Featured in the Maine-Anjou Voice – Written by Cam Fagerhaug
Hidden down a winding gravel road in central South Dakota a legendary cowherd known for producing national show ring champions grazes on rock speckled hillsides. A winner’s backdrop fades into a rolling prairie landscape and that coveted judge’s slap becomes a rancher’s firm handshake. The Dave and Nancy Caffee Ranch cows might be known for their “look” but these Maine-influenced herd matrons are more than just a pretty face. Their genetics take them beyond the banner wins and provide a living for this ranching family.
“Every cow on this place is one I raised, I just like knowing everything about them, and being able to look them up in my book for generations back,” Dave Caffee, owner of Caffee Ranch, explains the fact that he hasn’t bought a female for thirty years and that “calving book” traces back to cow records from 1972. Rightfully so, that is one of Dave’s proudest accomplishments.
Born into the cattle business, Dave grew up not far from where he and wife Nancy operate now, on a homestead nestled within the rolling prairie hills west of Wessington Springs, South Dakota. Dave’s father, Les Caffee was a pioneer of artificial insemination in the area in the 60’s, often teaching neighbors and friends how to A.I. While always a part of his family’s operation, Dave acquired his first few cows through FFA projects and was afforded an opportunity to add to his own herd in 1976.
“My dad was reducing his herd due to the drought here in ’76, so I bought thirty cows from him. They were half Maine and half Simmis, dad had already been AIing since 1963 at that point. Then I bought a few from Bud and Leo DeJong around that time. Those were halfblood Maine cows, Covino III daughters actually. They were some really exceptional cows, they did us a lot of good over the years.”
1976 also marked the first year Dave sold a “show steer”, one he raised from a home raised cow. An Angus sired calf by Coastal Boswell 777. That calf was selected by Don Lindsey, a cattle buyer from Iowa who was in the area looking at feeder calves. “That steer went on to win the Clay County Fair in Iowa for Don’s son Shane Lindsey. That was a fun feeling and seemed to get people to come look through my calves the next year. We weren’t really trying to raise show steers at that time, we were just trying to raise good cattle.”
Along the way, Dave met area cowgirl Nancy (Wulf) through mutual friends. The two often ran into each other at jackpot ropings. The two married in 1980 and from there built a ranch and a family near Dave’s hometown of Wessington Springs.
With a strong foundation of percentage Maine Anjou cows Dave continued on with the production of both winning and productive genetics. To make progress in a cowherd Dave finds that utilizing crossbreeding is a great advantage. “Crossbreeding really works here in this environment,” Dave explains his reasoning for taking advantage of heterosis. “I can market a Maine Influenced calf on our fall private treaty sale in September because they have eye appeal, and our Maine x Angus bulls we sell in the spring have the biggest scrotal measurements and yearling weights of all the bulls. That shot of Maine adds so much value and versatility to our cowherd.”
Because of that added value, the Caffees bred over 200 cows to Maine influence bulls last summer and plan to do the same in 2020. ” We sold about forty low Maine heifers in our fall sale in 2019 and out of 37 bulls, 20 were Maine influenced on our March bull sale. Next year we will have a few more. We don’t just target people that raise show cattle, we target people that want attractive cattle that perform.”
In conversation with Dave, you don’t hear him say “I” or “me” but rather “we” and “us”, undoubtedly because it is a true family operation. It’s no secret Nancy’s cooking might be part of their customer retention, most notably her chocolate chip cookies, but her decision making regarding cattle matings, pasture rotations and hay development play a pivotal role in the Caffee Ranch day to day operation.
Dave and Nancy’s oldest daughter Lacey also contributes to daily work on the ranch when not traveling for her business, Lacey Caffee LLC. Youngest son Treg works for Titan Machinery in Pierre, SD and assists on weekends when he can.
Because Lacey and Treg aren’t always close to home it’s important to the Caffee’s to select a low maintenance cow to retain in the herd. One that can take care of herself in the harsh conditions the South Dakota plains often provide, but produce a calf with eye appeal to fall into their maternal/bull sale program or produce a calf for their fall steer and heifer sale.
Years of experience in selection and culling give Dave and Nancy the foresight to select the best replacement females from their heifer calf crop each year “First we look at the pedigree, really the cow history, if she comes from a productive cow family that checks a box, their look is important too, of course. They’ve got to have eye appeal to produce marketable calves. Structure and soundness are the third box, we have some rough terrain and they have to be able to get around,” Dave explains.
