At A Glance
Dan and Jan Shepherd
Summary of Operation
acres in eastern gamagrass hay and pasture
• 400 acres in eastern
• 500 acres of corn and
• 270 acres in pecans
• 125 acres in timber
• 160 brood cows in a 400-head
No control over
wholesale prices. To get a better
return on their investment, Dan Shepherd and his
father, Jerrell, changed the focus of their farm
from commodity grains to pecans, buffalo and gamagrass
seed. That way, they capture niche markets, particularly
for grass seed.
The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural
By the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
© 2003, Beltsville MD. Used by permission.
Pp. 41 to 43
For complete text or to order: www.sare.org/newfarmer
To contact SARE:
Phone (301) 504-6425
Fax (301) 504-5207
Itch for Niche: The Shepherds find that
raising a range of crops, from gamagrass seed to
buffalo meat to pecans, brings a good profit.
Shepherd Farms is in north
central Missouri on the Chariton River. The family first began
farming there in the late 1960s, growing corn, beans and wheat
on 1,900 acres. Later, they broadened into more unusual crops.
Dan’s late father once shared a great nugget for planning
a sustainable farming venture. “We stand to make a little
money doing what others are already doing,” he said,
“or we can make a lot of money doing things others won’t.”
Today, Dan puts about 80 percent of his time into producing
and marketing gamagrass seed, with pecans and buffalo taking
up most of the rest of his efforts.
Dan believes that to be successful in alternative agriculture,
a person needs to be a good salesperson. “You have got
to communicate to sell. Some of the most successful people
in the world are salesmen. Farmers are great producers, but
few of them want a career in sales.”
Current marketing of conventional commodities and livestock
production means someone else is setting the price. Standing
on the trading room floor in a place like Chicago or Kansas
City is a trader telling the farmer what their price will
be. “Nobody is doing that in the buffalo business,”
Shepherd says. The family takes direct marketing very seriously
and maintains a store on their property. They sell a variety
of buffalo products, from breeding stock to meat, hides and
horns. They created a diverse product list that includes their
pecans, sweet corn and pumpkins as well as peaches, jellies
and other nuts they purchase in Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas
The store is open seven days a week until 6 p.m. Dan’s
wife, Jan, runs the store, does the billing and manages the
books. Dan oversees the day-to-day farm operations and makes
all the purchases.
Focal Point of Operation —
The family backed into producing their no. 1 crop. While seeking
a good native forage for their buffalo herds, they tried grazing
them on eastern gamagrass. The buffalo loved it. With help
from USDA researchers, the Shepherds learned ways to grow
and harvest seeds from the palatable forage.
“There is no finer grass,” Dan says. “When
people found out that we had seed, they wanted to buy it.
So we decided to get in the seed business.”
Eastern gamagrass is a tall, native, warm-season grass that
has largely disappeared from the Plains because of over-grazing
and cattle producers opting for non-native grasses. Shepherd
likes the crop not only because his buffalo graze it, but
also because it can grow up to 2 or 3 inches a day in the
summer. It thus provides a lush cover with high tonnage.
Raising gamagrass, however, poses some real challenges. It
is hard to harvest and has to be carefully managed to avoid
overgrazing. “Historically, the problem for sustaining
stands is it’s so highly palatable, so tasty for the
animals, they wipe it out,” Shepherd says. “Buffalo
or a free-range hog will eat it right down to the dirt.”
Finally, growing it for seed requires impeccable timing and
care. Eastern gamagrass seed has to go through a dormancy
period; the seed will not germinate unless it goes through
a cool-down period. “We used to plant the seed in December,
but the mice and fungus would work on it all winter,”
The seed, which is very green with a moisture content as high
as 65 percent, never ripens at the same time. The seed head
ripens from the top down and, as the seed matures, it falls
off. Shepherd keeps a close eye on the plant to ensure the
most seed for sale. The high moisture content and the variable
harvesting time means that they can only capture 25 or 30
percent of the seed.
Time is of the essence. Shepherd often calls his custom combiner
the evening before and says they need to begin harvesting
first thing the next morning. It’s stressful work. “They
have to watch the machinery very closely — one clog
can gum up the whole works,” he says. “And that
wears them out.”
They soak the seed in a water and fungicide solution, then
store it wet, just above freezing, for about six to eight
weeks. Shepherd’s attention to detail has helped him
become the largest grower and shipper of eastern gamagrass
seed in the country. He ships to customers all over the U.S.
starting in early March and continuing through June.
“There is a bit of a misconception out there that somehow,
whatever we are able to import has to be better than what
we already have here, but people are finally starting to come
around to the value of the grass,” he says.
