GOODHUE, Minn. – When Jared Luhman looks at his farm, the first thing he thinks is profitability. His number-crunching tells him that what makes sense for his farming operation is different than the status quo.

Luhman farms with his dad, Jon Luhman, and wife, Val Luhman, at Dry Creek Farms. They raise grass-fed beef, chickens and organic crops, selling a portion of the beef and chickens direct-market. Together the three Luhmans farm 710 acres, with 240 in row crops. Their Red Angus herd consists of 180 cows with calves by their side. This year the pasture sustained 450 Cornish-cross chickens.

Jared Luhman said their goal is to make the operation sustainable in three areas – economically, environmentally and socially. He believes that maximum profit comes by minimizing costs.

His numbers show that a smaller-framed cow with a smaller calf pays better than a bigger pair. That’s because smaller calves bring a better price at the sales barn and a smaller cow takes less to feed. While the national weight of a beef cow is 1,450 pounds, Luhman’s cattle average 1,170 pounds. And his goal is to decrease that number another 70 pounds. That means he can put 20 percent more cows on the same amount of land compared to a larger-sized animal.

Winter feed costs are another area where Luhman looks closely at his figures. Summer feeding is excellent in the Midwest.

“(But) winter-feeding costs kill us here in Minnesota,” he said.

His goal is to graze 10 months of the year, from the end of March to Feb. 1.

“I’m close, but not there yet,” he said. “I haven’t made it to February.”

The more he grazes the less machinery Luhman needs to use, cutting more expenses. He compares three ideas for winter feeding – hay, sorghum-sudangrass stockpiled during the summer and a spring forage crop followed by sorghum-sudangrass. Using custom rates to figure his labor costs, he said it costs $3 per cow per day to feed hay. Planting sorghum-sudangrass with a grazing time of 180 days costs $1.76.

The best rate comes with a fall seeding of oats or rye, baled off in the spring followed by sorghum-sudangrass for grazing. With that scenario the cost per cow per day is $1.65, a significant savings as compared to hay. A bonus is that the hay is organic and can be sold to neighboring organic farmers, increasing profits.

“I like sorghum a lot,” Luhman said.

He has a list of attributes for it.

  • lots of energy
  • quality feed
  • crops that follow it grow well
  • easy to no-till into residue
  • more root exudates than corn
  • yields of 170-180 cow days per acre
  • in 1 to 2 feet of snow the cows can still find it

Comparing sorghum to hay, he said he can see 210 to 220 cow days per acre from hay. But to have that it must be mechanically harvested – and that’s expensive. His figures show that it costs half the sale price of a hay bale to pay for cutting and baling.

Another factor Luhman uses in his numbers is seasonal weight. Using quality feed from the pasture, he can put fat on his cows during the summer months while they raise their calves. Come winter the cows will melt off some of that fat. He admits they don’t look perfect in spring, but they gain that weight back quickly on lush spring pastures. He said that mimics animals in the wild such as deer.

Most of the calves are sold in the fall at weaning, while keeping some back for breeding stock and freezer-beef sales. The direct-marketing part of the business is directed by Val Luhman. An existing business was purchased that includes rented freezer space in the Metro Twin Cities area. There Luhman makes deliveries and meets customers twice a week. All the chickens as well as 40 beef are sold per year, besides some pastured pork they purchase from a farmer in western Wisconsin.

Jared and Val Luhman are following the example set by Jon Luhman, who learned grazing by taking a trip in the 1980s to New Zealand.

“What we’re doing now may not work; we may have to change it,” Jon Luhman said. “My goal is to leave the land better. Less tillage is helping. I want to see the next generation building on what I started.”

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LeeAnne Bulman writes about agriculture from her farm overlooking the beautiful Danuser Valley on Wisconsin’s west coast. When not writing, she helps her husband on their small grain and beef farm.