An extraordinary plan helps three graziers achieve a unique but common goal
By Troy Smith
Why would a veteran farmer-stockman turn away from conventional row-crop production and devote even his irrigated acreage to growing pasture and other forages for cattle? And why would this fellow eventually invite two other men – men with whom he has no family ties – to join his transformed operation, with the goal of transitioning ownership of the business to them?
Both questions can be answered in the same way. It’s because of a vision. Wayne Rasmussen’s vision for improved stewardship, through holistic management of land and cattle, led to his development of a beef production system far different from most cattle operations in northeastern Nebraska. Rasmussen believes this production model can be sustained, provided the right people continue to guide it into the future. Though unrelated to Rasmussen, Dean Choat and Todd Hatcher share a different sort of kinship with him. They were invited to become stakeholders in the operation because they, too, share the vision.
For many years, Rasmussen applied conventional methods to his Pierce County operation located near Plainview. Like a majority of his neighbors, Rasmussen’s primary crops were corn and soybeans. Over the years, advancements in irrigation and other technologies brought more and more of the local region’s acreage under cultivation. The more diversified operations included conventional cattle backgrounding or finishing enterprises. Producers with access to limited pasture, like Rasmussen, maintained modest cowherds and often backgrounded their weaned calves on rations that included grain.
In the early 1990s, Rasmussen was introduced to holistic management concepts – particularly for managing grazing land – and soon began to explore alternative practices for improving stewardship of the land as well as forage production. In the early 2000s, he switched to a “grass-fed” cow-calf/yearling operation utilizing only forages. Rasmussen’s simple pasture rotations advanced to more intensively managed grazing systems incorporating both permanent pastures and grazed forage crops. By harvesting forages for silage, as well as hay, high-quality cattle diets could be maintained throughout the year. In 2006, Rasmussen began marketing a portion of his calves as animals finished exclusively on forages.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards approve the terms “grass-fed” and “grass-finished” for animals whose diets contain no separated grain – only forages. But in addition to plants that are truly grasses, a forage diet may include broadleaf plants (forbs) such as legumes, brassicas and crop residues – even plants commonly considered to be weeds. Whether green and growing or dry and brown, grazed or harvested, all herbaceous parts of plants can be forage, as long as a cow brute will eat it.
Rasmussen discovered that there were few plants that a cow would not eat, at some stage of vegetative growth. He also recognized that soil health, as well as water and mineral cycles, could be enhanced with fewer production inputs, while boosting the productivity of his land with forages.
“With irrigation, there is tremendous potential for forage production – up to 30 tons per acre. I think that’s exciting,” says Rasmussen, emphasizing how this also enables production of more pounds of beef per acre.
“I just wish I had another lifetime or two left in me so I could pursue it further,” he adds. “So that’s why I’m trying to help Dean and Todd, by sharing what I have learned so far. They can carry it forward, add to it and, hopefully, pass it on to the next generation.”
Dean Choat came to the Rasmussen operation first, early in 2012. Raised near Albion, Nebraska, Choat previously was an independent consulting agronomist who also provided custom-grazing services, utilizing pasture rented from his father.
“I first met Wayne at a grazing seminar and he later sent some grass cattle to me,” explains Choat. “In 2012, Wayne called with a proposal. He wanted me to work for him, but with the goal of working toward ownership transition.”
The offer was timely, since Choat and his wife had been talking about “making a change.” They found Rasmussen’s proposal appealing, because it provided not only an advantageous career move for Choat, but opportunity for involvement by the couple’s children.
“My wife and I have seven kids,” grins Choat. “This looked like a chance to work toward something that would benefit the whole family. That was a big motivator for me.”
Since joining the Rasmussen operation, Choat has put his agronomic skills to work, assuming management of soil fertility, irrigation, and the planting of various forage crops for grazing or harvest. Being machinery-savvy, he’s responsible for maintenance and repair of the necessary equipment. Choat also manages harvested feed inventory and prepares rations for finishing cattle.
