Witt Ranch works to increase efficiency through a highly-managed grazing operation

About 15 years ago, Nathan and Tracy Witt purchased a 310-acre dairy farm that joins property that has been in the Witt family for more than a century.

The couple knew the farm was in rough shape, but with a little hard work and some upgrades, they knew they could make it work.

Today the Witts, along with their children – 13-year-old Trinity, 10-year-old Logan and 9-year-old Carter – have converted the former dairy farm into a managed grazing operation that supports a cow/calf operation, as well as a grass-finished beef enterprise.

“I would never have dreamt we’d be back here,” Nathan said. “Somehow it worked out that this property became available; it was a no-brainer.”

The couple also rent and own other properties in the region, and run about 150 momma cows, with 30 replacement heifers waiting in the wings. All steers are marketed through pre-vac sales, and heifers not retained as replacements are placed into the grass-finished program.

The Witt Ranch herd is comprised of mostly Angus cattle, as well as Gelbvieh and Hereford influence.

“We’ve got some F1 baldies and a lot of Balancers,” Nathan said. “They do really well in this part of the country, and with the Gelbvieh component, they milk really well and everyone really likes baldie calves. They make good mommas and do well in fescue country and in hot weather.”

The calving season is broken into spring and fall, with about two-thirds of the herd being spring calvers. They have done AI breeding in the past and loved the results, but Nathan said the cost of AI can be prohibitive, so they are currently utilizing natural cover.

“You still have to have your cleanup bulls with AI, you just don’t have to have as many of them,” Nathan said. “The last time we used AI was in 2015 and all of those heifers are now on their second calves. We’ve retained those heifers and its fun to see the product of AI. It can certainly propel you forward in your program. When you think about your genetic improvement, the cost isn’t bad. The difficult part is that you’re still just getting a 60 percent conception rate; that’s just a loss.”

The Witts sell their USDA-inspected grass-finished beef through the St. Louis Food Hub.

“We’ve been doing it the last couple years, but this last year it’s really taken off well for us,” Nathan said.

Because of their move into the grass-finished market, the Witts utilize herd sires that will produce a calf with higher carcass merits.

“If we can grass finish with a better marbling animal and increase our ribeye area, the better we are,” Nathan said. “The consumers are willing to pay a premium price.

“Getting into that market is the hard part. There’s not a tremendous amount of restaurants that are buyers, but they usually have their own connections. The challenge is using all of the animal. You can finish out a heifer, but she’s only got one brisket and a few ribeyes.”

Nathan is a resource conservationist with the NRCS and Tracy, who grew up on her family’s dairy farm about 5 miles away, is an accountant with 3D Corporate Solutions, so the farm and three active kids make for a busy life, which is why their managed grazing system is useful.

“Everything for me has to be systematic; that’s how you make it work and still work in town,” Nathan said.

Nathan explained that the grazing system at Witt Ranch allows them to move cattle through lanes to new pasture every few days, and to treat an animal or render assistance if there is a calving issue, with less stress.

“I try to have about 30 percent of my acres in warm season grass,” Nathan explained. “We’ve got Caucasian Bluestem, Bermuda and crabgrass for our summer annual; it works pretty well. If you want to drill in some winter annuals into that crabgrass field, you have near year-round grazing. We really don’t start feeding much until February. We stockpile as much fescue as we can and focus on our fertility in the fall because I don’t like cutting hay. I don’t want extra grass, I want grass when I need it.”

They also have about 60 acres of alfalfa. Nathan said he’s been allowing his cows to graze the fields, opposed to cutting it multiple times a season for hay.

“We’ve all but quit cutting hay,” he said. “It’s really worked out well for us because you get an early jump on the season, and alfalfa is a powerhouse crop.”

Utilizing available forages without the need of haying is more efficient for the Witts.

“In 2015, we bought the farm across the road and there were 40 acres of alfalfa on it,” Nathan recalled. “I found myself cutting hay late at night and it was way too much. With alfalfa, your window of opportunity to put up quality hay is very narrow; it’s either too wet, just perfect or way to dry. We were just running ourselves ragged.

“I just sat on the tractor and crunched numbers, thinking about what all this costs and thought there just had to be a better way. I just decided we would start grazing it. I found grazing is a good way to control the weevil without spraying. It also gives you decent early spring weight gains.”

While grazing alfalfa has its benefits, the Witts don’t think they will add more acreage for the crop, nor will they reseed the existing fields.

“Some are fading out, but they make a nice complement to crabgrass or anything else you want to put into it,” Nathan said. “I drilled some Sudangrass into about 20 acres of alfalfa last year, and I had people tell me I was crazy, but I didn’t have to fertilize any Sudangrass. Just from the nitrogen fixation from the alfalfa, that Sudan was tall, green and lush, and I didn’t do anything to it… Was it good for the alfalfa? Not so much, but I’m not raising dairy-quality alfalfa, I’m raising pasture. It was a fun experiment to try, so I’m going keep playing with that.”

The Witts say their farming operation is far from a “showplace,” but it is efficient.

“It does what it needs to do,” Nathan said.


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