Nick and Sue Hunt are the fourth generation of their family to feed cattle and farm the fertile soils of the East Nishnabotna River Valley in southwest Iowa.
With help from four full-time and two part-time employees, the Hunts manage 2,450 tillable and 200 nontillable acres. A 75-head cow-calf herd uses the non-tillable land. Calves are fed out along with purchased feeder cattle. They usually have 3,000 or more cattle on feed.
Newly named 2019 Iowa Master Farmers, Nick and Sue care for the land and community. They appreciate what others have done for them. “This farm is 150 years old; it’s been in the family since 1868,” Nick says. “There were good people ahead of me, building the success of each generation. I have a lot of help today, too. This is a family farming operation.”
Graduating from Dartmouth College and coming back to the farm in 1975, Nick modernized and increased its capacity and efficiency over the years, especially the cattle enterprise.
When new rules on soil conservation and environmental quality were issued, he realized they offered an opportunity to recycle nutrients. Crop yields continued to improve; cattle production increased; and water quality in the nearby river is protected. The well-managed feedlot maintains air quality, important for a farm about a mile from the city of Atlantic.
Years ago, the Hunts planted a riparian grass buffer and hundreds of trees along the river. Miles of terraces, grass waterways, buffer strips, tile drainage and other conservation practices have been installed on the farm. They also plant cover crops.
This is a confined animal feeding operation requiring an approved manure management plan. Nick follows it to comply with water and air quality regulations.
Nick worked his way through the financial challenges of the 1980s, generational ownership transitions and other changes.
The farm he grew up on was owned and operated by his father, Charles, and uncle Jim Hunt. Charles suffered a stroke in 1977. In 1978, Nick formed a partnership with his brother, Fred. During the 1980s, they rented Jim’s portion. In 2004, Fred retired and Nick bought Fred’s share.
Role models important
“My best teachers were my father, mother, uncle and aunt,” Nick says. “They taught me basic values, integrity, hard work, taking care of the land and giving back to community. That was central to their lives and their actions helped inspire me. Sue and her family are very similar, with strong values and a focus on giving back.”
A University of Northern Iowa graduate, Sue married Nick in 1980 and taught school in Atlantic.
One day she told Nick, “I think we should be foster parents.” They went through the training and had foster children from 1996 to 2004. Nick says that experience changed his life and the lives of his own children.
“It opened my eyes to the need for foster parents, and maybe more importantly, it taught our kids there were people who didn’t have what our family has. That struck a chord. Today, our daughters, Carolyn and Elizabeth, are both serving in the Atlantic school system, helping kids succeed.”
Elizabeth, a U.S. Army veteran, teaches special education. Carolyn is a school counselor for at-risk students. Both daughters and families live in Atlantic; Nick and Sue enjoy having the grandchildren nearby. Nick and Sue also hosted three foreign exchange students over the years.
Fundraising for causes
Sharing his leadership and fundraising skills, Nick chairs the Cass County Endowment Committee and is on the Cass County Hospital Foundation board. In 2007, he received the Atlantic Chamber of Commerce Distinguished Service Award for leading a downtown revitalization project and promoting economic development.
Besides working on the farm full time, Nick serves on the Farm Credit Services of America board, chairing it in 2016-18. He is one of seven directors on the CattleFax board. From 1989 to 1997, he served on the Wesley Retirement Service’s board in Atlantic — two years as chair. Nick recently headed a fundraising campaign for the
Wesley Heritage House retirement home’s remodeling project.
LOOKING AHEAD: With vision and environmental stewardship, Nick is ensuring a family legacy for future generations.
Sue, a retired teacher, now mentors several foreign exchange students in southwest and central Iowa. She is president of the local PEO chapter and serves on the Atlantic School Foundation. Sue was a 4-H leader and Sunday school teacher.
The Hunt family is in the Cass County Beef Producers Hall of Fame. Nick received the National Cattlemen’s Association Environmental Stewardship Award in 2006. He and Sue were named Iowa Environmental Leaders by the Iowa Department of Agriculture in 2015. They are a past winner of Tyson Foods Beef Environmental Award.
Innovative cattle feeding
An innovation involving both crops and livestock is the “zero-runoff” basin constructed downhill from the feedlot. The pond-like structure captures water coming from the feedlot and is used for irrigation and recycling of nutrients for corn production.
Cattle feeding records are kept on Performance Livestock Analytics, a real-time, cloud-based monitoring and prediction system. It automatically captures the feed data as the truck is loaded and portions the varying amounts to the correct pens as feed is unloaded. Weights of cattle are captured when they arrive and when sold. The program is used to monitor feed consumption and cost in real time, allowing management to make changes as needed.
Nick uses CattleFax to help with marketing decisions. “One key to successful cattle feeding is having employees trained in their positions, who are responsible and perform their job as though it is their own business,” he sums up. “We are very fortunate to have good help.”