Growers' Insights: Land is in demand for more beef

Time, affordable space and sustainable practices may spell survival for America’s cattle ranches.

kevin lester ranch

Kevin Lester's ranch in Parkfield, Calif.

For cattle, homes on the range are in short supply. “Every week in our local newspaper, someone is looking for cattle pasture to buy or lease,” says Jake Geis, DVM, a veterinarian with a cow-focused practice in Tyndall, S.D. He and his wife are from ranching families in northeast Nebraska, where their parents allow the couple to graze its small herd of 45 cows. “There’s just not that much land available,” Geis says. “And it’s really expensive.” The Geis’ business is typical; about 70% of cattle operations in the U.S. number fewer than 50 head.

In Garner, Iowa, Ed Greiman is in business with his brother, Matt, who runs a calf/cow operation. Matt maintains a herd of breeding cows, while Ed runs a feed lot, farming grain and “finishing” cows that were started on grass by giving them abundant feed to add weight before slaughter. “Visiting with my bank, we considered whether we should just be grain farmers because in Iowa—and everywhere—land and corn prices really got high,” Ed Greiman says. “Essentially, we’ve had to pay more attention to how productive the land is, asking questions like, ‘do we need to put more fertilizer on our crops to get more out of it?’”

Technology helps balance the ledger

Despite ranchers receiving higher dollars for their beef, ranch expenses have increased, eating up their revenue. Adopting better systems offers benefits, both long and short term. “As a veterinarian, I get to see what other people do,” Geis says. “It seems to me that the ranchers who are doing well are the ones who embrace the newest technology. They end up making more pounds of beef, while using less resources.” Those technologies include systems like efficient record keeping, improved facilities, genetics and grazing management.

For his part, Geis has rebuilt his ranch facilities according to new research. The facility was redesigned to allow cattle to be brought indoors without injury and with little stress. This was done by allowing cattle to turn naturally and be able to move more instinctively through chutes.

Geis also uses medical techniques to boost his ranch’s productivity. “By giving safe and proven growth hormones, we’ve been able to get more efficient production in our calves,” he says. “It’s good economically, because it reduces the amount of land, water, feed and fuel needed and also leaves more forage for wildlife. We want wildlife to be just as healthy as our cattle.”

Maintaining land is important, but Geis says it doesn’t happen naturally. “Plants like leafy spurge destroy pastures and native vegetation if left unchecked. Weeding is impossible, so by spraying herbicides on problem areas, we can keep on top of it.”

Turnaround takes time

Despite improvements through innovation, it’s going to take time for the cattle industry to level off in herd size, bringing retail prices for beef down from their current highs. “If you’re still trying to pay off land, it’s about $800 to $1,000 to support a calf before it gives anything back to a rancher,” Greiman says. “By the time she enters the herd as a bred heifer, which takes about two and half to three years, we’ll have $2,200 to $2,500 invested in that cow.”

But farmers are optimistic of a turnaround, given time. “Ranchers are resilient, but we need time to respond to the higher cost of inputs like insurance, fuel and drought,” says Kevin Kester, a fifth-generation rancher with 22,000 acres in Parkfield, Calif. “In 2013, California’s 600,000 beef cows shrunk by 150,000 because of the drought, causing cows to be sent out of state or to slaughter. We’ll replenish herds as fast as Mother Nature will allow.”

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