How did we get the stock? They're expensive! Where? Which breeds? We approached this in multiple ways.
First of all we knew we wanted a breeding operation. It's a no-brainer that you can maximize your profits by producing and growing animals from grass and minimal inputs instead of trying to optimize the margin in a finishing operation. Buying stockers year after year is a lot of hustle. You deal with supply issues as well as product quality. There's just more risk. Furthermore, having not that many 100% grass fed stockers for sale in our area made the decision to go cow-calf way easier.
We also knew we didn't want to wean for as long as possible or even at all. A breeding operation done this way has its built in quality control measures. As with humans, the development of a calf is improved tremendously when it grows up alongside a good role model. The calf copies how its mother behaves around us as well as what she eats, thus creating a docile and fat animal in the end. If the calf makes the cut (no pun intended, this saying is apparently from Golf anyways) then it's kept and bred, if not it's not. This is not to mention the huge benefit of minimizing the number of herds you have to manage if you don't wean.
So what animals did we want? Do we really want cows? This question isn't a no-brainer. There are considerable downsides to raising cattle. They are huge and potentially dangerous animals that you can only slaughter after almost 2 years. On the other hand you can just wrestle a sheep into submission, sheep have even better grass genetics, and they often produce 2 lambs that you can then slaughter in about a year. The risk is also lower with livestock that cost a couple hundred dollars a head. With sheep you only have to wait a year to see return on investments.
We ended up going with both for multiple reasons. We wanted a diverse product range. We suspected correctly that you reach a considerably wider customer base when you've got a larger product range to offer. Also multi-species grazing is a great model. There's tons out there to read on the benefits. In short the animals fill different niches when foraging and there's no reason to have 2 groups of animals with twice the amount of work. We even plan on adding pigs into the mix (more on this later).
So which breed to get? It's great to have a herd of the holy grail of grass genetics in 4-seasons continental climates, South Polls, but not everyone can drop tens of thousands of dollars for a starter herd. In the end it doesn't matter the breed. If the seller is trustworthy, the cows look good on 100% grass, and they behave more or less calm, then they have good potential. You pay a premium for purebreds that you have to transport halfway across the country. Generally, searching for grass genetics brings you inevitably to the British breeds and crosses which aren't normally large framed (Angus, Devon, Dexter, Jersey and Hereford). Yea the USDA Prime steaks are usually from Angus finished on grain, so you ask why Angus? Because there are dormant genes in all those animals bred for the feedlot just waiting to resurface and show their phenotypes when given the chance on 100% grass. The Angus breed is older than the USDA. And who does the USDA think it is trying to tell me which meat tastes better anyways. There are exceptions (Limousin, Aubrac) but the continental European breeds (such as Simmental, Charolais) just can't gain on 100% grass. St. Bernards don't do well on the streets of New Delhi.
So we went for it. We got ahold of our first couple cows having bought them as stocker heifers. Yea, stockers aren't optimal as you have just read (there's another lesson to be learned here involving a weeklong chase through the woods and ending with a bucket on someone's head), but we needed some annual cash flow as well as some animals on the land as dictated by the CBF grant stipulations (see Blog: Beginnings). They were Angus and Devon but we knew they came from 100% grass fed farms and they had good body condition when we bought them. As expected, some turned out to be ornery jerks. But some turned out to be fat, docile animals which we decided to breed and since then have produced some equally great calves.
We did want a cow-calf operation so we couldn't get around dropping some cash for a bull. We didn't go the whole way to get semen tested but did some vetting and found a trusty seller with solid grass fed South Poll bulls. We were able to get an unproven but good looking and temperate bull named Albertson.
Now onto the flagship breeders. Waiting for the right season and the right deal is sometimes worth it. We also figured that being opportunistic in finding some Angus, Hereford and Devon cows or heifers to cross with our South Poll bull would be potentially good. We would have to play with our herd genetics later because we didn't have the cash to get exactly what we wanted up front. So we got some South Poll/Angus and Devon crosses. In the short term we would have product and in the long term the replacements would be pure South Poll anyways if we kept using a South Poll bull. We would have good meat to sell with our grass fed genetics and would have a range of live animal products from purebred to cross and stockers to breeding stock.
Sheep!…. There are not many breeds that don't do well on grass. We went for hair/meat sheep (St. Croix, Katahdin and Dorper) because it was in line with our business model. Time and again personal relationships and connections pull through. We knew of a few sheep operations through our past internships that had great stock for sale. Since then we've been continually impressed with these animals. It's actually a bit unnerving when your flock size grows by almost 200% each year. You can totally see how a poorly managed sheep operation can promote desertification.
So this was a great plan to build a flerd (flock/herd) and all but we still didn't have enough cash to go out and get 30 AUs at once. So we kind of expanded on the method Greg Judy has championed of getting cash flow through custom grazing. In our area there aren't a lot of people looking for custom grazing so we had to create some ranchers. We contacted friends and family. By now they all knew we were starting something crazy and interesting. We offered to custom graze newly bought individual animals for them. The customers pay finding, transport, processing and of course custom grazing fees. It was quite a success and lots of people were willing to sign up. Some were looking for a stocker steer/heifer for slaughter. Or maybe the customer is looking for an investment in breeding stock that will show a return every year. It's great for both parties. In the end they get some meat out of the deal and ultimately in a few years break even on initial investment while we get a steady income. A pamphlet was handed out that summarized the finances and included helpful visuals such as this simple graph of projected investment return. I guess you could call it customized custom grazing.
Your profit margin is tight with custom grazing but you more than break even and that's the point. Once we had our numbers so that the herd could actually do some work out there building soil and busting brush, we were happy with the amount of custom grazing we were doing. After a certain point we stopped offering new custom grazing contracts and began buying for ourselves. After all, it is more leg work for less profit and we didn't want to “spend” more grass than needed on cows that were not our own. Shout out to those who trusted in us and custom grazed with us!
Our model intended to float us all financially from the beginning while providing some extra cash to reinvest. It all starts as a side gig into which you pour all your love and ingenuity. Thanks again, lots to talk about so stay tuned.