Powering Backgrounding – Britten Gray

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Britten with his wife, Vanessa, and their four children.

Located in the far northeast corner of the state, in newly designated #AgriReady Clark County near Kahoka, Britten Gray has been involved in production agriculture since he graduated from high school. Today, Gray Farms is operated by Britten along with his dad, James, and brother, Nick. Gray Farms contributes to Clark County agriculture’s $129.8 million in economic output, producing over 10 percent of county household income. They add economic value to the county’s natural resources by growing row crops on rented and leased ground to sell as cash crops and running a highly specialized beef backgrounding operation. Backgrounding operations feed and manage cattle from the time they are weaned until they are ready to enter a feedlot for finishing, the final phase of their growth.

Twenty years ago, when Britten’s dad wanted to get into the cattle industry, he determined that he could build pens cheaper than he could buy land. Phenomenal soils in Clark County make the acreage great for growing row crops. In fact, for more than a decade, a Land Values Opinion Survey conducted by MU Extension has reported cropland values (price per acre) in Clark County well above the Missouri average value.

“It’s hard to buy land for grass in north Missouri,” Britten commented. Gray Farms runs their backgrounding business on less than 500 owned acres.

Gray Farms purchases weaned feeder calves that weigh between 400 and 500 pounds from several markets. Three or four semi-truck loads of 800-pound calves leave the farm each month to head to Iowa for finishing. The Grays focus on their specific business model and sustainable management. A system of versatile pens and corrals have been built to sort calves as they grow.

“Competition is a major factor in growing cattle,” Britten explained. “It is important that they are co-mingled with other animals about their own size.”

Britten with his dad, James, and his brother, Nick.
Britten with his dad, James, and his brother, Nick.

The pens and corrals have been designed to drain away excessive moisture which will travel down through grass terraces and catch basins to protect the farm’s soil from run-off. Britten does a lot of dirt work in the pens to pile up and remove manure which he describes as “made dirt.” The manure is upcycled across pastures as fertilizer.

“Spreading manure onto pastures creates prime growing conditions for grasses by adding nutrients back into the soil,” Britten said.

Roofed structures have been built in each pen to offer cattle shade during the summer months with sides added in the winter to protect cattle from the elements.

The Grays specialize their management and nutrition to background only heifers, or young females. They have also been using byproducts to feed their cattle for years, helping to optimize use of these feedstuffs and improve their operation’s economic sustainability. At one time, products like wet gluten, corn gluten, wet distillers grains, oat hulls, and soy hulls were byproducts of biofuels and other processing, but savvy livestock producers quickly adapted and have optimized them as feed in nutritionally balanced rations. Gray Farms has built storage space so they can haul in byproduct feedstuffs whenever prices are best. They monitor the protein and nutrient levels of the feeds they use to provide balanced nutrition to the growing cattle on their farm.

An average day for Britten is spent feeding, managing animals, cleaning pens, and fixing a variety of things from farm machinery to fences.

“It's not always about what you know,” Britten notes. “A lot of this business is about building relationships and partnerships with others and learning how their knowledge can be applied to improve and grow our operation. Our kids get to see our operation firsthand, which will hopefully aid them as they grow through 4H, FFA and thereafter.”

Britten shares farm life with his wife, Vanessa, and their four children. He is a member of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association and Missouri Farm Bureau, partners of Missouri Farmers Care. The $93.7 billion economic impact of Missouri agriculture and details on Clark County’s economic strengths can be found at https://agriculture.mo.gov/economicimpact/.

Britten fam (2)