For Shelton, diversification leads to better management

AFP Correspondent

(May 19, 2015) In this age of farming and most any other business, farmers have diversified their farm operations so they can spread out their risks and better manage their commodities.
One such farmer is Tim Shelton of Pittsylvania County, Va.
He raises cattle, grain and tobacco and he sells tobacco transplants.
His philosophy has always been to diversify. “I try to keep myself leveraged and in a position so if the tobacco industry becomes unprofitable I can transition into another commodity,” he says.
Shelton has stepped out of his comfort zone of tending tobacco and increased his cattle herd to as high as 300 head.
His cattle are known by cattlemen as a SimAngus breed, which is a cross between Black Angus and Simmental. He really likes the SimAngus breed because it gives his cattle more hybrid vigor, which allows them to produce calves that grow off faster.
“They make better cows because they are not inbred,” says Jeremie Ruble, the Eastern field representative for the American Simmental Association. “If they continue to use one bred all the time, fertility goes down.”
Ruble says the SimAngus breed has a better carcass value, which produces a leaner, heavier cow with a good blend of marbling and a ribeye with more red-meat yield.
Shelton estimates 75 percent of his herd is Black Angus, and 25 percent is SimAngus. He says the well-known superiority of the Angus breed offers buyers good marble and quality meat cuts, thus a SimAngus cross can still be marketed as certified Angus beef.
When breeding, he artificially inseminates and purchases bulls ranked in the top 10 percent of the Angus breed.
While he pays a premium for bulls, Shelton believes the top 10 percent gives him a better quality bull.
“I feel like it has improved our cowherd over the years using premium bulls,” Shelton says. Since going with partial SimAngus breeding, he has lowered calf attrition rate to a 2-percent loss.
Shelton stays abreast of various breeds and follows closely literature from Virginia Tech, other universities, and the American Angus Association.
In the future, he predicts an increase in his herd. “The statistical data that we’re keeping annually and the production of calves will warrant how much we increase over the next year,” he says. “We’ll look at the production of the females and the growth of the steers and how they grow, how well they’re producing milk and how well their calving prospects are working.”
While cattle help to bring in the income, tobacco on Shelton’s farm pays the main bills, and about 8 percent of his tobacco operation consists of raising transplants for himself and about 10 customers. Still, he must manage costs.
“Since 2000, production costs have gone up about 80 percent,” he says. “You just have to keep raising the prices and hope you’re right. LP gas prices are a big part of that for heating the greenhouse. The seed is up 30 percent, and plastics are extremely high now because of petroleum products.”
Luckily for Shelton, he has been able to raise healthy transplants with no disease problems. He attributes that to his effective management style. “The No. 1 management tool in the greenhouse is just keeping a very close, watchful eye on the houses,” he says. “We’ve been really fortunate, but I’m visually inspecting the greenhouse, personally, daily. I’ve been growing them long enough now to kind of get an idea what to look for as far as diseases.”
He advises to start out the transplant season with a sterile, clean greenhouse environment. “We close the greenhouses up in September of each year and let the temperature get up to 150 to 160 degrees. That helps sterilize the greenhouses inside.”
Shelton says a critical step in raising healthy transplants is to keep all plant matter, clippings, dead plants, or anything that was used in the previous year’s production process out of the greenhouse, especially the trays, during the off-season. He doesn’t replace his trays every year, but says typically he can get three to five years use out of them. He inspects them closely.
“Once the Styrofoam starts breaking down, it becomes porous and allows roots to stay in the Styrofoam,” he says, “and you can’t sterilize them as well. We discard them at that point and replace them with new trays.”
Outside forces can cause disease, too. Shelton prefers that other people, if they’ve been in someone else’s greenhouse, they don’t walk through his. It’s a precautionary measure, and so is dipping his shoes in a chlorine-based solution to help clean the soles. He also doesn’t allow his workers to use tobacco products inside the greenhouse.
He does this to reduce the risk of tobacco mosaic virus.
Whether it’s cattle or tobacco, Shelton gladly diversifies his farming operation so he can better manage his commodities, and in the long run, earn a higher profit.