Concentration on diversity, Terrells get unusual start in sheep business
Hay Springs, Neb. – Brock and Heidi Terrell never intended to add sheep to their growing list of diversifications on their family’s farm and ranch, but what started out as lemons soon became lemonade for the couple.
“We got into the sheep business by accident,” the Mirage Flats producer recalls.
During the drought of 2012, they had some corn go down.
“We bought some feeder cattle to go through it, but there was still a lot of kernels on the ground,” he says.
Terrell talked to a sheep producer in Colorado about grazing the field with some sheep, and a rancher from Vail, Colo. was interested in trying it rather than continuing to pay $400 a ton for alfalfa hay. Due to a harsh mountain winter, his feed supply was buried beneath more than four feet of snow.
String of bad luck
“Within a couple weeks, we had about 700 white-face ewes out grazing the downed corn,” Terrell explains. “We had an agreement to get the sheep out by March, but the snow was still too deep, so he asked to stay for a couple more weeks.”
With a new shipping date of April 15 and the producer indicating trucks would be at their Hay Springs operation, on April 19, Terrell thought the sheep would be on their way home to Colorado. Then, he received terrible news.
“On April 17, his wife called and said he had died of a heart attack the night before. She didn’t want the sheep and asked if there was any way we could get them to Fort Collins, Colo. to sell them,” he recalls.
When Terrell called the sale barn, he received more bad news. There was no market for the ewes.
Terrell continued, “We were in a drought, the sheep wouldn’t lamb until June, and they told me they wouldn’t bring anything. I asked them, ‘How much is not anything?’”
With a sale barn quote in hand, the Terrells decided to take a chance. He called the producer’s widow and negotiated a price for the ewes, the guard dogs and the sheep wagon.
“The whole nine yards came in one fell swoop. Without that accident, it would have been a lot more difficult for us to jump in on that scale,” he says.
Five years later, the gamble paid off.
The Terrells have had such good luck with the ewes during that time, they have increased their numbers to 1,600 head.
They also own 1,300 mother cows and take in another 1,200 animal unit months (AUMs) of customer cattle. The livestock are managed on 38,000 acres of native rangeland and 5,500 acres of irrigated farmland and leased crop residue.
“We mostly run on native range and winter on crop residue and cover crops,” Terrell explains.
“We custom graze some cattle and sheep to generate more revenue, while maintaining some flexibility in our management scheme,” he continues.
“We also exercise holistic management, primarily the Savory system, to have another tool in our toolbox. Our goal is to graze the right animals in the right place at the right time and keep our business flexible,” he maintains.
Flexibility in diversity
“Part of our flexibility is the different species and classes of animals we have, whether it is stocker-feeder, ewe lambs, pairs, dry cows or ewes,” Terrell explains.
They have cows from about 14 different states and sheep from about five. They quickly stock and destock the herds as they determine their needs.
“We go wherever there’s an opportunity,” Terrell says. “We especially pay close attention when there is a drought.”
Terrell has also experimented with ways to run cattle and sheep together, and they calve and lamb in sync with nature, while using holistic management practices.
The ewes start lambing on pasture May 20. The heavies are moved twice a day, and after lambing, the pairs are kept in small groups. The ewes raise no more than two lambs each, and they are monitored by Peruvian sheep herders.
The farming enterprise is considered pretty diversified, Terrell continues.
“From mid-July to November, we are always harvesting one crop or another,” he says.
They plant cash crops like corn, wheat, oats, rye, triticale, dry edible beans and peas. After these crops are harvested, they plant cover crops like turnips, rye, oats, peas and sorghum sudangrass. The Terrells have used cover crops as preventive planting, when the field is too wet to plant or to replace hailed or damaged cash crops.
In addition to grazing, Terrell has found other benefits to raising cover crops. They are nutrient scavengers and an advertisement for soil health, not to mention the high food value they can produce that lasts well into the winter when the nutritional value in other feed sources has declined, he says.
Penciling it out, Terrell finds the economics of producing cover crops is about a wash.
“The cover crops cover their cost. There is enough value there to cover seeding it, it has good feed value, and we don’t have to start a feed truck,” he says. “It’s high-quality feed late in the year when we don’t have any other feeds available and the pastures are all frozen down.”
“We’re not going to get rich off cover crops, but we’re not going to go broke doing it either,” he adds.
Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.