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Finding Their Niche | April 2023

By Sarah Hill

Photos courtesy DLCC Ranch

DLCC Ranch maximizes heterosis with South Devon genetics for high-quality composite cattle.

The South Devon breed is nearly synonymous with the DLCC Ranch, owned by the Giess family, Pierz, Minn. The family’s commitment to creating South Devon and South Devon-influenced composite cattle with excellent mothering abilities, high-quality carcass performance, gentle dispositions, and success in the show ring speaks for itself.

The Early Years

Dar Giess is a fourth-generation rancher with a background in Herefords who got into the show circle. He accepted a rodeo scholarship to Colby Community College in Kansas and took a job in Colorado after meeting Lynn, who would become his wife. Lynn is a third-generation rancher with a bachelor’s degree from Colorado State University. Lynn also has had a storied career in agricultural communications, even working under the famed cowboy poet Baxter Black for a time. So, cattle were at the heart of the Giess family from the very beginning.

In the beginning of their marriage, Dar and Lynn were managing the cattle operation owned by Lynn’s parents, with two locations - one near Sauk Rapids, Minn., and the other outside Hoven, S.D. Both ranches had stints with Angus, Charolais, Salers, and South Devon cattle, with the primary focus being Charolais at the South Dakota location.

Diving into South Devons

Dar attended a South Devon herd dispersal sale in 1987 at the Rich Prairie Livestock Exchange in Pierz. He ended up buying 13 bred heifers, and one particular heifer, Tiffany, ended up winning the national show that same year. After that, the Giess family was hooked on the South Devon breed.

Managing two ranches in different states is extremely challenging, so the Giess family worked to consolidate their cattle onto one location - the DLCC Ranch, purchased in 1996. The Salers herd dispersed in 1994, with the Charolais herd dispersing a few years later. By the early 2000s, the Giess family focus was on South Devons.

“Their passion was South Devons, and it was easier to calve them out in the Minnesota winters than some of those other breeds,” said Lane Giess, Dar and Lynn’s son. “My parents really focused on docility, and the disposition of South Devons is far superior to anything else.”

The DLCC Ranch has utilized artificial insemination since the early 1990s and began doing carcass ultrasounds in the early 2000s. “The South Devon breed is objectively challenged when it comes to proper genetic evaluations, due to it being a smaller breed population, so we wanted to capture as much data as possible to help with our ability to market bulls,” Lane said.

The Giess family currently genotypes all bulls offered in the spring sale through the North American South Devon Association, and the information is sent to the International Genetic Solutions (IGS) multi-breed genetic evaluation.

“The EPDs we get are comparable to any breed association that also uses IGS for multi-breed EPDs,” Lane said. “Because of all of the extra data that comes with IGS, we’re able to have more accurate, better evaluated animals than ever before.”

Until the mid-2000s, the Giess family’s business model was driven by selling cattle focused on phenotype. Lane says his parents were extremely critical of how they wanted their cattle to look, while using performance data to help make breeding decisions.

“With two decades of data behind our cattle, we realized that our market could be expanded, selling more bulls to commercial breeders, providing a crossbred alternative,” Lane said. “We already had a good starting point for phenotype and had a leg up on the data.”

Maximizing and Marketing Heterosis

Today, DLCC Ranch is home to 300 South Devon females, with the herd split into spring and fall groups across the 850-acre spread. DLCC Ranch rents quite a bit of pasture, as the herd has grown considerably since 2015. The operation includes about 100 acres of crop ground, which is primarily corn that’s used for silage as winter feed.

The Giess family started out selling show cattle and marketing performance bulls, but soon found their niche with commercial breeders instead. About a third of the females are purebred South Devon, with another third being high percentage South Devon, and the other third as low percentage South Devons that serve as a base to focus on composite development.

“About 15 years ago, we started introducing more composites into the system, and we quickly learned that half-blood South Devons work really well,” Lane said. “We also have composites with Angus, Simmental, and Red Angus, marketing them as an opportunity for commercial cattle producers to use South Devon genetics.”

Crossing other breeds with South Devons yields calves with maximum heterosis, a major selling point for the Giess family. South Devon cattle grow fairly quickly, too, and have outstanding mothering abilities and milk, according to Lane. Carcass performance is another selling point, as South Devons historically marbled similar to Angus cattle.

“From a carcass perspective, South Devons blended marbling ability with optimal cutability,” Lane added. “We had to breed out the big frames, tough calving ease, and heavy calves at birth.”

Since the mid-2000s, the DLCC Ranch has worked to breed more performance-oriented cattle with exceptional growth, focusing on improving traits that are economically relevant to commercial producers.

“We wanted to keep the maternal qualities of our South Devons, but have added Simmental genetics into the mix for good feet, good udders, disposition, and moderate frame size,” Dar said. “We use Simmental on the purebred South Devon females and the half-South Devon, half-Angus females, too. We’re also adding in Angus or Red Angus bulls for a three-way cross.”

The Giess family is very selective when choosing bulls for matings with their females, Lane said, because they want to bring different traits into the herd while not setting back genetic progress.

