In 2019, Johnny and Melody Divers of Montvale, VA, bought out a cattleman who had been farming for 40 years. “He had built up a genetic line for grazing,” said Johnny. “When we started our beef shares program, he told us we couldn’t finish beef on grass.”
But the Diverses were determined to make it work. Today, they’re successfully raising beef from start to finish on grass.
The Diverses aim for cattle with traits suitable for grass-finishing. Their 300-cow herd is primarily Angus x Hereford with Brahman influence, which adds heat tolerance and reduces the incidence of pinkeye.
“With the right genetics, cattle do well on grass,” said Johnny, “but I can also send them to a feedlot and they’ll do fine if they aren’t sold in the beef share program.”
Johnny purchases bulls that are four years or older. “Hoof problems don’t show up until about 36 months,” he said. “A four- or five-year-old bull will have sound feet.” Another advantage of purchasing older bulls is the ability to see calves a bull has already produced.
Bulls are placed with the cowherd from December through August. “We put bulls in the week prior to Christmas and pull them by Labor Day,” said Johnny. “I want calves born between December and June – I don’t like to calve in summer.”
Rather than focusing on pedigrees, Johnny chooses bulls based primarily on phenotype. Heifers are bred by calving ease bulls. Most newborn calves weigh around 90 pounds, sturdy enough to do well on their own.
Johnny follows strict protocols when it comes to herd females, especially heifers. “I’m very picky,” he said. “I check them before I put a bull with them. If there’s anything wrong in the reproductive tract, even if I can fix it with one shot, I don’t fool with it because she’s probably going to come back with the same problem.”
He also checks treatment records, and any animals that have been treated for pinkeye or those with feet issues are not retained.
While most calves are weaned at around eight months, weaning doesn’t occur on an absolute date or a specific weight because every year is different. If pasture conditions are declining, Johnny moves older calves to a better pasture and carefully watches cows’ body condition.
The Diverses don’t sell lightweight weaned calves, preferring to background calves to 800 or 900 pounds, leaving them with the cows longer to avoid stress. In most cases, cows will wean calves on their own. If Johnny weans calves early, he relies on fence line weaning to reduce stress.
Weaned calves and those being finished for the Chapel Creek beef share program are often placed in pastures seeded with summer and winter annuals to ensure new growth grass is available. “If I can get winter ryegrass in by the end of September, we’ll be grazing it by Thanksgiving,” said Johnny. “We still raise corn and feed silage to background calves that will enter feedlots.”
To track gains, the Diverses weigh stock periodically. “I can put more weight on an animal in a day with winter ryegrass than with corn silage,” said Johnny. “We can average three and a half to four pounds of gain a day on winter ryegrass.”
The grazing set up is high-tensile fence divided into pastures. Johnny moves the herd based on when cattle seek more to eat and pasture condition. Some pastures haven’t been grazed since spring, but Johnny plans to graze those soon to allow summer annuals such as crabgrass to recover prior to frost. He monitors pastures in winter to watch for damage from trampling and rarely has to overseed.
Mineral supplementation for cattle is selenium salt. Johnny sends forage samples for testing in spring, autumn and mid-winter to ensure pastures are receiving adequate nutrition. They use very little commercial fertilizer and instead apply chicken litter, which is available in the area.
Melody explained the farm’s beef share program as a means of making bulk beef purchases easy for customers. “We started selling beef in 2020 and soon after that, customers expressed interest in buying in bulk,” she said. “We were new to it but needed time to get it together. We studied websites of Western ranches and got a feeling about what the program should look like in regard to the business aspect, contracts and availability.”
For first-time customers, the Diverses arrange a one-on-one contract appointment at the farm storefront. “We believe in the old-fashioned ways of conversation,” said Melody. “If a customer is willing to spend that much money, they deserve to have a conversation.”
The contract, which Melody said protects both sides, clearly outlines expectations for both parties. All beef is USDA inspected, so if someone reneges, beef can be sold from the farm’s storefront.
“We’ve never had a customer not fulfill their contract promise or even come late to pick up,” she said. “Last year we sold 48 whole beef and that will increase to 68 this year.”
The couple’s two sons, Chapel, 13, and Creek, 16, are more than helpers on the farm – the Diverses gave their home farm to their sons to start them in the business.
“Two years ago the boys bought out a herd,” said Johnny. “We’ve culled some of the cows from that herd and introduced some of mine. Chapel and Creek are often paid in animals for the work they do on the farm. They now have about 40 cows.”
Chapel and Creek also purchased some Braford cattle, a Hereford x Brahman cross that’s suited for warm climates.
The young men have picked up two other farms that adjoined the home farm. “We’ve been working with them on lease contracts, holding meetings with landowners and making sure they fulfill promises,” said Melody. “We homeschool, so these are real-life practical things they need to know that aren’t in a workbook.”
This arrangement has facilitated the boys’ education about the cattle business and allowed them to make their own decisions. “We talk with them about appropriate exit plans and what it looks like if this isn’t for them,” said Melody. “We don’t want them to ever feel trapped.”
Melody and Johnny both emphasize to their children that they should never feel obligated to follow their parents’ dream but have made it clear that the dream can include them.
“We provide guidance,” said Melody. “If we ask them to do adult things, we include them in decisions. We talk with them as farming peers and bounce ideas around, and we can approach each other about our herds.”
Visit Chapel Creek Farms online at chapelcreek-farms.com.
by Sally Colby