Walter didn't inherit this farm. He bought it and has had to figure out how to make this cattle operation not only pay for itself, but also the land. Necessity is the mother of invention, and his background in the business world has helped him to look for creative solutions to questions and problems with which all cattle breeders and cow calf operators have to deal. Below we share some of our methods and hope they help you to look at some of the issues facing the modern cattleman in a new way.
When you break it down there are only a few parts of the cattle operation that you can have a direct influence on.
A.) Genetics - We artificially inseminate all of our registered cattle, which gives us access to genetics that would otherwise be inaccessible. We also invest in a couple of top donor quality per year to add to our herd. To maximize the best cows' influence, we flush them and use an embryo transfer program to get the most out of our best genetics. We breed cattle that are low input, easy fleshing, functional, have excellent udder quality, and perform in our environment over the long haul.
The question becomes, "Which sire should I be using on my herd?" Most cattlemen in our area of the country run a cow/calf operation. These cattlemen get paid when they sell their calves, by weight. Usually these calves are sold at or shortly after weaning. Does this mean that you should choose the bull with the highest weaning weight? Not necessarily. The decision to use a herd sire should take your operation's current condition and goals in to consideration. If you are selling calves at weaning an important EPD to look at is $W, which takes birth weight, weaning weight, maternal milk, and mature cow size into consideration to give you the expected dollar per head difference in future progeny pre-weaning performance within a typical herd. If you have a job that only lets you check the cattle sporadically, a bull with a lower birth weight EPD is important. You not being there to pull a calf that needs to be pulled is never good for your bottom line. If you are trying to run your cattle primarily on grass, $EN is a good statistic to consider. Cow Energy value is a way to compare sires for their ability to reduce cow energy requirements (expressed in dollar savings per cow per year) in future daughters. Given our environment we look for cattle with good muscle quality, proven genetics, above average EPD's with an emphasis on BW, $EN, and $W, and a history of longevity in their ancestry.
B.) Herd health – As a registered Angus breeder it is imperative that we vaccinate our cattle. We talk to our veterinarian yearly to see if we need to adjust anything in our vaccination program. We also make sure to de-worm our cattle at regular intervals, rotating types of de-wormer every few years. As a part of our low input operation which concentrates on longevity, we have decided against and have never used any growth hormones, or steroids in our herd. Our advice is to talk to your veterinarian about designing a custom herd health program. Sick animals are treated with antibiotics as needed, and if there is a case of foot rot or a sore leg in the herd the animal is isolated until it recovers to minimize the risk of further injury to the animal.
C.) Nutrition – Our cows have free choice access to minerals and salt throughout the year, and access to Feed-in-a-drum, a protein mineral during stressful winter months. However, our cows eat grass. . . and hay during the winter. If you aren't a farmer who will be planting whether you have cows or not, the question is, "Does it make financial sense to spend the time and money growing food for your cows when they could just be eating grass?" It doesn't make sense for us.
D.) Deciding which animals to cull – We cull based on performance for a mature animal, did the animal meet the goals we set for it by having a live calf, weaning it at the appropriate weight, get bred back, and remain easy fleshing, healthy and functional. For a calf, we rate its disposition, weight, phenotype, and genetics before deciding to raise it out. Selection is a constant process. We make the decision to cull animals that are not docile, and animals that can not keep their body condition at an acceptable level year round, and then actually cull them at the most profitable time of year based on seasonal market prices. We do not sell our cull animals as registered seed stock, but instead take them to the local cattle sale barn.
E.) Business – We are all in the business to make money. We strive to build long lasting relationships with our customers and thereby creating loyal repeat buyers. Click on the following link to read what The Black Grove Way entails.
Minimize Cattle Stress
We work our cattle in a low pressure environments.
Our cattle operation is divided into five groups of pastures. Our cattle have to be loaded onto a trailer to move them from any of these pasture groups to the next. Cattle can be dangerous if they get upset. We don't use electric cattle prods and try to work as gently as possible with the cattle to achieve the desired results. When we call a group of cattle up to the barn to artificially inseminate one of them, we will put out a five gallon bucket of feed. It is imperative that you stay near the cattle while they are snacking on this. We try to get them used to us, and have succeeded to the point that several cows that we have that have never been halter broken will let us pet them in the pasture. We believe that these techniques help to keep our cattle calmer when we need to work them for vaccinations, de-worming, weaning calves, during breeding season when they are artificially inseminated, and when we load them onto a trailer to change herd locations. Having calmer cattle is safer for the people working with them, and we believe that our cattle have fewer miscarriages than they would if the cattle were under heavy stress. We also don't have to deal with cattle running through and jumping over fences and gates, which is annoying, expensive, and dangerous. In addition, our cattle come to us when we go out into the pasture, as opposed to running the other way. This makes counting your cattle, checking for new calves, checking heats, and calling your cows into a corral or pen much easier. The following article has some good tips on working cattle safely and efficiently.
