Interview With David Hall Part 3

Parts one and two of this series focused largely on cows.  In this post I’ll wrap up with a focus on business and some final tips.  I didn’t want to pry into David Hall’s personal finances.  I asked him for the top-down view of his farm.  David said they run 400 head of cattle on top of a couple of off-farm businesses.  400 cows and he has time to pursue other interests in town!  So, where is the farm income?  He sells 150 bulls each year.  He sells culls at the local sale barn.  When he ran hair sheep (something he suggests strongly, more later) he sold lambs and cull ewes at the local sale barn.  They are into commodity production, seeking a high tonnage of medium-quality forage for a cow/calf operation instead of high-quality forage for a finishing operation.  That distinction is key.

“To maintain profitability each cow has to bring in a calf at weaning time.  Cows that are too hairy, too big or produce too much milk won’t last in a grazing operation.”

He breeds for fall calving.  Cows are most fertile in the fall, the temperatures are cooler which helps when grazing fescue, those calves help soak up the spring flush of grass and he gets another flush of grass in the fall just as the cows are calving.  He sells 18 month old bulls in the spring as well as weaned calves, just when both the local calf market and the bull market are at their peak.

Hall likes to feed hay.  “Land costs are high.  Feeding hay puts more head on the farm but you have to manage it carefully.”  For 2-3 years he won’t need any hay.  For 2-3 years he’ll need a little hay.  For 2-3 years he’ll need lots of hay.  Hall says to buy hay off-farm.  This went well with his whole theme of allowing specialists to specialize.  For example, someone else raises the stockers, he raises calves.  Allowing someone else to put up hay and own the equipment frees up your time and capital.  One less tractor could easily be 15 more cows.  He drove home how important he thought this was by telling me his family had owned a green farm equipment dealership for 30 years.  “Buying the hay off-farm may have $18-22 worth of fertilizer value (if you just roll out a round bale) we just rolled out for $25.”  Once the cows eat it, the fertilizer value goes up and he doesn’t have to de-stock his farm when forage becomes scarce.  I asked him how long he fed hay last winter (coming out of drought) and he said, “5 months.  But each day I only fed the cows 20% of their diet in hay instead of feeding them 100% hay for 30 days.”  That helped him stretch his stockpiled forage and increase recovery times.  “Feeding hay can make you profitable.”

David, I’m just getting started, next year I’ll have 60 acres and 10 cows.  What would you suggest to help me get stocked?  Here are his quick tips:

“Think about a marketing plan for calves.  Raise good heifers for the next few years as they will be in demand.”

“Buy 10-20 sale barn cows, 100 ewes (hair sheep), spend heavily on getting fencing and water ready and buy in all hay.  You’ll need a dog and better fencing to protect the sheep but sheep can be quite profitable and will utilize forage the cows ignore.  Parasites can be a real issue with sheep so you will need to lengthen the time between grazings.”

“Manage grazing as well as you can.  Whatever happens, do your best…but push for diversity.”  (I think he meant both in livestock and in landscape.)

Livestock are employees.  “Fire employees that don’t work.”

“A short, defined breeding season will push things forward faster than anything you can do.”

Thanks David.

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9 thoughts on “Interview With David Hall Part 3

  1. I’ve heard that before about buying in hay. I can see the argument for the fertility it can contribute. I question the sustainability of this part of the business model, though, unless the hay is coming from a neighbouring farm. If the long term goal is sustainability, surely the farming model needs to be working toward not needing to rely on off farm inputs for a significant portion of each year. For example, here, if I were to follow this business model, the hay I would purchase would be coming from Alberta, where thousands and thousands of acres are grown in monoculture stands, with plenty of chemical used to keep them that way, little or no crop rotation practiced. Alberta is hundreds of miles away, the trucking costs are huge. How much hay would one need for 10-20 sale barn cows and 100 hair sheep for 5 months? I’m thinking that’s more than a couple of tons.

