It’s January in the Kansas Flint Hills, and Earl Stuewe is beginning to calve his heifers. His calving shed doubles as a hay shed in the summertime; at the first of the year, he moves the bales out into an adjacent stockyard, using them on the east and west side of the shed, which is already closed in on the north, as windbreaks.
He tries to get the heifers calved out before his 600 cows start up in the spring on some native grass pasture he’s saved for that purpose. That’s another one of the ways Stuewe is able to keep his input costs low, though he says it’s just the way things are done in those parts. “We don’t do a lot of things differently than anyone else around here,” Stuewe demurs.
The calves he will wean in September and October and background to about 850 pounds — the heavy end gets there about Christmastime, the light end in March — before selling them as feeders at his local auction barn. He’ll usually save back the top end of the heifer calves, about 150 of them, and then feed and sell the rest of those, as well.
Native grass and rented pasture
Feed may be the place where Stuewe’s management practices realize the most cost savings. He grows most of what he needs and leases what he can. “We rent part of the farm ground and about all of the summer pasture,” he says. “Most all the farm ground is planted in alfalfa and corn silage, with a little bit in soybeans for a cash crop. The silage goes to the yearlings, along with a pre-mix and corn gluten or wheat mids.”
What he leases includes stalk fields from his neighbors. In November, and as far into December as he can, he runs his cows on those. Whenever it becomes necessary, he starts supplementing the stalks with his own alfalfa, but he tries to keep the cows on those fields as long as he can.
In the middle of February, he moves the herd into the calving pasture. “At headquarters, we’ve got Bluestem grass that we don’t pasture except when we calve,” he says. “On a good year, that grass will be 4 feet tall.” The cows will graze it a little, but mostly they use it for bedding and a windbreak for the calves. He’ll feed the cows there until the first of April, adding a little brome hay or prairie hay to the alfalfa they’ve already been eating.
Then he’ll put them on brome-grass pastures, supplementing those with a little hay. By using cool-season grasses, like brome, in the fall and spring, he saves on both feed and labor; he can run pairs on that until the first of May. From there, he can go to pastures of Bluestem, a warm-season grass, until the fall, making sure he doesn’t overuse it. “You don’t graze your Bluestem all off,” he says. “You have to leave half or it will hurt production the next year.”
By using alfalfa and native-grass hay he has baled, and grazing those hay meadows and alfalfa fields, he needs to only buy very little hay.
Lowering other input costs
Stuewe moves his cows with horses whenever he can, not because of tradition, he says, but because it works best for them. And it keeps his transportation costs down, as well. Two years ago, he bought a ground-loading trailer to ease the hauling he does do. Summer pastures are within a 15-mile radius of headquarters, and he will haul pairs to the farthest pastures, but the pairs going within four or five miles of home, he will drive. After weaning, he hauls the calves home and drives all the cows.
Like everyone, he worries about keeping labor costs down and still getting the work done. He gets help from his father, Herb, and his son, Heath. His mother, Norma, keeps the books; Rita, his daughter, helps with that, though she has a full-time job, as does his wife, Jeannie. “We’re spread a little thin,” Stuewe says. Outside of the family, all of their help is part-time, and just about all of it comes from neighbors with whom he trades labor. Nothing is ever kept track of, he says, they just pick up the phone when they need help, and he finds it is enough.