An interview with Ken Bentz by Tami Arvik Blake
For Ken Bentz, ranching and realty go hand in hand.
The eastern Oregon cattleman grew up on the family ranch near Drewsey, Oregon; he went on to earn a master’s degree in business and has now been practicing real estate for 17 years.
One of the best things about real estate, he says, is knowledge gained about properties for sale or lease. You see, Ken never lost interest in ranching, and through his real estate experience, he has been able to stay on top of land opportunities.
A few years ago he and his wife, Debbie, and their three children – Natalie, 15; Nichole, 14; and Jack, 10 – were able to get back into ranching. These days Ken runs about 1,100 Angus cows on both deeded and leased properties in Washington and Oregon.
“Basically, I came back because this is where I want to raise my kids,” he says.
Ken believes time spent away from ranching gave him business sense and a better perspective of life in general. “I would recommend the same to any young person,” he says. “If you never leave the family ranch, ten years down the road you might be wondering what else is out there. The way I see it, you’ve got to be doing something all day every day for the rest of your life, so you might as well enjoy what you’re doing… that’s not to say I enjoy working outside when the weather is this bad!”
Though ranching full time, Ken still keeps his real estate business on the side, working out of a home office at ranch headquarters and traveling when necessary.
“These days I handle only larger agricultural properties,” he says of his real estate business. “I do not need to do the real estate work to keep the ranch afloat; I do it because it’s a lot of fun, it pays really well, and it keeps me in a position to know which properties might be out there for sale or lease. It’s a good place to be, because all of us are aware that if you’re going to make any real money in the ranching business, it’s going to be on land, not cows.”
When Ken can’t give his full attention to the ranch because of other commitments, Debbie pitches in as bookkeeper and good horseback help. The kids, too, help out when they’re not busy with school activities. And two full-time employees keep the ranch operation running smoothly.
“There are inevitably some conflicts with time,” Ken says of his varied interests, “but I’m not expected to be here every single day.”
Part of what makes a double schedule doable for Ken is his commitment to a low-maintenance operation… and along with that, a low-maintenance cow.
Location, as well, demands an efficient cow of the Bentz crew. The southeast Washington/eastern Oregon country where they ranch is not the easiest to run cows on. Normal winter weather for Ken Bentz – and his cowherd - is 12 inches of snow, driving wind, and 10 degrees below zero.
To fit in at this outfit, bulls have to winter light, then be willing to cover lots of cows during a short breeding season in rough country.
And they have to be able to consistently produce the kinds of calves that flourish in the high desert, elevation 4,000 feet. Average precipitation in that country is 13 inches in a year – most of which comes in the form of winter snow.
After mild winters the last few years, winter is back with a vengeance in 2008.
“When hay is one hundred sixty bucks a ton and the snow’s coming down and the temperatures are low, you really notice how much a cow will eat,” Ken says. “This would be a bad year to be stuck with a bunch of huge Charolais cows that weigh 1,800 pounds.”
It takes a hardy, efficient animal to flourish on the high desert. For Ken, the ideal cow will weigh 1,150 pounds, birth a calf weighing 75, wean a six-month-old calf at 575 pounds, and last until she is 12 years old. Good feet, too, are a necessity – Ken’s a stickler on that one because he’s annoyed by bull producers who trim feet instead of correcting the problem through a breeding program.
Ken talks no-nonsense business, but he’s not afraid to throw in a little dry humor now and again.
“These are pretty much the kind of cattle that we’ve been working toward for 40 years,” he says of those described above. “We had a lot of Hereford cattle when I was a kid, then we made the move to Angus. We never wanted to have big cattle, because we saw that big-framed cattle just never have worked for the commercial cattleman. I mean, what are you going to do with them? I guess you could ride them, maybe.
“In reality, there’s just no efficiency with a cow that has to consume that much feed to maintain,” Ken says. “And if she’s a bigger cow she’ll produce that much more milk… probably more than her young calf needs. You’ll never get them to produce enough nutrition to make that milk and cycle too.”
Ken says he appreciates Angus cattle not because they’re trendy “but because it is the breed that will perform under our conditions.”
Of Ken’s six siblings, two of his brothers still ranch in eastern Oregon.
“Our operations are separate businesses but we work together on what we can,” Ken says. “Between the three of us we run 4,500 cows, and we all have pretty similar cows.”
But even if you’ve got the cow, you still need the perfect bull to breed her to.
A longtime fan of the legacy, Ken tracked down the modern-day N-Bar genetics at Sinclair Cattle Co. four years ago. He’s traveled to Sinclair’s annual spring production sale in Buffalo, Wyoming from his home in Burns, Oregon ever since.
“I’m not a person who knows the pedigree of every cow I ever walked by. But I do know what particular lines of cattle work best for me,” Ken says.
Ken knows what he wants in his cowherd because he’s learned from experience. “A few years ago, because we had pushed light birth weight bulls, we ended up with small-boned, wiry cows,” Ken says. “When we realized we had to correct that, we decided to go back to the line of cattle that was best in the Angus breed, and I believe those are the N-Bar cattle. I do not think that the breed has produced a better bull than Emulation EXT. Now, thanks to Sinclair bulls and N-Bar genetics, our cattle are getting some bone and length back without going into larger birth weight and cows that weigh 1,800 pounds.
If you do sit and look at the numbers, you’ll see that Sinclair doesn’t get real overboard in any direction with what they’re trying to get done with those cows,” Ken says. “That’s their sales pitch, and that’s actually what they’re doing.”