Through technological wonders that include cryogenic storage and the bovine equivalent of surrogate motherhood, a one-man ranching operation near Statesboro gives a start to some of the top-rated beef cattle growing up on ranches across the country.
Andrew Davis explains to a visitor arriving at Davis Ranch that his ranch can't be sized up on old-fashioned criteria.
"The cattle business has somewhat evolved over time," he said. "It used to be when people asked you about your ranch it was how many acres you had and how many cows you had. That's all changed — pretty much."
Indeed, numbers like that might still be used to size up, to a limited extent, a ranch on the opposite end of the beef business, sending finished cattle to the packinghouse. But saying that Davis Ranch is a 100-acre spread with about 40 cows and a few bulls would give a falsely modest impression of its status at the "seed stock" end of the chain.
Davis spends many hours searching Internet databases for bulls around the country whose characteristics will complement those of his best Simmental, Angus and hybrid SimAngus cows. This way, his herd consistently produces above-average calves and embryos, as well as some bulls that score in the top 1 percent nationally on broad, numerical indexes of quality. It is all done by artificial insemination, with the cattle's offspring often leaving the ranch before they are born.
In his shed, Davis shows off two cryogenic storage tanks, which look like space-age butter churns or portly fire extinguishers.
"In these two tanks, for example, are about 140 head of embryos," Davis said, speaking of head of cattle the way ranchers do when sizing up their herds. "They're all in liquid nitrogen, and we can store hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of embryos in these two tanks."
The liquid nitrogen, slowly boiling back to gas at minus 321 degrees Fahrenheit, holds the embryos frozen in suspended animation. These particular tanks can store embryos for up to 20 weeks without being refilled with liquid nitrogen.
By the numbers
Numbers that matter more than acres to Davis have names like EPD, API and TI. EPDs are "expected progeny differences," predictions of how calves from certain bull-cow pairings will perform, from ease of calving, birth weight and weaning weight to yield grade, tenderness and marbling of beef.
The API is the All-Purpose Index, a predictor of dollars per cow bred to a particular bull, while the TI is the more specific Terminal Index, dollars earned if all calves are raised directly for market.
Davis had penned nine young bulls, around 13 months old, which he plans to sell Dec. 13 at the Driggers-Strickland Bull Sale near Glennville. Although most of his ranch's progeny are sold at the embryo stage, he does sell bulls once a year.
"These represent the Number 2 API/TI groups of bulls in the country," he said. "The EPDs and indexes are quality parameters, and based on those parameters, these bulls represent the Number 2 bull group in the United States."
Davis pointed out a bull he said should be worth about $20,000 as breeding stock. Prices of $5,000 to $20,000 per bull, he said, explain why unborn cattle sold as embryos can be a more attractive investment for cattle producers further up the chain, even at $800 to $1,250 each. The embryos are sold in sets of three, guaranteeing one pregnancy, and he has sold about 10 sets this fall.
One man, with help
Davis Ranch is a one-man operation in the sense that Davis has no employees. All of the regular chores, from the twice-daily feedings to the tagging and weighing all of the calves each fall, he undertakes by himself. He shows off a chute and gate system designed for safe operation by one person.
But he is not alone, either in the history of his business or the education, cooperation and networking that make the most advanced aspects of it possible.
Now in his 50s, Andrew Davis starting working the ranch with his parents, John and Elynor Davis, when they founded it in 1982. Elynor Davis, PhD, taught economics at Georgia Southern University for more than 30 years.
Andrew Davis' father retired from the cattle business about eight years ago, but both his parents have returned to it on a smaller scale, selling embryos under a separate brand, Coleman Creek Cattle Company LLC.
The Davises were originally from Texas, and Andrew earned a bachelor's degree in wildlife and fisheries from the University of Wyoming and a master's in animal science with specialization in reproductive physiology from Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas.
For herd health needs beyond the annual vaccinations, which Davis does himself, the family has always called on Dr. Billy Nessmith, veterinarian.
Another cattle producer in northern Bulloch County, Romaine Cartee, handles artificial insemination procedures for Davis Ranch and helps Davis with breeding-related decisions such as choosing artificial insemination sires.
Davis and several other breeders in eastern Georgia, as a group, bring in Dr. Randall Hinshaw, a veterinarian from Harrisonburg, Virginia, for the embryo extraction procedure, known as flushing.
Nor does Davis ship embryos individually to buyers. Packed in a "vapor shipper" tank, they go 60 or 70 at a time to Bovine Elite in College Station, Texas, which stores them for a fee until they are purchased.
"I couldn't have gotten where I am today without help from others," Davis said.
He plans a further cooperative evolution in the near future, outsourcing embryos to be birthed by cows on a nearby farm and raised as calves.
"Hopefully by 2016 we'll have a sale every year here with 20 bulls that are top 1 percent bulls and 20 heifers that are top 1 percent and as many embryos as we want to put on sale," Davis said.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.