Banker leaves town job for a full-time career as a grass farmer

Allan Nation

VERDIGRE, Neb: Defying the 50 year tradition of farmers leaving the farm for jobs in town, Clint Miller recently left his job as a banker to become a full-time grass farmer.

Miller had gotten a college degree in finance and went to work with a Bloomfield, Nebraska bank after graduation.

"This past May it suddenly hit me that I was 35 years old, I wasn't getting rich and I wasn't doing what I really wanted to do in life, so I quit."

Miller is the fourth generation (on his mother's side) to be a rancher and wanted to keep the family heritage going.

He had previously leased an acreage out of town and had started leasing pastures and building a cow-calf herd.

He attended the Bud Williams Marketing School and learned how to trade cattle for cash flow.

This experience convinced him he could make just as good a living ranching as he could being a banker.

He started out with 220 acres of leased dryland pasture near Bloomfield and began leasing his parents' 880 acre farm this year along with 70 of their cows.

He bought 450# heifer calves in october of 1996 for $254, bred them and retained their heifer calves.

"My primary criteria for a cow is that she be able to fatten easily," he said.

He said following Bud Williams advice in 2005 he sold his 550 pound calves and bought 630 pound calves for only $9.00 a head more.

He kept these 60 days and then sold them and used the money to buy more cows. He currently has 148 owned cows and leases another 70. His plan is to expand to 225 owned, plus the 70 leased cows.

Miller said his wife, Stacy, accuses him of being "the tightest man in Knox County" but he said he just doesn't like spending money unnecessarily.

Consequently, many of his neighbors were surprised when he purchased 254 acres of pivot-irrigated crop ground for $1075 an acre and started converting it to permanent pasture. Miller said he did this because the irrigated land was cheaper on a per cow basis.

"If you put a pencil to it, irrigated cropland is the cheapest land for grazing there is in Nebraska.

"My land cost per cow on irrigated pasture is only $1200 a cow. That's one-fourth of what it is on non-irrigated pasture."

Miller uses oats and turnips. He also planted bin run corn this year for a little later summer grazing than the oats and turnips and was pleased with the results as a summer transition crop to fall-planted permanent pasture.

His permanent pastures are a mixture of cool-season grasses and legumes.

Like most northeast Nebraska cow-calf producers, he said cheap corn stalks give him an "unfair advantage."

"I leased the corn stalks myself and the cost of just the cornstalks from Cct. 15 to Mar. 1 comes out to about 16 cents per head per day.

"If you include the cost of feeding hay for $1 per head per day from March 1 to May 1, my average for the entire 6 1/2 months is 53 cents per head per day."

Unfortunately, there has been a 60 day lag between the end of corn stalks and the availability of permanent pasture and he has had the cows custom-fed hay for $1.00 a day for these 60 days.

This year the cows will direct-graze August planted cereal rye in that time period. "That 60 days of hay feeding was 2/3 of my winter feed costs - about 1/4 of the total cost of producing the calf."

He said his biggest cost reducer was shifting to late May and June calving.

"My biggest cost reducer was changing my calving season because it allowed me to use more corn stalks and stockpiled grass."

He figures his winter feed cost is $112 a cow and his green season grazing is $150 which includes a land charge. His total production costs are $262 to $275 a cow.

His calves are weaned in November and overwintered on hay and are fed a protein supplement during extremely cold weather periods.

He has contracted his 2006 calves for April delivery at $1.10 a pound or around $700 a head.

"The $1.10 is hedging a calf weighing 850 lbs. The 650 lbs steer I sell should be worth $1.28 a pound, or $835 per head. That'll pay a lot of bills," he said.

He said he has to have cows that can calve unassisted as some of his pastures are as much as 37 miles from his house.

Looking ahead to lower cattle prices, he said he is trying to build in as much production and marketing flexibility as possible.

"I plan to take advantage of cheap cows and cheaper land leases when cattle prices decline.

"I want the ability to sell at weaning, as a yearling, or as a grass-finished two-year-old depending upon the market conditions."

He started buying Red Angus bulls from Kit Pharo in 2002 with plans of converting his mostly black herd to a more heat tolerant red.

"I am three generations into using Red Angus and my calves are still black. This is taking longer than I thought it would."

He said his ultimate goal is a totally closed herd, producing his own bulls and a genetically consistent calf crop.

He had his calves ultrasounded in March 2006, and found out they had some tenderness problems that he needed to genetically correct before trying grass finishing.

He decided to build this quality in little by little rather than selling all his cows and buying others in these high-priced cow times.

He would like to convert to Certified Organic for another marketing premium but it would cost him his cheap corn stalk grazing.

Six months into full-time ranching, Miller said he has no regrets.

"I'm doing this for my family. They'll have me around more and they'll have something when I am gone."

by The Stockman Grass Farmer

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