At A Glance
Dan and Jan Shepherd
Summary of Operation
• 1,000 acres
in eastern gamagrass hay and pasture
• 400 acres in eastern gamagrass
• 500 acres of corn and soybeans
• 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
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 — Alternative
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,” he says.
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
“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 were doing.”
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
It took close to 20 years before they achieved a viable nut harvest.
But they will continue to reap good harvests for another 80.
“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
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
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,”
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
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 different markets.”
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.