Jordan and Megan Richner are using the science of agriculture to give their family farm new life
There’s a science to agriculture, and for one El Dorado Springs, Mo., couple, it’s a perfect match.
Jordan and Megan Richner each possess advanced degrees in agriculture. Megan is a former agriculture instructor turned science teacher at Stockton (Mo.) High School and Jordan is a soil scientist.
Jordan and Megan, along with Megan’s parents, Sam and Nancy Eaves, run a herd of about 40 commercial cows.
Jordan and Megan took over the day-to-day operations and management in 2013, after buying 40 acres that join the farm where Megan grew up. In all, the family farm consists of about 300 acres, including pasture, wooded areas and hayfields.
“This is the smallest the herd has ever been, but we’re trying to focus on quality,” Megan explained. “We’re trying to restore our plants and improve the health of our soil, so we don’t want to have too many cows because that would be counterintuitive to restoring our forages.”
Part of the improvement has been converting pastures from continuous grazing to a rotational system.
“At this place, they were running 160 acres,” Jordan said. “We tore out the interior fences and put in the electric (fences), and we used cost-share programs to fence the wooded area and a pond, and to add concrete waters.”
Multiflora rose, blackberries and sericea covered much of their pastures until a spraying program, which was also eligible for cost-share funding, began to eradicate the undesirable plants.
“Now we’re down to the broomsedge,” Jordan said. “Our next step is going to be getting our lime program down.”
With the improvements underway and the grazing system installed, the grazing system at their Red Cedar Ranch, the Richners have extended their grazing season, allowing them not to begin feeding hay, which is also grown on the farm, until mid-December.
“During the growing season, I have an 80 split into 20-acre pastures, then split those into fives, sometimes 10, if I want to go a little longer, and quarter them around the waters,” Jordan explained. “Our cattle can go two to five days on the 5-acre paddocks, then I will move them on.”
“We could run more cattle, but we’re trying to improve our soil and ground, so what’s the point in doing all of this if we’re going to overgraze?” Megan said. “Keeping our numbers low allows our ground to rest.”
Another portion of the farm typically stockpiled winter grazing.
“We can usually get them through October to January just on stockpiles,” Jordan said.
Jordan, a native of Pleasant Hope, Mo., and Megan feel the improvements to their pastures also improved the overall quality and health of their cattle herd.
“This time of year, you drive around and there’s a lot of cattle knee-deep in mud,” Jordan said. “Ours are clean and on grass… I’m seeing more weight on our calves with fewer inputs. I also take a bulk bag to the elevator and fill it up with 1,000 pounds (of feed). I can buy in bulk and don’t have any delivery costs.”
Feed costs at Red Cedar Ranch have been slashed about 75 percent through the rotational grazing program, but cattle are not deprived. Mineral tubs from Missouri Livestock Supplements and other supplements are available to the herd.
Unproductive females are culled, as are any with disposition or health issues.
“One of the oldest cows we have is an old-style Simmental, but she’s never had pink eye, she throws a calf and milks,” Megan said. “She finally had a heifer and we’re going to keep that heifer. We will cull if we have one that struggles with pink eye year after year. If there’s a cow that’s a repeat offender, we won’t keep a heifer out of her and look at culling the cow. We will also look at factors like hair coat, if they stay slick and hold condition without having a bunch of feed poured to them.”
Cows are also evaluated on their ability to raise a calf without additional feed. Only in extreme conditions, such as drought, will calves be offered creep feed. Only heifers from a productive dam, among the first calves born in the season and structurally sound are considered for replacement females, and will go into the breeding program at no earlier than 18 months of age.
“I used to want them to have a calf by 2, but I’m leaning more toward breeding them at 18 to 24 months because they are more mature, larger framed and quicker to recover from calving,” Megan said.
“We can also hold those heifers longer because of the grazing system,” Jordan added. “If they get a little older and we decide we don’t want to breed them, they can go into the beef program.”
After weaning, calves are backgrounded for about 30 days and fed a commercial ration before being marketed.
“We want them weaned and vaccinated before they go to the sale,” Jordan said. “That only helps us as sellers.”
“Today, you have to go the extra mile with your calves if you want that premium,” Megan added. “Genetics will have a role in that, and you can see it now. In the future, I would like to do some DNA and genetic testing to see what our carcass traits are, what our maternal traits are. If we think one heifer is going to be good, but her data shows she might not be what we think, it would be good to know because we want to be selective with what we keep. It’s just another tool to help us raise cattle for that premium market.
The most recent set of Red Cedar Ranch calves through Mo-Kan Livestock Market in Butler, Mo., topped the market, and Megan credits the success to the culling and breeding program.
“We got a new SimAngus bull and this was the first set of steers out of him,” Megan said. “That was our big news for 2019. I looked at the genetics before we bought him, so I’m proud of that. It takes some blood, sweat and tears, and worrying if you made the right decisions… The bull we have now has some good carcass traits and some maternal traits as well, so we’re hoping to hone in on those maternal genetics and get that milk up.”
A few Gelbvieh and Balancer females are waiting in the wings as replacements to help improve that maternal side.
Megan and Jordan have done some AI breeding, and plan to utilize the practice more in the future with select individuals from the herd.
In addition to selling feeder calves, the Richners sell beef through Willow Ridge Farm, a locally-owned farm-to-plate store near Stockton that sources products – such as beef – from local farms through their association with their local Farm Bureau board.
Megan said the tourism traffic in the Stockton Lake area, as well as the local food movement, has helped push their meat, as well as other products.
“We don’t claim to be grass-fed,” Megan said. “We like to say they are pasture-based because the calves do get some grain to supplement them, but we don’t pour grain to them; they get just enough to keep their rumen going; it’s a slower process, but then you don’t have all of the feed inputs.”
Calves marketed through the beef program are typically 18 to 24 months of age at the time of slaughter. They have sold about six calves through the store, as well as wholes and halves to individuals.
“For us, it’s a good market for our calves, and I think we will always try to be a part of the local market,” Megan said.
Off-the-farm jobs kept Megan’s parents from doing everything they wanted to do on their farm, which is also a struggle for Megan and Jordan, but reducing the herd size and improving the operation, make things a bit more manageable, thanks to a little science.