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Energy and youth

STEELE, N.D. - At age 22, Chase Dewitz already is one of the largest cattle feeders in North Dakota. He hopes to get bigger within the next year or two. Dewitz, whose place is just north of Interstate 94, five miles east of Steele, has completed ...

STEELE, N.D. - At age 22, Chase Dewitz already is one of the largest cattle feeders in North Dakota.

He hopes to get bigger within the next year or two.

Dewitz, whose place is just north of Interstate 94, five miles east of Steele, has completed his first full year of operation with Dewitz Feedlot, which currently handles 2,500 head and could hold 5,000 by 2008.

If North Dakota and surrounding areas expand into the ethanol and biofuels business as they hope, it will take a number of people thinking like Chase Dewitz to make those plants work more economically. Currently, North Dakota finishes only about 60,000 head in feedlots of 1,000 head or more, so the Dewitz operation is significant.

"All these byproducts are going to have to go somewhere," Dewitz says. "I don't know if the majority of cow-calf producers are set up to utilize the byproducts. But the availability is going to get better and better."

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Dewitz has another thing on his side - the energy of youth.

"A lot of these cow-calf guys are getting to be 50-plus years old," Dewitz says. "Why are they going to go and change the way they've been doing things for 30 years? Most of them are going to keep doing things the way they've been doing them."

A farming dream

Dewitz is the only child of Rob and Jolene Dewitz.

"They always had a cow-calf farm and Dad always had backgrounded calves," Dewitz says. "We always backgrounded for my uncle's farm, too, which is a few miles up the road. We were always feeding 400 to 500 head."

As genetics have improved, the De-

witzes' background-fed cattle have grown somewhat heavier, moved as "eight-weights or nine-weights" in the last few years.

As a child, Dewitz says he loved the farming and "always wanted to do more than I probably should have." He was anxious to move to the next machine to run or the next task. There wasn't much FFA at Steele-Dawson High School, but as he got into high school, he remembers going to Mandan, N.D., at age 15 to take in a two-day seminar by Select Sires on artificial insemination.

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"I had been around it before, but didn't know how to do it myself."

After graduation in 2002, Dewitz took one year of school at Bismarck (N.D.) State College, but soon migrated back to the farm and ranch. The truth is, he'd already initiated some aggressive plans.

No land equals cattle

During Dewitz's senior year in high school, he determined he'd have to do something new to "make things work" on the farm.

"There was no land to purchase - still isn't," Dewitz says. "Hardly any land ever moves around here. I suppose if a big tract of land came up for sale a couple of miles away, I probably never would have built the feedlot."

But it didn't.

Dewitz figured building a feedlot would offer the quickest way to create an opportunity.

He started with the North Dakota Stockmen's Association for help on funding feedlot projects, but those programs applied to feedlots of 1,000 head or less. Scott Ressler at the NDSA steered him to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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By August 2002, Dewitz started paperwork through USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service to get cost-share financing. The NRCS's Environmental Quality Incentive Program offered help.

Dewitz says he came to the 2,500-head feedlot size because it happened to be how the land laid and how many feed bunks would fit. The feedlot uses a fence line and pre-fabricated concrete bunk system.

The entire project cost about $250,000.

Of that, EQIP paid about $103,000. That figure represents the government's 75 percent cost-share on certain parts - the waste system, including lagoon, dikes and drainage. It also paid toward the so-called "heavy-use" concrete pad, a 12-foot-wide strip that runs along the bunk line.

It took nearly three years to get the approvals and design work done through the NRCS, he says. While grateful for the cost-sharing, Dewitz says the system has its drawbacks.

"Anything involved with the government seems like it takes 10 times longer than it should. Nobody could get their mind made up on how they wanted to do this."

Construction started in June 2005 and was completed the same year. Build it; they'll come

The first cattle moved into the facility in October 2005. Within a month, Dewitz was pretty much full.

"I haven't been completely full the whole time, but for the most part, it's been pretty full," he says.

Currently, Dewitz has about 1,000 head of his own cattle in the feedlot.

"They're all fat cattle - I'm taking them to finish," he says. "Everything else I'm contract-feeding, I'm just backgrounding them.

"The majority of the contract cattle I'll feed until sometime in May. Then I'll have to see where the market is and either buy some more calves or see if somebody wants something fed. We'll have to see what works. You take these deals day by day. Some days, you can make things work. Somedays, you can't."

Dewitz says the timing of his expansion into cattle feeding came right in the middle of record-high feeder cattle prices and volatile markets.

In fall 2005, feeder cattle were $1.30 a pound and corn was $1.80. By fall 2006, feeder cattle had dropped to $1 per pound and corn had zoomed to $3.50.

"This year's a completely different story from last year," Dewitz says. "But as far as cattle I've purchased this year, even with the higher feed costs, there's actually more profit potential on cattle than there was last year."

Dewitz says he'll have less competition from the Corn Belt farmers with the 500-head feedlots. Those guys often are "aggressive bidders" on feeder cattle.