Long-term requirements to stay in the herd are gentle dispositions and Dave’s biggest pet peeve- good udders. “A cow’s udder needs to be above the hock. That means longevity to me. I am not a fan of white underlines either, sun burnt bags are a problem. And one small problem like needing to help a calf nurse can take a whole day to fix and then we still have to get chores done. If I have to help a cow, I guarantee I won’t be helping her the next year, she’ll be gone.”
For their first, second and third calf, Caffee Ranch females are mated to maternally targeted bulls, most often Maine, Simmental or Angus. It isn’t until their fourth calf do they potentially put a cow into their club calf program to produce a show steer. This allows the family to evaluate the best direction for that female and gives them the opportunity to retain daughters and market sons on their spring bull sale as well as allow for a variety of genetics used to keep their cowherd current in an ever changing industry.
Their philosophy in female selection has produced multiple National and State Fair champions for young exhibitors including the 2007 Jr. National High Percent Maine Anjou Heifer DNC Miss ??? exhibited by Danner Duncan. Later that year, a now well known producer on the Caffee Ranch DNC Miss Sugar S10 was named Champion Low Percent Maine in Kansas City and Reserve Low Maine at the National Western Stock Show for daughter Lacey. In 2014, Lacey saw something special in a heifer on the family’s September private treaty sale and purchased DNC Miss Oh La La A90. It proved a profitable decision as they captured both the Kansas City and Louisville crown jewels and A90 was later named Reserve Show heifer of the year. While show ring wins play a significant role in their cowherd success, it’s just as important those heifers produce as much as they win once they’re turned out to pasture.
Where some operations rely on EPDs for the selection and mating of their stock, actual weights are another detrimental part of the program’s decisions. Dave articulates, “We actually prefer a 90 pound calf out of our cows, and our heifers can easily have an 80 pound calf. Sometimes those 60-70 pound calves don’t have the vigor or toughness to survive if they are born in the cold temperatures common to here. I also believe you lose pelvic area in your females when you continue to stack light birth weight on light birth weight.” Dave also adds, “You’ve got to have a little weight to begin with to have growth, those are the calves that gain all summer long and really perform post weaning.
Keeping up with contemporary practices often provides a challenge, especially when fostering a cowherd off the beaten path in central South Dakota. But Lacey’s marketing knowledge and abilities help set their program apart. While their approach to advertising is simple, keeping it mostly local, it proves highly effective for both of their annual sales to be backed by Lacey’s professional touch in photographs, videos and advertisement. Most recently, Lacey’s social media management has drawn an even larger spotlight on the ranch’s methods and daily activities.
“Planning a budget for two sales a year, our fall steer and heifer private treaty bid off sale and our online spring bull sale, could be daunting but by utilizing area specific print options and social media marketing, we see a better result in our money spent,” Lacey explains.
The Caffees are quick to point out the efforts of the renowned AMAA Junior program and how that has impacted their program as well. With more incentives for juniors to show and participate in the junior activities they have seen an increased interest in registered Maine heifers on their fall private treaty sale. “A kid can buy a show heifer on our sale the end of September, but still have a great cow to turn out after the summer shows are over,” Lacey adds.
The Caffee program included marketing Maine, Simmental and Angus bulls private treaty from the beginning in the 70’s. However Dave and family felt it was time for a change in 2013 and began holding an online bull sale the third week in March. “It was Brad Smith that suggested we go online, our bull numbers had grown due to an increase in demand and it was just time. I was skeptical that our customers wouldn’t like it, but I was pleasantly surprised at how well they accepted it and we still have great foot traffic through the bulls,” commented Dave.
Another way the operation maintains efficiency is implementing an evening feeding program during calving season. “Our cows normally calve around 6am because they spend the night eating. About 80% of our calves are born during the day, and they have been for the forty years we’ve done evening feedings. To try and find new calves in the dark during a blizzard can be near impossible so it really works for us.” says Dave. “This helps too, because we don’t many extra hands around here.”
Between winning multiple state fairs in the same year, accumulating national championships and selling countless head to folks sight unseen, it’s those low maintenance cows with a look that got Caffee’s started in the beef business. However, it’s passion and the ability to procure lasting customer relationships that allow their operation to press forward. “Some of our customers have made the trip to see our cattle for nearly 40 years, to think people like your cattle enough to travel to see them, and us, well that is just pretty neat.” Dave says with a grin. When people respect your work that much, well, it’s hard to put into words how that makes us feel. It just makes it real enjoyable and we are very appreciative of folks’ support.”