scorer to always have photos to reference and keep the sheet clean while out in the barn.

She also encourages producers to print a chart with columns to write down scores. Identify where numbers should be written, and make sure there’s a clear idicator for what cow is being scored.

Keep it clean.

Both the area where the cattle are and the cattle themselves should be clean.

Werner says concrete or wooden floors work best. Avoid collecting scores in the dirt, mud or grass, as that can alter the way an animal’s feet appear.

Hooves should also be relatively clean, as environmental elements can impair an individual’s ability to evaluate the foot.

Stay consistent.

One person should score each contemporary group to keep scores accurate. Personnel changes can be made only after an entire group is scored.

Honesty is the best policy.

Scores should be given accurately. While Werner says everyone wants their cattle to have excellent feet, marking every animal as a 5 isn’t going to help an operation or the industry.

Don’t rush.

Werner says animals have to be checked individually. Her family prefers to score cattle as they leave the chute, so it’s a controlled and calm environment.

Scores should be assigned with some thought, as well. She says her brother, Joe, takes at least thirty seconds to examine an animal before calling out scores.

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