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9 ways ‘we dare to be different’

Progressive Cattleman Editor Cassidy Woolsey Published on 18 January 2019
Vern Terrell

You live and you learn, right?

Vern Terrell readily admits he has. A diversified cattleman in the western edge of the Nebraska Sandhills – who farms and ranches alongside his wife, Marjean, his son Brock and his wife, Heidi – was willing to share what he considers to be “game-changers” for his operation with producers at the National Grazing Conference in Reno, Nevada.

Below are nine practices he believes have worked well for his family business – whether intentional or perhaps brought on by accident.

1. Investing in leased land

It costs a pretty penny to buy land in Nebraska. According to Terrell, he can rent out land for about one-third of the price that it takes to buy it. While some producers might be hesitant to invest money into rented land, Terrell and his family believes those investments are what keep their business going and growing.

“It’s surprising how fast the payback is,” Terrell said. “If you’re willing to put in a pipeline or tank, for example, it lets you find those spots where the pasture hasn’t been utilized very well, and just within a year, you can do a better job managing the pasture, and the returns are very good.”

Terrell said making those investments lets the landlord know you are in it for the long term, and so far he hasn’t been disappointed.

2. Buying replacement cows

Like many producers, Terrell admits he had the bug for genetics, but as he got older, he decided to just let other people worry about the genetics. Now they buy cows, and they don’t bother with heifers.

“Heifers are just another herd for us to manage,” he said. “We buy a lot of older cows, and we have a standing order with a buyer, and he wants to market them to us. If there is a down cycle, he will send us a couple of loads of cows. So, a lot of that is on him, but it has economically allowed us to compete.” Those cows are then terminally crossed with Charolais bulls.

3. Having a long calving season

It’s typical for producers in the Sandhills to leave the bulls in for about 45 to 60 days. Terrell, however, leaves the bulls in for about 150 days. His philosophy? To get as many calves out of the cows as he can.

He’ll start calving around May 15, and everything will be divided into three herds – spring, summer and fall. Any cow that doesn’t make one of those calving groups is left on the pasture, fattened up and sold before the cull cow slump in the fall.

4. Early weaning

What started out as a tool to manage the drought in 2012, early weaning (90 to 120 days) has become a management practice they use on a yearly basis. The reasons, Terrell said, are it allows them to run a few more cows and it allows them to market a weaned calf.

Preconditioning the calves has also been a long-time practice they have implemented, and it has improved calf health immensely.

5. Turning bulls over annually

Terrell said they buy their bulls from one breeder every year. They get the bulls around the first of May and then turn them out around the 15th of August. Every bull is trich-and-fertility tested after being used about 120 days. After that, they are sold to a repeat buyer in south Texas.

“Most years, we get the same price we paid for them, but it depends if the market swings too much. Some years, we’ve had to give up a couple hundred dollars,” Terrell said. “We’ve figured in doing it this way, we’ve got a cost per cow of $15 to $20 per pregnancy. That’s one competitive advantage we believe we have.”

6. Running multiple species

While it might’ve happened by accident, Terrell considers his flock of ewes a “real blessing.” In 2013, Terrell contracted with a sheep producer out of Colorado to graze down some corn on their farm ground. To make a long story short, the producer passed away and his widow asked if they wanted to purchase the flock – and well, they did.

“We figure that we can run about a ewe for every cow without really taking that much forage,” Terrell said. “That’s one way we have been able to add value to our place is running these ewes. It’s a nice part of our enterprise.”

7. Using irrigated pasture and cover crops

The Terrells have a row crop segment to their business, but they are trying to turn some of that into forage production because of the low price of commodities and depleted soil health. They have planted six different legumes and five different grasses in these renovated fields, which are used for irrigated pasture.

Terrell said, “We’ve ran cattle [on these pastures] two summers, and we are still trying to figure out how to manage it. We’ve had some bloat issues because of the legumes, but mostly because of weather events. We use a Jim Gerrish-type of fencing and water system, and we get a lot of production. Both years we’ve ended up haying some of it off just because we have gotten behind on it.”

Cover crops have also been incorporated into their production. While Terrell said the economics of it is pretty “iffy,” he believes it’s one of those long-term investments that will help his ground over time. “But there is no quick payback on it. Our growing season is so short we can’t get a lot of production out of it as a second crop,” he said.

8. Buying hay for the cow herd

By grazing cornstalks and winter range, Terrell said they rarely have to feed hay. All of the hay used for their cow herd is purchased with the goal to bring in nutrients. Terrell said, “If the [cows] don’t eat it, it goes back into the ground and we take advantage of it that way. Plus, we are pretty short on labor, so buying the hay has worked out well, and it’s been affordable in our area.” All of the hay they do put up goes to their custom grow yard, he said.

9. Operating a custom grow yard

Within the last few years, the Terrell family has added a custom grow yard to their business.

“For cattle coming out of South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming, we are a good stopping place for them,” Terrell explained. “We’ll keep those calves from 45 days to four or five months. We’ll wean them and get them started on feed. It has allowed us to add value to our cropping system and give us a winter paycheck. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed doing this, and it’s been a great way to add value to our place.”  end mark

Cassidy Woolsey
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PHOTO: Vern Terrell speaks to producers at the National Grazing Conference in Reno, Nevada. Photo by Cassidy Woolsey.