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home articles Producer Feature Stories |

They employ cows

published: July 13th 2018
by: Martha Hollida Garrett
source: Southern Livestock Special Edition

Tommy Brandenberger is passionate about the beef industry and even more passionate in his belief that it needs to be profitable. He’s had a lifetime of lessons in what works and what doesn’t work in the cow/calf segment. He and his wife, Susan, own and operate the 96 Cattle Company in Hallettsville, Texas. Their cowherd or their employees as he calls them, reflect their goal of profitability and their passion for cattle.

The Brandenberger name is deeply attached to the cattle business and the Texas Hill Country. The ranch name and 96 brand traces back to his family’s deep roots in agriculture.

Brandenberger took his first steps in the cattle business as a youngster in the Texas Hill Country near Harper and never considered a career that didn’t include cattle. He grew up with Herefords and learned early about caring for the land and the beef business. He attended Texas A&M University to further his knowledge, competed on the livestock judging team and earned a degree in animal science.

“One of my earliest memories, besides the rocks, brush and lack of grass at Harper, was going with my mom north of Fredericksburg, Texas, and seeing coastal pastures. I remember thinking how great it would be to have grass like that for cows,” he recalls.

After graduation, he took a position as livestock specialist with Texas Power and Light and then returned to the Texas Hill Country to manage a small registered Hereford operation in Mason.  It was during this time he met and married Susan.

       Brandenberger held other positions in the cattle business including nine years managing the high-profile Cuarenta Ranch Beefmaster seedstock program at Muldoon, Texas. From there, he went to another Beefmaster operation, owned by Walter Umphry in Bracketville, Texas. Then in 1991, he joined Migl Feed and Grain in Hallettsville, Texas and would eventually become the manager of the operation.

While with the Migl family, Brandenberger learned many agricultural business aspects, oversaw the retail end of the feed and fertilizer store and worked daily with area ranchers. Susan served as the business manager for the Hallettsville school system.

“While we were in Muldoon, we leased our first land and began running our own cows.

Once they moved to Hallettsville, they purchased 150 acres that featured a rundown house, no improved grasses and very little in terms of facilities. Today, 96 Cattle Company has the beautiful improved pastures, he saw as a boy on their owned property and has about 2,000 acres of native grass pastures that their 275 momma cows and 50 replacement females graze.

In 2015, the Brandenbergers decided it was time to give the 96 program their full efforts.

“Susan is involved in all aspects of the ranch and I very seldom go to the pastures by myself. She handles all the accounting, while I select bulls and do the culling. But everything else we do as a team,” he says.

Their philosophy was to improve the herd as they could and reinvest their cow profits back into the ranch, acquiring more land and cows.

“I’ve always joked that I would rather have a 401C (C for cattle) than a 401K. I view our cows as our employees and as the employer, I understand I need to provide a good working environment. Our employees need to be productive and efficient,” he emphasizes.

Their cowherd is all black-hided and are predominantly Brangus and Angus crosses with about a quarter of Brahman breeding. Brandenberger uses Angus and Brangus bulls and every move is predicated on adding value to his calves.

“If adding value meant putting pink bows on them I’d do that, too,” he jokes.

He often refers to using the tools in his toolbox. By that he means using the management practices and first-hand knowledge he has acquired for his cows to breed, calve unassisted and raise a calf to 600 lbs., as well as breed back every year and maintain herself and calf in the process.

“We have to use all the tools we can to be profitable,” he explains, and continues listing the tools of EPDs and indexes, cow size, fertility, nutrition, weed control, maintaining a sound health program, and the marketing tools of hedging and raising calves that are certified all- natural to add to the bottom line.

His herd is moderate in size, weighing 1,100-1,200 lbs., yet are deep-sided and feminine. When selecting bulls, his first priority is to add those that will improve the herd. He analyzes all the data, but concentrates on weaning and yearling weight, maternal milk and calving ease as his top criteria. He also visually appraises them for muscle, phenotype and structure.

“We want our employees (cows) to be moderate and easy keeping, yet raise an explosive calf and breed back. Sometimes you can get caught up in how pretty a cow looks, as there are a lot of different looking 1,200 lb. cows, but we want to look beyond to the job she does. We have found that larger cows are hard to maintain, harder to breed back and create additional management issues. We have a constant challenge as our steer calves are sold for the feedlot and our heifers are sold as replacements. We never lose sight that the market remains about pounds, as these replacement heifers have to produce pounds, too. We work at keeping it that simple,” he explains.

Every cow in the program is number-tagged and records show every calf produced by its date of birth and its identification number. Heifers that enter the cowherd can be traced back to their dams and often grandams.

The bulls are turned out between Christmas and New Year’s Day, so calving starts mid-October and is mostly completed by the end of the year. The calves are worked and castrated in February and each one is tagged with a number, which is added to the dam’s record. Calves are also given a full set of vaccinations at this working and again at weaning. The dry cows are palpated at the February working and those that are found open or are too short to call are marketed. Brandenberger is adamant that one of the best tools in his tool box is selecting for fertility, so cows that don’t breed or breed late are not long-term employees at 96 Cattle Company.

