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A Bare-Bones Beginning

After meeting as college freshmen a decade ago, Jay and Krista Reiser soon found they shared a passion for starting a ranch. Today, from a bare-bones beginning in 2010, the married couple has successfully navigated twists and turns to accomplish their goal.

Near Washburn, North Dakota, the Reisers run a beef operation comprising 3,350 acres of leased grassland. Custom grazing cow-calf pairs provides cash flow while they build their own beef herd (presently 90 mature cows, 30 replacement heifers, and 80 yearlings) to develop on grass. They’re debt-free, too.

“Starting our own ranch and raising cattle is something we both really wanted to do,” says Krista. “When we first met, we didn’t know how we were going to do it.”

With the passing of time and after learning about Holistic Management, they glimpsed ways to begin.

“Other than a few lease cattle, we had nothing when we started in 2010,” says Krista. “We had no money; we didn’t even have a tractor. After learning about Holistic Management, we believed we could succeed by finding ways to work with nature rather than against it.”

Jay sums up their operational strategy when he says, “We’re in the business of taking solar power and harvesting it in the form of grass.”

6 Key Steps

  • Following are six key steps that allowed the Reisers to get started ranching with little outside help or financing.
  • Set goals. “We knew where we wanted to go with our lives,” says Krista. “We wanted our work to have the sum effect of building a better land resource.”

Borrowing from Holistic Management, they set goals and outlined processes for accomplishing these. “We spent a lot of time planning,” she says.

  • Keep learning. From the beginning, the Reisers attended educational events related to planned grazing and Holistic Management. They took every opportunity to learn from established ranchers and other professionals.
  • Watch for opportunities. “We were in the right place at the right time in order to lease 1,200 acres of rangeland that came with an old farmstead,” says Jay.

The farmstead had stood empty for 20 years, yet the landowners had been hoping for someone to live on the property. The Reisers moved a mobile home onto the place and fixed up the old corrals.

Meanwhile, more rangeland came up for rent next door, and they were able to put together 2,000 acres of contiguous pastures. They also were able to lease more grassland just 5 miles away.

  • Be a savvy financial manager. With the intent of staying out of debt, the Reisers depend on income from custom grazing to provide timely cash flow throughout the grazing season.

In 2012, they custom-grazed 170 cows with spring-born calves at side. “We also grazed 170 head of fall-calving cows, and I calved those out for the owner,” says Jay.

To further bolster cash flow, Krista works full time as a rangeland specialist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. In winter, Jay also works off the ranch. The off-farm income helps with operating costs and minimal purchases of equipment. “Neither one of us wants to be in debt, so we operate with as few purchased inputs as possible,” says Krista. “We don’t buy fancy pickups. While we do have a tractor now, it’s not the nicest tractor, but it gets the job done.”

Because the Reisers buy all their hay, they do use a discretionary line of credit in order to take advantage of the opportunity to buy reasonably priced hay whenever it becomes available.

Build herds with leased cows. While share-renting cows from owners is a common way for beginners to acquire cattle to manage, the Reisers, instead, prefer to lease cows for a fixed annual sum. Because they know their cost of production, they know how much they can afford to pay per cow in annual lease fees.

“Leasing is a clean way to operate,” says Jay. “The owner knows in advance the amount he is earning from the cows. As the managers, we then have the freedom to deal with fluctuations in calf price and input costs as we see fit. The calf is ours, and so we’re able to build our herd debt-free.”

  • Use resources creatively. The rangeland they acquired had been continuously grazed for decades. Because of that, soil and plant health need strengthening. Increased grass production should be one of the eventual results.

“Holistic Management has taught us to focus on the ecosystem,” says Jay. “We use periods of rest after grazing as a tool to allow plants to become healthier. Our goal with planned grazing is to get cattle to the right place at the right time for the right reasons.”

Using temporary cross fencing, he moves cows to fresh grass and new ground as frequently as four times a day. To reduce the amount of hay fed in winter, they stockpile standing grass for grazing in late fall and early spring.

In winter, they use temporary fencing to give cattle access to strategically placed round bales of hay out on sheltered pastures. The system lets cows spread their own waste, which adds needed fertility to grassland. At the same time, it nearly eliminates the starting of a tractor in cold weather.

“We move the fencing every three to seven days,” says Jay. “In the winter, it really frees up my time to do other things that can bring in added income.”

Look to the future

As the Reisers set goals and plan for the future, they are envisioning ways for Krista to work full time on the ranch alongside Jay.

“We’d also like to integrate other animals like sheep and goats,” she says. “Another possibility we hope to explore with neighbors is the integration of livestock and cropping systems.”

Jay adds, “Land managers can apply cattle to farmland to improve soil health through the fertility left behind by livestock. It’s a win-win situation for both farmers and ranchers.”

For now, they hope to keep doing more of the same. “We plan to focus on improving the health of the soil. We’re blessed to be in this situation, and we’re very hopeful about the future,” Jay says.

To learn more, contact Jay and Krista Feiser at 701-793-2021 or email at

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