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HomeMoney MattersHow One Grazier Builds Cattle Business on Leased Land

How One Grazier Builds Cattle Business on Leased Land

How do you start a second career as a farmer/grazier? For John Shubeck, former Marine Corps Captain, it included not just coming home to work with his Dad, but going to school and learning about new techniques like No-till farming and rotational grazing.

In this 6:20 video we visit John at his South Dakota farm where he talks about his journey. Of particular note is his discussion of his grazing operation. It’s built largely on leased pasture. He watches for unused pastures, asks about it, and then writes up a proposal that factors in the costs of fencing, the amount of work he’ll need to do to make the pasture usable, and what it will contribute to his bottom line.

Finally, the partners supporting the “Our Amazing Grasslands” video series have recently been asking graziers if and how sustainable practices reduce their stress. John says it’s diversity, and healthy pastures that help tamp down his worry.

Enjoy the video and transcript!


John Shubeck: Out of high school my dad was very pragmatic about preparing me for life. And you know there’s a lot of people who begged their kids to come home. My dad said, “You’re not just going to come home and farm.” He said,”You should go get a degree and get a job, get some experience. And if you still want to come home and farm, then you can.”

So I went to USD for my undergrad, graduated, took my commission in the Marine Corps and went on active duty and deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. Then in 2012, I left active duty as a Captain and came home to start farming with my Dad. And I also went back to school, went to grad school at SDSU. Farmed with Dad and then we started transitioning to me having all the farm about two years ago.I’m John Shubeck form Centerville, SD and I’ve got four kids, my wife, Meghan works in town at the school. My kids are 10, 8, 5, and a new born.

When I went to SDSU, because I’d just come out of the Marine Corps, my life was focused on IEDs and deployments, learning the trade of combat and protecting our country. So I was kind of a clean slate when I left active duty.

I went to SDSU and they started talking about this thing “No-till” and they started talking about rotational grazing and all these things that really intrigued me. Growing up I was so focused on athletics that I wasn’t “Mr. Farmer,” “Mr. Immersed in die-hard farming practices” one way or another. I just did what Dad told me to do. I’d run a tractor and pick rocks or fix fence. I wasn’t interested in the why until I left active duty and went to grad school. That started getting me excited about the why. I just got really interested in sustainable practices and how to maintain the land. It wasn’t just about maintaining the land. That’s a fun plus, but it has also enhanced our profitability.

It was kind of, again, a practical decision. I always enjoyed the cattle more growing up because I’ve always been such an active person that turning circles on a tractor is not necessarily the most exciting thing for me. It [cattle grazing] just fit. But living in southeast South Dakota, having a ranch is not super practical. But I was fortunate enough to be able to get rental pastures and really make that expand.

I really think there’s lot more opportunity for that than people let on. Because there’s a lot of pasture out there, and there’s not a lot of people fighting over it. Most of the people that are in the cattle world, they don’t want to take on building fences or taking on a problem pasture that might not have everything intact where you might have to put some sweat equity into it to make it work. That’s where I made a lot of headway – taking on those pastures that other people were turning away from. And I was willing to put in some sweat equity and build some fence or something along those lines.

I guess the biggest advice I’d give about the economic opportunity is the only person that should tell you no is yourself. You just go out there and knock on a door. I don’t know how many doors I’ve knocked and said, “Hey, I see your pasture is unused. Are you doing anything with that? Do you have a plan for that?” I’ve never taken pasture from anybody. I’ve always found pasture that was unused. Every piece of pasture I’ve got there was something going on with the previous renter – the renter was no longer there or whatever the case. Hadn’t been rented for 30 years or something and nobody wanted to deal with the fence or the grass.

I just make up word documents or spreadsheets with a proposal and say, “Hey, I’ll build this fence for you if you just give me a lease. This is what I can put into it. This is what I think it will cost me and I”ll build this fence for you.”

Need more information about figuring pasture lease rates? We’ve got an ebook for you! (And it’s free to paying subscribers!)

I would say sustainable practices reduce my stress level because I don’t have all my eggs in one basket, which is awesome. You know we’ve had a really dry spring and everything I’m doing is really helping out with that. In know that my pastures are just fine. They’ve got lots of cover and adequate moisture even though we haven’t got any rain. Same thing with the crop fields, They’ve got tons of moisture there. But also just having diversity. I’ve got small grains, I’ve got alfalfa. I don’t just have corn and soybeans. I’ve got cattle, where if one thing is down – the oil market is down right now and everything is tired to oil in the crop sector – well I’ve got cattle and I’ve got oats and I’ve got alfalfa and it really helps to tamp down the worrying when you’ve got diversity.

I always say that I never want to fully retire. I always want to have something on my plate. My grandpa was fixing fence at 97 years old. He’s come out and help me with little things or if I was gone. I remember one time, my grandpa was 96 and the cows got out and my wife’s got three kids and it’s just her. And grandpa came and helped and got the cows back in. And that’s the way I’d like to do it. He lived to 99. I think having something to do that you enjoy keeps you young.

Want More?

In his book, “How to Think Like a Grazier,” Greg Judy includes a chapter walking you through everything he did to figure out the cost and value of a pasture lease, and how he worked with the landowner to create a win-win situation for everyone. You can order the book here.

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Kathy Voth
Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.


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