By: Chris Hubbuch, La Crosse Tribune
Rod Ofte likes to think of himself as a soil farmer. But unlike the proverbial subsistence farmer too poor for a hired hand, Ofte has help. And he makes money.
"These are my employees," he says, gesturing to a herd of 58 black Angus cattle munching on fermented hay as they fertilize a hillside overlooking Spring Coulee Creek in Wisconsin.
Once the grass turns green, they'll resume their summer diet until they grow to market size — between 1,100 and 1,200 pounds. There's no corn in their future.
Ofte is one of a small but growing number of farmers who are turning to managed grazing to increase earnings while also improving the land.
His cattle spend three to five days grazing in 2- to 4-acre paddocks. Before they can eat the grass down to the roots, he moves them to the next section. Each pasture gets 30 to 45 days to recover, ensuring lush and nutritious grass when the cattle return.
Advocates of managed grazing say that makes for healthier pasture, healthier soil — and a healthier bottom line.
Allen Williams grew up on a farm in South Carolina, earned a Ph.D. in animal genetics and spent 15 years in academia. These days he raises cattle on a 6,000-acre ranch in Mississippi.
He's seen the grass-fed beef industry grow exponentially — from only about 100 producers generating $5 million in retail sales in 1998 to more than 3,500 farmers who last year sold $550 million worth of grass-fed beef — while not even meeting demand. Throw in imports, Williams said, and grass-fed beef is now a $2.5 billion industry.
Consumer research, Williams said, indicates pastured beef now accounts for 6 percent of the overall U.S. market. While that may seem small, it's enough to attract the attention of major producers such as JBS, the largest meatpacker in the world, which last year announced it is launching a domestic grass-fed beef program this year in the U.S.
"It's been growing at 25 to 30 percent annual growth rate," Williams told the La Crosse Tribune. "Now with the entry of the big boys it's going to grow exponentially."
As president of Livestock Management Consultants, Williams advises producers up and down the food chain on how to successfully raise and market grass-fed livestock.
He recently delivered a dozen presentations in Minnesota and Wisconsin making a case for this new industry.
Williams says producers raising exclusively grass-fed beef enjoy a 20 to 25 percent price premium, and by using managed grazing they can over time reduce their input costs: As pastures become healthier, they produce more nutrients and can feed more cattle per acre.
In his knee-high rubber boots, patched denim pants and a stained canvas jacket, Ofte looks the part of a farmer, but when he talks there's no hiding his background as a food industry executive.
A self-described "numbers guy," he loves spreadsheets.
"If you know the numbers," he says, "you can fix it."
Ofte, who is 46, grew up on a Coon Valley dairy farm that had been in his family since 1848. In 1986, as thousands of farmers across the nation were losing their farms to foreclosure, Ofte headed off to West Point.
His military career took him to Germany, where he later went to work for the food company Mars Inc., where he led divisions in the U.S. and overseas.
In the late 1990s, Ofte partnered with his brother on a beef herd. Once he moved back to the U.S. in 2001, he started harvesting beef for his own family — in part because he found the taste of supermarket meat too bland.
Ofte returned to Wisconsin in 2007 and purchased a 158-acre farm adjacent to his family's home farm in Spring Coulee. To augment the 40 acres of hillside pasture, Ofte seeded about 28 acres of tillable land with grass and alfalfa.
He sold meat initially at farmers markets, and his brother began offering it to neighbors in Chicago, who Ofte said "went bananas over it."
He now sells through the Wisconsin Grass-fed Beef Cooperative and direct to customers from his Willow Creek Ranch, though he said he has a three-month waiting list.
Initially, Ofte said, he "finished" his cattle on corn — following conventional practices, which pack on weight and fat and get animals to market size sooner. It was customer demand that led him to raise purely grass-fed beef.
"They were really the market leaders," he said. "They started asking can you just finish on grass?"
Since 1997, Wisconsin has lost almost half its pasture land — more than 2 million acres, according to data from the USDA's agricultural census. Same in Minnesota.
Much of that was lost to development, but the data indicate some of it was converted into cropland in the years between 2007 and 2012, when corn prices soared to nearly $7 a bushel.
Vernon, Crawford and Monroe counties are among the top 10 in Wisconsin for the amount of pasture.
Those counties also held on to more of their pasture land than average in the state, losing only 16 to 20 percent between 1997 and 2012. The statewide average in Wisconsin was nearly 37 percent.
But Coulee Region pasture lands are still under pressure, said Vance Haugen, the Crawford County Extension Agent and an adviser to the Great River Grazers, a group of Coulee Region beef and dairy farmers.
Haugen said skyrocketing grain prices led many farmers and landowners to till highly erodible land, noting some steep slopes near Ferryville that were converted from grass to corn in 2013.
"They're nice people, but they lose their minds," he said. "When you get these kind of dollars waved in front of your nose, it's hard."
Cynthia Olmstead is project director for the Kickapoo Grazing Initiative, a public-private initiative promoting the benefits of managed grazing.
She said much of the lost pastureland belongs to non-farmers who live or have recreational land in the area.
"Sometimes they just don't realize there are alternatives out there that can make money," Olmstead said.
Ofte is something of an evangelist for pastured animals.
He has a series of posters detailing two scenarios for a typical Coon Valley farm with 30 acres of tillable land and 40 acres of pasture. Renting out the tillable land, an owner could clear about $3,300 after taxes; raising pastured beef, they could get nearly $10,000, although there's more work involved.
Unlike conventional farmers, Ofte has very little input cost. He occasionally applies lime to his pastures, but otherwise his costs are primarily time and land.
"The seed salesman doesn't like me," he says. "The tractor salesman doesn't like me."
Williams dismisses the notion that pastured livestock is a sideline.
A grass finisher can net $400 to $500 per acre. Without taxpayer subsidized crop insurance, he said, the average Minnesota corn farmer last year would have lost about $191 per acre based on market pricing.
"Using enterprise stacking" — augmenting a cattle herd with pigs, chickens and market vegetables, for example — "you can make a very good living for your family at 150 acres or less," Williams said. "It's presenting opportunity for small farmers, which you have many of in Wisconsin, to go back to the land and make a very good living off smaller acreage."
"We're not telling people you have to live like a refugee so we can have a park. That's crap," Haugen said. "If you have recreational land that can be grass savannah — you can improve the environment and make some money."