    Fall calving? That’s a new idea for me. I can see the timing working well with that last flush of grass growth in the fall, but I can’t help thinking that this sounds more like the end justifying the means – that it’s more about the spring sales than the benefits of fall calving. How does his hay feeding programme compare to Greg Judy’s style of doing things? I seem to remember that Judy also will buy in hay to feed out, but I can’t remember the details, and I bet you own the books.

    I think my biggest takeaway from all I’ve learned from you about David Hall’s methods is similar to the one I’m slowly picking up from some of the other “big” graziers – that of profitability through careful management of grass and livestock. The idea that the cows are “employees” fits with the mindset of Ian Mitchell-Innes of South Africa, who talks in much the same way about pasture and herd management. Thanks for sharing all of this, I’m going to go back and read from the beginning when I’ve got some time.

    • Thanks.

      Greg Judy says he buys hay for 30 days. Will he need it? Who knows. But if there is an ice storm it will sure come in handy. He’s not very far away from us so I tend to lean on his opinions.

      Is it sustainable? Oh, gosh. No. Neither are the chickens I raise. But it sure pays the bills…and paying the bills sustains our presence here. In the no-hay world we’ll have to stock to our winter carrying capacity minus a few so we have some reserve. Fall calving may not be such a bad idea from that perspective as the fall calves (in our neck of the woods) will have big appetites just as the spring flush comes on and would ship before drought hits.

      Right now, sustainability has more to do with sharp pencils than anything else. Work with what you’ve got. Oil is still relatively cheap but owning machinery may not be. Pencil out the equipment, the hay, the calving window, etc. The gentleman from Alberta is doing the same.

  2. Thanks for this series. I’ll be interested to see what you do with sheep, if anything. I’m grazing just 15 acres for my own family’s food, primarily. I keep 2-5 cows, calves, and steers with 10-25 hair sheep/lambs. I move them all daily. I find the sheep can really eat any clover I have right into the ground, even with 24 hour moves, while leaving a lot of fescue behind. I’m not sure how to change this. Even giving them larger or smaller areas, I still find they graze too selectively in places. Perhaps it is because I don’t have a true mob. Perhaps the patchy growth I have of clover is not normal and I need more mixed growth. I’m not sure. I can tell you that rotating and resting on a 60-90 day cycle works well for parasite control! Good luck and thanks again for taking the time to write all this up!

    • Thanks Kristin. Tell me more about the sheep.

      No doubt, animals eat the sweets first…and second if they can. I have similar issues in my pastures, white clover gets eaten down to the absolute nubbins. I didn’t include this but David said just to let it be. Those solid patches of white clover will come and go in strength but, over time, as we continue to mob graze, things will even out. The types of grasses growing will change, plant diversity will increase and the health of the soil will boost the nutrition of each leaf.

      We tend to get hung up on the mob thing. 10 cows does not a mob make. Putting mob-like pressure on 10 cows is tough. There is more room to turn around when you pack 1,000 cows into a million pounds per acre than when you pack 10 in…know what I mean?

      • Thanks for the feedback on the clover. Yes, even my (milk) cows will eat certain spots to the ground and leave others. I let the milk cows be picky…..they need a higher plane of nutrition.

        I have (mostly) hair sheep. I did get crazy there for a bit and start breeding to wool thinking I’d find the time to spin (like I have time to knit!!). I want hardy sheep, not those that need worming or other micro managing. I cull those that do not perform well for me, just as you would cows. I rarely worm. When I do, it is the lone problem sheep. They are culled.

        My daughter tells me she is ready to go move the critters! Please feel free to send me an email if you want more sheep info. I’m no expert but do have many sheep herder brains to pull from.

    • Thank you, Steve. It gives me just as much to chew on. Keep the discussion going as your thoughts develop, especially as you find things to read that relate to this topic. If you haven’t noticed, I am a voracious reader.

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