David Mansur and his wife, Barbara, own and operate Shale Creek Ranch near Sweetwater, TN. Like many of our members, they started their farm from scratch. Read about their story in our Q&A on today’s blog…
How long has your family been involved in raising cattle? Tell us about how it got started.
This is a roundabout way explaining how I started raising cattle, but back to 2001 I started raising livestock no more than 5 miles from central Houston. There, I was responsible for a company that owned a rather large property lot which was constantly overgrown with weeds and vines. It didn’t take any of us long to start looking for solutions to rid us of this problem and noticed the use of small ruminants (goats & hair sheep) around the oil storage tanks along the Port Area. We decided on sheep (goats were too smart) and within 4 years of starting our “Weed Abatement Program,” it became profitable and self-sustaining. The time I spent with the animals gave me the jump-start I needed to understand basic agriculture and an appreciation for ag-land ownership.
After living in Houston for about 8 years, I decided it was time for us to move on. I took a position with a gentleman that I had once worked with nearly 20 years earlier and came to Tennessee. After six months of living alone during the relocation and then another six months of searching with my family, we found a home on about 20 acres nestled among several little valleys located between Watt bar and Sweetwater.
During our search, and in fact viewing our property, we noted a number of coyote prowling during the daylight hours. That was a key deciding factor to running cattle on the property instead of continuing with sheep. After moving in and over the next 6 months, I researched the basic needs of cattle and we purchased 5 head of commercial Angus at auction; three of these were pregnant. During the next three years we expanded features of the property by digging an additional pond, installed a non-electric pumping operation to keep these ponds full year round, improved fencing, installed a cattle system & head gate, planted many additional shade trees in the pastures, made multiple adjustments to how we move cattle (rotational grazing for example), learned more about cattle dietary needs, and so much more.
What we have today might legally be described as a “Hobby Farm.” Our property can sustain about 10-15 cow-calf pairs of commercial Angus which is the maximum land burden it can accommodate without killing everything and starving out our cattle. Careful management of the grasses falls into my view that well-fed cattle (ruminants in general) will prevent about 95% of the problems you might otherwise encounter.
As with a new property, expenses are plentiful and it takes time to build up a quality herd; we’re not at all where we would like to be and no one can expect too much in such a short time. To date, we’ve sold about a dozen head, traded a few, and one day we’ve mused that we’ll sell what we have and replace them with registered Black Angus in order to expand our market opportunities.
In addition to the cattle, the property also maintains about 50 grape vines, 120 fruit trees of various types, and a 1/3 acre vegetable garden. One day this will provide all our needs and the needs of others who can’t afford much. This helps feed the peeve of mine, “If you have the land, put it to work” as well as the notion that, “Hobbies are great, but hobbies that pay are OUTSTANDING.”
What have been some of the trials you or your family has had to overcome?
I’m no longer sure I can answer this question. Trails are difficult for many reasons but God knows what he’s doing. We’d been through very tough times in the past and now it seems to us that what people call trails is not much more than small bumps in hindsight.
Have we had some smaller issues with livestock? Sure, but not many. As this might be a reminder, and as any good Vet. will warn you about, adding livestock to your established herd can be risky. You should always quarantine new purchases or risk the consequences. Heading the warning I purchased three calves from auction where on occasion unscrupulous sellers dump distressed & diseased animals. In my case two calves were healthy and were infected with BRD from the third purchased that day. After ~$400 in Vet. bills, 2 weeks of barn duty, another $200 in medicine and feed, we finally had to put the calf down; fortunately the other two survived and thrived. That could have been much more costly had I not kept them out of nose-range of my main herd.
We’ve also learned the obvious: not having money is an obstacle to anything you want to accomplish. Starting out a ranch/farm requires a fairly large cash flow and if you’re trying to balancing a new home, a construction loan, learning/buying new equipment, keeping cattle healthy & fed, and trying to keep peace with your spouse………. Well, that is a balancing act. Managing money while making steady and constant improvements is a hard balancing act. Not everything can be done in a single year, two years, or even ten and that’s why spending time learning what’s needed and prioritizing these things is important.
What is one thing you wish more people knew about life on the farm?
