Sometimes it pays to not do what everyone else is doing.
In recent decades there has been an undeniable shift away from livestock for many farms in Ohio. The Dagger family from Champaign County went a different direction.
“I have always told the boys we should be as diversified as we can be and not put all of our eggs in one basket,” said Larry Dagger, of Cable Acres Farms, the winner of this year’s Ohio Cattlemen’s Association Commercial Producer of the Year Award. “I think you can still make money by being diversified in agriculture. People have cut back on their cattle numbers while we went in the opposite direction. We can make more money on cattle now than on corn. And when corn gets high we can convert some of our hay ground to corn.”
As cattle prices have strengthened in recent months, the Dagger philosophy has really paid off for Larry and his two grown sons, Justin and Jason, and their families.
“As a parent you want to raise your kids the right way, be honest and work hard,” Larry said. “We put a lot of hours in and have worked very diligently because I want to make sure our farm goes to the next generation. Our family has been here since the 1890s on this farm.”
Larry took the farm over in the late 1980s and, after they finished high school, it was clear that his boys wanted to stay involved with the crop and cattle farm. Jason and Justin are the fifth generation on the farm and their children are the sixth. For the boys, the livestock portion of the farm started out with the goal of producing 4-H project steers and hogs, but their focus has since shifted to a commercial cattle operation.
“There were a lot of facilities around that were not being used to their potential as livestock moved out of the area and it created opportunities for us,” Justin said. “We have done a lot of revamping of facilities. We enjoy taking an old barn and making it useful or taking out old fence and putting up guardrails. If you are just feeding cattle for a couple of years it is hard to make those investments in facilities, but we are in this for the long haul.”
As the boys finished college, they began to look for opportunities for the off-farm careers and potential areas to expand on the farm. Jason worked for the Ohio Farm Bureau and now works for EverPower Wind Holdings. Justin took over for a local Pioneer dealer.
They had a cow calf operation in place, but made some changes and additions as they got opportunities to expand. They started feeding some cattle for one of Jason’s fraternity brothers, then got the chance to rent a couple of farms and take on a feedlot in 2000.
“We started custom feeding some cattle, about 500 or so. That arrangement changed and about four years ago we fed some Holstein breeding heifers for export. We were able to feed a bunch of heifers for that,” Justin said. “After that, corn prices were high and there just were not a lot of cattle being fed in this part of the country. We decided that we could feed our own cattle. We knew prices of corn were going to come down and we decided to ramp up our commercial brood cows and the Holstein side expanded in August of 2012. We went from zero to feeding 400 or 500 Holsteins now. We bring in 500-pound calves and feed to 1,400 pounds over 300 to 330 days. We market on a contract basis with United Producers. We get the Holstein calves from a producer who has started them from dairies in Ohio and Michigan. We got it on the way up and we have to be careful now on the way down, as the calf prices are getting very high. Livestock will level out and crop prices will level out. I hope we can get to that point where everyone is profitable. It wasn’t that long ago we were selling 80-cent cattle.”
Even as cattle prices have softened a bit, market factors are in place for a long run of profitability for cattle.
“We are going to see a limited cattle supply for three to five years. I think we feel like feeding the Holsteins will be consistently good for a while,” Jason said. “In this part of the country I think feeding out calves may do just as well as the cow calf operation.”
Currently they manage 175 brood cows that calve in the spring and 45 that calve in the fall.
“We have a group of 175 cows spring calving, all calving at the home farm. We will start calving the third week of March and be done by mid May,” Jason said. “We don’t use A.I., just registered Angus bulls, with two Red Angus bulls. The cows are mostly Angus with some Simmental and a small Chianina influence. We have very consistent, moderate framed cows. We have a pretty young cow herd too.”
The cows and calves go on pasture May 1.
“In summer we are checking cows and we creep feed calves on pasture starting in June. We traditionally bring the cows and calves back off pasture to one of six locations in October and wean calves,” Jason said. “We grow those calves until after the first of the year and keep replacement heifers, maybe 30, and sell the remaining calves at about 700 to 800 pounds. We typically sell large loads that may go west to a feedlot. We have been fortunate to have some Ohio finishers feed them out as well. It is market driven. We work closely with United Producers, Inc. and sell them on the board.”
The fall calves are weaned around February and sold in the spring.
“We use those to sell for grass calves for folks,” Jason said. “Those are marketed a little more individually to local producers putting them on pasture and feeding them out. There is a big demand for those.”
As the farm operation has grown, it has added more diversity in terms of geography as well.
“Now we have cattle at six farms within three or four miles of the home farm. We have pastures that are a lot farther than that, up to 20 miles away. That can be a benefit and a challenge,” Jason said. “We can segregate cattle when bringing them in. We don’t have all of the manure in one location and we have cropland close to all of our locations. We don’t have some of the water quality management issues because we are so spread out and we can pick and choose where to haul manure when the
conditions are right. The challenge is that we have to divide our responsibilities and work.”
A large part of the crop operation for the farm includes 400 acres of hay.
“We do a few small square bales for local sales and to use at calving, but most of it comes from first cutting for round bales,” Jason said. “It is mostly grass and mostly round baled because that is the way we are set up to feed. We just unroll the round bales down our aisles and it works for us.”
They also grow 1,000 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat, mostly no-till, to supplement feed for the cattle. They have their own custom mix of feed that they blend with protein and DDGs. They do around 25 acres of silage and run most of their corn through the on-farm roller mill.
“Technology has become a big part of our crop operation. We are mapping and all of our yields are overlaid with our nutrient management and we are using manure for quite a bit of our nutrient needs,” Justin said. “We shift gears from calving in the spring and then the focus is on planting. When that gets done, hay takes off.”
The labor requirements are significant, but the Daggers relish the opportunity to work on a successful operation and build upon their growing heritage of hard work on a diversified family farm.