The calves are generally weaned in June and then preconditioned for 60-90 days based on the buyer’s requirements. They are certified and marketed as all- natural, which means they have been given no antibiotics, no hormones and have not been fed any animal by-products. If a calf becomes sick and antibiotics are needed, it is given a different ear tag and not marketed with the others. The steer calves and heifers not selected as replacements are sold in load lots off the ranch and shipped in September.

“Our buyers want a black-hided calf that is at least 50% Angus and all-natural. Producing a certified natural calf is an added-value tool for us,’’ he says adding, “preconditioning our calves and selling in load lots have been key to our profitability.”

Some years, Brandenberger also utilizes hedging as a tool for the marketing of the calves destined for the feedlot. He begins watching the October Futures Market in January and when he sees a price that he thinks is good, he will sell a contract. The operation also uses the services of a marketing and brokerage firm in the Panhandle to connect with buyers.

“Over the years the calves have worked for our buyers—they are the product of good employees. We have repeat buyers that are interested in the calves,” he says.

Again, Brandenberger believes that a 600 lb. calf at weaning is a profit point for his operation and usually, another 100 lbs. is added in the preconditioning stage. Last year’s pay weight was 704 lbs.

The heifer calves are hand fed and gentled down with cubes. Then in late November, they are moved to wheat pastures where they remain till graze-out. During this time, they are bred to young, low birth weight Angus bulls through June. In late August, they are palpated and any open ones are sent to the sale barn.  

“At this point I keep all the heifers that will make a productive cow in my estimation,” he stresses.

       Brandenberger will then select the number of replacements needed for the 96 Cattle Company program based primarily on those that calve first and are good milkers. He is confident this practice continues the fertility that he has worked at establishing over the years. The remainder are sold locally as gentle, high quality replacement females.  Over the years, these females have earned a solid reputation in the community and he has a repeat clientele for these.

His grasses include pastures of intensive Bermudagrass and native grasses, supplementing in the winter as needed. The Brandenbergers raise most of their own hay.

“We rent a lot of ground and we take care of it just like we own it. We feel it is a justifiable expense to control the weeds. This tool improves the grass and foraging content and saves moisture.”

Lack of moisture is something Brandenberger is facing this year as spring rains just didn’t materialize in the area, even with the close proximity to the Gulf Coast.

“Hurricane Harvey was the driest 25” rain ever. We ran out of moisture in April. It has forced me to change our program somewhat for the first time. I’ve leased a Bermudagrass pasture with a pivot near Pearsall, three hours away, and this year moved most of the heifers to that location. They will stay there until about 45 days before calving starts,” he explains.

They have also raised two daughters, who were very active in 4-H, FFA and showing Beefmaster heifers. They claimed grand champion honors at major shows with their heifers and excelled at competing in commercial steer feeding contests. Their honors included placing first, second and third at the San Antonio and Houston Livestock Show contests and winning at the county level. (See sidebar). They both attended Texas A&M University. Kelly is a veterinarian in Marble Falls, Texas. She and her husband, Keith, have two children, Will and Elizabeth. Their younger daughter, Tracy, and her husband, Blaze, reside in Vega, Texas where she works for a brokerage-risk management company in nearby Amarillo.  They have a daughter, Andi and a son, Warren, with twins on the way.

       Brandenberger also has a cattle consulting business. He offers assistance in all phases of the cow/calf business including selection, breeding, health, nutrition and marketing, as well as forage management. Some of his clients are absentee land owners and he directs all aspects of their operations and others are ranchers who want his expertise in one or two areas.

       “I have been blessed to have the career I wanted and its been possible through many mentors, both personally and professionally, throughout my life. I’ve had a lot of good cowmen invest their knowledge and experiences in me and I am greatly indebted,” he describes.

       The Brandenbergers remain passionate about their choice of lifestyle and vocation.  They spend each day with their “employees” and fine-tuning the tools in their toolbox to remain a profitable operation that is delivering a product with added value.


Passionate beyond his pastures

Brandenberger is also passionate about the next generation of ranchers and works with local youth. He became involved in commercial steer feeding contests when his daughters competed successfully at the state level.

The steer feeding contests are based on the performance of the steers, a written animal industries test, a contestant interview/speech and their record book.

Brandenberger assists the young competitors with selecting their steers and attends their practices to help prepare for the contests.

He also served on the local stock show board and was instrumental in developing a program similar in format to the commercial steer feeding contests, but with commercial replacement females in Lavaca County.  

This is another real-world contest where youth feed and maintain records on a pen of commercial heifers.  Contestants are judged 40% on the performance of their heifers, 25% on a written test, 25% on an interview and 10% on their record books.

“I believe these two contests teach real world applications and it’s been very rewarding for me to be involved with youth,” he says.

He was also a driving force in the formation of the Junior Beefmaster Breeders Association. He served as chairman of the parent organization’s junior committee and it was during this time that junior Beefmaster shows were initiated.


He is also involved in the San Antonio Livestock Show All Breed Bull and Replacement Female Sale. He was one of the initial committee members who worked to start and create a solid foundation for the event, which held its 27th annual sale this past February. He has served as a judge every year for the highly recognized event that has become a strong marketing avenue for primarily South Texas producers.




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