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.”