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Custom grazing is a good answer for Missouri family

Martha Hoffman for Progressive Forage Published on 01 March 2020
Riding the pasture

Custom grazing takes a unique set of skills and brings new challenges, but it’s the way Dr. Jason Salchow with his wife, Sharon, and their family have built a successful business grazing stockers and seedstock bulls in southwestern Missouri.

It started 20 years ago when he was finishing vet school and started grazing dairy heifers, and today it’s grown to 1,000 acres of mostly leased land and 1,200 head of cattle (half owned, half custom grazed).

Raising quality forage is the cornerstone to their success; the Salchows feed stockers primarily in the spring flush of grass in April through June (with about two stocker calves per acre) and then another batch when the grass grows again in September through November (with one stocker per acre).

Pastures are mostly fescue with legumes (primarily red clover), and there are some johnsongrass fields that work for summer grazing.

It takes intensive management to keep the Kentucky 31 endophyte-infected fescue at top quality for best rate of gain. Keeping the grass vegetative in spring with a tight rotation is key, and moving the stockers once or twice a day gives them a fresh batch of good forage to eat. Stockers usually run in groups of 120 to 180 head in 7- to 10-acre paddocks.

Depending on rainfall, time of year and other variables, rotation length and time in the paddocks will change.

“It’s all about adjustments,” Jason says. “There’s just not a recipe; it’s a living, biologic system. We have to cater to that biological system.”

The fescue shines as a stockpiled forage for wintering the black and Red Angus seedstock bulls that come in June and are sold in April as fescue-raised, low-input herd sires. The Salchows strip graze with polywire to help with feed utilization.

Raising the purebred seedstock bulls means a steady customer for grazing services (it’s been a decade-long relationship), but it also means extra work helping with the bull sale and taking videos of the bulls walking in preparation for the sale. The Salchows have made it work well, and it’s another way to provide a value-added service related to the grazing cattle.

There’s a weight of responsibility caring for someone else’s cattle, and the Salchows take their job seriously of stewarding the animals entrusted to them.

“We take care of custom cattle before we take care of our own cattle,” Jason says.

The biggest challenge of custom grazing is the service relationship with the cattle owners. Sometimes it means making the hard phone call that a calf was injured or died in spite of their best stockmanship efforts. Sometimes it means moving cattle in a snowstorm or dropping everything when a cattle owner shows up unannounced to check animals.

“Some days, it bogs me down,” he says. “If you can’t rise up and handle that, it’s going to be a burden.”

It also takes top stockmanship to train a load of sale-barn calves to the electric fence and keep them healthy. Jason says it’s totally different than grazing your own “broke cows.”

The Salchow family knows the challenges, but they have found it the best answer for making a living grazing cattle.

The biggest advantage to custom grazing is the obvious one: less capital investment in owning animals. It also allows the Salchows the freedom to adjust depending on the growing season.

“If it doesn’t rain, we just send the cattle home early,” Jason says. “That was part of why custom grazing was attractive to me: We could be completely flexible with our opportunities.”

Another benefit of custom grazing is: There’s cash flow throughout the year, since some animal owners pay monthly instead of when their stockers come off grass.

Jason’s wife, Sharon, heads up the bookkeeping, and their daughter helps a lot too. Every animal is listed on a spreadsheet with the weight at start of grazing and any medicines that were given. Then they use QuickBooks software to generate invoices for customers.

Having some sort of contract or agreement is vital so both sides know who is responsible for what (i.e., mineral, medicine, etc.). Depending on the contract, bills are calculated on a flat rate per head per day or per pound of gain on grass.

During their two decades in the custom grazing business, they’ve been expanding. Now they have more landowners interested in leasing, and they can be more selective about new land. (The best-case scenario is adjoining land to what they’re already leasing.) They see it like the Bible’s parable of talents: They’ve been faithful in the small things, so God has entrusted them with more.

“We’ve been blessed,” Jason says.

They’re focusing in making improvements to the infrastructure of their grazing operation – such as running buried water lines or putting in high-tensile fencing.

The economics are important, but the best part is the lifestyle the family has with their business. “Sharon and I and five kids work together every day and home-school,” Jason says. “That keeps me from having to go somewhere every day to work. We can stay here and work together.”

Sharon echoes the sentiment, saying every day is different and the flexibility lets them enjoy life as a family, like taking a break to have a picnic in a pasture on a spring day.

And while some would not want to own and run a business together with a spouse, it’s a good fit for the Salchows.

“With Jason and I working together so closely, it has brought us closer together,” Sharon says.

Their oldest child is 18, and he wants to graze for a living. As Jason and Sharon work to buy more land in addition to the leased land, it opens doors for their son, and they can step back to more passive income as they move toward retirement.

“My son could rent that from us like we rent ground from other people,” Jason says. “Then if we own the stock, he custom grazes for us. He has his own business.”

Jason thinks the custom grazing model is an ideal way to pass a farming operation down to the next generation so they’ll be testing it out as their son takes over more responsibility.

It looks like the custom grazing foundation to the business will continue to be the catalyst for growth as the business looks at the next generation of family farmers.  end mark

PHOTO: “It’s all about adjustments,” Jason says. “There’s just not a recipe; it’s a living, biologic system. We have to cater to that biological system.” Photo provided by Jason Salchow.

Martha Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Illinois.

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