Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Beef, Beefalo, and Whole Farm Management

If you're going to run a farm, you need to run it profitably - which oddly enough is environmentally responsible.

(I didn't say anything about being "environmentally friendly" or any such nonsense. Anyone who's been out in a blizzard rounding up cattle - or been charged by a protective cow - knows Nature isn't always "friendly". Coyotes, fox, mink - these aren't friendly; but they sure are necessary.)

That said, farmers need to be good stewards - regardless of government subsidies or lack of them, environmentalists or lack of them. (And in both cases, being left alone is better in all cases.)

Here's the facts about raising a cattle/crop combination farm as I've figured them out over the last 8 years since I started farming full time:
  • Commodity farming keeps you broke. It's not sustainable for small farmers.
  • Small farmers raise most of the beef in this country on herds of 100 or less.
  • Cattle are mostly raised on land too marginal for cropping.Then expensively finished in feedlots.
  • Crops do best when they have animal manure in addition to mineral-based supplements.
  • Spraying isn't needed if you're planting in the right combinations and proper sequences (like rye before corn or soybeans).
  • The easiest and cheapest crops to raise are grass and trees.
  • Cattle is cheaper than raising row crops if they're raised on grass and pasture-finished.
  • The less you have to take your tractor out, the less you have to spend to run it.
  • Right now, the best-quality and most healthy beef you can raise is beefalo. And the cheapest to raise (eats a wider variety of forage and tolerates a wide range of environments).
  • Cattle will keep eating in the shade on a hot day. Otherwise, they wait until it cools off.
  • Grass grows better with partial shade some time during the day.
All that said, my conclusions are few:
  1. Raise grass, hay, trees, and cattle.
  2. Get the cattle rotated through any crop ground to fertilize it.
  3. Plant new and thin existing tress into north-south rows so grass grows better and cattle eat more. Also add lots of watering holes/ponds.
  4. Move over to Beefalo (and Scottish/Irish breeds like Highland, Galloway Belties, and Dexters) as they eat a wider range of forage. Add sheep and goats to clean up what they don't like. Rotate these on a frequent basis - keep them bunched up on your pastures.
Now, there are some strategies to accomplishing these:

A. Get Beefalo bull calves and put them on your existing Angus-mutt cattle when he's ready. (We're trying out a Beltie right now on this theory.) About 3 generations will get the maximum genetic improvements you're going to get. Then you trade or sell and buy a new bull (both Beefaloes and Belties are good for probably twice as long as the current Angus-commodity setup.)

In our case, I'll save back our heifers and replace our existing cows until I have everything into a 50-60% mix. Somewhere in there, I'll swap our registered Angus bull for a black polled Beefalo and ultimately replace that Beltie with another Beefalo or another Beltie. Belted Beefalo's - best of both worlds - beauty and efficiency.

That will take about 8-10 years to produce that specific genetic line, but once I get a single Beefalo bull, all his offspring can be sold as Beefalo. The premium price and better forage efficiency will require direct marketing, but will bring me better profits for my cattle.

Now, the size goes down, but smaller beef are more cost-efficient. Means I'll be able to raise more pounds of cattle for less cost per pound. And beefalo have a higher percentage of carcass as fat content is much lower. As well, you can market "freezer beef which will all fit in one freezer."

B. Crops - move off corn and soybeans. Plant stuff that doesn't require heavy equipment inputs. It takes me five times across a field to plant corn. Or buy a huge tractor and new "one-pass" tillage that it can pull so I cut it down to three - figuring that I fertilize as I plant. Sprayer is that last one. More expense.

Instead, go to fall crops and frost-seeding any bare ground. I found out that wheat and rye can be planted with a single disking and then broadcast along with the fertilizer - no harrow. Kinda bumpy - but with all that rough ground, the seed settles in just fine.

Wheat and clover (as well as Rye and clover) actually give you two crops - grain first (and straw if you want it) and then clover-stubble hay in July. Wheat and Rye also pretty much out-grow their competition (weeds). Rye after Wheat (because the former volunteers so badly). Third crop comes up next...

