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Looking to the future

Agriculture.com Staff 07/07/2010 @ 9:09am

Only a handful of traditional farmer-cattle feeders exist in central Iowa. Not long ago at least one feedlot full of fats inhabited nearly every mile of this country.

"That kind of agriculture is history," many farmers observe with a sigh. "Ain't worth the effort," others comment, grimacing at memories of feeding cattle in the winter.

Well, it just so happens Mike Kalsem loves history, is big into effort, and believes cattle, as well as other enterprises, are his family's ticket to a sustainable future in agriculture.

Mike looks around the family's farm near Huxley, Iowa, and acknowledges encroachment by large crop-only operations. The competition for land is fierce, so the opportunity to expand land base is limited unless Mike wants to become highly leveraged. "He faces challenges I couldn't have imagined at his same age," says Mike's father, Dave.

But Mike packs the silver bullet of optimism that has kept many a young farmer in business. A gun full of determination is strapped to his belt. Behind him stands a posse of family members -- father Dave, mother Cheryl, uncle John, and wife Michele -- and they all love farming.

Thus armed, Mike embraces the time-proven family tradition of adding value to crops by feeding cattle. Except for the summer months when the Kalsem lots are empty to allow time for cropping duties, the family can feed about 1,000 head at a time. "Year in and year out, cattle provide a dependable income," Mike believes. "Cattle feeding offers opportunity to add value to crops. And feeding provides an opportunity for me to farm."

Yet feeding alone wasn't enough to accommodate Mike and Michele's desire to farm. So several years ago the Kalsem clan cast around for diversification ideas. The concept they settled on was a natural fit for their operation -- raising high-quality hay. "We were already raising alfalfa for feed, so we had the haying equipment on hand," Mike explains.

Michele's expertise in horses and her notoriety for being an outstanding trainer guided the Kalsems to specialize in hay for the horse market. Today, the Kalsems make about 150 acres of alfalfa-grass hay and another 25 to 30 acres of straight grass.

This market, however, presented a number of challenges. For starters, the horse market demands high-quality forage. "We discovered that the best markets were people who had been burned on bad hay," Dave points out. "You can get by feeding low-quality hay to beef cattle. Horses can't stand it and refuse to eat it."

To keep the quality high, the Kalsems take extra steps to harvest their crop at its prime, a real challenge in years like this one when it seemed to rain every day. "You don't wait when it's time to bale," Mike points out. "Otherwise, leaf loss can be high. The horse market loves leafy hay."

The Kalsems are also careful to keep different cuttings segmented in storage as some buyers prefer second- or third-cut hay. Then, too, they have found that straight alfalfa is not sought out by horse owners. Instead, the bulk of their crop is a mixture of alfalfa and grass or grass alone (see "Lessons learned from the horse hay market" at right).

On average, their hay will fetch $120 per ton, which can be the equivalent of $3 corn. "The market fluctuates," Mike warns, "but we have found that the market for high-quality hay is steady, as such forage is always in demand.

Their hay is sold entirely to individual horse owners as well as a few purebred cattle breeders. "Many buyers come and pick it up at the farm, but we also deliver, at extra cost," Mike adds. "We have built up the business so that at least 50% of the crop is presold."

This hay venture also works well with an enterprise Michele launched training horses and their owners. Many of her clients train at the family farm in empty feedlots, when they are available, as well as on a grassed area situated between the operation's bunker silo and a cornfield. Michele also holds public and 4-H horse clinics. She also breeds and sells horses. "I do a lot of youth training, which I enjoy enormously," she explains.

The training enterprise brings in additional income, which is "kind of our egg-and-cream money, so to speak," Mike says with a laugh.

Yet, such income is key to making it in farming. "Hay provides crucial supplemental income that has made it possible to keep Mike on the farm full time," says Dave.

Only a handful of traditional farmer-cattle feeders exist in central Iowa. Not long ago at least one feedlot full of fats inhabited nearly every mile of this country.



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