The farm’s focus has changed a lot since it was first
purchased to raise pecans. Originally, the family planted
900 trees on 15 acres in 1969. “The trouble was, we
are about as far north as you can go and still raise a good
nut,” says Shepherd, who, at 14, helped plant most of
the first trees. “We really didn’t know what we
It takes a great deal of time to start and attain an orchard
of quality pecan trees. The Shepherds educated themselves
about how to graft native root stock and known varieties for
a better producing tree with a better nut. Dan’s father
used to drive around Missouri on weekends, seeking quality
pecan trees to improve their stock.
It took close to 20 years before they achieved a viable nut
harvest. But they will continue to reap good harvests for
“The nice things about these trees is that they will
produce while we just tend to them and amend the orchard as
needed,” Shepherd says. “But it was a heck of
an up-front investment. We worked for 19 years before we were
seeing a good, sustainable return from them.”
In between, the family broke even by farming the alleys between
the trees, an agroforestry method known as “alley-cropping.”
They grew wheat and soybeans for small returns that basically
paid for their expenses.
As the trees matured, they crowded out the row-crop rotation
so the Shepherds seeded the floor with blue grass. The grass
does not produce a lot of tonnage, but offers a great feed
for the Shepherds’ third main commodity: buffalo. The
family began raising their first herd in 1969, rotating them
through gamagrass pastures in a management-intensive grazing
program. In the summer, the herd is moved every four days.
Growing the gamagrass provides them with quality hay. They
manage about 1000 acres for hay and pasture, reserving 400
acres for seed production.
Economics and Profitability
Shepherd’s economic data speaks for itself. The gamagrass
seed is consistently profitable, with the Shepherds netting
about $700 per acre. After several years, their pecan trees
began producing nuts. In 2000, they netted about $300 per
acre in pecans, but expect to triple or even quadruple that
profit in another decade.
The store does a bang-up business, too. Last year, they sold
70,000 ears of sweet corn at 10 cents each. Even at that low
price, the Shepherds net about $1,000 on 15 acres. Besides,
sweet corn helps draw customers to the store, where they may
be tempted by other products.
The Shepherds began growing eastern gamagrass partly for its
environmental benefits. After the first year, when the stand
is established, there is no need for pesticides, though Shepherd
does continue to apply fertilizer. “Chemicals are a
tool, but we use them wisely,” he says.
Nor does Shepherd need to disk or plant on a yearly schedule.
Therefore, he minimizes erosion. At the same time, the thick
grass provides a natural wildlife habitat.
Gamagrass plants will last 10 to 15 years before production
slows. Its extensive root system helps break up compacted
soil layers. When older roots decay, organic matter improves.
When production falls, Shepherd burns the grass, disks the
soil, then follows with row crops for a year or two.
Practicing agroforestry brings environmental benefits, too.
By pairing complementary tree and row crops, the Shepherds
provide erosion control, wildlife habitat and semi-permanent
homes for beneficial insects.
Community and Quality of Life Benefits
With harvest times varying throughout the year, it allows
for a sane production and harvest schedule. The Shepherds
employ one full-time worker and a part-timer from the community.
In the summer, they elevate their part-timer to full time,
and add additional part-time help — usually local kids.
“Everything fits together,” Shepherd says. “The
gamagrass, pecans and buffalo all come in at different times.
We’re busy year round.”
Clifton Hills has a population of somewhere between 80 and
100 people. The community is small, and everyone knows everyone
else. The Shepherds help sponsor “Buffalo Day,”
when many from the area come together to eat buffalo burgers
donated by Shepherd Farms.
The Shepherds keep young people in their lives by participating
in an exchange program through their Rotary Club. They have
hosted youths from Russia, Thailand, Belgium and France. The
children stay for four months, then go on to another family.
Trying new alternatives in agriculture is not necessarily
a “save-all” approach, Dan says. “Don’t
look to alternative ag as a bail out,” he says. “Think
of getting in, or making the change to this system in good
times, not bad. Alternative ag produces different yields seeking
It’s important to be committed and be willing to take
risks, he says. “The average learning curve for anything
new is up to eight years,” Shepherd says. “It
takes that long to know what the heck is going on. I see so
many people get in, try something for a few years, and then
quit. They take all that risk, do all that work, and then
walk away before they can see their investment to fruition.
“You won’t know what will or won’t work
until you try it. It’s a lot easier for people to sit
back and say it won’t work. There’s no risk there
and we’ve heard a lot of that over the years. Making
change, taking an alternative path in farming, or anything
else for that matter, is not easy. If it were, everyone would
be doing it.”
The Shepherds are happy with the status quo on the farm. Dan
Shepherd is pondering creating a beef stocker operation and/or
raising cows on a rotational pasture system.