LUSK - In the cattle industry, major program changes that happen in less than a decade are considered lightning speed, and Jason ZumBrunnen admits with a smile that “maybe we’ve moved a little faster than the majority of operations.” Jason and his wife Shirley, along with their four children and Jason’s parents Melvin and Lola run ZumBrunnen Angus in Lusk, Wyo.
The move from a small commercial beef operation that sometimes sold bulls private treaty to a full seed stock producer with two separate auctions a year, private treaty offerings and a commercial herd that produces up to 300 head of fat stock has happened in just eight short years. ZumBrunnen credits the success of this change to a data-driven, end result focused perspective. He firmly believes that, contrary to what some producers feel, cattle can “have it all”. Careful genetic selection and a controlled AI and embryo transfer program can create top producing animals that result in a high quality product on the consumers plate and more money in the rancher’s pocket.
The ZumBrunnen’s roots run deep in Niobrara county. Their ranch was established in 1888 and fully formed at its current location in 1918 and like many in the area initially ran Hereford cattle. Then, in 1952 Melvin Zumbrunen changed the direction of the ranch with his purchase of a registered Angus animal as a 4-H product. Now, they run over 400 head of registered Angus animals with a mix of owned and share cattle and an additional 200-300 head of commercial cows.
In 2012, Jason and Shirley moved their family back home to Niobrara County to help out on the ranch Jason was raised on. Since that time they have added to both the ranch operations and their family when they welcomed their fourth child, Levi to the mix.
For the first few years ZumBrunnens continued operations as they always had but as demand seemed to grow for their seed stock they decided to take the leap and begin holding a bull sale. Their first sale was in 2014 and they sold between 20 and 30 bulls. In 2020 They have already sold over 100 bulls including those purchased at their bull sale held in April. In 2019 they offered their first females for sale and plan to continue to do so.
From the beginning, reflecting his training as an engineer, ZumBrunnen has had a data focused approach to herd improvement. They have used Select Sires out of Ohio to AI their herd, though in recent years Jason has learned how to AI and has begun doing some animals himself. They have also begun to use embryo transfer to created targeted genetic outcomes. Dave Winninger of Cow Country Genetics has been a key player in helping ZumBrunnens with their herd goal by assisting with the ET process.
As with many ranchers, the Zumbrunen operation is all about family. Their children are involved in all aspects of the ranch from feeding to marketing. Active in the local 4-H program, all three girls, Melody, Gracie and Emily have taken beef projects and Melody and Gracie are well on their way to building their own programs with females they have selected and begun breeding to bulls for specific outcomes with market animals. Docility in animals is of utmost importance when you run a family operation and animals that are bad tempered or difficult to work with don’t last long on the Kirtley road operation. All the kids help with working animals moving them to pasture, sorting, or taking pictures for their bull catalogue.
When asked about the greatest advantages or disadvantages of ranching on the ridge line of the geographical location known as “the breaks” ZumBrunnen laughs and states that they are “probably one in the same” The same things that make it challenging to ranch on top, harsh winters with significant snow fall and the need for deeper wells and a lack of surface water also lead to nutrient dense grass and animals that are hardy and well suited to other harsh conditions. Those purchasing a Zumbrunen bull know that he has literally weathered the storm and come out ahead and they can anticipate that those genetics will be passed on to his progeny. Since the harshest storms often come in March and April they have chosen to calve in February with almost all of their calves on the ground by March 1. One benefit of a strong AI program is the ability to keep their calving window tightly controlled.
This predictability also plays out in their data driven approach genetics. ZumBrunnen firmly believes that with research and selectivism producers can make anything genetically. The ranch has been enrolled in the maternal plus program with the American Angus association which provides even more information for their potential customers on their maternal lines. Their goal as seed stock producers is to get as much data into the hands of their customers. They back up every claim of their herd with numbers and results. They stand behind what they sell.
He also believes that a key to controlling outcomes is doing as much of the work and understanding processes himself. He has been working to learn how to AI as well as know how to semen test. Customers won’t find anyone more involved in every detail of line production than Jason and his family.
Underlying all of the data, information and numbers is a strong sense of responsibility, family and joy. Their family is very active in a local church and Shirley and Jason take seriously the responsibility to be a good steward of God’s animals and what they have been blessed with. Ranching isn’t just a business but a way of life. They are passing on the values of honesty and integrity to their children. When visiting the ranch it is obvious that they have a good balance of work and play. The kids are being raised as ranch kids have been for generations. They get up and complete their school work (all four are homeschooled with Melody and Gracie attending an online public school) and help with chores. Throughout the day the kids are expected to help with the tasks that need done but they do it with a sense of fun and adventure. They bring their innate curiosity and desire to be involved to everything, including building their own genetic lines.
Jason has helped them select the maternal and bull lines but they are allowed to make the decision. This includes helping when the time comes for Jason to AI their heifers. In a perfect example of the way ZumBrunnen Angus operates, using data, technology and tradition, as their websites says, a legacy built for the future. The girls are visibly excited to bring their heifers Primrose and Martha through the chute and help their dad with the AI process. Chattering about heat monitoring and cycles, all four kids are completely involved in every aspect of beef production. The sense of team work between Shirley and Jason is also palpable. While Shirley may not have been raised on a cattle ranch like Jason, she has completely committed to making the operation a success. She is grateful for the chance to raise her children on the ranch and in recent years her parents relocated to Lusk as well.
Ultimately, as ZumBrunnen says, “You have to be focused on a good cow that raises a good calf. The worst thing we can do is put a subpar product on the plate of the consumer. We don’t have the luxury of producing poor-quality beef. If we wouldn’t eat it then we don’t want it being passed on. Our business goal is to help make those who purchase our animals more profitable.”