By Kyle Sharp
In 1966, at the age of 14, Frank Phelps moved with his family from their farm in Van Wert County to the current farm they operate in Logan County. The previous year, they had become joint owners of a herd of registered Limousin cattle with the O’Connor family, which owns the Logan County property.
“It was quite a change back then from the flatland of Van Wert to some hills down here,” Phelps said.
While the O’Connor family owns the land, co-owns the cattle and assists with broad management decisions, Frank and his dad, Don, oversee the daily operation.
“It’s been a good partnership,” Phelps said. “Every Saturday morning we have a meeting with them. It makes it nice that they’re interested and willing to spend some money to maintain and improve the farm.”
The O’Connor-Phelps farm milked cows for a while, had a farrow-to-finish hog operation, and most recently also had feeder pigs. The last feeder pigs were sold this past January.
“The hog buildings were getting old, they were not real big and help was a little short, so nobody complained about getting rid of the pigs,” Phelps said.
But while other farm ventures have come and gone, beef cattle have been a constant. Initially, the farm was buying and feeding cattle. In 1977, the decision was made to expand the herd from 100 to 250 cows and begin raising their own calves.
“That was the decision, and we’re sticking to it,” Phelps said.
Today, the farm still has 250 registered Limousin cows. They raise all their own replacement heifers, sell some bred and open heifers and bulls as seedstock, and feed out the remaining roughly 180 calves each year.
“The cowherd has been closed about 20 years. The only thing we ever purchase is bulls,” he said. “We were on the Johne’s testing program for seven years and were clean, so we test the bulls we bring in and don’t bring anything else in.”
The O’Connor Farm consists of 1,200 acres, and another 600 acres are rented. The farm raises corn, soybeans, wheat and hay and has been 100% no-till since the 1970s.
“Being close to Indian Lake, we got involved with the Soil and Water District and liked the idea of saving as much soil as we could, so we adopted no-till,” Phelps said. “It also saves on fuel, iron and trips across the field.”
When weather allows, the main cowherd grazes a 50-acre pasture, although they also remain on haylage.
“We’ve got 50 acres of pasture that we’re raising 100 to 200 cows on, so it doesn’t take them long to eat it down,” Phelps said. “So we bring them in and feed them twice a day. In the winter, we usually keep them in on a cement lot.”
The farm is beginning to get into rotational grazing with its first-calf heifers. With assistance from the USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a portion of the farm where heifers had always been kept was fenced off into paddocks, and a new barn for manure storage and winter housing was completed this past winter.
“We’re still working on waterlines and lanes to the pasture,” Phelps said. “We hope to get them in this year. EQIP is a good program. It’s really helped out a lot with different things around here. We’ve put in some filter strips and some wetlands.”
With cows grazing within 100 yards of Indian Lake, Phelps and the farm have been active with the Indian Lake Watershed Project (ILWP) since its inception in 1990. Two wetlands were installed in recent years next to the farm’s primary calf feedlot. ILWP funds and additional federal funds helped pay for their installation. A waterway runs around the feedlot and adjoining silos and buildings, carrying all runoff into the wetlands.
“It makes us feel better being only a quarter mile from the lake that everything from here goes through two wetlands,” Phelps said. “I’ve been real pleased with what we’ve done with the lake. People come up and say they can see the bottom of the lake, and it didn’t used to be that way. And with the Grand Lake St. Mary’s situation, it makes us feel even better about what we’ve been able to accomplish here.”
In recognition of their conservation efforts, the O’Connor-Phelps Farm has been awarded the Logan County Farm Family of the Year for Environmental Stewardship and the Ohio Cattlemen’s Environmental Stewardship Award in past years.
Cow and heifer breeding takes place from mid June through mid August. Heifers are heat synchronized and bred with artificial insemination. Visual heat detection and AI is used on the cows. AI is done for 21 days, then bulls are introduced.
“We buy all our bulls, and usually collect and use semen from them, as well as purchasing some semen,” Phelps said. “We still do AI on about 170 cows, and it would take too many bulls to settle that many cows naturally. On the sync cows, if I can get 60% AI conception, I feel pretty good about it. I shoot for 70% with the regular cows.”
Pregnancy checks are done 35 days after the bulls are removed, and open cows are culled. All cull cows and bulls are sold to Keystone Meats in Lima.
“There are no favorites here,” Phelps said. “An open cow is pretty expensive.”
Calving begins the end of March and lasts through early June.
“With the EPDs we select, we don’t have a lot of calving problems, and that’s nice,” he said. “We just don’t like pulling calves.”
All calves are weaned at once at the end of August. The youngest calves are slightly more than 3 months old, and the oldest are about 5 months old. Weaning them early gets the calves on the feedlot and helps the cows get back in condition, Phelps said. The calves are fed corn silage and high-moisture shelled corn raised on the farm. Their diet is supplemented with purchased protein and mineral.
Fed calves are marketed at 13 to 14 months of age, with the last ones sold by 18 months. They are marketed through United Producers to a Tyson plant in Illinois, where they are sold on the rail. The farm receives a premium for source and age verification.
“When you pencil them back to live weight, it sure beats anything around here,” Phelps said. “Our cattle yield so well that they’re selling pretty well. They don’t quite have the marbling to get into Choice grade, but all our customers have been pretty satisfied with the beef.”
In addition to his cattle operation, Phelps has been actively involved in the industry as a member of the Logan County Cattlemen’s Association, serves on the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association’s magazine committee, served on the Logan County Soil & Water Association board, is a past chairman of the Ohio Beef Council Operating Committee, and also represents Ohio on the national Cattlemen’s Beef Board.
“The advertisement and promotion of our product is so valuable,” Phelps said. “It’s nice to be able to help decide how that stuff is done and how our checkoff money is spent. It was like my involvement with the Indian Lake Watershed Project — I wanted to be one of the ones helping decide what we were going to do, instead of being told what to do.”
Phelps and his family also are annual participants in the Ohio State Fair’s Commercial Cattle Show. For his history of raising quality cattle and for his dedication, commitment and leadership to the beef industry, the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association awarded Phelps its 2010 Industry Excellence Award earlier this year. The Beef Industry Excellence Award is given to a beef cattle producer who has been an industry leader and demonstrated a strong commitment to the betterment of Ohio’s beef industry.
“It was quite a surprise. To look at the list of others who’ve received that award and to think people feel you belong among them is humbling,” he said. “It makes you feel good that going to those extra meetings was appreciated a little bit.”