Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
BOYCE – Adaptation is the key to Robert Duncan’s beef cattle production on the family farm of 1,200 acres in Rapides Parish near Boyce.
As the price of ryegrass seed went through the roof, Duncan looked for a cheaper forage for this year on a 110-acre pasture. He bought wheat seed straight out of a neighbor’s field and broadcasted it at 90 pounds per acre.
When he ran out of wheat after about 80 acres planted, he bought enough ryegrass seed to finish out the remaining 30 acres, and that provided him comparison.
He also planted another 160 acres of ryegrass planted by airplane.
Ed Twidwell, LSU AgCenter forage specialist, said wheat as a winter forage is a good alternative to ryegrass. It matures faster in the spring than ryegrass, he said. “When utilized during the winter and early spring, wheat provides a good source of nutrition for livestock.”
Twidwell said wheat should be planted about an inch deep, considerably deeper than ryegrass.
“Wheat is more winter-hardy than annual ryegrass, and therefore provides some insurance for livestock producers who are concerned about winter damage to their forage stands,” Twidwell said.
He said ungrazed wheat pasture can be made into dry hay or baleage in April or early May.
Vince Deshotel, LSU AgCenter regional livestock agent, said the wheat forage used on the Duncan farm works well in areas with good drainage but it probably wouldn’t work so well in south Louisiana with flat ground and predominantly clay soils.
Duncan plans to plow the remaining wheat and ryegrass in mid-April before soybean planting instead of using herbicides.“Steel is cheaper than chemicals.” He also figures he’ll get a boost in organic matter.
The Duncans’ cattle are commercial cross. Bulls are Angus or Brangus, although they’ve tried other breeds including Charolais, Hereford and Beefmaster. They prefer sires from the Branch Ranch in Coushatta.
The Brangus introduces some Brahman influence. “Buyers only want so much extra ear. There’s something about black-and-white faced cows that buyers like.”
Robert said they have found that mixed breed cattle seem to withstand the disease and insect pressure better than a single breed. “They’re just hardier animals.”
So far, they have used their own stock for replacement heifers. Red ear tags designate the keepers. “Some years we’ll keep three or four, and others 12 or 15. But we only keep the best of the best. We like to keep around 200 head of momma cows. We’re a little off from that now because we sold some off in the fall.”
At one time, row crops dominated the Duncan operation. “We farmed more, and the cows were just lagniappe.”
But when his uncle retired from farming and his grandmother died, things changed. “We put more effort into cows to improve the herd.”
One major change was implementing a defined breeding season. “We used to leave the bulls here year-round. “With a breeding season, you close the window down.”
Bulls are now left the cows December through April and then again in May and June. That cycle provides fall and spring calving seasons.
They use video sales with Superior Livestock based in Fort Worth. When the calves are penned for vaccinations and castration, a video crew takes footage for prospective buyers, and the auction is held online.
“By then, we should pretty much be done with calving.”
They have a 30-day window for delivery.
Deshotel said the video sales have allowed producers to expand their reach into the national market. The sales are generally only available to producers who can sell roughly a truckload of calves, roughly 90 head, but small producers could pool their cattle with neighbors to put together a load, he said.
The Duncans’ cull cattle are sold at the Red River Livestock auction barn in Coushatta.
Three years ago, Robert started selling half and whole calves to local buyers. Their calves are processed by the Louisiana Tech Meat Lab.
The Duncans will have 450 acres of soybeans this year.
Robert said the field now with wheat and rye can be irrigated in 2-3 days using Bayou Rapides water, using a combination of poly pipe and hard pipe, but that wasn’t need last year because of frequent rain. In a normal year, he estimates irrigation is need 2-3 times.
On irrigated ground, the Duncans are happy with a little over 50 bushels of soybeans an acre, and over 40 bushels on dry ground.
The Duncans don’t have grain bins, so they haul their beans to Bunge in Jonesville.
Robert went to LSU-A for a couple years, then sat out for 2 years before he enrolled in Louisiana Tech where he graduated in 2015 in agribusiness with a plant science minor.
He is a fourth-generation farmer. His great grandfather, RMC Duncan, farmed in Grant Parish. His grandfather, RMC Duncan II, farmed that land until 1953 when the family moved to the Boyce farm where Robert now farms with his father, RMC “Robbie” Duncan III. Robert is actually RMC Duncan IV, but goes by Robert.
Robert’s wife, Rachel, has started a cut flower business in their backyard. She sells her products at the Alexandria Farmers Market.
“We literally plowed up our backyard to grow flowers.”
To Robert’s surprise, the enterprise has been successful. “She usually sells out.”
She also has a base of customers who sign up 6 or 12 weeks to have fresh cut flowers. “I didn’t realize how much work was in it,” she admits.
The first of their year’s crop of flowers has been transplanted from seedlings grown indoors, and she expects to start selling by April, unless Robert caves in and builds that high-tunnel greenhouse she wants.
Rachel also is a portrait and wedding photographer. One of her biggest draws is photographing her subjects in a field of cotton.
The Duncans have Facebook pages for the photography, cut flower and beef enterprises (Bayou Petals Flower Farm, Rachel Duncan Photography and R&R Duncan Cattle).
Robert is active in Louisiana Farm Bureau and he is vice president of the Rapides Parish Farm Bureau Board of Directors, and he’s on the Farm Bureau’s Livestock Committee. He and Rachel also are Farm Bureau State Committee members for District 4.
He participates in the annual trek to Washington D.C. to meet with Louisiana congressional delegation to inform them of the problems facing farmers back home. He admits being surprised by how much he enjoys that trip. “Farm Bureau has opened a lot of doors to do things like that.”
He is currently in the 2020-22 class of the LSU AgCenter Leadership Program.
He has been through the LSU AgCenter Master Cattleman Program twice, once on his own and again with Rachel, and he said it was well worth the investment of time. “If you didn’t get something from every class, you weren’t paying attention. You get a little bit of everything from everywhere.”
Deshotel, also LSU AgCenter Master Cattleman coordinator, met Robert and Rachel Duncan when they attended the Master Cattleman program at the Dean Lee Research Station.
Deshotel said he was impressed with Robert’s eagerness to learn. “He was very open to be more educated in beef cattle production, and management of his herd.”
Deshotel said the Duncan operation is succeeding because they recognize the need to diversify.
He said he was impressed with The Duncans’ activity in agriculture advocacy groups, including Farm Bureau and Young Farmers and Ranchers, and their efforts traveling to Washington D.C. to meet with congressional leaders is an asset for Louisiana.
“It takes the willingness of those kinds of people to lobby Washington to let Congress know what’s going on here.”