Retiree builds herd of elite cows

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NEWTON FALLS, Ohio – This is one of the best times of year for Jim Balzer. Even with the hubbub of the holidays passed, he still anticipates some of the best gift deliveries of the year: his calf crop.
This year marks his 25th in the cattle business with the Simmental breed, and careful selection and year-round management ensure his herd gets better and better each time a calf hits the ground.
Growing. Jim grew up with polled Herefords and crossbred cattle on his family’s farmstead just across Shanks Phalanx Road from where he and wife Nanette live today. Nanette grew up nearby, a farm girl, too, with cattle and a bevy of other farm animals.
When son David started 4-H in the 1980s, the Simmental breed was a natural fit for the family: The breed was known for growing quickly, which led David to many rate-of-gain honors, and the cows were big, fertile and milked like mad. Their herd grew in size and number.
Jim recalls it was common to have one-ton cows in the ’80s, with Simmental cows averaging 2,200 pounds each. Jim also remembers a group of steers that grew so well one project year, he and David figured each animal gained about 900 pounds between July 4 and Thanksgiving.
“To me, that’s the cattle business,” marked by excellent growth and genetic performance, Balzer said.
Nanette, on the other hand, aims her focus toward showring appeal. Her goal is to build a show string that makes trips to up to a half-dozen county fairs every summer worthwhile.
The purple ribbons and scrapbooks documenting show placings prove Jim and Nanette can both have their way.
Playing favorites. Both Balzers admit they favor certain cow families, the ones who throw heifer calf after heifer calf or can give them prize-winning animals.
Years of records that date back before Jim and Nanette married in 1987 help trace those lineages and little details that make a difference in the herd. Calendars are saved every ear, with each day’s square detailing calves born, how much they weighed, days calves were weaned, and following each step of the animals’ growth along the way.
Those specifics are important when Jim and Nanette send data to the American Simmental Association. The association uses breeder statistics to figure trends in the breed, and to identify the cows with the best genetic merit for profitability.
When the association’s magazine showed up in the Balzers’ mailbox this fall, Jim noticed a blurb on its cover touting lists of the elite cows inside. He settled into a chair with the magazine, just to see if he recognized any names on the Ohio list.
He was shocked to find his own name there. Three times.
“We don’t really know how [the association] figures the awards, but we’re tickled to get them,” Nanette said.
“Everything we’ve worked for all these years is finally coming around,” Jim added.
Two of those elite cows are still in the herd and due to calve in January.
The third was sold before the Balzers knew of her supreme status. They still haven’t told her new owners what a goldmine they now own.
Hard work. The Balzers manage their 30-cow herd to be pretty and to perform well.
Since his retirement in the spring of 2004, Jim has taken over arm service and artificially inseminates the whole herd. Before that, a friend had helped breed since the Balzers went 100 percent A.I. in 1989.
“Anyone with a herd our size will A.I., because it just doesn’t make sense to keep a bull,” Jim said.
He also says the quick genetic improvement, plus the number of top sires from across the country that are available to him, make artificial breeding even more attractive and worth the time in learning to breed.
Balzer said his first-service conception rate is above average, and he attributes that, in part, to special equipment on the farm: self-locking headgates.
The cattle are introduced to the headgates from the time they’re calves. When it’s time to breed, a little bit of feed in the alleyway lures them into the gates. “There’s no excitement, no running in a chute or headgates clanging. Everything is done here quiet,” Balzer said.
Some cows are bred to calve in the fall, so there are animals at the right ages to fill popular show classes, and others are bred to calve beginning in January, like most other herds in the area.
But before the calves can come, or the breeding can be done, Jim and Nanette have to decide on bulls. They’ve shared many hours at the kitchen table poring over stud catalogs, pushing the books back and forth across the table, each wanting to choose a different sire.
“We can usually compromise, to get production and [showring appeal],” Nanette said.
Calving. First-calf heifers and their calves are separated from the rest of the herd. The heifers are still growing and maturing, and are fed better second-crop hay to keep body condition.
The separation has paid off for the Balzers: Jim said when the heifers don’t have to fight with the older cows for hay or pasture, they come back into heat right when they’re expected.
The Balzers pick through the calf crop and sell a few bull calves each year, then steer the rest and feed some of them.
Nanette’s work in the hematology lab at Northside Hospital has opened up a strong market for freezer beef, which lets the couple sell approximately 10 head per year, usually by the quarter, to her coworkers.
Culling. The herd is culled with a strong hand to get rid of those who just don’t fit the Balzers’ mindset.
“It could be my favorite cow and she only gets a couple of chances before she’s on the trailer,” Nanette said.
But the cows who do everything right stay around just as long as they can. The operation has several cows that are more than 10 years old, Jim Balzer said, and all but four head in today’s herd were born on the farm.
“We figured if we can make ’em, we don’t need to buy ’em,” he said. “We were doing well in the bred-and-owned classes, but it wasn’t the ones we had bought that were bringing home the banners. We knew we were doing something right,” he said.
Any heifer or cow with a bad temperament gets only one chance before she’s gone.
“In the purebred business, what you’re selling often goes to kids,” for 4-H projects, Jim Balzer said. “We get rid of them to the meat pen, because we don’t want someone else to have to handle our problem animals,” he said.
“If you sell good [cattle], people remember. If you sell bad ones, they really remember,” Balzer added.
Retirement. Jim Balzer relishes retirement for the days he can watch cows for heat, weld broken gates and build new fences.
He’s not slowing down. In the less than three years he’s been full time on the farm, he’s fenced the herds out of all the farm’s ditches and ponds, worked on pasture renovation by planting turnips, and, of course, is watching his herd grow.
The barns are as full as they can be, but the Balzers can’t resist the temptation to see what those award-winning cows can do for calves each January.
“He keeps saying we need to go to less fairs and have less cows, but I think we’re OK,” Nanette said.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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