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Starting to farm with no excuses

For as long as he can remember, Justin Zahradka of Lawton, North Dakota, has wanted to farm and raise cattle. He grew up on a small farm, helping his parents care for a herd of 20 cows. “I liked the cattle, and I had a passion for working with nature,” he says.

Zahradka knew from an early age that if he was going to make a life farming, he would have to find creative ways to do it. He took a no-excuses approach and, at age 13, took his first step toward his dream. That step led to another and then another.

Now 28 and using his grandparents’ farmstead as headquarters, Zahradka and his wife, Molly, an ag education teacher, farm 500 acres of cropland and run a herd of 65 beef cows. Zahradka also serves on the board of supervisors for the Walsh County Three Rivers Soil Conservation District.

The path they’ve followed shows it’s possible to get started farming even from meager beginnings. One driving force propelling him forward is his determination “to take advantage of every opportunity that’s come my way,” he says.


Seizing Opportunities

The first opportunity came when he was an eighth grader. He successfully applied for an FFA Supervised Agricultural Experience grant and used the money to buy his first bred heifer.

Then, at age 16, his father reached out to a neighbor and helped his son access 40 acres of grassland. “The land had come out of the Conservation Reserve Program and was sitting idle,” Zahradka says. “We asked the landowner if I could cash rent it.”

With grassland in hand, Zahradka then followed up on an opportunity available through his local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office.

Working with other partners, including North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension, and Walsh County Three Rivers Soil Conservation District, the NRCS was looking for a farmer-cooperator to participate in a demonstration project involving the planting of cover crops and the subsequent rotational grazing of cattle on the cover crops.

Documenting rate of gain on the cattle was one of the project’s goals. Zahradka applied to be a farmer-cooperator and was awarded a grant that paid for the cost of the seed to plant the cover crop.

No-till pinto beans emerging from spring wheat stubble.

To acquire the field equipment to terminate the grass and plant cover crops, he reached out to neighbors and found them willing to lend him the needed equipment.

Custom grazing his father’s herd along with his own few head of cattle gave Zahradka the livestock to stock the 40 acres of cover crops.

The project gave him experience managing a grazing enterprise. He also learned a lot about soil health from working with NRCS and NDSU Extension staff and from participating in the demonstration field days.

The experience showed him that custom grazing was a low-risk way to earn a side income. He’d already tried backgrounding calves and had found that enterprise economically risky.

“Custom grazing made more sense because I could set my rate, and I would know what my income was going to be,” he says. He expanded his custom-grazing business by leasing 200 acres of grassland coming out of the CRP and advertising online for cows.

After high school, Zahradka continued to custom graze cattle while attending North Dakota State University, where he majored in crop and weed science and minored in soil science. While in college, he also attended farmer-led soil health workshops, which further fueled his growing fascination with soil health.

Following college graduation, Zahradka took a full-time position as an intern for a crop-consulting company, but the job put him at odds with his own cattle enterprises.

Torn between the two responsibilities, Zahradka quit his job and considered his next step.


Expanding the Herd

Deciding to get more beef cattle, he took on 110 beef cows on shares, an arrangement in which he and the owner shared the income. “I did that for two years and found that after covering all the bills, there wasn’t a lot of money left over,” he says. “I let the cows go after I decided that I’d rather own the animals and have them as equity.”

Buying the cows required a loan, and Zahradka had already borrowed money for equipment, so he chose to wait before also borrowing capital to buy cows.

In the meantime, he took a part-time job with another farmer, as yet another unexpected opportunity un- folded from the steps he’d already taken in his farming career.

Zahradka had acquired small parcels of cropland to lease, and his developing passion for soil health and his willingness to speak about it publicly were boosting his visibility within his community. This drew the attention of a landowner.

“I was presenting at a workshop about my interest in soil health and my transition to conservation agriculture,” Zahradka says. “A landowner heard me speak and sent me an email afterward, asking if I was interested in leas- ing his land. He wanted to transition the land to being managed by conservation practices.”

As a result, Zahradka leased an additional 300 acres and expanded his efforts to grow a diverse rotation by no-till and plant cover crops as often as possible.

After farming the land for a couple of years, he acquired a loan to buy more cows, a key step in building his own operation.

As challenging as it has been to launch himself as a farmer, he is glad he chose this path. “That saying about if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life — that’s true about me. I just love what I do,” Zahradka says.

Keys to Making It Work

Beginners like him need to have passion and desire in order to get started farming, says Justin Zahradka of Lawton, North Dakota.

“Having passion and desire carried me through the times when I questioned whether or not the amount of work was worth it,” Zahradka says.

Networking and building relationships also were key to his start. To find mentors, he reached out to farmers whose interests were similar to his and whose operations resembled his vision for his own. By contacting a couple such farmers “out of the blue” he found part-time employment.

Creative arrangements with his present farmer-employer benefit them both. “I run the planter on his farm, and then I’m able to use his planter to plant my own crops,” Zahradka says. “We exchange labor for equipment use.”

Advertising online and making cold calls have also led Zahradka to grassland he was able to lease. Being transparent with landlords about the feasibility of lease agreements has in some cases helped both parties negotiate agreements more in tune with economic realities.

Taking advantage of programs available through NRCS has helped him as well.

If there’s one thing he would do differently, Zahradka says, he would be more cautious about buying equipment, evaluating more closely the real need of making a purchase.

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