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Relationships, diversity help Paul and Theresa Heidlage build success

By Joann Pipkin

Anxious for summer’s arrival, the foliage reaches for the sun-filled sky on this late April day. Turning south from the bustling four-lane that links the land of Lincoln with the American west, cow country thrives amid the Ozarks hills.

Outside Sarcoxie, Highway 37 winds through the countryside. Cattle graze peacefully. Field after field, fescue dots the landscape. An occasional parcel of corn or wheat fills in the gaps. Farm roots run deep in Newton County. It’s here, tucked away near the tiny town of Wentworth, that diversity fuels the farm.

Paul Heidlage is no stranger to the way of life. The youngest of eight children, Paul says he ended up farming because his brothers “ran off and left him.” His quiet demeanor and quick wit serve him well in the trade he learned from the generation before him.

Paul, Theresa & Matthew HeidlageToday, Paul farms alongside his wife, Theresa, and son Matthew, in a diversified business that features cattle, row crops, fescue seed and hay. While the diversity of the operation might overwhelm some, the Heidlage family embraces each task in earnest crediting success to steadfastness, diversity and the relationships they’ve cultivated over the years.

Side by Side

Paul says his father, the late Tony Heidlage, was forced into early retirement after a farm accident when Paul was in the eighth grade.

After high school, Paul attended Crowder College in Neosho for a couple of years before a stint with what is now the Farm Service Agency — all the while, living at home and working on the family farm.

The couple purchased the cowherd from Paul’s dad in 1988 and harvested fescue seed for him, eventually taking over the operation.

“Back then, we were basically fescue seed,” Paul says. “It was big here. We had cattle and row crops also.”

Paul says they grew very little corn at that time, turning instead to wheat, soybeans and milo.

“It didn’t require as much capital and equipment,” Paul says of the fescue seed business. “You can get by with some pretty shaky equipment when you’re doing fescue seed.”

According to Paul, fescue works well with a cattle operation although fewer farmers today cut it for harvest. Still in demand, most fescue seed is harvested for the lawn care industry.

Married since 1982, Paul and Theresa share a love for the land they work together. Both attended high school in Pierce City, although Theresa says she’s much younger than Paul.

“She’s the son her dad never had,” Paul says of Theresa. He’s quick to credit his bride as more than capable of picking up equipment parts and of ensuring he gets the right test weight on his fescue seed at harvest.

In the day-to-day activities of the operation, Theresa manages much of the cattle-related tasks. In fact, Paul stresses the cows are Theresa’s; his comfort zone is better suited to tractor work in the row crop, fescue seed and hay entities of the farm.

Diversity is Key

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” Paul says simply.

And, it’s that philosophy that keeps the Heidlage operation fully charged.

Theresa Heidlage feeding cattleTheir 250-head cow-calf operation is black-based with mostly Angus and Brangus cows. Angus and Hereford bulls are turned in with the cows for breeding the first of May and the end of November for spring and fall calving seasons, with nearly two-thirds of the cows calving in the spring. Home-raised heifers, as well as some they purchase, are kept for replacements. Larry Jackson a field representative from Joplin Regional Stockyards assists the Heidlages with marketing.

While row crops aren’t as typical in southern Missouri as cattle, the Heidlages grow soybeans and wheat on both owned and rented acreage.

“It’s more of a renovation thing,” Paul explains. “Fescue stands get old and (row crops) are a good way to go in and work up the ground, pick up the rocks and reseed.”

In the past, Paul says he’d plant a couple hundred acres of wheat and then plow all night before sowing soybeans.

No-till has been one of the biggest changes their operation has seen over the years, according to Paul. “When we were younger, we’d plow all night. That ground had to be beat back down if you were double cropping, from wheat stubble into beans. We would plow all night, and then have to work it and work it. We did our own spraying with three-point sprayers.”

Paul’s dad was among the first farmers in the area to harvest fescue seed.

Heidlage fescue Paul's dad was among the first farmers in the area to harvest fescue seed.

Crop rotation is key to producing quality fescue seed. “The big thing is you can’t go in and cut seed year after year (on the same field),” Paul says.

Repeated harvest on the same field allows cheat, an annual grass, to grow alongside the fescue, Paul says. Most fields are straight Kentucky 31 rather than newer novel endophyte varieties.

“It’s hard to beat Kentucky 31,” Paul says. “We used to have a problem with fescue foot in the cows, but not as much anymore. It’s a great erosion preventer.”

Paul says clover, both inter-seeded and native varieties, helps alleviate fungus issues with the fescue.

In years past, a lot of producers harvested fescue for seed. There would be 10 to 15 trailers lined up to unload.

