Terrell Farms Chooses Moos and Ewes for Diversity Plan
By: Troy Smith
Agricultural operations often evolve and grow out of necessity. It is generally agreed that if farm and ranch businesses don’t grow, they probably won’t last very long. Of course, growth can occur in different ways. Adding to an operation’s land base can facilitate increased production, but business growth isn’t always about getting bigger. By honing their marketing skills, producers can sell what they produce and procure needed resources to greater economic advantage. With or without additional acreage, diversification of production may improve resource utilization. Diversification can also create additional marketing opportunities.
Over the course of six decades, the Terrell family’s Nebraska panhandle operation has grown in each of those ways. According to Brock Terrell, the process continues as family members work at managing resources more effectively, increasing production efficiency and developing marketing expertise. But Brock and his brother, Seth, also think diversification is key to future growth. “We like having the options that come from a diversity of crops and a diversity of livestock,” states Brock.
“The more diverse we are, the better.” Brock and Seth, along with their respective wives, Heidi and Courtney, share management of a fairly large outfit with parents, Vern and Marjean.
Known formally as Terrell Farms, it’s big enough to support three family households, plus those of three hired men. Headquartered in the Mirage Flats area, south of Hay Springs, the operation’s farming enterprises include multiple cash and feed crops grown on irrigated and dryland acres. Cattle interests include cow-calf, yearling and feedlot enterprises. Most recently, sheep have been added to the mix.
Sheep are scarce in the area, but Vern Terrell says it wasn’t always that way. Small flocks were almost plentiful back when his own parents relocated here. That occurred following completion of the Mirage Flats Irrigation Project – a Depression-era effort begun by the old Farm Security Administration. Stalled during World War II and finally completed in 1948, the program offered war veterans an opportunity to purchase land irrigated with water diverted from the Niobrara River.
“My folks came here from Torrington, Wyoming, and started farming on 80 acres,” explains Vern, noting how diversity was common then. “They grew crops that were fed to sheep and hogs. They milked cows and later added beef cattle. Over time, they bought and rented more land. My brother, Terry, and I joined the operation during the 1970s.”
That decade also brought the first significant purchases of grassland and expansion into beef cattle production. As the livestock focus shifted to beef, the sheep, dairy and hog enterprises were phased out. As Vern and his brother assumed management roles, gradual expansion continued through the purchase and lease of additional farm ground and pasture. A feedlot was added to finish home-raised calves. Today, Terrell Farms owns most of the cultivated land on which corn, edible beans, wheat and alfalfa are grown.
Double-cropping of some fields, with millet, turnips or a grass-legume-brassicas cocktail, yields forage that can be grazed in the fall and winter, along with corn stalks and other crop residues. A majority of the ranch’s range land lies across the Niobrara, in the hills southeast of Mirage Flats.
“Most of our grass is leased and we’ve enjoyed good relationships with land owners. Some have lasted a long time,” tells Vern. “We’re not afraid to make investments, such as fencing and water development, on leased properties.
They have been win-win situations and that probably helped us acquire several more rented places in the last few years. We’ve been fortunate that when a lease has been lost, due to the land being sold, something else has been available to rent.”
MANAGED IN A NON-TRADITIONAL WAY
Still, an operation that depends so heavily on leased grass needs to be nimble. Vern says the threat of drought and the area’s frequent hail storms are more reasons for maintain-ing flexibility. Not only are they capable
of responding to a shortage of forage, the Terrells can take advantage of opportunities such as unexpected forage availability. On the livestock side of the operation, flexibility is achieved by running multiple classes of cattle and sometimes managing them in non-traditional ways.
Terrell Farms maintains two separate cow herds, including a March calving herd, comprised of purebred Angus and Angus-cross cows. According to Seth, genetic selection focuses on maternal traits, followed by performance and carcass merit. A majority of replacement females going into the March-calving herd are home-raised heifers.
“We use AI fairly extensively on the March-calvers. We AI all of the heifers and about half of the cows,” explains Seth. “We raise some bulls out of the purebred cows, including those we use for clean-up after AI. We also sell a few bulls at private treaty.”
Usually, any cows that breed late to clean-up bulls are shifted to the other herd, which is bred to calve in May. This larger herd consists primarily of purchased cows and none of the heifers they produce are retained. All of the May-calvers are bred to Charolais bulls for a terminal cross.
Brock says May-calving herd numbers are increasing because the system is “low-input” in terms of feed and labor. Typically, the cows graze crop residues and range during the winter, with protein being the only supplement. Over the last eight years May calving cows have not received hay, except during winter storms. Weather challenges are rare during calving season, as is dystocia, and rotation through pastures reduces calf exposure to pathogens. The cows recover quickly after calving and breed back readily while on green grass.
“Generally, about 90 percent of the cows breed in the first cycle of a 45- day breeding season,” states Brock, noting that bulls used on the May herd are managed in a manner that saves feed and bother.
“Keeping bulls around all the time can be a nuisance, but the Charolais bulls are only on our place for about 60 days. Our bull-supplier helps us find a new home for them after their work is done here. So, we pull the bulls from the pastures, test for trichomoniasis, and send them to south Texas,” he explains.
Home-raised calves are retained after weaning and grown as stockers, along with a variable number of purchased calves. The stocker program is two-fold, consisting of replacement heifer candidates and calves that will