Run The Numbers
We put out very little fertilizer because we import our hay from other farmers. We are not taking the nutrients out of our pastures. Every year when we feed hay, we are importing around 250 tons of organic matter to our pastures. When we feed hay, we drop the bale of hay somewhere that can benefit from having more soil and grass, and then we roll the bale out over the pasture. This lets all the cattle, including calves, get their share of hay and prevents new calves from getting stepped on as often as they might if we were feeding using a hayring. The secondary benefits of this technique are that we are adding organic matter to our soil, spreading seeds from the hay over our pastures, and fertilizing those same seeds with all natural registered Angus fertilizer. We have two pastures that had as little as 65% grass coverage three years ago. We didn't plow them up and reseed them, instead we made sure to feed the cattle hay in those pastures over the past three winters in the manner described above. One pasture has done so well that we won't be feeding hay there this winter, as it actually now has arguably the best grazing on that farm, while the other is making progress and will be in similar shape after this winter.
Working With Nature
We are always looking for more efficient ways to get the most out of our land, for the least amount of money. When we plant perennial grasses, we plant native species. We have found these species to be far more tolerant of our local conditions (frequent droughts) than some supposedly higher yielding species. We also try to make nature work for us. To help offset the fact that we don't fertilize as much as many people would believe you have to, we plant some clover in each of our pastures to help affix nitrogen to the soil. We do this by mixing annual clover seed in the free choice mineral feeders in the pastures. After the cows eat the minerals, they plant the clover all over the pasture, in a ready-made source of fertilizer. Given cows will not eat the grass around their manure piles, the clover has time to develop and establish its root system sometime.
You may think that this is crazy, but we don't even have a tractor. We outsource all of our equipment needs with the exception of two pickup trucks, a cattle trailer, a flatbed trailer, and a tumblebug. Dixon feeds round bales of hay throughout the winter with a truck and tumblebug, and sprays the pastures (see next paragraph) that need to be sprayed by renting an applicator that can be pulled behind a pick-up truck. (If you don't know what a tumblebug is, go to a Tractor Supply Company, they have them for sale. It allows you to feed round bales of hay by backing up to the bale, grabbing the bale, flipping it onto the trailer, and towing it behind the truck.) Every year we no-till winter grazing, bush hog the pastures that need it, feed around 350 bales of hay to the mature cows, and feed our heifers 1% of their body weight in silage. Obviously, if we had 500 or more head of cattle, the numbers would be different, but with 125 head of mature cattle on 270 acres of pasture, it doesn't make sense for us to invest in a silage wagon, silage cutter, dump truck, bush hog, hay conditioner, rake, baler, no-till drill, and a tractor when we can contract it out and not have to tie up our capital in machinery. We are raising and breeding cattle, and don't feel like we need to run an equipment warehouse and mechanics garage to do so. Even if we wanted to, we couldn't afford the time or the money to, which is the real lesson here: Buying equipment and doing it yourself, while fun for some is actually more expensive than hiring someone else not only in the short run, but also in the long run. Our contract equipment and operator cost averages $4500 per year.
With less than two and a half acres per mature cow, we have to get creative to keep our numbers high enough to be able to have a production sale. We outsource raising out our heifers from eight to 15 months, and bulls after weaning. This is vital as we could not support our herd on the amount of land we have, and it lessens the labor involved.
Our use of contract labor and outsourcing has allowed us to run the entire farm operation without ever having a full time employee from outside the family. Dixon takes care of the cattle at the farm, and hires temporary help, or waits until the weekend when his free labor (Walter) comes home.
Minimum Fertilizer/Maximum Weed Control
We mentioned spraying the pastures above. In our operation spraying the pastures generally consists of putting about ½ of the recommended amount of liquid nitrogen fertilizer on the pastures that we have no-tilled winter grazing into each fall, and only re-fertilizing them in the spring if we are running low on hay. If we do fertilize again in the spring, we will use liquid nitrogen. This is the ideal time to spray your pastures for weeds in our environment, so we add Forefront and or Remedy, and try to do this in each pasture once every four years. We believe that controlling weeds in a pasture is the cheapest way to help your cows get all they can out of every acre. Without any weeds to compete with, the grasses and grains that are in a pasture do not compete for water and minerals with other plants that are not as nutritious. Every weed in a pasture is not only taking up space that grass could be using to grow, but it is also taking nutrients away from the surrounding grasses. We also keep up a running battle with weeds that we have imported in hay from other farms. We use a backpack style sprayer to combat individual weeds before they can spread throughout the entire pasture. In the spring and again in the early summer we will spot spray weeds that have grown in the places where we fed hay the winter before. The fall, before the first hard frost, is another great time to go through your pastures and spot spray weeds. The old saying, "Never put off 'til tomorrow what you can do today" is the perfect advice for dealing with weeds.
Other Sources of Farm Income
We lease hunting rights to the farm yearly, and harvest and sell the pecan crop by letting people pick up on halves.