In the month of March alone, cattleman David Hayward puts 1,800 miles on his four-wheeler within a 1-mile radius of his home farm.
Hayward travels in circles through his farm’s pastures in Grenada County to check on expectant mother cows and move cow-calf pairs onto no-till ryegrass during calving season, the time of year cows give birth on his farm.
“I ride a four-wheeler day and night checking cows and calves,” the 61-year-old farmer says of his spring routine. “When I was younger, I put in 20-hour days. Now, it’s about 15 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week during calving season.”
The calves and greening pastures set an attractive backdrop for the job. But commercial cattle farming takes an extreme amount of hard work, grit and determination. That commitment amplifies during calving season on a farm with 900 expectant beef cows – 800 due in the spring, 100 due in the fall.
Statewide, Mississippi farmers share similar stories with about 500,000 beef cows under their care, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Combined with calves and dairy cows, about 930,000 cattle graze throughout Mississippi on primarily family-owned cow-calf operations, farms that own mother cows that give birth to calves annually.
Combined with calves and dairy cows, about 930,000 cattle graze throughout Mississippi on primarily family-owned cow-calf operations, farms that own mother cows that give birth to calves annually.
“It’s a hard life. We work all the time, but I love raising cattle,” says Hayward, a former member of Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation‘s state board of directors who farms with his brother, Tommy. “The only thing I do for vacation is attend the Farm Bureau Annual Meeting. I try to attend as many Farm Bureau meetings as I can because I believe in and enjoy the Farm Bureau.”
Hayward started working on the family farm around the age of six.
“We’ve been working since we were little kids,” Hayward says. “Farming is all I ever wanted to do.”
The Haywards earned degrees in agriculture from Mississippi State University and returned to the family farm where their dad then tended to 500 beef cows. The brothers found their farm’s land in Grenada County where the climate supports nine to 10 months of grazing and their rolling land worked better as pasture than row-crop production. They more than doubled the herd to 1,100 cows at one point in their careers.
Today, they own 900 cows and grow 500 acres of crops, mainly corn for silage and some hay. A full-time employee and a seasonal employee help with the farm’s chore list, including making all their own feed.
Hayward and his crew spend the summer chopping and storing corn silage, taking care of cattle and spraying pastures. The men also mend miles of electric and barbed wire fences, and restart the breeding cycle with their Horned Hereford and Angus bulls and Black Angus and Charolais crossbred cows. They choose these breeds for a balance of traits, including calf size, growth rates and carcass quality.
By fall, Hayward tends to the last 100 cows to calve and weans the spring calves from their mothers. The brothers background about 900 calves annually, feeding and growing them to a larger size before their transfer to a feedlot in Kansas, where they finish to market weight. By late fall and winter, the family feeds the hay and silage they spent the summer growing.
“We stay busy year round,” Hayward says.
Some of Hayward’s biggest challenges remain beyond his control, as they have in his last half century of farming: Mother Nature and markets.
Cattle values have dropped about 40 percent from four years ago. On top of that, the winter of 2018-19 ranked the wettest and muddiest of Hayward’s 55-year career.
“The cattle are having to walk through the mud, and it takes so much energy that they don’t grow like they ought to. It’s also aggravating to stomp through the mud to feed and care for the cattle,” Hayward says. “We’re fighting all this mud and low prices, and there is no price support for cattle. When cattle prices are low, it’s just tough.”
Despite the challenges, Hayward’s calling remains cattle.
“My dad taught me that you’ve gotta get out there and work, no matter what the weather is like,” Hayward says. “Also, treat people right and take care of the cattle real good.”