“A couple of years ago was the first time I had to wait any longer than 45 minutes (to unload at the seed house),” Theresa recalls. “The price got up and then fell.”
Paul adds, “Fescue is the hardest thing to guess production. Corn or beans you can kind of estimate.”

In the summer during fescue harvest, the Heidlages operate two combines to get the job done. Paul and son Matthew run the combines while Theresa hauls the seed to nearby Pierce City, about seven miles away.

Sold by the pound, a good seed crop is based on cleanness and test weight, Paul says. “It all comes down to the test weight, the heaviness of the seed.”

Theresa chimes in, “You know, a 72 versus a 90 (test weight).”

fescue Crop rotation is important for producing a clean crop.

The 2014 crop started out at 52 to 54 cents per pound before falling to 18. This year the Heidlages are hoping their seed will be worth about 50 cents again.

“Considering the price for commodities like corn and wheat, beans are still up there, we’re going to go after fescue this year,” Paul says.

“And, they pay a premium,” Theresa adds. “You can get 2 to 4 cents on premiums.”

Premiums are paid on clean, good-quality fescue seed, Paul says.

“I think our secret weapon is Theresa hauls it in and they test the load. If she doesn’t like the test she’ll say, ‘no, test it again,’” Paul says.

“No, not really,” Theresa interjects. “But, I have had them retest it.”

“I can feel it and I’ll tell her this load ought to test pretty good,” Paul notes.

The Heidlages own several hundred acres, renting an additional 500 that is used mostly for pasture, hay and fescue. All of the land is within a 3-mile radius of the farm.
Paul says they sell some hay in small square bales as well as prairie hay, which is sold to folks in the horse industry.

“It’s important to me to diversify,” Paul says. “One thing will work and one thing won’t work. This is cattle country. The cattle and fescue seed have been good to us.”

Relationships Build Success

Whether it’s working with a landowner or managing extra workers to help during hay season, cultivating relationships grows success on the Heidlage farm.

“Used to, it was so competitive to rent ground or to find someone that you could cut fescue seed on shares with,” Paul explains. “So, you’ve got to watch how you treat your landlord because there are other options for them.”

“You have to take care of their land,” Theresa adds.

“Yes, take care of their place,” Paul continues. “That goes back to what my dad said. You get to have a hand in it, so you make sure (the land) is better than when you got it. Probably my biggest secret to success is just being lucky enough to have good landlords.”

During the summer, the Heidlages work with several different helpers in order to stay on top of their business activities.

“We’ve had really, really good help over the years,” Theresa says.

Good help also transitions to the relationship Paul and Theresa nurture with FCS Financial. They’ve been FCS Financial customers since 2001 when they needed assistance with a real estate purchase.

Beth Luebbering and Matthew Heidlage Matthrew Heidlage with loan officer, Beth Luebbering.

“They bring a joy to my job,” says Beth Luebbering, FCS Financial Assistant Vice President in Joplin. “Number one – it is great to get to see the transition of the younger generations.”

With the help of FCS Financial, Paul and Theresa’s son Matthew was able to secure a Young, Beginning Small Farmer loan. That assistance has allowed him to purchase land and equipment needed to help grow his own row crop and cattle operation.

“It’s great to see where Matthew has come from and know Paul and Theresa and see their work ethic, the way they take care of the land,” Beth says. “It’s a delight to work with farmers who take care of what they have and don’t abuse the land. They run quality cattle. They take pride in everything they do.”

After earning a civil engineering degree in college, Matthew worked for the Missouri Department of Transportation before realizing his heart was still home on the farm.
Paul and Theresa are thankful Matthew came back to the farm. They hope to eventually pass the operation on to him.

Having an extra set of hands has sure helped the Heidlages the last few months.

Taking a few days off last fall was put on hold after Theresa was diagnosed in November with stage 3 inflammatory breast cancer, a very aggressive form of cancer. She had a mammogram in May 2015, so the diagnosis caught them all by surprise.

“I have a completely different outlook on life now,” Theresa says. “I don’t take things for granted.”

She and Paul agree having a warmer winter helped them manage treatments and farm duties.

Theresa endured an aggressive treatment regimen, hoping to minimize her time away from farm duties and keep their routine as normal as possible.

“I’ve done a lot of praying,” Theresa says.

Steadfast, side-by-side, Paul and Theresa work the land, cultivated by the relationships they’ve built. All the while, it’s the diversity of their operation that fuels their inner fire.

In addition to working on the farm, Theresa is the bookkeeper for the Pierce City Fire Protection District. The couple also manages rental property, a sideline that Paul says works well for them.

“Don’t limit income opportunities to only agriculture,” Paul concludes.
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