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Starting a beef herd from scratch

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.

During those earlier years of paying off loans for buying cows, the added value earned by the club calves helped the cow herd to cover its own production costs and loan payments. The same is true today.

  • Add value to old farmstead. “We cleaned up the farmstead and built new fence,” says Amy. “And Bryan’s dad helped us remodel the interior of the house. We fixed up the entire place.” Five years after buying it, the Thills sold the farmstead for a profit.

  • Buy and develop new land with creative financing. In 2003, the couple bought an 80-acre bean field with no buildings. The land cost $90,000, and the Thills financed it through a Farm Service Agency (FSA) low-interest loan for beginning farmers.

With the same loan, they financed the additional cost of fencing and of constructing yard facilities and a 50×80-foot livestock shed.

The FSA loan required a 10% down payment, or $13,000. The interest rate of 4% is fixed for 30 years. The Thills paid the down payment from the $40,000 profit resulting from the sale of their 10-acre farmstead. They used the remaining money to make the down payment on a second low-interest loan used for building their new home.

  • Establish productive grassland. They planted orchard grass, bromegrass, red clover, and alfalfa, then they fenced the property into a pie-shape rotational grazing system with a pond in the middle, creating a stocking capacity of one cow-calf pair per acre.

  • Continue to grow the herd. “We brought 35 cows to this place, and they were paid for by then,” says Amy. “Once we had the cows paid off, we really started growing the herd bigger. We were able to keep larger numbers of replacement heifers.”

  • Buy a neighboring farm. In 2005 they bought a 225-acre farm soon to come out of the CRP. They sold parcels to help finance the remaining 155 acres.

“Before we bought the new farm in 2005, Amy and I didn’t think we were ever going to get a chance to expand our cow herd,” says Bryan. “It was nice to be able to buy more land near our farm. We’re cattle and grass people; we pride ourselves on growing forage, not crops.

“To provide the best grazing for our cattle, we knew we needed to improve the productivity of the old CRP stand,” he continues. “We had three years to do our research and come up with a plan since the land wasn’t scheduled to come out of CRP until the fall of 2008.”

With cost-sharing from Iowa’s CRP to Graze program, they established a water source and cross-fencing. Their combined resources now provide the pasture and hay they need, giving them room to grow their herd easily to 100 head. Present labor constraints and careers limit the further growth that their resources might permit.

  • Control machinery costs. “Over the years, we’ve made do with the equipment we could afford,” says Amy. “We fed small square bales for four years because we couldn’t afford a tractor. We would load square bales by hand into a wheelbarrow to carry them to the bale feeder.”

  • Work together; support each other. Because Bryan’s professional position requires travel, Amy often feeds and checks the cattle in his absence. Each of their children – Madyson, 10; Riley, 6; and Ryder, 3 – has a small job to perform, like feeding the cats and two dogs.

“It’s really important to be able to work together,” says Bryan. “We’re very fortunate to have the support of my dad, Amy’s family, and great friends and neighbors. They’ve helped us in many ways. Our farm is truly a team effort.”

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