Galleys say having a small acreage is no reason for not thinking really big
by Allan Nation
(All financial figures in this story are in USA dollars.)
BERNAL, Queretaro, Mexico: Should having a small acreage keep you from thinking really big? Not according to Jean and Alain Galley.
The Galley brothers currently graze 4200 ewes, 800 rams and their lambs on just 200 acres of irrigated alfalfa pasture and say this number is still not at the maximum possible.
“We think 5000 ewes will probably max out this property but we really don’t know,” Alain Galley said.
“Our method is to push the system until it breaks and then quickly reduce the numbers by 20 percent.
“You can only find the edge by going beyond it and we haven’t done that yet.”
Production is not the only area where the Galleys are thinking outside of the box.
For those who think that direct marketing is only for small numbers of animals, consider that all of the Galley ranch’s 9000 lambs and cull ewes are marketed as live animals direct to their neighbors.
Still not impressed? How about a seven figure annual gross from 200 acres? Yes, those seven figures are in American dollars.
While Swiss citizens, the Galley brothers grew up in Mexico where their father ran a large Swiss/Mexican cement company.
After returning from Switzerland with his university business degree, Alain decided he wanted to pursue a career in agriculture in Mexico.
Due to government regulations on land ownership that limited farms to only 100 hectares, Alain knew his farm would have to be very intensive and concentrate on high value crops. He decided to concentrate on growing roses and tomatoes.
“I only wanted enough land for a greenhouse, but my father convinced me to go for the maximum acreage allowed by the law,” he said.
In 1981 after an extensive search, Alain finally located a flat 100 hectare (250 acre) property within sight of the Bernal monolith some 124 miles north of Mexico City.
The Bernal monolith, the Pena de Bernal, is a 1500 foot high, hardened lava core of an ancient volcano whose surrounding cone of cinders has weathered away.
“We bought the property for the view,” Alain said.
“Luckily, it had sizable ground water resources for irrigation, but we didn’t know that at the time.”
In recognition of the flower orientation of the ranch, he named it Florisol or sunflower.
After building greenhouses for the roses, Alain started growing irrigated alfalfa for hay to utilize the rest of the property.
However, he soon realized that the alfalfa was worth more as a grazing crop than a hay crop and he switched to grazing stocker bulls. (Mexicans prefer the meat flavor of intact males.)
Utilizing New Zealand grazing technology, he found the property could easily graze 1000 bulls a year.
The grazing was so much less labor intensive than floriculture that it soon became the ranch’s primary enterprise.
In 1994, there was a financial crisis in Mexico and the market for feeder cattle in the country completely vanished.
Alain said he was looking at a $500,000 loss if he sold them in Mexico and decided to cross them to Texas and sell them there.
This turned out to be a good decision and convinced Alain of the necessity of always having an American outlet for their Mexican production.
The result was the purchase of the 6000 acre Puzzlewood Ranch in East Texas near Palestine.
In 1996, Jean Galley was on a Stockman Grass Farmer tour of New Zealand and met Iowa veterinarian Stephanie Mitchum who was also on the tour.
Stephanie told Jean that she was importing a new breed of hair sheep into the USA from South Africa called the Dorper.
Knowing that Alain was in South Africa at that time, Jean called him from New Zealand and asked him to find out what he could about the breed.
Alain went to the South African Dorper show which happened to be going on at that time and reported back that the sheep were “very chunky and eating rocks.”
This resulted in the Galley brothers forming a joint venture with Mitchum to import Dorpers into North America.
This decision gradually changed the orientation of Florisol from beef to exclusively sheep and Puzzlewood to a 50/50 sheep and beef mix.
Starting with an initial importation of 300 Pelibuey hair sheep ewes bred to Dorper rams that ranch has grown to 4200 crossbred ewes today and plans to grow to 5000 ewes over the next three years.
“We are big believers of growing solely from your own genetics,” Alain said.
“This is the only way to genetically adapt the livestock to your climate and management style.”
The management style of the Galley brothers is to maximize salable output while minimizing purchased input. At Florisol they do this by combining irrigated alfalfa with management-intensive grazing.
A MANAGEMENT-INTENSIVE APPROACH
Here’s an over-view of the operation.
The 200 irrigated acres are divided into two long rectangles split with a road. These two feilds are irrigated with side-roll irrigators.
The irrigators are moved twice a day and complete an irrigation round every 14 days. In other words, every acre is irrigated every 14 days.
These rectangles are boundary-fenced with six-wire electric fence but all interior subdivisions are created with Premier electrified-net, temporary fence.
“We found that at the stock densities we were using the electrified net was the only fence that would hold the sheep where we wanted them,” Alain said.
The sheep are given a fresh break of alfalfa every 30 minutes for five hours a day. The rest of the time the sheep are kept penned off the pasture in predator-proof pens.
