Nebraska producer finds making land more productive improves net profits
Finding ways to better manage his land has helped a Nebraska producer find ways to graze year-around with minimal use of harvested forages. Mike Wallace, and his wife, Fran, own and operate Double M Sheep, which is a 400-acre sheep, cattle and goat grazing operation in Nuckolls County, Neb.
Wallace has raised Dorsets since his father gave him a Dorset bum lamb for his fifth birthday. By the time he graduated from high school, he had built the herd up to more than 100 ewes. Until 2006, the couple continued to raise Dorsets, and at one point, Wallace had even become a professional shearer.
In the 1990s, Wallace started looking at ways to transition to a more sustainable land management and livestock production operation. To accomplish that, Wallace focused on a 12-month grazing program, with minimal use of mechanically produced, harvested or delivered feedstuffs, he said.
“We do feed some alfalfa during the winter as a protein source. It is the cheapest protein we can find around here. It is purchased. We don’t harvest any hay,” he said. The alfalfa is typically fed between February and April by unrolling it on the paddocks one to two days a week. “We keep a supply of hay sufficient to feed all the brood stock for 60 days, and it is replenished each fall. Some of this supply is also used to feed developing females, does during kidding, and during extreme ice or snow cover. We also keep some on hand as a drought reserve,” he said.
“The objective of using multi-species grazing is to preserve a little bit of prairie that is not torn up and planted to corn,” Wallace said. “A lot of the grassland in my area that shouldn’t have ever been broken up has been, and now it raises submarginal corn and is worth $3,000 an acre. Right now, I feel like I could compete with them on a net income return per acre.”
His grazing program is accomplished with two sets of pastures that are 240 and 160 acres, and divided into 18 and 13 permanently fenced paddocks. “About half of the land is a native mixed tall/midgrass prairie. The dominant species are big bluestem, little bluestem, sideoats grama, hairy grama, and blue grama, plus various other warm and cool season grasses, forbes, and browse,” Wallace said.
Most of the remaining land was previously dryland crop ground that Wallace has converted to mixtures of native, warm and cool season perennial and annual grasses and legumes. “There is also 17 acres of abandoned cattle feedlots that grow annual volunteer mixtures of various forbs. When properly managed, these lots are extremely productive through spring and summer with very high quality forage for all three livestock species,” Wallace said.
In fact, Wallace said that in 2015, he was able to harvest 188 animal units (1,000 pound animals per animal unit) days by grazing these lots. “That was 6.3 AU months per acre with 26.6 inches of rain,” he said. “The only additional inputs were limestone in the mineral mix in April, to counteract oxalate poisoning from drought stressed Lambs Quarter,” he said.
The couple also transitioned out of the Dorsets in 2006, and replaced them with Romanov, White Dorper, and St. Croix composites, which are hair sheep that don’t need shearing, Wallace said. The cross bred ewes are lambed on pastures, separate from the cows, in mid May. “The ewe families are merged with the other stock at the end of the lambing period,” he said. “The lambs and ewes are not handled until August, when the lambs are tagged, counted and vaccinated. The ram lambs are weaned and moved to a pasture several miles away from the ewes and ewe lambs,” he said.
Other livestock on the operation includes about 40 head of mother cows and 40 does. The mature cows calve on pastures in mid-April, and their calves are sold off pasture-grazed cows in December. Wallace said he also retains replacements from the cows, but keeps them in a drylot through the first winter. “I keep a cowherd as a diversified income source,” Wallace said. “If there is a drought, I can take them to the sale barn and get good money for them. When the drought is over, I can go back and buy some more. They are easy to destock and restock.”
Wallace has also found the cattle deter predators by chasing away coyotes and other animals. “They are also beneficial for range and pasture sustainability, and help control pasture parasite contamination. The parasites from each species do not cross over between the cattle, sheep and goats,” he said.
The goats are a Spanish-Boer crossbred that kids in barn lots in April. After vaccinating, tagging and castrating, the goat families are moved back onto pastures with the other livestock. The kid crop is sold off pasture at the end of September. ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.