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Starting a beef herd from scratch

04/05/2013 @ 10:30am

Bryan Thill set his sight on raising beef cattle while he was yet in high school. But growing up on 3 acres with no natural prospects of getting either cows or land, Bryan had to be creative to live his dream.

Luckily, he found a spouse, Amy, who shared his hopes. Today the Thills, now only in their mid-30s, own 80 beef cows and 235 acres of grassland near Pleasantville, Iowa. The course they followed to build a herd shows a carefully charted journey marked by well-placed steps.

Here’s how they started their cattle farm from scratch.

  • Build on interests. As a child, Bryan learned to love animals – cattle in particular – while spending time on his grandparents’ farm. Later, he expanded that interest with a four-year degree in animal science.

Amy’s interest in cattle came from growing up on a farm that produced grain, hogs, and fed cattle. Both she and Bryan looked for a marriage partner with similar interests.

  • Capitalize on strengths. After their marriage in 1998, the Thills learned to capitalize on each of their strengths. Bryan is the visionary who sees possibilities first and difficulties last. Amy is the cost-fighting strategist. “If it weren’t for Amy, we may have gone broke a long time ago,” says Bryan.

  • Start small. After graduating from college and getting a job, Bryan bought a few old, cheaply priced cows. He kept the cows at a friend’s farm, trading labor for board on the cattle. “We got a couple of calf crops out of those ‘gummer’ cows and kept replacement heifers from them,” he says.

  • Buy a farmstead. The Thills found a 10-acre farmstead they could afford. The house was old and the barn run down. They moved their 13 cows to the new place and found a pasture to rent in summer and hay to buy in winter.

The down payment on the property came from money they’d saved, with the balance of the purchase covered by a loan from a creative commercial lender interested in helping young people get started.

  • Earn off-farm income. The Thills kept working within their professions. Bryan works full time as a feed consultant and Amy is a nurse.

  • Use short-term loans. Bryan and Amy continued buying cows as they could afford them, taking out four-year loans to pay for the cattle and keeping replacement heifers from the cows.

“All of a sudden, we had a pretty young herd,” says Bryan.

  • Use artificial insemination (AI). Because Bryan learned AI skills in college, the Thills can breed cows for just the cost of the semen, ranging from $15 to $30 per cow. Though they do use cleanup bulls, their overall investment in superior paternal genetics is much less than it might be if they purchased sires of comparable quality.

  • Add value to steers. The Thills’ primary use of AI is to produce show-caliber steers and heifers for the club calf market. “We sell our show calves for about double the market value of conventional feeders,” says Bryan.

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