Raising the Roof: Gregory Farm expands its cow herd without adding pasture ground

Friday, April 8, 2016
Gregory Farms erected a 400-foot hoop building structure in the fall of 2015 with Hoop Beef Systems. (Michaela Leimkuehler/Democrat-News)

It's a farm-family's dream come true when the children come back home to the farm. Parents can rest easy knowing that their agriculture legacy will continue through the next generation of farmers. What happens when there isn't enough farm to go around? How can the family farm grow if the acres of pasture simply are not available?

"This whole cow under roof thing came as sort of a joint project between Tim (Bickett) and one of his customers in Iowa," Managing Director of Hoop Beef System Brent Bryant said. Bickett's customer had told him his daughter and son-in-law were coming back to the family farm. The farm was not able to sustain multiple incomes without pasture expansion and there was no pasture to be had.

"He came back to tell me, 'yeah we're going to put these cows under-roof,'" Bryant continued. "I said, 'that is the craziest idea I've ever heard.'"

Managing Director at Hoop Beef System Brent Bryant speaks to the inquisitive visitors at Gregory Farms open house on March 1. (Michaela Leimkuehler/Democrat-News)

That crazy idea lead to a business venture that would be known as Hoop Beef System, LLC.

"Right now when our phone rings, we get calls from North Carolina to Montana with folks that are fighting the issue of they want to expand or if they are on rented grass," Bryant stated. "They want to hold onto their herd and they can't do it with the grass that's available."

Roger and Ruth Gregory, of Blackburn, were searching for a solution to stretch their farm to include their son, Kurtis, in the family business.

The competitive nature of renting or owning ground in Saline County made it difficult to expand on their previously existing 640 acres of farm ground.

"You're not going to be able to put another 200 cows on pasture because you're not going to find it," Kurtis said. "If you do, you're going to be running all over the state, and it's going to be expensive."

After a couple hundred Internet searches and clicks of the mouse, the Gregory family landed on Hoop Beef System's website. They toured pre-existing hoop barns and decided this was a solution to their expansion.

"It was a way to make this little two acre spot productive and be able to have all the cows because to buy enough pasture for this many cows would cost an arm and a leg," Kurtis commented.

Gregory Farms hosted an open house on March 1 to showcase the new 400-foot long hoop barn. Construction on the barn was scheduled to begin in April and May of 2015, but due to rainy conditions, the contractors did not begin until mid-June and early July. The structure was completed in the fall. It houses 200 head of Jersey and Gelbvieh cross females and their calves. The hoop building incorporates a working area with a tub and chute in the center of the building along with a 12 foot sick pen. There is also an attached office, and manure storage area.

"Everything in here is a one-person operation," Bryant chimed in. "This drover's alley you can lock all the cows back on their bedpack. You can also use it as a sort alley ... They are off-set so (the cattle) are never making a 90-degree turn. So they come in and out of these pens really easy."

Just because one person can operate the barn doesn't necessarily mean the workload is lightened. Roger mentioned to the open house crowd that he felt it was more labor intensive than having cows on pasture.

"I'm going to say yes, because you see it and you attend to it," Roger admitted. "They're out (in the pasture) and you see something that's wrong, 'man I've got to go get the trailer, I got to get them up,' think that's going to get done all the time? (If you're) going to stand there and tell me 'yes,' you're lying."

Calving under-roof with first-time heifers was an exciting but challenging time for the Gregorys last fall.

"I couldn't imagine trying to have 200 out on pasture trying watch them and then get them up," Kurtis added. "I mean it was, 'okay we have to get her out and bring down here,' which is a lot easier than trying to get out of a 40-acre field. We did it all without lights because we didn't have electricity hooked up yet. Lots of flashlights and parking the tractor to shine in. Now that we've got the lights, next year will surely be a lot easier and nicer."

Kurtis hinted at the idea of adding another barn in the future.

"If everything works for us, we've definitely thought about putting up another one," Kurtis continued. "If it works, why not go ahead and do another one...We've definitely had some thoughts about doing another one after this one."

Throughout the past year, Hoop Beef System has put cows under-roof in new barns in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky.

"Everyone fought the same thing: lack of grass, lack of opportunity to expand, lack of opportunities to bring young people back to the farm," remarked Bryant. "It's not a unique thing to one location."

Frequently Asked Questions:
Responses by System Consultant Tim Bickett with Hoop Beef System

1. What does it cost to feed a cow under-roof?

"Our gestation diets on our heifers run $0.67 a day. What your feedstuffs are, (and) what you have available, we can put a cow diet together for pretty low cost. We want to target the energy needs of that female at her stage of production. Even if she's lactating, were going to cut her energy back by 40 percent. The first place her body puts energy is to maintenance, then its lactation, then its gain."

2. How much bedding do you use?

"On average, we'll use about one bale of bedding per linear foot of building annually. So, this 400 foot building we need 400 bales. that's on average. Now, if I divide that by 52, that's eight bales a week. There [are] some weeks that we use 16 and some weeks that we use four. Some weeks you won't hardly use any. If the warmer air is dryer, it will evaporate more moisture. Our design is to move as much air through this system without drafting the cattle."

3. How much separation do we need between a livestock structure and neighbors?

"Are they neighbors that like to eat steak or not? My state regulatory agencies are going to define that more than I will. They're going to tell me I probably need a quarter

mile. I'm here to tell you that if I'm standing out by that silo, to the north or the south of this building and I can smell it there, we need to talk about how you're managing the building because it's too wet. I have customers that live that close to their structures, and the thing that they tell me is 'I was surprised.'"

4. Can you only AI in a facility like this?

"The customer that's been under roof the longest has never AI-ed. All natural service. He does lease his bulls and he puts a bull per 20 cows...You can AI. That's one of the beauties of this design is it allows us to take advantage of those technologies.

5.How often do you clean out the barns?

"We will clean out our bedpacks at least twice a year, spring and fall. It's more about when is it right to get it into the field than anything we necessarily have to do for the cows."