Stewardship – Bibb County Farmer Makes Most of Natural Resources
When Steve Foster was practicing veterinary medicine, he drew upon training, technology and the latest medical advancements to ensure his patients received the best possible care.Now retired, Foster is applying the same philosophy to agriculture by managing his farm’s resources to produce the best it has to offer.”I’m just trying to utilize the assets we have, whatever they are,” he said.For Foster and his wife, June, that means managing almost 2,000 acres of Bibb County land for beef cattle and sport fish. Since retiring two years ago, Foster has built his commercial beef herd to include 415 Angus-Simmental crossed cows and another 59 replacement heifers. But what makes his operation really stand out are its 350 acres of ponds.Originally constructed in the 1950s for sport fishing, the ponds had been converted to catfish ponds by a previous owner. But the irregular-shaped farm ponds, some measuring up to 50 acres in size, were not as practical as the more common seine-through ponds. So, when Foster bought the farm, he decided to stock them with brim and Florida black bass.Today, folks line up in the wee hours of the morning each Nov. 15 for the chance to purchase one of 225 memberships in Foster’s fishing club. “Last year, people started getting here at 2:30 a.m., and we started taking memberships at 5 o’clock,” Foster recalled. “By 8:30 we had sold out.”Avid fishermen come from as far away as Birmingham to join the club because it provides excellent fishing at an exceptional value. For just $250 a year, a member can fish anytime he or she wants and can harvest up to five bass per day. Last year, one lucky member reeled in a 15-pound trophy, and Foster said 13- to 14-pound fish are not uncommon. He credits good soil and proper fertilization for his success in producing large fish. “The soil type in the Black Belt is conducive to raising big fish, and we have all rainwater ponds, so the fertility stays high,” Foster said. “We also fertilize on a regular basis, and we test (the water in) our ponds at least once a month.”By limiting the enrollment in the club, Foster ensures his guests have plenty of opportunities to hook a trophy bass. Most members, however, prefer to release the fish they catch.Surprisingly, current members of the club get very few perks when it comes time to rejoin. Foster sends out a notice reminding them of the Nov. 15 signup, and he gives them the option of enrolling by mail–provided their application is postmarked on Nov. 14. Aside from that, the club’s membership is strictly first come, first served. With the popularity of the club growing each year, you might wonder why Foster doesn’t charge more or expand the membership. Foster said the answer is two-fold. “We’ve really not tried to get the most dollars out of it. We want to make a profit, but we haven’t stressed monetary gain,” Foster said. “By keeping the cost low, I think it allows a lot of people to participate that wouldn’t be able to otherwise. We have a lot of members who aren’t necessarily big sport fishermen.”Ironically, Foster seldom takes time to enjoy the ponds himself. In fact, he has never caught a bass. Instead, the friendly doctor, who was considered one of the best large animal veterinarians in central Alabama, prefers to spend his days tending cattle.His operation consists of three herds: a group of Simmental-crossed females that are bred to Angus bulls; a group of Angus-crossed females that are bred to Simmental bulls; and the female offspring of those herds, which are bred to Charolais bulls. Foster’s goal is to produce uniform truckload lots of solid-colored calves that possess the muscling, trimness and quality characteristics the beef industry demands.
Last year, the farm produced four loads of calves, three of which Foster sent to the feedlot in a retained-ownership arrangement. Though he’s yet to decide whether that decision will pay dividends, he believes it was the right choice given the current economic situation.”I had a value placed on the calves. But when I was trying to sell, the market was so soft because of the terrorism attacks, that I wasn’t offered what I thought they were worth,” Foster said. That’s when he decided to try his hand at retained ownership.A savvy businessman, Foster is always looking for ways to make the most of his resources. And while he doesn’t manage his fish ponds for maximum gain, he is constantly searching for ways to make his cattle business more profitable–through retained ownership or otherwise.”We’ve got to get as much gross income out of a calf as we possibly can,” Foster said. “That means higher weaning weights and a higher percentage of cows producing calves. You also have to watch your expenses.”Currently, the calving rate on Foster’s farm is about 90 percent, but he won’t be happy until it’s between 95 and 100 percent.”We are not where we want to be with these cows. A 90 percent calving percentage is about the bare minimum for making money,” Foster said. “I’ve kept some older calves (while) trying to build up the herd. I’m going to start doing some culling, and I hope to improve that. If we find a cow and she doesn’t produce for us, that’s dead expense.”Eventually, Foster would like to have about 550 cows in his herd, and he would like to keep enough heifers to replace about 10 percent of the cows each year. He’s also hoping to increase the weaning weights of his calves by selecting Angus and Simmental bulls that have high maternal traits and Charolais bulls with strong growth numbers. Last year, his calves averaged 605 pounds at weaning (or about 503 pounds at 205 days).To help reach these goals, Foster relies heavily on his record-keeping system. Like many Alabama cattleman, Foster uses the Red Wing computer software package to track the performance of his herd. Endorsed by the Alabama Beef Cattle Improvement Association (BCIA), the Red Wing system is available at most Extension Service offices throughout the state.The computer system, however, is only as good as the data provided by the cattleman. So, Foster and one other employee spend two to three hours each day checking the herd and tagging any new calves.”We try to tag every calf when it is born,” Foster said. “If we don’t get them the first day, it’s hard to catch them because the farm is so big.”Foster strives for a 90-day calving season, with calves being born between Jan. 15 and April 15. He also emphasizes having a good herd health program, which he said requires good working facilities.”If you can’t get your hands on your cows; if you can’t pen them easily, you can’t have a first-class program because you can’t do what’s needed,” he said.When it comes to feeding, once again Foster’s philosophy focuses on resource management. His is strictly a grazing program, supplemented with hay in the winter months. To keep his pastures in top-notch condition, he spreads chicken litter that he gets from a poultry producer in Pickens County.
The ponds also play a big part in his management program. In addition to providing water for the cows, the aquatic plants are a reserve feed source during times of drought. For Foster, it’s a harmonious system that takes advantage of all the resources Mother Nature has provided.More importantly, it gives the 52-year-old a place to do what he loves. And while the cattlemen in Bibb County and surrounding areas were disappointed to see their favorite vet retire, they can certainly understand the call of the land that drew Foster back to a life on the farm.