Flexibility, diversity help northeast Nebraska farmer get started

Slideshow: Handling both pigs and cows allows young Pierce County farmer to spread out risk.

It didn't take Seth Williams long to know he wanted to farm. "When I was 6, my mom could never get me away from the bucket calf. I was always out in the barn, sometimes even sleeping," he says. "That's when she said it was something she always knew I was going to do the rest of my life."

Williams, 27, farms near Plainview with dad Scott, mom Dawna, younger brother Micah and sister Catie. The operation is centered around the integration of different livestock enterprises: custom feeding wean-to-finish pigs for The Maschhoffs, while raising cow-calf pairs and backgrounding calves.

"My passion has always been on the cow-calf side. I've always liked that side of it, and that's my main focus. You've also got to understand the things you've got to do to expand," Seth says. "We needed to expand, and that was the biggest reason behind putting in the hog building. To get bigger, like with anything, diversity is always key. You can't put all your eggs in one basket."

Striking a balance
As with any young farmer, there were challenges to getting started. Seth studied grassland management at Chadron State College before returning home to the farm in 2013, and then studying electrical construction at Northeast Community College in Norfolk before graduating in 2016.

Now, he balances a full-time job as an electrician with Johnson Electric in Norfolk with a full-time job raising cattle and pigs. Meanwhile, his wife, Jocelyn, works at Faith Regional Health Services as a registered nurse to support their two daughters, Quinn and Reece, both under 2 years old.

"I load out pigs in the morning, and then I go put in nine hours a day as an electrician," Seth says. "There are some days where everything's easy, and there are some days where you don't get home until 10 o'clock. You wake up and you're up at 4:30 or 5 o'clock [a.m.] and you're back at it again. That's where a lot of guys my age have to turn to. The ag market isn't always there for a young guy to support himself. It's a lot of hard work, but that's the sacrifice you have to make for the things you want to do."

However, coming from a background rooted in cattle production is a benefit itself, and helped him get a running start, notes Scott, Seth's dad.

"Seth and I both work off the farm. For a young producer just starting, it's tough unless he has family or an older farmer that can help him get started. There are opportunities, but with land prices and the cost of buying a cow herd, it's not cheap," Scott says. "Being able to co-sign a loan to purchase his first 12 head of cattle was a big help. A young kid that has no background or family in the business wouldn't be able to do that. Putting the hog building up, there was learning curve. But in a few years down the road when it's paid off, you have another cash flow."

Diversified livestock
The 2,499-head permitted hog barn was built in 2016 to add an additional income stream to the farm. As custom feeders, the barn provides not only a consistent cash flow, but also another source of fertilizer in the form of manure. While they aren't row crop farmers, Seth notes the manure will be sold to neighboring farms and applied on the hay ground and pasture.

On the sandy soils of their mixed-grass pastures, he hopes the manure will be a good source of organic matter, helping build water-holding capacity and providing nutrients, ultimately boosting productivity.

"This spring will be the first time we use manure on our pasture. It's a source of fertilizer we don't have to pay for, which is obviously a benefit," Seth says. "You're adding microbes and bacteria from livestock back onto the pasture. To me, it seems you're adding to what's already in the soil."

The biggest benefit, however, is a consistent cash flow from the custom-feeding operation.

"That way, on the cow-calf side, you're able to experiment a little more. You aren't as dependent on one segment to provide a cash flow to put improvements in and do everything you need to do," he says. "The sustainable income from the custom-feeding side gives us the comfort to try different things on the cow-calf side. You aren't worried about having enough cash flow later on."

This includes his current 40 head of background calves. The custom-feeding operation allows him more flexibility to buy calves in fall, background them through winter, and sell them in spring.

"Right now, we're doing just a small group of calves, but that's where I'd like to expand more on is backgrounding more claves. It's another diversification opportunity. With our spring-calving cows, we sell in the fall," Seth says. "With our backgrounding herd, we buy in late fall. We're using the extra hay we have, carrying them through until spring, when green grass comes around and producers start buying calves to put on green grass."

Looking to the future
Seth notes it is a family operation, and he works closely with Micah and Catie. Micah is graduating high school this year, and Catie is studying at Chadron State College.

"Before my sister went to college, there were a lot of mornings when both helped load pigs out, then show up for basketball practice and then come home and help sort pigs for a few hours," Seth says. "My mom and dad are getting on the downhill side. They help a lot, but a lot of it falls on us three."

Scott hopes with the addition of a new livestock enterprise, all three will have a place at the farm after they graduate college. "It's been a good opportunity for Seth. He's almost 28, and I've kind of let him run it since he was a kid," Scott says. "I'm getting older, and hopefully in a few years, I'll be able to just watch him, his brother, sister and the grandkids farm."

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