At an early age, Larna Schnitker was making a difference on her family farm. She had a knack for picking the right cattle genetics for breeding at only 12 years old. In grade school, she designed a cattle-working facility, including a calving barn. Today, she is the fourth generation to work the land that her great-grandmother bought in the 1940s.
Schnitker, who works part time alongside her family raising corn, soybeans, wheat and cattle, says the family farm is where she wants to return after graduating from the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources with a degree in ag business.
But this young farmer has plans to buy her own farm someday. She already has a modest herd of cattle and has saved up money to buy land — all while in college.
When COVID-19 sent college students home this past spring, Schnitker welcomed the opportunity to work on the farm.
“I was digging out terrace risers and fixing the tees underneath,” she says. “I was working on the combine, fixing pulleys and putting in chopper knives and bearings. Anywhere I'm needed, I'm more than excited to do the work because it's all toward the common goal of farming.”
Schnitker is active in all aspects of the farm, but she enjoys the extra challenges of raising soybeans for seed companies.
DAD TIME: Herb Schnitker (front) has always encouraged his daughter Larna to be active on the family farm. The two now value the time they can work side-by-side, whether in the field or in the shop.
“Dad grew up the son of a seed dealer,” Schnitker says, “so he's very detail-oriented. He makes sure the fields are properly identified, and all the augers, bins and grain tanks on combines are cleaned out. It’s quite the production.” But the payoff is what makes the row crop portion of the farm profitable, she says, even when the market might not be on an upswing.
Schnitker Farms is more than a row crop operation. It also has a beef cattle.
Building the beef herd
Schnitker started judging livestock through 4-H at age 8. “I’d practice livestock judging in the pasture while my dad was feeding,” she recalls. When she was 12, her dad turned to her and said, “Wow, you know a lot about this. I think you know more than I do.” It was then she started choosing which genetics and what bulls to use in the cattle breeding operation.
At Schnitker Farms, there are about 200 head of cows. They are primarily black and red Angus, along with a Simmental cross. All are artificially inseminated. Since the family is busy with row crop production much of the year, they opt for calving in winter.
“We plan for two calving groups, one to start Jan. 1 and the other Feb. 1,” Schnitker explains. “We like calves to be close in age so there is greater possibility they will be the same size. That helps when creating those marketing groups later.”
Cattle sell either through a sale barn or a private treaty. Schnitker likes working private treaty sales. “In those cases, I've had the opportunity to work with the potential buyer two years in advance to plan which genetics we're both going to use, so all of the calves will be half-sisters and half-brothers,” she explains. “Then we also try to breed the cows to calve near the same time, so that we will have those pens of calves that are similar in size.”
She says the barn is set up to handle about 80 cows in the barn at once. And Schnitker should know, she designed the entire cattle-handling facility.
It started as simple drawings on the back of schoolwork, but the barn is now a 60-by-160-square-foot cattle-working facility and calving barn on the family farm in Audrain County.
There are 16 privacy pens, along with a nursery, a calf-warming pen and an office. “Everything is based on the methods of Temple Grandin with keeping animal welfare and safety in mind,” Schnitker explains. Alleyways are large, and the gates are self-locking.
Pregnant cows come in from the pasture and maneuver through the system into a privacy pen. Once they calve, they move to the nursery. “It is about a two- or three-day process,” she says. “We really want to make sure that calf gets up and going good.” Then the cow and calf return to the pasture.
The entire process is monitored by a set of cameras. “We can pan, tilt and zoom the camera in from up to 200 feet away,” Schnitker says. “We can see the number on the cow’s ear tag and even who is delivering.”
CROWN JEWEL: For Larna Schnitker, the cattle-handling facility on top of a pasture ridge is a source of pride. The 60-by-160-square-foot barn, which houses privacy pens and a calf nursery, was a labor of love that she hopes will stand for generations to come.
Schnitker says the entire system has helped reduce death loss on the farm. “We are calving in winter,” she notes, “so it is important to be monitoring cows and calves since the weather in Missouri changes. We need to know when to help a momma cow with delivery, or when a calf should be put in the warming pen.”
It took about three years to complete this young farmer’s vision, but she says it was all worth it. “I think it is built to last into the next generation on this farm,” she says. “That is what we try to do here, keep making changes, improvements and moving the operation forward for the future.”
Earlier this year, Schnitker was named to the Farm Foundation’s Young Farmer Accelerator Network. She was one of 15 young farmers from across the nation recognized for her involvement in agriculture. The program helps young farmers grow their knowledge with interactive learning and networking experiences focused on a variety of topics, including agriculture, agribusiness and government issues.
The young farmer from Middletown, Mo., understands the significance of the Farm Foundation organization. “The Farm Foundation started back in the Dust Bowl years, in the 1930s,” she explains. “They saw it was a time of crisis and thought there needed to be a forum or a place where issues could be discussed by the movers and shakers in agriculture.”
She says this same platform is helping the next generation of farmers and ranchers. Schnitker has listened to influencers from Perdue, Rabobank and Microsoft. “The people who are coming to the table are very open,” she says. “And the young farmers I meet are also open and honest about what is going on in their operation. It is all about improving the agriculture industry.”