The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Cow/Calf Operation

Cow/Calf Operation

From the Farmer's Tractor

November 27, 2011

Travis Gebhart, 30, operates a commercial cow calf operation – along with his wife Renae, his parents and his brother – in Northwestern South Dakota. Gebhart’s herd consists mainly of Angus cattle, however, they do some cross-breeding to enhance certain traits and ultimately, profitability. Gebhart raises his own replacement heifers and has recently started raising a few herd bulls. He also grows hay, corn, wheat, sunflowers, oats, sorghum, and millet; some as cash crops and some as feed for the livestock.

How did you get into cow-calf farming?

I am a fourth generation rancher. I have been building my cattle herd since the age of 14. I am helping to make my children (Shannon, 5, Katelyn, 4, and Kyle, 1) into the fifth generation of Gebhart’s raising quality beef.

I graduated from South Dakota State University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Range Science with minors in Animal Science, Marketing, Ag Business, and Business in December of 2001, and I have been back on the ranch full-time since then. When I was in college I still owned cattle and came home every chance I had.

On the ranch, we retain ownership of the calves through harvest. We background the calves in our lot before we transport them to a feedlot in Nebraska. We then market our animals direct to a packing company.

How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?

In the past 10 years one of the biggest changes we have made in the cattle operation is switching to later calving. This has helped us better match the nutritional demands of the cow with the growing season of our grass. This change has led to other changes as well, such as running more calves over as grass yearlings. On the farming side of our operation, we have changed from conventional tillage practices to no-till practices. Since we operate in a dry climate, no-till helps us conserve moisture.

How will cow-calf farming evolve in the next five years?

Within my farm-ranch operation I imagine there will be many changes in the next five years. As technology continues to move forward it will certainly continue to change the way we operate. On the cattle side I am certain that we will be DNA testing every animal to allow for easier evaluation and better replacement selection. We will also use the results to help us market each individual in the most profitable way. On the farming side the changes will be huge. We are located just 150 miles west of what is now considered to be the corn belt, however, technology is pushing corn west quite rapidly. In five years I fully expect to double our yields. This will force us to farm more acres. We will also consider using variable rate application and any new technology that comes our way. I think that the possibilities are endless when you think about what technology might be available five years from now.

What is your greatest challenge as a cow-calf farmer?

There are many challenges in all of agriculture, and perhaps the greatest is learning to manage time. Farming/ranching aren’t really full time jobs – they are all the time jobs.  This has been true for generations, and it is very challenging to live a balanced lifestyle in farming. We need to learn to take more time for family, fun, religion, and other community activities, rather than just simply living to farm.

How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?

I think that the farmer needs to listen to what the retailer is asking for and try to accommodate them. This is certainly a hard task, especially in animal agriculture.  Animal agriculture is not like farming where you can just plant more of a crop next year.  It takes a long time to change the traits in your herd to receive the end product more like the consumer wants. It is also important to stay on the forefront with the consumers.  They need to be able to trust that we are doing what is best for our animals, the environment, and for the consumer. We need to help them understand in a language that they understand that we are being the best stewards of the land that we can possibly be. We also need them to see the faces of us and our children taking care of our animals so they can place a human face on food production. We need them to be able to see us as people trying to make a living for our family instead of some business person that is just out to make a dollar. I think that we need to be keeping people informed with Facebook and Twitter along with other social media avenues, since that is the wave of the future. People seem to trust the Internet for information so we need to be using it to educate as many consumers as we can.

What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?

A progressive rancher looks past potential short term profits and is always focused on what is best in the long term, or more sustainable. Our ranch understands that when it comes to range management, what is best for the ecosystem is, in the long term, also best for the ranch. I have implemented several conservation practices, including cross-fences, pipelines, shelter belts, grass seedings, and rotational grazing, to improve the range health and provide for increased biodiversity.

Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?

We only sell a small portion of the beef that we raise locally. We live in a very rural area where a majority of people are also in the ranching industry. We do have some local consumers that purchase beef from us every year, but the majority of what we raise is sold all across the United States and also exported. We raise quality beef that is Age and Source Verified on our ranch, which means every animal is documented for age and can be traced back to our ranch.

What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?

We feel that is very important to make sure that consumers understand where their food is coming from. Consumers want to know how the food they are feeding their families is getting to their table. Consumers are very confident and reassured after they meet “a real-life farmer or rancher”. Consumers today want to be informed and as people in agriculture we need to be taking every opportunity to educate these consumers on exactly what we do on our ranches and farms. American farmers and ranchers provide the most abundant and safest food supply in the world and we need to start bragging about what we are doing.