Coming to work for Rasmussen a few months after Choat, Todd Hatcher had an entirely different skill set. Two generations removed from production agriculture, Hatcher had no experience with farming or livestock. Raised in Omaha, his high school infatuation with computers led him to pursue a degree in computer science and a career in web software development. But Hatcher and his wife, a nurse, shared an interest in fitness and nutrition, which ultimately spurred their curiosity regarding how various foods were produced.
A friend introduced Hatcher to a book authored by Joel Salatin, a Virginia producer that applies holistic management to the pasture-based production of multiple food animal species. Hatcher sought more information through other publications and meetings focused on grass-fed meat production. He even attended a school conducted by Missouri-based grazing guru Greg Judy, as well as the Grassfed Exchange, a forum founded by Wayne Rasmussen. Hatcher was hooked.
“I was using all my vacation time on this stuff,” grins Hatcher. “I started looking for internship opportunities and almost took one, on a ranch in the Sandhills. About that same time, Wayne offered an internship. His location (much less remote and nearer to Omaha) was more appealing to my wife, and I liked Wayne’s more diverse operation, going from cow-calf all the way to finished cattle.”
With Rasmussen’s guidance, Hatcher has expanded his practical knowledge and, over time, accepted more responsibility for managing the cow herd. This includes implementation of rotational grazing systems applied to the perennial pastures in neighboring Knox County where cow-calf pairs are summered. Rotations are developed for fall and winter grazing resources located near Plainview too, including fields planted to cover crops plus crop residues – mainly cornstalks. In the spring, the April-May calving cows graze fields of rye and the limited amount of pasture located near headquarters.
While the cow diets are comprised of grazed forages, with very little supplemental feed, weaned calves graze forage crops, supplemented with forage-based rations, and finishing diets rely heavily on rations built around harvested forages. Typically, long yearlings come off summer grass by early August and subsequently graze windrowed forage sorghum, the second of two crops raised on irrigated fields.
For example, a field planted to an early crop – a mixture like oats, field peas and triticale – is cut for silage. The field is then replanted to brown midrib forage sorghum for grazing. When finishing cattle are arrive in late-summer, temporary electric fence is used to allow them access to enough windrowed sorghum to last for a day or two at a time. Additional standing sorghum is windrowed as needed until the first frost, after which all of the sorghum is knocked down, stored in the windrow and meted out through strip grazing. But finishing cattle also receive supplemental feed in bunks placed in the field. A typical ration might contain alfalfa, soy hulls, silage, and maybe some sugar beet pulp, plus molasses and minerals.
“I know a lot of people think you can’t ‘finish’ an animal on forages, but about 80 percent of our cattle grade (USDA Quality Grade) Choice. It takes the right kind of genetics and the right kind of diet – high-quality forages,” Rasmussen adds. “We do it differently than producers that rely primarily on grazing. We use a lot of harvested forage too, and we take to the cattle.”
A New, Complex Venture
In 2014, Rasmussen, Choat and Hatcher launched a venture designed to enable the two younger men to build equity in the operation. Sharing a belief that men need divine guidance, their business is dubbed Giop Livestock, with “Giop” being an acronym for “God is our partner.”
Rasmussen and his wife, Judy, thought long and hard before entering into business with people outside their own family. They did not want to stir resentment among their grown children, even though none were interested in becoming involved in the Rasmussen cattle operation.
“Still, we felt it was important to talk with them and get their feedback. Maybe they’re just trying to be tolerant of me, but they’ve been supportive,” says Rasmussen. “Then we sought advice from transition advisors at the University of Nebraska, to work out a plan.”
Rasmussen admits that it took some time, because the plan is complex. In simplest terms, Choat and Hatcher lease the Rasmussen cow herd. The two younger men also lease the land and all equipment, with Rasmussen receiving payment as a share of the weaned calves.
“I buy their share of the calves along with the feed they grow and any outside feedstuffs needed. Then, I pay them yardage to custom-feed the calves, plus any outside calves I buy,” says Rasmussen, explaining that each year he typically buys some yearlings to finish on forages.
