In his book “No Risk Ranching” Greg Judy describes how he went from liquidating his cow herd and almost losing the family farm, to paying off the farm and home loan in three years by custom grazing on leased land. Since then, Greg has been traveling the country telling folks how to grow a successful business through leasing and good management of the soil and forage.
This series is drawn from a chapter in “No Risk Ranching.” Last week Greg described the inspiration and numbers for his first lease. In Part 2, he describes some of the challenges he ran into and how he learned from them to expand his business.
The first 30 cow-calf pairs were delivered to the farm lease the first week of March. They’d been on hay all winter and were ready to do some grazing. I had 50 of the 90 acres fenced. Then starting in mid April it rained 2″ to 3″ every day for three weeks straight. All the fields went to mush, so I kept the cows up on the highest ground, but ran out of grass pretty shortly.
When it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, they did. I came by to check the cows after work one night. It was raining like it had every day that month. The cattle owner was stomping up the hill toward me in the downpour. He was madder than a hornet because the neighbor’s mongrel bull had decided to come across the fence to visit the new ladies. The owner explained that when we pulled up to the gate, there was Rufus mounted on the man’s favorite cow.
Rufus had a head on him like a buffalo and a body like a sickly calf. You couldn’t draw a picture of a poorer specimen of cattle genetics. I quickly assured the cattle owner that Rufus would be off the farm by dark, even if I had to drag him off stone dead. I worked three hours getting him out of brush thickets, but finally got him back to his owner. Rufus was sold the next morning. The cattle owner was able to give the cow a shot of Lutalyse to prevent a baby Rufus the next spring.
The cows grazed the rest of the paddocks, moving once a week so that the pugging could recover. They couldn’t help but pug. The ground was like a big sponge which made drying out almost impossible. I was dreading explaining the pugging to the owners. the one bright spot was that they were eating everything that wasn’t a cedar or didn’t have a thorn on it.
When the landowners came up in May they were amazed I’d put up so much fence and were surprised at the absence of brush. Both made up for the pugging which I said I could smooth out with a light disking. They offered to pay for having a meter set and put in a hydrant. They also wanted to do a cost/share pasture improvement program, which would cover 75% of the lime, fertilizer, no-till drill rental and seed. I did the necessary paper work for them, and was approved for a fall interseeding with the entire farm. The hydrant, along with fencing of 30 acres and the back 4o gave me more pasture to work with.
That June the drought began. The gama grass kicked in even though it was so dry the ground began to crack. Some cracks were so wide you could drop a golf ball in them, but the gama grass kept growing and I was able to put some flesh on the cows by rotating them every couple of days.
I didn’t have the money for a standard corral system, so when it was time for the cattle to leave, I set up an 80 x 80 corral with four posts and five hi-tensile wires with a ratchet tensioner on each wire and then tied white ribbons to the wire so the cows could see them. From their time in pasture, they knew that white ribbons meant pain. Still when the owner pulled up with his trailer, he and I both had some doubts. The haulers, cattle owner and I walked the cow-calf pairs into the hot wire corral with a white ribbon held between us. Even with all the cattle pushing in the pen, they did not mess with my hot-wire corral. We sorted the calves out for one load and the cows for another.
The cattle owners were happy with the condition of their cows. The landowners were happy with the improvements I’d made. Tough times make you appreciate the good times. The lesson I learned is to keep working toward your goal and things will get easier as time goes along.
What About the Land Across the Fence?
About that time I noticed that nothing was being done with the 70-acre tract across the fence from the leased farm. It had no useable water, but I already had a plan to fix that.
I met with the landowner, who explained that he wasn’t expecting to make a lot of income from the lease and that he wanted the land to be taken care of and look nice – clear of brush and mowed grass. He also had a new lake that he was concerned the cattle might destroy. I put his fear to rest by explaining that the lake would be fenced off to keep the cattle out. I showed him the farm next to him and explained Management-intensive grazing. I showed him how a mob of cattle had healed erosion ditches by sloughing off the edges and adding manure for fertility. Then I explained the importance of resting the grass and leaving a solar collector intact when I moved to the next paddock. All he had to do was look over the fence and see what was happening on my existing leased farm and compare it to his farm. I negotiated a very economical six-year lease. The first year was free, the remaining 5 years I would pay $200 a year for the 70 acres, which came out to $2.86/acre.
Let me make something very clear though. These kinds of leases are possible only after you have taken the time to completely explain the whole MiG Concept. Once you get people excited about what you’re doing, they want to be part of it. All people hear about on the news is how bad everything is and her you come along duplicating what the buffalo did 150 years ago. These are the kinds of leases I get excited about. The landowners could hardly wait for me to get started.
Things Are Starting to Click
Now I had 220 acres that made up one big square. It was going to make my paddock rotation a perfect circle. I spent a month of evenings getting the 70-acre complete perimeter fence installed. I was able to use my existing electric fence charger that was energizing the 150-acre farm to also power the 70-acre farm. Talk about a money saver!
The first landowners wanted to run some pressure water lines off the rural water and place hydrants behind the ponds. They paid for the materials and I supplied the labor. I was set. There would be water in every paddock when the new ponds filled up. When it started raining this farm was going to be like a sleeping tiger waking up.
Getting Paid to Clean Up Duff
I found 30 dry cows to graze on the 70 acres through the winter. I strip grazed those 30 cows on the 70 acres of fescue thatch. The cattle owner paid for three lbs of corn gluten every other day for protein. No hay was fed which made the cow eat everything before I moved the wire.
I made $900 grazing those cows that winter cleaning up the thatch, plus they fertilized the entire farm and made a beautiful seed bed to no-till into for the coming spring seeding. If I would have hired a tractor and brush hog to mow it would have cost a minimum of $20 per acre of $1400 for the entire farm.
The Ultimate Surprise
That same winter the landowners of the 150 acres came by the house after deer season. He handed me a cured ham and frozen turkey. I was very surprised. He told me, “Greg, this is just a small token of our appreciation for all the work you have done on our farm this year.”
Then he saved the best for last. He went on to tell me that his wife and he had talked it over and they thought the ten-year lease was unfair. A lump came in my throat initially but then he finished the sentence.
He said, “My wife and I have decided to give you a lifetime lease on our farm, not our lifetime, but yours.”
Talk about excited. I was in total shock!
We’ll stop there with one last lesson Greg learned about working with landowners:
“When you work hard, give all you’ve got, and manage their property as if your livelihood depended on it, awesome results can occur.”