Loving Life

A Rancher's Creed Pays It Forward

Carroll Collier stays true to his passion for preserving the land he loves, emphasizing forage production and a healthy herd. (Progressive Farmer photo Courtesy of the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation)

Carroll Collier has learned a few things in the 70 years he has lived on and worked a patch of land in Wise County, Texas. That land, known as Collier Farms for nearly a century, has taught him what works and what doesn't, what pays a profit and what loses money, and why he does what he does the way he does it.

Plain-spoken and unpretentious, Collier describes himself simply as a grass farmer and a cow/calf operator. He said he's in the business of growing grass and raising healthy, delicious beef for consumers. Equally important, he's about making sure his 300-plus acres will be as vibrant and productive in the next 100 years as they are now. It's a full-time job and then some, but it's also the life he loves living.

"I feel sorry for people who sit in a rocking chair and say, 'Oh, I'm so tired,'" Collier said on a tour of the farm that included checking the grass, cows, water and anything else that caught his attention. "I'm moving all the time. I might move around too much. Probably do, actually. But I love this life. There's always something that needs to be done. I love having plenty to do, and I love doing it."

His grandfather, Guy Collier, bought this land in the 1920s, but the operation Carroll runs today is considerably different than the one where three subsequent generations of Colliers have grown up. Guy Collier grew peanuts and cotton at first, as did most of the county at the time. Then, he shifted to hogs and beef. Carroll has stuck strictly with a cow/calf operation since 1992.

"The government took the peanut price supports away in the '90s, and prices went down," he explained. "There's not a lot of flexibility with dryland peanuts. The drought we had in 1980 got me to thinking about it. At least you can still run a few cows during a drought."

Carroll bought the original farm from his grandfather in 1965, the same year he and Jean were married. He dabbled in peanuts and dairy farming while working off the farm and buying adjoining pieces of land to create the current spread. With the exception of 16 acres devoted to wildlife habitat, the ranch's pastures are managed for the year-round benefit of 53 head of Red Angus cattle.

"I used to raise Simmental, but they were really too big for what I wanted to do," Collier said. "I started studying on the Red Angus, and that's what I settled on because they perform so well. They're gentle. They perform well in the feedlots. They're perfect for what I'm looking for. I raise all of them. I don't buy replacements."

BELIEF DRIVES THE METHOD

Collier doesn't work his land and cattle the way he does merely for the sake of being busy. There's a method; he refers to it as "a belief" that drives everything he does. He believes in stockpiling forages through a low-intensity pasture rotation and having water in every pasture. He's firmly of the opinion he should be growing grass to the exclusion of weeds.

Fertilizer, he said, is his feed bill. Year-round forage production, he explained, allows him to feed hay for three months or less every year. He buys hay rather than grows it. He believes this is better for the land, and it also allows him to skip the purchase of expensive haying equipment. He looks for 10% crude protein in the hay he buys, mostly from east Texas.

"When you're cutting hay, you're taking nutrients out of the soil," he explained. "If you buy it, you're putting nutrients back in."

To determine how much fertilizer he needs, Collier has his soil tested every other year with The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Oklahoma. Those tests will generally call for nitrogen fertilizer, which he applies at an average rate of about 50 pounds per acre in April. The group named Collier the winner of the 2013 Leonard Wyatt Memorial Outstanding Cooperator Award. The Noble Foundation is an independent nonprofit institute dedicated to agriculture research and consultation in the Southern Plains. The award, given annually, is based on a farmer or rancher's accomplishments, community service and willingness to help other producers. Collier does that partly by sharing his methods at Noble Foundation field days and at the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association's (TSCRA) annual convention.

Robert Wells, a livestock consultant with The Noble Foundation, believes Collier shows more profit than other operations of the same size because of his attention to detail. Wells said he's found that Collier knows where he is at financially at any given point in the production cycle.

"Several years back, he was weaning calves and had to make a decision to buy more feed or just let the calves graze a fertilized, stockpiled pasture that had recently gotten a good rainfall and had come on nicely," Wells recalled. "He gave me the cost that he had in the calves, fertility, etc. That allowed me to determine that the cost of gain of the supplemental feed could not be justified. So he did not buy the next load of feed and just allowed the calves to graze the quality pasture only."

