Seeds of change Switching to natural beef proved a success for the Nix family
Published on Jan. 18, 2020
Traditional farming/ranching on the family farm in south-central South Dakota became a struggle for Brett Nix, trying to make a living doing what his parents and grandparents had done.
Eventually, he made the change from crops to grass – resulting in fewer expensive inputs, healthier soil and a more satisfying lifestyle.
Brett’s grandparents homesteaded near the little town of Murdo, S.D.
“My grandmother was instrumental in helping them survive the tough times during the 1930s. She went to work in Pierre, S.D. to bring in some income,” he explains. “My grandfather later told my dad he didn’t want to sell him the place because he couldn’t make a living out here.
He continues, “So, my dad went into the service, then came back and bought a neighboring place, because all he wanted to do was farm. He and my mother eventually bought my grandparents’ place also and added more land along the way.”
Brett joined his parents on the ranch in 1979.
“We continued adding acreage and had a typical high-input operation. It was the modern way of farming, working from dawn until dark,” he says. “My parents were extremely hard workers and back then one could advance with hard work and a few good decisions.”
“This is still true today, but it’s more difficult. Our decisions have to be even more well-thought-through and our hard work must encompass more creative thinking and strategizing and not just the sweat of our brow,” says Brett.
Seeds of change
Farming with his parents, he was using typical farming/ranching methods, until the late 1990s when they started no-till and added a few more crops.
“We intensified rotations and also had livestock, running 300 to 400 cows. In 2008, when prices and inputs skyrocketed, it was a crisis point financially and we were already to the breaking point work-wise,” says Brett.
Financial challenges forced a look at other option, to survive.
“We were calving in February to March and into April. All our cows had to go through the barn,” Brett says. “This was very labor intensive, but for a while all our kids were involved and we had a lot of help. As they started to graduate and go their own way, we had less help. I could see this was not sustainable.”
“Seeds of change had been planted in our minds,” he says. “We’d done a ranch inventory with Farm Credit Service with one of their programs to help farmers and ranchers better manage their resources.”
“The banking side of the crisis was another issue,” he says.
Farm Credit took their records and information and crunched it through their system.
“They sent back a detailed report, defining our problems. We were spending a lot of money on inputs,” he says. “We took a hard look at the size and scope of our business and dollars invested in equipment. This was the beginning of a change for us.”
To learn how to better manage his operation, Brett went to a Ranching for Profit school in Abilene, Texas in 2012 and a follow-up school in Rapid City, S.D. in 2015. He also attended holistic management workshops.
“One of the first things we did was move our calving season into May-June,” he explains. “We knew we couldn’t calve in cold weather anymore because it limited the number of cattle we could run. We could only calve out as many cows as we could run through our barn.”
This necessitated a few more changes, like selling 40 cows that wouldn’t do well calving at pasture.
“We had a short discussion, whether to put a bull with them and sell them as bred cows to add value, then asked ourselves if we’d want to be the person buying them,” he explains. “So we ran those cows without a bull until we could wean their current calves and sold them as open cows.”
After they started calving in summer, calving was enjoyable.
“This also matched our cows’ peak demand for forage to the peak growing season. We didn’t have very many problems, but did discover some of our cows were milking too heavy. We had to change our genetics a little as we went along,” he says.
“We were still farming 3,000 acres and didn’t like what we were doing. With no-till we had to use chemicals and fertilizers. So, we decided to plant everything back to grass,” Brett says.
Another motivating reason for change was they wanted to be better stewards of the land.
“We are responsible for it and wanted to be doing something better with this resource God entrusted to us as caretakers. For many years we’d been taking from it, and it was time to reverse that process,” says Brett.
Drought had always been an issue.
“We probably created some of our drought situations with our management styles of farming and grazing. We set up a drought plan and have less problems, thanks to our grazing management and adjusting stocking rate to our grass and moisture,” says Brett.
“Today, we sell beef as grass-fed, drug-free and natural. We have not used any chemicals on our land or livestock for five years,” he says.
“We use biological methods and some mechanical means to control undesirable plants, though our livestock graze most plants on our land,” he explains.
The decision to raise cattle more naturally took a few changes. They don’t pour cattle anymore with dewormers or insecticides. When cattle are not overgrazing, they are not picking up many worms because the worm larvae are on the lower part of the plants
When cattle are moved to new pasture after grazing just a short time, they leave most the worm and fly load behind. By the time they come back again, after a long recovery for each pasture, most worm eggs/larvae and horn fly larvae in manure were left behind and perished – due to dung beetle activity and not having a new host.
“We did more culling when we quit using dewormers and insecticides. There’d be a few cows that didn’t hold up or do well in our system, so those went to market, but as we changed other things, those issues have become minimal,” Brett says.
Early on, they had an extensive heifer development program, feeding them to grow to a certain size before breeding. Today, the heifers grow naturally, on grass and minimal harvested feed.
Nearly all heifers are exposed to bulls. The ones that conceive generally make good cows and the ones that aren’t pregnant stay in the stocker group. Calves stay on their mothers through winter. This makes winter chores easy and calves stay healthy.
“In our old system we usually fed between six and seven months of the year. Now we’re down to less than three months feeding with a tractor and are still decreasing that each year. We do a lot of bale grazing with our rotation, trying to leave as much ground cover and nutrients on the land as possible,” he says.
“We create a grazing plan but we don’t really have a system. We just have a few principles we try to stay with. We don’t want cattle on any piece of land for more than three to five days if we can help it, because after that the grass is starting to regrow. We don’t want cows to take a second bite once it starts to regrow,” he explains.
“All our land is marginal farm ground, but some of it we’d already planted back to grass, and put up hay. Now we graze it, rather than hay it,” he explains. “Some of the land gets twice-over grazing – once early and once late in the year, which has advanced the soil health and biology.”
He tries to change season of use every year, so a certain piece of land might have a year of recovery and sometimes 18 months.
“We are continually changing to make our lives, our land and our resources better. And we want to continue educating ourselves along the way,” he says.
Heather Smith-Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.