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Giving Beginning Cattle Producers a Leg Up

While serving in the Marines straight out of high school, Garrett Dwyer thought often of the ranch back in Bartlett, Nebraska, that had been in his family for 125 years. As the end of his four-year tour of duty neared, Dwyer knew that ranching was his calling.

He was uncertain about how to begin, though. His parents’ downsized cowherd and the leasing out of grassland suggested he’d have to start largely from scratch.

“Land and capital are the two main things everyone needs in order to get started in farming and ranching,” he says.

Dwyer had neither.

Yet today, just seven years later, he and his wife, Jennifer, are running a herd of 350 beef cows. The ranching start he dreamed of has resulted from mentoring and resources made available by his parents, Mike and Mary Alice Dwyer. He has also benefited from opportunities afforded by the 100 Beef Cow Ownership Advantage program offered by the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture (NCTA).

Dwyer learned about the program through NCTA’s promotional campaign informing veterans about opportunities that could lead to a future in ranching.

The two-year educational curriculum offered at the NCTA campus in Curtis, Nebraska, is open to anyone. “We hope to develop students into owners of beef cattle who may eventually start their own ranching operations,” says Doug Smith, NCTA program chair.

“It really gave me a leg up in terms of being able to come back to the ranch.”

The core curriculum focuses on livestock-industry management. Hands-on care of livestock is taught along with 13 credit hours of business management.

“Students put together a detailed management plan along with a projected cash flow plan and a projected net worth statement for a prospective operation,” explains Smith. “They learn to incorporate the financial tools into a business plan they can use to show a lender how they’re going to be successful.”

An outreach version of the 100 Beef Cow Ownership Advantage program targets nontraditional students, who may be older and who can’t get away from work to attend college full time. The nine-month curriculum comprises a three-day cow-calf college and a ranch practitioner’s course held two days a month from June through January. The summer’s coursework centers on farm and ranch management, with a focus on the economic and financial side of running an operation.

Program organizers envision several industry entry points for graduates. One avenue is a return to the family ranch equipped with the business tools needed to acquire a loan for a start-up herd. Another is to work for an established rancher as either an intern or an employee. Internships often evolve into full-scale employment. In situations where employers are nearing retirement, herd-building opportunities may be included in the employment package.

“We network with the Nebraska Cattlemen and other groups,” says Smith. “Through these organizations we try to help our graduates establish partnerships with ranchers. Most of these producers are more than willing to help graduates.”

Since the program’s start in 2007, 90 students have graduated. “A third of these have their own operation up and running, and most of these have access to family land,” says Smith.

Mentor needed
Having a place to get started has played an important role in Dwyer’s start in ranching.

“I was lucky because I had land and some facilities available to me,” he says. “In terms of cattle and equipment, I was pretty much starting from scratch, but Mom and Dad helped me out. Young operators need a mentor to help them get started – to show them a few things.”

The NCTA program helped as well. “It really gave me a leg up in terms of being able to come back to the ranch,” says Dwyer.

The course curriculum was useful, of course, but the writing of the business plan was pivotal. Dwyer took his plan to the Farm Service Agency (FSA), where he applied for a low-interest Beginning Farmer and Rancher loan. Because NCTA works closely with FSA in shaping students’ business plans to meet FSA requirements, NCTA graduates have a head start in the application process at any lending agency.

Dwyer applied for the loan at the end of his first year and was approved. 

“In the second year of the program, during days off, I was driving all over Nebraska looking for cows to buy,” he says. “I knew exactly what I wanted from the very beginning of the program, so I was able to hit the ground running when I graduated. Because I had gotten my loan approved early, I already owned a cowherd.”

Dwyer’s FSA loan included funds to cover an operating note as well as a loan for capital purchases. The loan enabled him to buy 125 cows, a tractor, and a bale processor. With the operating note, he was able to cover annual expenses.

In the six years since purchasing the initial herd, he has grown it to 350 cows by buying additional females as well as by retaining heifers.

Investment of cattle income in equity building is more feasible because Jennifer’s full-time employment off the ranch provides an income to cover the couple’s cost of living.

With the younger Dwyers off to a running start, the teamwork of the entire family is building a sound future. 


“I’m optimistic about the future of the ranch,” says Dwyer. “Hopefully, we can pass it on to our kids and keep it in the family for another 125 years.”


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