Dream in motion

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Kansas seedstock ranch makes its mark through hard work, quiet leadership

Story and photos by Steve Suther

A pioneer spirit still guides Molitor AnMolitor ranchgus Ranch, near Zenda, in south-central Kansas. In the historical

sense, that would be Michael Molitor, who at 26 left Luxembourg to work on an Iowa farm in 1891, before marrying

and moving his family to a brickyard in Illinois to save money for their start in Kansas 17 years later.

In a continuing sense, that would be his great-grandson and namesake Mike Molitor. His own sense of place

and time, family, community and responsibility derive from parents Richard and Angela, who started the Angus herd

in 1952.

They were going against a Hereford tradition when they bought 18 heifers for their stake as next-generation

partners with William Molitor, the son of immigrants, who soon came around to Angus as well.

Mike was born the next year, not knowing of course that he would join six younger sisters in ownership of

this pioneering Angus herd. In September 2014, the family was recognized by the Certified Angus Beef ® (CAB®) brand

as winner of the Seedstock Commitment to Excellence Award for bringing those dreams to life for everyone from

ranchers to consumers.

Starting with 4H, the boy and his sisters began raising the profile of Molitor Angus and the family’s flock of

sheep that grew to 500 head before its dispersal when the kids were grown.

Keen to understand the financial side, Molitor earned college degrees in mathematics and business

management and helped plan a future for the herd in the 1970s boom.

Responding to the needs of busy ranchers, they built on calving ease and rapid growth. “We always wanted it

all,” Molitor says, “and we stayed that course to where today we have cattle in the top 20% on most traits.”

They won shows, weighed calves and competed in the Kansas Bull Test, sometimes winning the Angus

category, even as Richard and Mike learned artificial insemination (AI) and created a few Continental-cross club

calves. Shows were the main avenue for promoting their Angus seedstock in 1978 when the son saw an off-farm

opportunity with Farm Credit Services in Pueblo, Colo. He was 26.

“Mike woke up one morning and said he was leaving,” Richard recalls. “That was a bad day.”

Maybe, but there was no let-up in his commitment to farm or family, and he learned much. The farm

economy was headed for a crisis and Molitor saw those signs as an appraiser and vice president at Farm Credit in

1980 when he learned that his grandfather was sick. He decided to come back to help guide the growing Angus

operation.

William died just before the family’s first production sale in 1980, but the next two generations moved

forward. All of them had decided the year before to try embryo transfer and were among the first to do so on three

cows that excelled in producing maternal, show and bull-test winners.

Shows were still the way to prove quality as the Molitors routinely won Kansas Angus Futurity Pen-of-3

female awards into the early ’90s as their reputation for elite maternal genetics grew. And a photo of their carload of

yearling bulls at the 1993 National Western Stock Show still found a spot in the 2014 bull sale catalog.

Today, Mike owns 60% of the cows, his “retired” folks another 30% and the rest of the family 10%. Many of

them come home in the spring to help with the catalog and sale.

The family dream of “always better” was always backed by action in the interest of ranch customers, and

expanded to include consumers more directly in the last 20 years. Molitor even bought a CAB steakhouse in 2010

(see sidebar).

“I see the full circle from conception on, but it’s not only about the big picture,” he says. “Whether we’re

talking about diners at the steakhouse, bull buyers or cattle, the individuals are the most important consideration.”

The Molitors don’t initiate any practice without a plan, and they don’t keep using it without a plan.

“Even though we were pioneers in embryo transfer, we were among the first to stop using it, too,” he says.

“We had identified some cows with enough proven superiority that we wanted more of their influence, but we saw

early on that continued use would narrow our genetic base.”

That’s the last thing they or their customers needed. The level of excellence kept rising, the uniformity kept

improving, but it was all the more valuable for coming from a more diverse genetic base.

Ultrasound in the early 1990s helped identify top marbling cows for the last embryo donors, but since then

the family has nurtured and built up the 300-cow herd on 4,000 acres from a broad genetic base, while introducing

new bloodlines through strategic mating of individual females to proven sires.

Molitor breeds all but the two-year-olds on observed heat, delivering just what her phenotype, pedigree and

performance calls for.

“If we were synchronizing, there’d be no looking at them or thinking about which sire,” he says. “Doing it

this way I see her and I see the calf and I decide what to breed her to.”

As for those wet twos, known industry-wide as a challenge to breed back, the Molitors don’t push them.

“I like to buy three or four new bulls a year and use the first-calf heifers as a progeny-test herd,” he explains.

“It’s my experiment, so I try to get 20 progeny out of each one. I get some bred back quicker, so the calving interval

moves up.”

All of last year’s 80 heifers cycled for AI and the 70 he calved were all unassisted. This year, of 110

replacements, all but one cycled for AI.

“This herd has the most young Pathfinder cows in the state of Kansas [typically two dozen 3- to 5-year-olds]

because of their fertility and our management,” he adds. “We give them a chance to be Pathfinders.”

They have to prove up right from the start, because by six, cows are sold to make room for ever-better

heifers.

