By Kent M. Kraft
Several years ago, one of my farm management clients hired my company to manage a large farm with lots of river bottom pasture not suitable for crop production. The existing 200-head cow-calf herd and 300-head dirt feedlot operation, all on a 50-50 share lease, was profitable but needed upgrading.
We considered several possibilities:
Quitting the beef business. In the end, this was not viable, because pasture acres can’t generate income without the cow-calf operation.
Closing the feedlot and selling feeder calves instead. This was seriously considered, but we rejected it because it left too much money on the table.
Building storage for all feedlot manure and runoff. This seemed doable, but the manure storage would have to be large enough to hold all the manure in addition to annual rainfall of 36-plus inches.
Constructing a new confinement building for feeding the calves. What to build? Here’s what we considered:
- monoslope building with either a slatted floor over a pit or a bedded (bed-pack) solid floor
- conventional gabled roof building, either with slats or solid floor
- hoop building
To gather ideas, the trust officer and I toured several cattle operations. I liked the monoslope buildings. The roof provides shade in summer but allows sunlight to penetrate in winter. It “squeezes” southerly breezes to add velocity and cooling power in summer. It reduces the impact of northerly winter winds by slowing them down as air enters the narrower north opening and moves to the larger, open south side.
The hoop building is by far the least expensive option, but it’s less sturdy and tougher to ventilate.
We also saw traditional bed-pack buildings that looked absolutely delightful — because they were clean and had fresh bedding. But two factors killed our bed-pack considerations. First, the trust officer saw a young heifer lying in a puddle of manure in a pen that needed cleaned and bedded. When I saw her nose wrinkle (the trust officer, not the heifer), I figured that option was dead. Second, the tenants calculated how many round bales they would have to haul into the shed and then back out. Those were significant costs.
They lobbied for the manure pit, and after they agreed to bear the cost of emptying it, we opted for a monoslope shed capable of holding 300 head.
Yes, the monoslope shed and pit was the most expensive option. But three years later, the shed is fulfilling expectations. The cattle appear comfortable in summer and winter. Death losses are lower. Without a scale on the farm, we don’t have detailed average rate of gain or feed conversion data. But we know it is good, as calves are going to market several weeks earlier than when we fed in the dirt lot. And the manure pit provides a complete fertilizer program for 80 acres of corn. I consider the manure a coproduct, not a waste product.
The monoslope shed was roughly $425,000. This is a relatively small facility, and cost per head would be lower with a larger building. If we put 400 head per year through the building, over 30 years, that’s 12,000 head for an initial per-head investment of $35.42. Ongoing facility operating costs are minimal. We expect to replace the rubber mats in 10 years.
Profits from feeding cattle fluctuate, of course, but the building is producing an astounding amount of income and performance from less than one acre. And its manure management system is compliant with both EPA and the Illinois Livestock Management Facilities Act.
In the end, both the farm tenants and trust beneficiaries are pleased.
Kraft is an accredited farm manager and a partner at Farmland Solutions LLC, Sherman, Ill., and is a member of the Illinois Society of Professional Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers. Email farm management questions to Carroll Merry at firstname.lastname@example.org.