Most of my life has been spent in cities much larger than Knoxville which is mainly because of my personal work experience. That being so, what I find interesting and something I wish I could share with people living in those large cities is the vastly different style of living, pace of life (at times), and the rewards of seeing the fruit of your own labor (literally and figuratively). Living this life dispels the myth that farmers/ranchers are stupid; far from it. I’ve met a large number of undergraduate and graduate level people running very sophisticated operations. Not people who need to brag but people who have every right to. These are farmers/ranchers that not only make something from nothing, but make it in excess. No matter what your size and experience, remember, without us the world would go hungry.
Do you have any advice for young Tennessee cattle producers about the business?
My advice on being a young/new TN cattle producer:
I’ve lived in four states and Tennessee is the only one I’ve lived in that puts an incredible amount of energy and resources into making cattle education available and getting the word out to residents that it’s available. Available doesn’t mean they spoon feed you, but it’s there, it’s inexpensive/free, and it’s very informative for your business growth. Take advantage of the available education while it’s available to you and start by speaking to your local Ag agent. Get plugged into one or two different classes or cattle activities as you have the time, in fact, make the time. Even though you may be small, enroll in the Master Beef program, Advanced Master Beef, BQA certification, and/or join the Tennessee cattleman’s association for even more information on statewide events. Your education will expose you to new ideas but it’s your responsibility to figure out how these might benefit your particular operation. Your land, Your way.
In addition to education, be a good steward of the land & water. What money you put into the soil and biodiversity comes back out of it in the form of good cattle performance and in lower feed costs to you. Lower expenses equate to having more money to place back into your operation and will keep you growing strong.
What’s the key to balancing work on the farm and work in town?
Balancing two full times jobs can be tough, but it is seasonal. To help keep a balance we keep a running list of projects we need and would like to accomplish. At times the list will get pretty long but everything is on the list including inside-the-home projects & maintenance that needs to get done. Sometimes we prioritize but often money (or lack thereof) will prioritize things for us which is why the list has a lot of no-money items on it. As long as something on the list is being worked on every day then sooner or later the list will get done.
For us the improvements inside the home tend to be put off until the winter months when everything goes dormant but the cattle. In mid to late spring we are at our busiest part of the year as managing pastures and fruit trees has swung into overdrive. I’m sure many feel the same as we do when I say that sometimes it seems that every unwanted weed and woody plant seed from 200 miles has land around the property.
I’m also fortunate that I’ve been allowed to shift my work schedule to start a few hours earlier in the day which means that I can be home a few hours earlier unless business demands otherwise. I can take advantage of more daylight hours but there are weeks were this pace will wear you down. As the grass matures and as all of the work we’ve done in the spring has taken hold, the cattle are on their own without hay or feed for the next few months and we can once again enjoy a bit slower pace of work during the heat of summer.
There aren’t too many problems but I’ve been called a few times from work needing to run home and wrangle a cow or two who’ve made it through a broken fence line. That’s when training cattle to follow the white bucket all winter long had paid off.
What’s your favorite beef dish?
Strange as it seems, my favorite beef dish outside the typical ‘Steak’ is teriyaki skewers:
Slice beef to 1/8 – 1/4 in thick, 1-in wide, 3-6 in long. Marinade 1 – 2 lbs. of a lean meat in 1:1 Teriyaki and Soy sauce (1 cup combined mixture) + 2 tablespoons of black-bean/garlic sauce (Asian food section of your store) for 2-4 hrs. Weave the meat strips onto bamboo skewers leaving about 3-4 inches for a handle. Fire up the grill, lay them (handles outside the grill) on the gill, flipping them often to prevent burning.
Is there anything else you can share with us?
We’ve seen incredible beef prices and decreased feed costs this last year or so due to multiple factors colliding several years ago. It also appears that cattlemen across the country are once again building up their herds which may eventually lead to future pressure to lower prices if conditions remain calm and favorable to our market. With the outstanding profits we are making I feel it’s important for everyone to remember to pay down their debt and look wisely at investing profits into making our operations even leaner and more cost effective than it was in previous years. Building hay barns or overhangs to keep hay in the dry to reduce mold & decrease losses, maintaining a 2-year supply of hay in the event of severe drought so that we don’t lose all that we’ve worked hard to achieve, purchase better feeding systems to reduce hay waste, and even additional fencing to better our grazing rotation are the key items that Shale Creek Ranch is making plans to accomplishing this calendar year.