Women on the farm: An Early Start, A Strong Finish
Amanda DeGroat’s family farm rises from ashes stronger than ever
By PAT LAWRENCE
Like any successful stock broker, Amanda DeGroat lives by her phone, starts the day by studying the markets, contacts buyers and sellers and makes educated bets on commodity futures. However, Amanda is a cattle woman, not a Wall Street trader and the stock she trades is eating and sleeping not far from her back door. She says, “We always have about 350 head on the property and we feed about a thousand cattle here every year.”
The DeGroat family owns and operates Hidden Acres Farm, a beef feedlot that contracts directly with packers to produce and purchase beef feeder-cattle until they are “finished,” ready to become high quality, well-marbled cuts of meat for the table. Amanda manages most of the financial side of their enterprise, buying and selling, and assists with a variety of the farm responsibilities, like vaccinations, tagging and transport. She says, “We have a 30’ stock trailer that I haul. It holds 15–18 head of 800 pound cattle. For a bigger load, we use a double decker with a semi.”
Amanda grew up in Farmersville, where her parents still live, showing cattle and hogs. Back then, Jason’s family had dairy cattle. Amanda says, “He and I intended to get married after I graduated from high school, but I postponed the wedding until after the Fair just so I could show my cattle!” Although Amanda continued her education and worked for 15 years managing doctor’s offices, she remained an active partner in the family farm. “I milked until the day I delivered and was back milking three days afterward!”
She says, “When dairy prices began dropping, we started looking at business opportunities. We’d always had freezer beef, and when we realized how profitable our production of about 50 head had been, we began the transition to beef cattle. We decided on the feedlot because of the way our property is laid out.” Jason and Amanda have been married 18 years and have a 16 year old son and 13 year old daughter who still enjoy showing cattle competitively.
Hidden Acres is one of about 450 beef cattle feedlots in Ohio, and like most, it’s also a family farm. Rita, Amanda’s mother-in-law, lost her husband Clarence, three years ago, but she has been an integral part of the family enterprise for over 40 years. According to Amanda, “She used to do all the milking!” Rita has been farming in partnership with Amanda and Jason for over twenty years. She still provides insight and advice, handles bookkeeping and receivables and makes a home-cooked lunch for everyone on the farm each workday. Amanda’s husband, Jason, manages the crops and farming operations with the assistance of Amanda’s brother Steven Ward, their full time Farm Manager.
Dustin Barnes is the Feedyard Manager. Amanda says, “Every business decision, we make as a group.”
According to the USDA, cattle and beef production represent the largest single segment of American agriculture. Of the 2.2 million farms in the US, 31 percent are classified as beef cattle operations, more than any other type of farm. The industry is roughly divided into two production sectors: cow-calf operations or cattle feeding, like Hidden Acres.
Amanda says, “We feed twice a day. It can take 90 to 300 days, depending on the animal’s weight at placement, feeding conditions and desired finish. We try to raise the kind of beef that we would serve on our own table.” She says cattle owners choose custom feeding to maintain or expand their cattle production as well as other reasons. “If the market is high, people often send their cattle to the stock yard; when it’s low, they often contact us.
Cattle can only be on a trailer 14–16 hours and an owner may not be near a stockyard or have the facilities or hauling capacity needed for finishing cattle. This year’s drought was problematic for many. We provide feed, facilities and labor while owners save the expense of custom feeding and take advantage of favorable market situations. We raise fresh, hormone and antibiotic– free beef so when the homemakers purchase it from the grocery, they can see and taste the quality!”
Amanda says they buy cattle in groups of 10 or more directly from farms they have visited in Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia and Kentucky. “Hauling is included in our bid price. And, I drive over to Union Stockyards in Hillsboro about once a week to fulfill our needs. The cattle in that area perform very well. We buy from sellers that operate with humane animal standards and promote health. We get cattle in at least three times a week. Every animal is kept under shelter, about 40 per building, with adequate ventilation and space so the cattle and their bedding stays dry. Each animal is tagged and recorded in a computer program for tracing them. If there’s ever a problem, we know where each animal came from and where it went.”
Amanda spends the first part of every day on the computer, checking the markets, looking at cattle and feeder prices and grain trades. “I watch the agricultural market on Rural TV to see how prices ended yesterday and where they’re predicted to go. When we’re ready to sell, we’re looking at the future price. We guarantee the price of our cattle a month, or even a year, ahead. For 800-pound animals, a penny per pound is a major change. It’s always a gamble but that’s what farmers do every day – gamble! Life is full of decisions.” Amanda seems to have handled them with a cool head. She has contracts for every month till October 2013, two loads for some months. Each load is 49,000 pounds or 40 head of finished cattle. She says, “You must be comfortable with what you can buy them at and what you can sell them at. You can’t be greedy.”
The family also farms 1100 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat, kept well fertilized. “Waste is gathered with a bobcat. We have a manure storage facility, so when the weather is good in summer and fall, we have it ready to spread.” Without a breeze, the malodorous side effect of fresh waste is surprisingly localized to the buildings which actually hold cattle.
Neatly placed grain bins, tractors and grain carts among the eight buildings make Hidden Acres look like any family farm. And, the animals themselves are so quiet as to be barely noticeable. Amanda says, “Confined cattle are very different from range cattle. They’re accustomed to people, some, but their thought processes are different. They do require a special way of handling. You must always move slowly, quietly, calmly, not to rile them up.”
The comfortably familiar pattern of the DeGroat’s life went up in flames three years ago. Amanda says, “We were showing cattle at the Fair when our home caught fire. We lost everything. The homestead was so old, it only took about 45 minutes for it to go. We were devastated.”
The young family moved in with Rita to start rebuilding. Amanda says, “We realized living together worked very well for us, so we stayed and added space here, just across the road from the old house. There’s room for all of us — plus six dogs and four cats. It still works very well for us.” Rita works mostly out of the office in the center of the house, Amanda works by phone from wherever she needs to be that day. “I always keep an extra charger!”
Amanda says the fire taught them that, “Stuff is just stuff. It’s not what matters. The hardest part for the kids was losing all their trophies. For me, it was losing our family pictures.”
For fun, she says, “We show cattle in the winter and go boating in Tennessee in the summer. We don’t have problems, really. What we’ve done so far has been profitable and after eight years, things run pretty smoothly. We stay busy with the farm and the kids but everything we do, we do as a family.”
(Pat Lawrence is a contributor to Acres of Southwest Ohio.)