“They’re always on the exit ramp,” Molitor says. Yet, with the sustained genetic base he gives nothing up

by moving on, and there are several ready buyers for those bred females each December. Similarly, he maintains

uniformity by selling late March or April calvers into herds that want a later season than his winter-calving herd.

“We keep most of our heifers as replacements, except for those we sell in our annual sale, where sale

selection is based on whether they have a maternal sister in the herd,” Molitor says. “Once a heifer comes into

production, I never like to delete her genetics from the herd by selling all her daughters. I want the genetic pool of

this herd to encompass the blood of every female that we have produced.”

Influence from that pool has spread with several ranches buying more than 40 bulls – thus earning a free one

from Molitor – most local, but as distant as Florida.

Keith and Aaron Smith, Attica, Kan., run 400 commercial Angus cows and have bought bulls at 35 of the

annual bull sales, 48 in all.

“We don’t AI anything, it’s all natural service, so we need a lot of bulls,” Keith says. The father-son outfit has

capitalized on the maternal traits in those bulls, selling bred heifers into 10 states for many years. Meanwhile one

buyer near Sioux Center, Iowa, paid top dollar for their steers for more than a decade, once winning a carload beef

contest with them.

A neighbor in the nearby community of Nashville, Doug Liebl bought and sold his first cattle while in high

school for 18 cents per pound, but started his cowherd in 1963 with cows from a big ranch dispersal near Valentine,

Neb.

“We never bought a cow since then,” he says, but more than 40 bulls over the years from Molitor have

shaped the closed herd.

“I buy calving-ease bulls for the heifers and growthier ones for cows, changing up the bloodlines all the time,

Liebl says. “I had 26 bulls out this summer, all but a few of them from Mike. I like his bulls; he works hard at it, and

it shows.”

Liebl fed 300 calves last year with heifers gaining 3.98 pounds per day and steers 4.2 at Pratt (Kan.) Feeders.

Conversion was 5.5 or better and CAB acceptance from 35% to 40% when harvested on the U.S. Premium Beef

(USPB) grid.

“Our calves have always done well on feed,” he says.

Molitor was a charter USPB member. He and cousin Greg Molitor bought 700 shares and formed a limited

liability company to feed cattle for bull customers, including the Smiths and Liebl’s son-in-law, Greg Reno. In all,

they fed more than 6,500 head, returning carcass data and consulting on the next bulls to buy.

Most of those customers have “graduated” to either retain ownership on their own now or use the data to

sell calves at premium prices, Molitor says. “We still bid on many of them, but only bought three or four strings this

year.”

USPB made a “huge difference” in the industry and for the Molitors, he says.

“I got sold on the idea that you get paid more for a better product; when you organize and all work together,

you make an impact on the world. Dad thought I was crazy for buying the shares,” Molitor says. “He had been

involved with NFO (the National Farmers Organization),” and thought this was just another attempt to get

independent-minded farmers to work together.

“But it was kind of a dream, like CAB was earlier, where we had the right people at the right time to make it

work,” he says. “It almost didn’t, but we had some feedlots pick up the rest of the shares and lease them out to cow-
calf guys that way.”

Pratt Feeders was one of those USPB yards, as well as a CAB partner yard. Manager Jerry Bohn nominated

Molitor for the 2014 award mainly for the confidence he showed in his Angus genetics by feeding all those cattle.

“Mike has been very accurate in predicting how those cattle would perform both in the yard and at the

processing plant,” Bohn says. “The cattle have always been good, and Mike has always been very involved in the

marketing. He comes in and walks the pens to evaluate when they should go to the plant.”

And while the commercial customers tend toward a 40% CAB acceptance rate, Molitor’s own cull stock can

more than double that rate.

The Kansas Angus Association (KAA) Carcass Data Project results illustrate a couple of points, starting with

the Molitor influence in other registered herds. A couple of years ago, winners of the steer futurity were Wendling

Farms from Halstead, Kan., and Klausmeyer K3 Farms, Clearwater, Kan., both Molitor customers that have bought

registered cows and bulls.

Last year, Molitor entered for the first time and the similarity of results was striking. Wendling won again

with 89% CAB acceptance; Molitor was a close second with 88% CAB and Klausmeyer followed with 86% CAB.

“Our females are the foundation of many, many herds,” Molitor notes.

But it’s not just about cattle, says the steakhouse owner: “Small towns will die if they don’t have places like

this. It’s church, it’s community, it’s the whole works.”

That includes leadership, says Anne Lampe, KAA manager., who called Molitor “a true team player,

supporting this organization, the Juniors, Auxiliary and awards.” He served two terms on the Board, chairman of the

Bull Grower Project and finished his tenure as president.

“Mike exemplifies commitment and passion for the Angus breed, beef industry and way of life,” she says,

citing his “equal commitment to consumers and willingness to share knowledge and experience with fellow Angus

breeders.”

Over the years 1,152 unique ranch customers have joined in the dynamic dream that is Molitor Angus Ranch,

a dream that continues to unfold.

“It’s satisfying to be in the full circle, but I’m not settling on it. As other things come along, I will take a look

at them,” Molitor says. “We should always have those dreams, even while we take care of the present.”

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