“We use a lot of our own genetics for breeding, too, so we have to be pretty disciplined on which bulls are brought into the program,” Lane added. “We want to boost genetic diversity and add complimentary traits, so we mix in a lot of other breeds for composites with the South Devon genetics. It’s taken us decades to get to that point, but in the last five years, we’ve seen a huge demand for our cattle. In 2015, we sold less than 30 bulls. Last year, we sold close to 100.”

More Interest in South Devons

Notably, many commercial cattle breeders are open to South Devon genetics, driven by the quest for dividends from heterosis. For example, more commercial breeders are using SimAngus, LimFlex or Balancer bulls on a straightbred cow base and getting good calves out of those matings.

“Because the breeds used to be so different, the resulting calves were a nightmare,” Lane said. “We had to evolve the cattle market to a point where crossbreeding is now being given a second chance.”

One unique quality about South Devon cattle is that they’re the only other black British breed that doesn’t throw white, although Lane points out that black Herefords are gaining momentum.

“It’s an opportunity for us,” Lane said. “South Devons fit into a composite system and do a lot of things very well while not being extreme in any area. We know that crossbreeding three breeds captures maximum heterosis, so if you want to capture the most dollars and complementary characteristics, then South Devons composites can be the answer.”

Dar adds that once cattle producers have worked with South Devons, they typically stay with the breed. “South Devons are very feed efficient, and with high feed prices, feed to gain is still very high for the breed,” Dar said. “South Devons are getting more respect from bigger outfits. If you want cattle with a black or red hide without a white face, the opportunities are endless.”

South Devons are also an excellent opportunity for young cattle producers who are looking for an affordable breed to get into and sell cattle. “You can invest $50,000 in the South Devon breed and be selling crossbred bulls the next year,” Dar said.

DLCC keeps many of their home-bred females, but they sell several, too. Dar said that when his customers tell him how happy they are with their bulls, he asks them to tell their neighbors. The Giess family sells 1,000 to 1,500 units of semen from their own bulls each year, in addition to selling bulls.

“It seems like there’s more of an emphasis on heterosis in the cow herd to pick up some pounds, but when you bring heterosis back in on the sire side to capture more, the calves have an added $80 to $100 in value,” Dar said.

About 200 head calve out in late February/early March, and the other 100 calve in mid-August/September.

The operation’s nutrition program has a foundation with corn silage, with corn or barley screenings for the cows. The cattle graze from May 15 to November and are supplemented with corn. Bulls also receive silage rations with screenings, but their ration is more low energy.

“Because our sale is usually held the second or third week of April, most guys want to turn bulls out two to three weeks after the sale, so we want the bulls to be in working condition right away,” Lane said.

At the DLCC Ranch’s annual sale, 120 to 150 total head are sold, with a mix of yearling and fall-born bulls and females. Lane said that this year, the operation has a large female inventory, so more females will be sold this year than ever before.

“We sold cattle to 25 states last year,” Lane said. “The majority of our cattle go out West, a lot to Idaho, the Dakotas, Montana, Nevada, and Utah. Missouri and Kansas are another hub. We’ve also been selling bulls to Arizona for six years. They are extremely adaptable.”

Show Ring Success

The National Western Stock Show has been a big part of the Giess family’s lives. Dar has attended 53 consecutive shows, and Lane has attended since age 6. “It’s our big event, and we’ve won quite enough over the years,” Lane said. “It’s important for us to stay relevant in the eyes of folks who evaluate cattle for phenotype, so we like to benchmark our cattle through showing.”

DLCC Ranch has taken champion banners at the National North American South Devon Association Show and the Northern International Livestock Exposition (NILE). Cattle bred by DLCC swept the 2021 National South Devon Show at the NILE, with DLCC Gold Dust 64G being crowned the 2021 champion bull and DLCC Belinda Ann 33H taking 2021 champion female. The 2021 reserve champion female was also a DLCC female, DLCC Hope 29H. Gold Dust was also the 2022 Grand Champion at the NWSS National Show. Gold Dust is one of the bulls with semen available for sale.

Connecting the Dots

Dar is responsible for bull delivery, and it’s a role he relishes. He loves to talk with customers about what they like and how the operation can improve. Personal relationships drive customer service for the Giess family, according to Dar. He also noted that the DLCC Ranch is committed to working just as hard for smaller customers as their larger ones. Dar said he works hard to build relationships with owner-buyers to help his customers connect those dots.

“We try to have all of our customers follow the same vaccination protocols and standards for weaning and castrating so we can represent those cows to the best of their ability,” Dar said. “We work with smaller customers to coordinate selling sets of calves on the same day at the same sale barn so buyers can purchase a potload of the same kind of genetics. Breeders are missing out on 200 pounds in lost value just by not crossing the cattle right.”

A Family Enterprise

Dar and Lynn are responsible for the primary day-to-day duties at the ranch, but the operation remains firmly a family business. The entire family is actively involved in the success of the business and lend their talents as needed. Lane, a current doctoral student at Colorado State University studying animal breeding and genetics, is deeply involved with selection decisions and bull marketing prior to and during the sale. Kate, Lane’s wife, is a skilled photographer and digital content creator, and is crucial to building awareness of the brand and helping showcase the ranching operation. Leah, Dar and Lynn’s youngest, works for an agricultural marketing agency and helps tell the DLCC story through social and print channels. The success of the DLCC Ranch business is deeply rooted in family values.

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