Rasmussen is then responsible for marketing the finished animals. Over the years, he has sold cattle to various grass-fed beef companies including such as Grassland Beef, Thousand Hills, Joyce Foods and Tallgrass Beef. However, some cattle are sold to GotGrassfed, the direct-marketing company established by Rasmussen, Choat and Hatcher. The company, managed by Hatcher, merchandizes dry-aged, frozen beef, primarily through the website: gotgrassfed.com.
Hatcher has also carried company product to the farmers’ market in Omaha, making about 20 trips in the past year. It’s a way to introduce the brand to an audience that often includes consumers with an interest or even a preference for grass-fed beef. The downside is that it is time-consuming, considering the volume of farmers’ market sales made to date.
“It’s hard to measure accurately, but I know the exposure helps drive customers to the website,” says Hatcher. “We sell individually packaged cuts, and 25-pound beef bundles are fairly popular. What surprises me, though, is the number of first-time customers that order a quarter.”
Doing something right
If accolades are a measure of success, consider that GotGrassfed has gained recognition for product quality at the national steak competition held annually at the American Royal stock show in Kansas City. GotGrassfed’s ribeye steak entries have won the grass-fed division grand championship during each of the last three years (2014, 2015 and 2016), based on a judging panel’s blind taste-test evaluation for flavor, juiciness and tenderness.
Rasmussen admits that he didn’t put much stock in the first win, chalking it up to luck. The next year’s repeat was a real surprise. After a third championship, he thought, “Maybe we really are doing something right.”
That said, Rasmussen understands and reminds his partners that grass-fed beef is not likely to become a mainstream product. In his opinion, part of the problem is the inconsistent quality of grass-fed product. Grass-fed beef represents about seven percent of total beef sales in the U.S., with all but one and a half percent being imported product of highly variable quality. Even the U.S. grass-fed industry needs to improve consistency. Of course, the big challenge for grass-fed beef is its higher cost of production and higher cost at retail.
“I don’t think it can ever compete with grain-fed beef, on price. Finishing cattle on forages just takes longer. Ours are 22 to 24 months of age at harvest,” Rasmussen explains. “But it is an alternative (to grain-fed beef) that appeals to some consumers – some that otherwise might not eat beef at all.”
Aiming for a Smooth Transition
“It’s a tough thing to do, but I’m trying to step back and play more of an advisory role. They need to make the management decisions,” says Wayne Rasmussen of his relationship with Giop Livestock partners Dean Choat and Todd Hatcher.
The three men are nearly three years into a plan to gradually transition not only management but also ownership of the operation to Choat and Hatcher.
“The goal is for them to build equity over time, until the business is theirs,” Rasmussen explains.
Meanwhile Rasmussen is trying to share the lessons he’s learned over nearly five decades in the livestock business, and almost 20 years of tuning and tweaking his own model for grass-fed beef production. He has figured out a few things along the way, although he claims much of that has been accomplished by adding and adapting, to his operation, the concepts and practices learned from others.
Feeling a duty to foster good stewardship, Rasmussen is a director for the Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition (NGLC). With a membership comprised of private landowners and managers, the NGLC provides educational opportunities and promotes technical assistance focused on improvement of grazing lands for the benefit of livestock production, wildlife habitat and clean water.
Rasmussen also founded the Grassfed Exchange, an organization formed to catalyze the exchange of knowledge, ideas and strategies for management of forage and cattle genetics by producers focused on grass-fed beef production. Grassfed Exchange has held several conferences, each featuring an international roster of speakers.
An advocate of life-long learning, Rasmussen says fellow ranchers are some of the best sources of practical knowledge, and Grassfed Exchange and NGLC provide opportunities for them to learn from one another.
“The best part is the one-on-one contact and interaction with other producers, while attending conferences or ranch tours,” states Rasmussen. “I recommend that we all need to get away from our home operations and find out how other people succeed at doing what we all love to do – to be the best we can at stewarding the land and livestock that the Lord has given us to care for.”