Give-and-Take

Four generations of Landuyts have farmed in Minnesota, including (left to right) Hallie, Mike, Kari, Harper (front), Hayden, Kris and George. (Progressive Farmer image Courtesy of NCBA Environmental Stewardship Award Program)

When the Landuyt family came back into the beef business in 1999, they already knew the environmental challenges livestock operations face. Four generations here in Minnesota had produced a mix of row crops, hogs and cattle over the years. Mike Landuyt knew manure management, especially in a cattle-finishing business, could be either an asset or a liability. There was no question which of the two he intended to make it.

Landuyt's love for the beef industry was a catalyst behind the family's addition of a finishing operation to the farm. They started with the idea that they wanted barns for cattle, even though the standard at the time was mostly open lot and semiconfinement. They built two structures: a monoslope barn and a hoop barn. Concrete floors in both help create an environment where there is 0% rainwater runoff from these yards. In addition, the Landuyts collect all the manure produced, utilizing it over some 350 to 400 acres of cropland each year. In return, that cropland provides for the herd in both rations and bedding. It's full-circle farming. Here's how it all works together.

START WITH THE BARNS

The two barns give the farm a maximum capacity of 700 head of cattle. The monoslope barn is the larger of the two, at 100 x 285 feet. Here, 15 feet is set aside as a manure bay between two pens. This is only for short-term storage (no more than 10 days). Having this designated area means there's flexibility to move and apply manure when it's not raining or snowing. Pens can be cleaned without having to immediately haul manure.

In addition to the manure bay, there is a 30-foot working facility where cattle are sorted and vaccinated.

The hoop barn is smaller than the monoslope, at 42 x 252 feet. Pen space is the same, though, because this barn doesn't have the manure bay or the working facility.

Both barns are oriented east to west with high openings to the south to let in sun. Natural ventilation comes from the opening, which is 24 feet high from floor to roof. In the back, curtains can be opened or closed based on weather, keeping the north wind off cattle.

"With the monoslope, the basic design is such that it lets in more light in the winter, but in the summer, you have more shade," Landuyt explains. "Also, the heat rises and goes out due to the slope design. The natural physics of heat, even with the slightest breeze in the summer, create ventilation without a need for fans."

MANAGE THE MANURE

One of the pluses of having cattle in barns is that manure is more consistent in terms of fertility levels. It's also fairly consistent in terms of quantity, so Landuyt can know the number of acres he can cover year to year -- generally 350 to 400. He applies an average of 8 tons of manure per acre.

"Barns create more manure than outside yards, but along with quantity, it's just as important to know the quality. That makes it all the more valuable. I base a fertility plan off of knowing how many acres I can cover. Because it's a barn, it doesn't matter if it's a wet or a dry year. I typically have the same amount and quality of manure to plan on."

He estimates manure from the cattle operation saves him $40 to $60 per acre across those fields.

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When manure can't be taken directly to the crop, it is stockpiled. When it comes time to make applications, the manure isn't just thrown in a spreader and put out.

"We use the manure strategically to build organic matter, trace minerals. Our fertility on those farms where we apply manure is fabulous. We don't put P [phosphorus] or K [potassium] down on those fields, only some N [nitrogen], which we adjust for the value of manure. Every field is soil-tested, and manure is applied at variable rates," he explains.

To keep track of where they need to apply manure and how much, not only do they soil-test, but Landuyt says they use GPS with their manure spreader.

"When we apply manure, we want to cover the whole field," he notes. "We don't leave a spot. If we run out before we can cover a particular field, we go back with the GPS map so we know exactly where to fill in to make sure we've covered everything. This ensures we haven't overapplied. It's easy to lose track of where you've applied. Wind will drift tire tracks, snow will cover manure after you put it down. You really wouldn't know without the GPS where you'd applied and where you hadn't."

A FULL CIRCLE

The same fields where Landuyt applies manure from the barns provide corn stalks for bedding.

"Because of the barns, we know we will bed close to the same amount year-round; it's not weather dependent like it would be on an outside yard. We don't have to bed just because it rained," he says.

They also feed cattle corn off the farm, and where they grow more corn than they can feed, they sell to an ethanol plant. When they take it to the plant, on the return trip, they'll bring distillers grains back for rations.

"So, even the feed we buy is off our farm in a way," Landuyt says. He notes they feed a ration of distillers, ground hay and earlage. When starting smaller cattle, corn silage and liquid protein are added.

By feeding their own corn, Landuyt says they have minimal transportation costs in the feed. Feeding modified distillers, on average about 30% of the ration, makes use of what is waste from ethanol production.

"We grow corn, and through that we provide fuel for the country and feed for the cattle," Landuyt explains. "Ethanol and cattle are a great mix. Cattle don't need the part of the corn ethanol needs, and ethanol doesn't need the part cattle benefit from. So, we supply two industries at the same time. That's extremely efficient."

FLEXIBLE WORKLOAD

All of the give-and-take that makes this operation efficient also helps with workload. Landuyt explains the barns give them a great deal of flexibility when it comes to regular chores.

"There's a lot of flexibility when you can keep pens clean without having to haul manure right away," he notes. "I have friends that feed about the same number cattle as I do but in outside lots. When the weather here is fit to do a job, they have to do it. It doesn't matter what day it is. Barns give us more flexibility. Things can wait a day or two. This winter, a friend was hauling manure on New Year's Day because that was the day that worked for him. I could wait till Jan. 2 because I knew the weather would not impact the job."

GAINS AND MANAGEMENT

Environment plays a key role in how Landuyt structures the care and management of animals he brings here to feed. In some instances, gains are even enhanced thanks to the barns and the consistent environment they help create.

Landuyt Farms normally buys 6- and 7-weight cattle in the fall. Some summers, it brings in a lot of 800- to 1,000-pound yearlings. The family tries to turn the barns twice a year.

"I bought some 600-pound calves the first week of November 2018 and sold them between June and July 2019," Landuyt says. "Then, I bought some yearlings in late July and sold them in December. After that, I brought in some more 600- to 700-pound calves."

Average daily gains are 3.2 to 3.3 pounds, with finished weights of 1,400 to 1,500 pounds. He emphasizes uniformity on lots he buys, not necessarily any particular color.

"We like to buy from producers out in the country with those consistent production programs, but we will also buy out of the sale barn," he says, noting it's harder to find uniform lots there, but it is possible through his order buyer who can put together the kinds of groups he wants.

On the sales side, he markets through a livestock association, Producers Livestock, based out of Omaha. Most of his cattle go to facilities that are less than four hours away. All of the cattle are finished when they leave the Landuyt farm.

While the barns bring many advantages to the operation, Landuyt doesn't want to give anyone the idea that the facilities pay for themselves in terms of added gains year in and year out.

"It really depends on the weather," he adds. "When conditions are more extreme, I think we see an improvement over an open lot on gains. But, just as importantly, we feel from an animal-welfare perspective the barns are a year-round positive for cattle."

Landuyt hopes that outside of agriculture, people are becoming more aware of all the things ranchers do to minimize the impact livestock have on the environment and to prioritize animal health and welfare.

"We want everything to be full circle," he explains. "A true diverse operation lets you take from one side of the business and provide for the other, and vice versa. Cattle are what I wanted to do when I came back to this family operation full-time, but I wanted to do it in a way that makes sense all the way around. For us, the barns were a key part of helping it all come together."

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