The flock is divided into three groups. Weaned lambs, ewes with lambs and dry pregnant ewes. Each group has their own set of temporary breaks.
This time limited grazing is designed to lower labor needs, prevent wild dog predation, eliminate the need for guard dogs, and to lower internal parasitism.
“We sleep better at night knowing the sheep are firmly fenced in,” Jean Galley said.
The sheep do not begin to graze until 10 in the morning when the dew has dried from the alfalfa. They begin their grazing day by cleaning up the stem remnants from the day before to fill their stomachs.
Once turned onto fresh alfalfa the stock density is kept high enough so that the sheep are encouraged to eat both the leaves and stems to help prevent legume bloat. The forage is taken to bare dirt at each grazing as an internal parasite control.
“We control internal parasites with grazing management and genetics. By exposing the surface of the soil to sunlight and penning the sheep at night, we have not had any internal parasite problems but we are ever-watchful for it,” Alain said.
Due to the ability of internal parasites to build resistance to all sheep drenches, he said that such “natural” preventative measures are the only ones that will work in the long-term.
(In the humid climate of their East Texas ranch, combining cattle and sheep on a 50/50 by bodyweight basis provides a similar natural parasite control.)
NO ALTERNATIVE TO ALFALFA
Grazing management and genetics are also their solution to legume bloat.
“Animals that have a recurring problem with bloat are culled,” Alain said.
“The beauty of having large numbers of animals is that you can cull heavily without overly affecting income.”
He said that preventing bloat by not using alfalfa was not an option with irrigated pastures.
With a monthly electric bill of $30,000 to run the irrigation pumps, Alain said that alfalfa was the only forage productive enough to pay such a high electric bill. The annual dry matter yield is six tons per acre.
Alfalfa provides year-around grazing in central Mexico but requires some hay supplementation in mid-winter. All hay is purchased.
The ranch was originally planted to a mixture of alfalfa and orchardgrass but the orchard has not been able to withstand the zero residual grazing and has greatly thinned.
Currently, the ranch is experimenting with adding chicory and plantain to its forage mix and this appears to be a way to easily thicken an aging stand of alfalfa. The two forages are hand sown into the bare spots in the alfalfa.
While they have one stand of alfalfa that is eight years old, the current practice is to plow down a portion of the alfalfa every six years and plant it to corn. The corn is then grazed and the land replanted to alfalfa.
This corn rotation allows a place to use the manure from the night pens as well as providing the necessary break crop between alfalfa crops.
The ranch is currently run with a manager, a man to mind the irrigation, two temporary fence builders, a multi-purpose man, a cook and a maid.
Equipment consists of one 1981 tractor, one pickup and one bicycle.
“The two major resources of Mexico are labor and sunlight and that’s what we have built this ranch around,” Alain said.
In contrast, the non-irrigated East Texas ranch is run with only two labor units reflecting the higher cost of labor in the USA.
The two brothers alternate overseeing the Texas and Mexico ranches with one or the other always being present during lambing, weaning and other management-critical times.
All lambs and cull ewes are sold alive for cash to local restaurants and individuals. The lambs go for $120 and the cull ewes for $60. These animals are used for a regional food specialty called Barbacoa.
With Barbacoa, whole sheep or goat carcasses including the heads are wrapped in Maguey leaves and slowly cooked buried in the ground under a fire.
“Barbacoa is a food reserved for very special occasions such as a girl’s fifteenth birthday or a wedding party. As such, there is very little concern with what it costs,” Jean said.
With some two million people in the very small state, local demand far exceeds supply.
To provide a more year-around supply of lambs, the ranch has three distinct lambing seasons and the average Florisol ewe lambs 1.4 times per year and averages 1.5 lambs per lambing.
Because hair sheep originated in the tropics they do not have the seasonal breeding characteristic found in many wooled sheep breeds.
The ewes are bred so as to not lamb during the summer rainy season or the winter frost season.
Their most profitable activity is the selling of breeding stock.
Seedstock animals are priced from $150 to $1500 and make up approximately 10% of the ranches sales. Their most popular animal is a 3/4 Dorper ewe cross for $300. Eventually, all of the ranch’s animals will be full Dorper.
“We offer our seedstock customer unlimited free advice and guaranteed fertile sheep,” Alain said.
While their ewes could be crossed to the USA, none have been sent to their understocked Texas ranch.
“Our sheep in Mexico are being adapted to semi-arid, temperate conditions. Our sheep in East Texas are being adapted for humid, sub-tropical conditions. These are two radically different climates,” Alain said.
“The sheep in one would not do well in the other.”
However, this does not mean that some of the Mexican flock might not one day cross the border as seedstock.
Alain said he has in mind replicating the Florisol ranch in the semi-arid southwestern United States on a much larger scale utilizing low-labor, center-pivot technology.
“There are no secrets to any of this. The only trick to making this work is a commitment to 24/7 management.”
© by The Stockman Grass Farmer
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