C. Get your cattle rotated through your crops. Means you need to plant cover crops. But - surprise - rye and wheat are great cover crops. One pass in grazing will still allow a crop to come up (and on rye, you almost need to do this, because a wet spring will lodge your rye and you'll have a mess with 6 ft tall rye headed out and turning yellow by May - been there, done that.)

While you can get hay cuttings by combining clover with those two, the idea is to actually bale only as much grass as you need to. Let the cattle harvest the grass and manure while they do. (Nature is just soooo efficient...)

Winter means stockpiling grass or raising something they can eat off the stalk. Corn's not bad for this - but has high inputs. Milo looks to be the next best bet - plant late enough (July around here) so that it's still green but has a nice head by killing frost. No matter what snow or ice (almost), they'll be able to find and eat it - and they take the stalk, too (according to reports). Trying this theory this year. I'll let you know next January how it turned out.

Then come back and frost-seed oats with clover in January/February. Take this off as forage or hay in June/July. Means you don't have to disk that field.

You put your fertilizer on with your rye, wheat, and milo seed - but only have to plant the clover once. Which also means that you only have two passes through your fields per year. Do the math. Less fuel, less breakdowns, more time doing other things.

This rotation:
  1. Milo in July - grazed all winter, followed by frost-seeded Oats/Clover. Forage/Hay in summer.
  2. Wheat in the fall, off as grain in June. Hay/forage the remainder in July. (There's your cash crop.)
  3. Rye in the fall (clover still coming up) - forage early so you can either forage/hay in midsummer. Followed by Milo (1).

D. Means you'll need more fences (permanent or temporary) around your crop land and can add more cattle - so your profits go up since you are getting a better price and have much lower inputs all around. Keep some wheat and rye seed back for next year's crop. Only buy bin-run seed when you can (like milo). As the cattle graze your crop ground, they add high P and K manure (some N) which stays around for around 5 years. Meaning your fertilizer inputs will drop - especially since you aren't using a high N crop like corn.

Also means that you don't have to spray - probably not at all. If your cattle are taking off this crop, or you're cutting it for hay - any weed is actually eaten. Save your best parts for the seed you need. (Weeds only grow where they do best, so they are eating up some excess something out there - like why cockleburs grow so well in corn and soybeans. Excess phosphates and the same growing season length. It's so satisfying to cut them off with the hay in the middle of their growing season...)

Sure, if you're haying, its taking 4 or 5 trips across that field to cut, rake, bale, and haul - but those trips aren't all side by side - and it is over grass, not mud - so the compaction isn't anywhere near as extensive. Grass works to break up the soil (especially deep-rooted rye), so overall we're doing better - the only best way would be to pasture it only and never take the tractor out except for hayrides along the road. (Best of course, is to send your cattle out to harvest that hay...)

A note here: feed your hay on the same ground you cut it from. Cattle then put their fertilizer right back where it's needed. Means some different logistics about where you winter them...

- - - -

Summary is: work within Nature's system (and Man's economics) - and you'll have an easier time farming with far more profit.

Of course, this won't work for everyone. Our farm is about 250 acres, with only about 60 of it actually arable. The rest is trees and brush with grass in between. Lots of clay and soil worn out from farming it with corn. So I inherited a lot of rolling pastures where the gullies are slowly healing. And where 150 bu. corn is somebody's pipe dream.

If you've got a couple thousand acres of flat crop land that's tiled and drains well - knock yourself out. Plenty of demand for corn and soybeans. And you'll need to get a good price to pay for all that equipment you're using. But don't blame me if there's protesters outside your farm house saying how evil you are for burning all those fossil fuels.

"Thar's money in them thar niches" - as the phrase goes. I'll raise high-quality beef for less than it costs to raise corn-fed, artery-clogging, fast-food burger bait. And I'll feed it with crops that take less to put in and get out. As well, get top-dollar above commodity beef for every pound.

I'll raise low-input cattle and crops on a whole-farm basis and the devil with what other experts think is "best" or "proper" or "modern". And I'll just shrug when they tell me their advice and laugh all the way to the bank.
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