It’s quite a change, but Rachel Gray and her family think it’s a good one. The northcentral Minnesota Little Timber Farms and Timberedge Farm recently auctioned off over 200 head of bred cows and heifers. It was a complete herd dispersal from the fourth generation farm in late November.
Then, eight hours later, trucks brought 300 top quality backgrounded baldy heifers, weighing 650-700 pounds, to Gray’s farm. Now they are getting used to their new surroundings at the farm located near Black Duck – about 25 miles northeast of Bemidji.
Little Timber Farms has transitioned from calving to strictly high quality heifer development.
In addition to easing the winter workload, Gray expects the conversion will make better use of the farm’s 1,000-acre pasture and paddock system.
“We’re fortunate that our acreage is fenced and fresh water is accessible in all the paddocks,” she said.
Rachel and her husband, Al, bought out her parents, Murl and Sue – with Murl staying on to help Rachel.
Over the course of a year, Rachel and Murl talked about the best ways to use the amazing grasses they grow. Located on the edge of Minnesota’s timber region, the heavy clay soil grow crops, but the short growing season is a challenge. Sometimes the region is too wet, sometimes too dry, and Gray wanted something that promoted sustainability.
“We said, ‘What’s the best for our business?’ and ‘What’s the best for our farm that will make us sustainable economically, environmentally and socially?’ and we really pay attention to all of those,” she said.
Murl started rotational grazing the herd about 18 years ago. Productivity improved so much that over 200 head of cattle couldn’t keep up with the growing grasses.
They started talking about expanding the cow/calf herd to manage the pastures, but they didn’t have the labor. With February and March calving, it was just too much work to calve more cows.
“We just thought it was not the best management decision to move to 300 cows – or even 400 cows which is what we could graze,” she said. “We thought, ‘How could we do this the best?’”
Their answer was to purchase 300 heifers and go into the business of bred heifer development. The F1 baldy heifers were purchased with the help of Chad Ellingson at Ellingson Angus and Topp Herefords (Ryan Topp) and Alan Heim, a heifer developer.
The heifers came from North Dakota and South Dakota cow/calf operators using Ellingson and Topp Hereford genetics.
“I believe in those genetics and that was what I was running with my own cattle,” she said. “I really like that cross, and for myself nothing beats a nice big baldy cow.”
This winter, the heifers are eating home-grown dry hay, wet wrapped alfalfa (baleage) and a barley ration. The ration includes a little bit of corn, some distillers, some protein, and all of the vitamins, minerals, a prebiotic and a probiotic, as needed.
When the grazing season arrives, Gray will divide the heifers into three breeding groups. Those three breeding groups will rotate through the farm, through various pastures and paddocks – moving through one paddock for three-five days depending on the grass. Paddocks are rested for about two weeks, at least, depending on grass growth and the weather. The farm is divided into three units – the north paddock, the south paddock and the East – and each group of 100 heifers will remain in their farm unit. Each unit includes a sacrificial paddock for holding the heifers if they need to be fed supplemental hay.
“We really focus on grass quality, soil quality and not overgrazing,” she said. “Really, if we overgraze, we’re not doing our job.”
Getting the financials to work was somewhat daunting, but their bank supported and backed her efforts. Participating in the Adult Farm Business Management program also helped.
“We spent a lot of time running projections and looking at different cash flows and those kinds of things, until we came to some numbers that we felt were pretty solid,” she said.
The farm needs a certain number of animal units, and animal units that can move through to do the best job to increase soil quality. The cattle put organic material back into the soil.
If the pastures need some maintenance, they will go through with a rotation that begins with disking. The land is summer fallowed to break up the sod. In the fall, they seed winter wheat or winter rye. They take that crop off as forage in the spring, and plant alfalfa, Timothy and orchardgrass. The land is used to raise hay until the alfalfa completes its life cycle. Once the grasses have taken over, then the cattle come in to graze.
Gray also uses frost seeding on grass. After the first hard frost, an Alsike or White Dutch clover is broadcast on the surface of the field. As the cattle graze the next spring, their hooves work the clover into the soil. By late summer, the clover will begin to grow through the grasses.
“We’re grazing what was former cropland,” she said. “We took cropland that we grew corn and things for dairy cattle, and that’s what we’ve rotated into our pastures.”
The developed and bred heifers will be ready to purchase next November. Gray is s excited to offer really good commercial heifers for people to use.
“My dream would be that as these heifers leave, that they perform well in other people’s herds, and that other people keep coming back and want to buy more heifers from us,” she said.