Collier keeps those meticulous records using CattleMax software for production and Quicken for financials.

"He's a perfect example of how you don't have to run the largest operation to make a living off the ranch," Wells said of Collier. "He watches all the finer points and is able to adjust what he does to fit the environmental conditions at any given time. I can call Carroll on the spur of the moment, and he can tell me what he's spending, his vaccination records, what minerals are in the pastures ... he even tracks the weather."

A FORAGE FOUNDATION

Collier said stockpiling forages is really the cornerstone of his entire operation.

"I have 53 head on 300 acres," he said. "That's a cow on every 3 acres, and it's doing a good job that way. I'm a believer in taking care of the grass and getting rid of the weeds. I use different chemicals, whichever one is the most economical and does the best job. We have well water in every pasture. Rotation and good-quality well water, those are the keys."

Collier overseeds some of his 20 or so coastal bermudagrass pastures with ryegrass, which cattle graze down in the spring. That keeps it from shading out the bermudagrass. After the bermudagrass is grazed down to 4 or 5 inches, he fertilizes for use later in the summer when it's hot and dry.

In the fall, cattle will go on the natives, which include big and little bluestems, sideoats grama and kleingrass. When he needs to feed hay, it's generally for no more than six weeks, then it's back to ryegrass.

Five wells are scattered across the farm, including four put in since 1980, when Collier realized droughts are as symbolic of Texas as cattle.

"Nowadays, it would cost about $8,000 to $10,000 to put in a well," he said. "You can put more pounds on a cow if she's well-watered. It's like feed in that way. I spend about $200 a month on electricity for water, but if you put 100 more pounds on the whole herd, you can pay for that."

UNIFORM CALF CROP

During this late-April tour of the farm, Collier proudly pointed out the year's calf crop, noting how each one is almost exactly the same size as all the others because they're all born in a 60-day period.

In March, he puts one of his two herd bulls on heifers, and a month later, he puts them on the cows. Herd bulls are chosen based on expected progeny difference (EPD) for calving ease, low birthweight, weaning weight and yearling weight.

Calves are typically weaned in September at about 600 pounds. With the exception of half a dozen or so heifers he keeps as replacements, he will market the crop through a Red Angus VAC-45 program. VAC refers to Value Added Calf, and 45 days means the calf has been weaned for at least that long. There are similar programs for a number of breed associations and even animal pharmaceutical companies. Collier follows protocol developed by The Noble Foundation's Integrity Beef Alliance.

"It's a little unusual for someone with an operation of this size to produce his own replacement heifers, but he does," Noble's Wells said. "Carroll is able to do it because of his stockmanship skills. He's able to see the big picture and also drill down to the fine side of things."

Collier's cows follow him everywhere he goes as faithfully as his border collie, Sadie. They're not expecting to be hand-fed, they are just gentle and curious -- a product of all the time he spends with them.

"They always know what I'm fixing to do," he said. "When I open the gate, they know I'm moving them to another pasture. They don't have to be told. I have lanes for them to walk, and they will just follow those lanes to the next pasture or corral. A lot of times they tell me by the way they act when it's time to move."

Part of The Noble Foundation's Leonard Wyatt award is based on community service, and Wells mentions that aspect of Collier's operation, because the cattleman doesn't.

"Every year, he goes to the local ag teachers to find a kid who would like to show an animal but can't afford it. He donates one of his heifers and even pays the feed bill," Wells said.

"A lot of people will consign a heifer as a way to get it off the feed bill for a couple of years. But Carroll goes that extra mile, just like he does with his cattle."

When he's not tending his cattle or the land, Collier spends time on his wildlife acreage. He especially enjoys watching birds and identifying their songs. The pond is stocked with catfish, bass and perch, and there's hunting for family and friends. He's a Master Gardener in title and deed who, true to his nature, goes the extra mile there, too. He and Jean grow a vegetable garden for themselves, a daughter, two grandchildren and a great-grandchild that's on the way.

"I believe in taking care of the environment for the next generation," he said. "I believe we are obligated to do that. That's my main belief."

(VM/CZ)