Welcome new On Pasture author Chad Fisher! This is a first in what will become a longer series describing challenges, solutions, resources and ideas helpful to new and experienced graziers. Enjoy!
In 2012 my wife and I, and our two young daughters, embarked on a new and exciting side venture in the cattle industry with the help of a friend who had many years of experience. He helped fund the venture and walked us through all the ins and outs of the cattle business. To start out, he brought a few of his calves to our pasture, then he bought the remaining stockers at a local sale barn to finish our herd. It was sort of like custom grazing but we were going to share the profit (if there was any) 50/50. The following, are lessons we have learned along the way.
Endure climatic challenges and cattle market volatility.
As misfortune would have it, 2012 challenged us with a historic drought and unbearable heat not common to North Missouri. Our new venture began, almost immediately, with us feeding hay in mid-summer as we ran out of grass. If not for government assistance we would’ve lost money in our first year! In fact, we went on to lose money in four of our first five years with the one profitable year being a boom in the market on steers. Luckily that one good year put us in the black.
Embrace all of life’s challenges.
In February of 2017 I lost my full-time job in Environmental Consulting and Remediation. After 17 years it was all I knew, besides what little I had learned about cattle, so I found myself caught in between thoughts of “well, I guess I’ll look for a new employer in the career I have always known” and “I’d sure like to stay home more with my family so maybe I’ll look at local opportunities”. In the same week, I was offered a position with a firm out of Kansas City, MO requiring more traveling than I had been accustomed and a position from a local seed company (this one was offering much lower pay because of my lack of experience). After much discussion with family and friends, I decided to take the offer from the local seed company. While this was a risky financial move, it also proved to be the right choice.
Accepting a position in a brand-new field made me feel like I was in my 20’s again. I was immediately tasked with reading and learning as much as I could about everything agriculture while also learning all of the goings on in our seed warehouse. Because I was hired in March, we were about to go full bore into treating soybeans and delivering corn and beans. This put much of my desire to learn on the back burner so that we could keep up in the warehouse. Then, when summer rolled around, I took off like a speeding bullet and still haven’t looked back! I had no idea how many different ways there are to run cattle and how many different types of forage systems exist.
Never hesitate to ask for help.
Because of my new local career, I began meeting so many new people that new opportunities arose which we never knew existed. One such opportunity was EQIP through the Natural Resources Conservation Service. We received assistance in building one large central pond and geothermal waterers. These 10 gallon tanks stay (mostly) ice free thanks to a 5 to 6 foot tube that extends into the soil and use it’s warmth to keep the water above freezing. We also built a high-tensile hotwire fence along a creek to keep cattle out.
Those two projects, and the ensuing research to maximize efficiency, were like catapults sending us into a new world called regenerative grazing. Instead of continuous grazing, we are now rotating every 3-5 days on 5 temporary paddocks (that number is continuing to grow) and 4 permanent paddocks. In an ever-evolving system, temporary paddocks give us flexibility to break them up into whatever size we want.
Next up – turning a timber stand of Oak, Pecan, Honey Locust, Osage Orange Hedge, Eastern Red Cedar, Bush Honeysuckle and Multiflora Rose into silvopasture!!!
Choose a path but be sure you’re ready to adjust.
This is the most fun lesson I have learned in life….by far! My wife gives me a hard time (all the time) because it seems like on a daily basis I change what I’d like to do with our pastures and our cattle. It makes her head spin so she has learned to forget she has heard it until she sees that we are actually doing it. In 2018 we decided to buy a few cow/calf pairs to diversify our herd. One year later we were selling those cows. Only half of them bred back and it was such a pain to manage cows, calves and stockers that in 2019 we chose to go back to backgrounding alone. Another adjustment we made was to switch to heifers because they are smaller, they give you more flexibility and the market on heifers is much less volatile than steers.
Forage diversity is key.
Another change in 2019 was to look forward to finishing heifers as pasture finished beef. I say pasture finished because our cattle don’t eat just grass. In 2017 we began converting 20% of our fescue, orchard, brome and red clover pastures to something new. At that time, we weren’t sure what “new” would be but we were sure it would create diversity. Temporarily we began a rotation of summer and winter annuals to both increase our forage production and eradicate the fescue and other species.
Last month we frost seeded on that 20% of our pasture, a diverse mix of native warm season grasses, cool season grasses, forbs and legumes. In years one and two we expect to see a lot of weeds from the seed bank, so we will lock the girls in there and they will turn weeds into forage! We plan to use the heifers to establish the natives through tedious and timely grazing. Eventually we will begin to burn these paddocks every 3-5 years to maintain and enhance the stand. These paddocks will also serve as a haven to our wildlife.
When the pasture conversion is finished, we will have replaced the daily grind of feeding with a more profitable and sustainable operation which will lead to healthier cattle and less stress on our family. After all, we both have full time jobs and two girls who are very busy with activities.
In just eight short years, we have found the most difficult ways of doing some things, the fastest and easiest ways to waste a lot of money, and the least cost-effective ways to put weight on stockers. Trials and tribulations have led us to this point where we believe our low labor and low input model will be the most profitable. We don’t even own a tractor!
I leave you with this thought: STAY OUT OF THE RUT. If you find yourself getting comfortable doing the same old thing you probably should start looking for new and better ideas. If you don’t, others will. Then you will want to kick yourself for falling behind. As I tell my kids, look daily for something which you don’t feel like doing, then do it. That will keep you out of your comfort zone and ready for the next adventure.