"A lot of people who would normally market corn through cattle, a lot of these guys are saying I can sell this corn this high (price), so why mess around feeding cattle?"

Demand for feeder cattle has dropped considerably, Dewitz says. "But the fed-cattle markets are up at record highs again. The demand is there, but I don't know what's going to happen. It's going to be interesting the next year or two."

Dewitz says his dad jokes with him that he wanted him to put in the concrete feed bunks in 8-foot sections.

"That way when I go broke, I could pull the bunks out and sell them," he says.

He repeated the joke at a cattlemen's tour at his place, and people seemed to understand.

"I think a few agreed," he says.

Handling made easyDewitz says he's particularly pleased with the handling facility he designed and built. The Dewitz building has a double alleyway with a hydraulic chute.

The crowding tub is unusual in materials and design.

"The sides of it are rubber belting, made from a conveyor belt out of the coal mining industry," Dewitz says. The rubber makes the mechanism very quiet. He'd used some of the same stuff in another building a couple of years ago and liked it.

The crowding mechanism itself folds in an unusual way.

"I consider it a double-swinging tub. The alleyway has a double-swinging action to keep the cattle from standing in a 'dead corner.'"

Dewitz says he's had a lot of offers from people wanting him to build a similar mechanism for them.

"It works well. The cattle go through so quietly. It's pretty stress-free cattle handling," Dewitz says. "Most of the time, we use three people when we work cattle, but a lot of times, we can work them with just two people."

Feeding byproducts

Finding feed sources for a central North Dakota feedlot is not hard, but everyone will do it their own way.

He raises the majority of his own corn, all on irrigated land.

"I rent land from an area potato grower. In the off years from potatoes, they have to have a rotation," Dewitz says.

He farms 900 acres of irrigated land and 500 acres of nonirrigated land. He is in a partnership with his father on a separate operation, which includes another 2,000 acres of cropland and hayland.

Dewitz takes everything off as high-moisture corn, at 30 percent to 32 percent moisture.

"I take it off wet and immediately run it through a grinder and make a pile with a dozer," Dewitz says. "I have no storage bin at all. That way you have corn ready to feed the whole winter."

The practice is more common in Nebraska than in North Dakota or South Dakota, he says. The drawbacks are that during harvest, he needs to line up at least five hands to do the work - one combining, one on the grain cart, two driving trucks and one on the grinder/dozer duty.

"Last year, I did it with 700 acres, and this year, I'll do more," he says.

He doesn't have money tied up in grain bins, but once the feed is in a pile, it's probably not marketable anywhere else. Dewitz says he's just about out of the chopped corn after eight months, and then he buys corn to feed.

Besides the corn, Dewitz feeds waste onions from sources associated with an onion processing plant in Dawson, N.D. There also occasionally are potatoes from the irrigated russet operations.

He also feeds liquid corn syrup.

Lately, he's been getting it from the ethanol plant in Rosholt, S.D.

"I pay the freight," Dewitz acknowledges. "Right now, we go through 75 tons a week."

He says the syrup actually is 45 percent dry matter.

Last December, he built a building that holds a 10,000-gallon tank. It comes in at 160 degrees, so the material itself will "heat" an insulated building, where he also keeps his feeding equipment.

"It can be 20 below outside and it'll be 5 to 10 degrees in the building - considerably different," he says.

For weight reasons, Dewitz hauls only 6,000 gallons, or 25 tons at a time. He owns a trailer for the purpose and has someone go to Rosholt three times a week.

Thinking biggerDewitz is thinking about expanding - maybe doubling the size of his feedlot in 2008.

He currently feeds for about seven to eight other people.

"I know I could easily have fed for another five people, but I'm not set up for it," he says.

He'd get up to about 5,000 head total, he figures - about double his current operation

His pens now hold about 250 head each. He's thinking of putting in some smaller-sized pens to handle 100-head groupings. He'll add some more pens to the east end of the feedlot, assuming permits come through.

He hasn't started the permitting process, but acknowledges it could involve a major expansion in the waste system - possibly another lagoon. He's having an engineer, K2S Engineering of Ypsilanti, N.D., study it. The NRCS engineers who designed the original feedlot have been in to help re-establish the so-called "way-points" for the next system.

"They started surveying March 19," Dewitz says. "We'll look at costs, and I'll decide if I'm going to do it for sure."

The social scene?Dewitz acknowledges that he sometimes feels like an anomaly.

Most of the people in the cattle business are at least 20 years older than him.

"It becomes hard to relate," he says. "I'm going to be naive because I just don't have a lot of experience. You need to be very aggressive in this business and it can be intimidating."

Dewitz says the cattle business is taking up much of his spare time. He has a house in Steele, but stays too busy to think about leisure activities.

"I think I'll have a damn hard time finding a wife, too," he says. "She's probably going to have to show up with a truck and a load of cattle."

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