Topp Herefords’ niche is taking care of customers

GRACE CITY, N.D. -- Ryan Topp's father, Merlin, started Topp Herefords in the 1960s. He died in 1980, and Topp's mother dispersed the registered herd in 1984. In 1988, Topp got back into the registered Hereford business, setting his sights on joi...

Topp Herefords bulls fetch high dollars at their annual production sale. Auctioneer Roger Jacobs, right, calls for bids while Topp Herefords' owner, Ryan Topp, left, looks on during the Feb. 10, 2017, sale in Grace City, N.D. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

GRACE CITY, N.D. - Ryan Topp's father, Merlin, started Topp Herefords in the 1960s. He died in 1980, and Topp's mother dispersed the registered herd in 1984. In 1988, Topp got back into the registered Hereford business, setting his sights on joining the nation's elite registered breeders.

"Gosh, I wanted to sell bulls to semen companies. I wanted to sell them to breeders. I wanted to be the best out there. I set my sights so high, and there were disappointments. I mean disappointment after disappointment," he says. "When we quit trying to be that seedstock source, it happened. It just happened."

The big epiphany, his wife, Prairie, says, was when Topp Herefords started breeding for traits like reproductive efficiency and feed efficiency that make a difference in the real world.

"That's when it really changed, when we started producing ranch-ready cattle that were going to work for our customers," she says.

That focus on serving customers now has extended beyond selling bulls with desired traits to offering risk management tools that help customers - or "clients" as the Topps call them - succeed in the volatile livestock industry.


"It's awful easy to make a very good product in the seedstock business, so what became evident to Topp Herefords was we needed to set ourselves apart from other seedstock providers by offering more than just what we felt was an excellent product," Ryan Topp says. "So customer service became a very high priority for us, in the fact that we wanted to give something back to the person or the operation that were providing us financial income."

The progressive tools Topp Herefords use include employing customer service representatives who work with customers to make their operations as efficient as possible, brokering feeder calf sales through their feedlot alliance and selling replacement heifers through Maternal Replacement Solutions.

They aren't alone in the endeavors. Across the state, near Mandan, N.D., Chad and Julie Ellingson of Ellingson Angus are taking similar steps and work with the Topps through Maternal Replacement Solutions.

"As a seedstock producer, you not only want to provide them with superior genetics, but you also want to supply them with superior service," Chad Ellingson says.

"Our two programs are set apart from anybody else in the U.S., just simply because we do more than sell bulls," Ryan Topp says.

Efficiency and risk management

The beef industry, Jim Lerwick says, has an efficiency problem.

The industries of other protein sources, including pork and chicken, have focused on producing the most output with the least input, Lerwick says. Often, that involves crossbreeding.


Crossbreeding has been shown to improve cattle longevity and efficiency. It allows the strengths of each breed to shine through while minimizing problems.

Lerwick, who ranches in Wyoming and is board president of Maternal Replacement Solutions,

calves in January and February and wanted a calf that would wean early and be ready for the April fat cattle market at 14 months old. To accomplish that, he breeds black baldy females, the result of a cross between Black Angus cows and Hereford bulls, to Charolais bulls.

Ryan Topp stresses the importance of crossbreeding to his clients. If adding a Hereford bull to an Angus herd can add 20 pounds to a steer calf, it can help pay for the bull - even at the often higher prices his bulls bring in the ring, he explains.

Aside from the importance of crossbreeding for commercial cattle, Ryan Topp also stresses the importance of using the right genetics for the right cattle, following health protocols, feeding properly and using the right marketing tools for each operation. Changes that can improve margins might be as simple as making hay versus buying hay, he says.

Prairie Topp says the programs in which Topp Hereford is involved are ways to manage risk, not necessarily ways to make a quick profit. Locking in favorable margins might not mean hitting the highest highs, but it also should help producers avoid falling victim to the lowest lows, she says.

"We're giving them tools to help weather the storm," she explains.

Feeder calves


Topp and Ellingson both help broker sales of feeder calves out of the animals they sell.

"If people have confidence in buying your genetics, you should have confidence in the genetics you're supplying to help them reap the rewards of a better outcome," Ellingson says.

Topp Herefords has alliances with several feedlot companies across the country. In North Dakota, the Topps work with Sinner Bros. & Bresnahan of Casselton, N.D.

Tom Bresnahan, co-owner of SB&B, says cattle purchased through Topp Herefords have been good products over the years. The feedlot returns carcass and performance data to Topp customers so they can make changes to their herd based on production.

"It's tough to continually improve your quality if you don't know what's wrong with your quality," Bresnahan says. The data can help ranches make decisions on culling, using different bulls or other management changes.

Bresnahan says that's important at a time when retailers like Walmart are looking to sell higher-graded beef.

"It tells me the general population wants a higher quality product," he says. "Producers need to understand, if they don't keep the quality up, they're going to get left behind."

While not every calf or every operation will fit the program, Ryan Topp says he brokers sales of about 75 percent of his customers' calves.


Seeing their bull customers' calves also gives the Topps and Ellingsons chances to make necessary changes in their own herds. How Topp Herefords breeds is based solely on client demand, Ryan Topp says.

"We're constantly learning from our commercial producers as much as we hope they're learning from us," he says. "It is most definitely a team effort."

Heifer development

Perhaps the most innovative thing either Topp Herefords or Ellingson Angus are part of is Maternal Replacement Solutions.

"It's a unique program," Ellingson says. "There aren't too many other seedstock producers that are invested into a program like this."

The program involves breeding Black Angus heifers from Ellingson Angus customers or Red Angus heifers from the customers of 5L Red Angus, based in Sheridan, Mont., to Topp Hereford bulls.

"We're mainly invested in it to help our customers," Ellingson says, explaining that it's one more marketing avenue for his customers' heifers.

The operation was Lerwick's vision, which he brought to Topp Herefords six or seven years ago, and the result is red or black baldy heifers, bred with genetics and efficiency in mind.


While Topp Herefords has been part of Lerwick's operation for several years, bringing in Ellingson and 5L is relatively new to the program. Prairie Topp explains bringing in the sources of Angus cattle was a way to help ensure the uniformity, consistency, quality and service of the program.

Ryan Topp says MRS offers an efficient way to add replacement heifers to herds. Producers free up summer pasture and don't have to worry about the hassles that come with heifer development and breeding. Plus, the genetics are selected specifically to produce a superior female, which Lerwick says would be difficult for anyone with less than 1,000 head to do.

"It helps optimize your crossbreeding program," Prairie Topp says.

Ryan Topp says baldy heifers from MRS have been sold into 13 states in the past four years, and there is a waiting list to purchase from the program.

He says the programs his ranch offers may not be for everyone, nor are his bulls. But he thinks those approaches could move the industry toward a more efficient product.

"Don't jump into Topp Herefords thinking it's going to be a quick fix," he says. "But I think we are a very viable option as far as changing the way you used to do it."

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