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Cattle and cold

Folks in North Dakota like to say that 25 below zero keeps the riffraff out of the state. But to Russell Edgar, Bathgate, N.D., it means opportunity.

He operates Dakota Valley Growers — a custom dairy heifer feeding enterprise located in the northern Red River Valley, not far from the Canadian border. The feedlot is one of the state’s success stories in its effort to expand livestock enterprises.

Dakota Valley Growers contracts with dairy producers to grow out and breed their heifers. The animals enter the feedlot when they are 6 to 11 months old and leave before they calve at approximately 22 months of age.

Key Points

Northern feedlot finds its niche in custom heifer raising.

Winter isn’t a barrier to this feedlot’s success.

Beet pulp helps make the feedlot competitive.


“Our biggest hurdle was convincing Wisconsin dairy farmers that their heifers wouldn’t die up here in the winter,” Edgar recalls.

After six years, that’s not a problem anymore. A growing number of dairy producers know that their heifers will not only survive a North Dakota winter, but will also come back to their farms in better shape and capable of producing more milk than heifers that they raise on their own. And it will cost them less.

Excellent design

Some of Dakota Valley Growers’ success — especially in coping with winter weather — can be traced to the design of the 3,400-head feedlot.

“The lots and pens are laid out like a city street so we can push snow to the middle and scoop it up in a pay loader and haul it out,” Edgar explains.

The feedlot doesn’t have bunks. Cattle are fed on flat tile surfaces so snow can be removed with a wing blade.

Windbreak fences are positioned in the middle of larger pens so that the cattle can find protection from either a north or south wind. Smaller pens, where younger heifers are housed, have windbreaks around three sides.

Cattle are bedded with cornstalks, wheat straw or other crop residue.

Pneumonia and other ailments are seldom seen. “Twenty-five below is the best sterile environment there is,” Edgar says.

“The important thing is to keep heifers dry and out of the wind. They grow a thick enough hair coat to keep themselves warm.”

Heifers need constant access to freshwater, even when there’s snow on the ground. The feedlot has double water lines to each pen. If a line freezes up, water can be routed to the second, and repairs can be done in the summer.

To minimize mud, the feedlot is sloped to move off water. The feed bunk aprons that the heifers stand at while eating are sloped out to the feed wall, not back to the pen.

An ag waste containment system settles out all solids at the end of each bunk line. Solids are spread on cropland. Gray water is pumped through a pivot.

Abundant feeds

Access to beet pulp from the American Crystal Sugar Co.’s factory at Drayton, N.D., is another advantage for Dakota Valley Growers.

Beet pulp is a near-ideal feed for dairy heifers because they can eat a lot of it without getting fat. If heifers put on too much weight as they grow, fat is deposited in their udders, which decreases the amount of milk they can produce.

Dakota Valley Growers also feeds sorghum silage and mid-quality alfalfa, which Edgar grows himself and buys from other farmers, and distillers grain.

Excellent employees

Six employees work with Edgar and his family at the feedlot. None of them had any experience raising and breeding dairy heifers when Edgar started the feedlot. But professional training and a good work ethic has helped them excel. They’ve achieved an average AI pregnancy rate of 40% for each 21-day cycle, a death loss of under 1% and a cull rate under 3%.

Each manager is in charge of specific department — breeding, feeding, etc. “I oversee what they are doing, but I don’t micromanage,” Edgar says. “I let them go with it, and they know if they don’t do well, none of us will have a job in the long run.”

Feedlot grows from farmland loss

Dakota Valley Growers grew out of a crisis for Russell Edgar. He lost most of his farmground after several years of back-to-back losses due to flooding in the Red River Valley.

“I had to find an alternative to grain farming or get out of agriculture,” Edgar says.

He had some experience raising cattle. He also had access to several feedstuffs.

The state of North Dakota was encouraging producers to expand livestock enterprises. Help getting started was available from the state bank and several agencies.

But he was too far away from beef packing plants to compete with Southern beef feedlots.

Given his financial situation, he couldn’t afford to buy North Dakota or northern Minnesota beef calves and background them. The market was too volatile, and he didn’t have the cash reserve to carry him through hard times. Also, backgrounding was mostly a seasonal enterprise — November through April or May.

Custom feeding dairy heifers seemed like a better option. He had access to the right feedstuffs for dairy heifers. It wasn’t as risky as buying and feeding beef cattle because dairies retained ownership of their heifers and paid a per-head custom-feeding fee. Contracts could be negotiated, and it would be possible to keep the feedlot full year-round. Edgar knew several Wisconsin dairy farmers because he sold them alfalfa.

“It turned out to be a good fit,” Edgar says.


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DAIRY GROWER: Russell Edgar built a feedlot in the northern Red River Valley to custom-raise dairy heifers.

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FRESHWATER: Water for cattle is pumped from a nearby river into a holding pond, and then through pipelines to the cattle pens.

This article published in the February, 2011 edition of DAKOTA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.