By Matt Reese
Being an environmental steward on a farm is all about carefully arranging the pieces of a complex puzzle in the hope of ending up with a profitable business and a minimal environmental footprint to leave the land better for the future.
Through trial (and some admitted errors) the Stickel family is working to accomplish these goals on their Wood County farm. They have been recognized as the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association 2019 Environmental Steward Award winners for their efforts.
“We are very appreciative of the recognition. In the Lake Erie watershed environmental stewardship and water quality are some of our top priorities of what we are doing on the farm,” Andy Stickel said. “We want to continue to be good stewards of the land.”
Andy and Brian Stickel, though still in their 30s, have been working to piece together their farm puzzle since they started with cattle in junior high through 4-H. The diverse operation now includes cattle, corn, non-GMO food-grade soybeans, wheat, hay, tomatoes, and cover crops. Andy and Brian are the fourth generation of their family farm in Wood County. They farm with their parents, Dale and Mary Elyse, and Andy’s wife Erin. Each part of the puzzle on the Stickel farm has a role in profitability and environmental stewardship. Here are some of the pieces.
The hay feeds the cattle…
A long-term alfalfa/grass hay crop has proven soil and water quality benefits. The hay on the farm is important for profits and as a part of the long and diverse crop rotation on the farm. The problem with hay, though, is not all of it is top quality that can be sold to discerning customers.
“We first started with cattle when we were in 4-H in 8th grade,” Brian said. “From there we became more interested in cattle and decided this was something we wanted to pursue.”
With the cattle, Andy and Brian decided they needed to make some hay.
“We needed hay and straw for the cattle so we bought a square baler and we started selling the extra hay and straw,” Andy said. “A few years later we bought another one, baled more and got up to 80,000 small square bales. We had our cows to eat our lower quality hay we couldn’t sell. We could feed them cheap and turn the hay we couldn’t sell into calves.
“We grew from a cow-calf perspective and the hay production played into that. The more hay we couldn’t sell to other markets, the more cattle we bought to feed. We started with an all-natural program to market the beef back in 2003 or 2004 when we were in high school. We saw the opportunity to grow that side of our business. Now we are feeding around 400 head of fat cattle annually with no implants, no antibiotics ever, no ionophores, no medications, and no animal byproducts. We are sourcing good healthy cattle out of the southeast to help mitigate any disease issues that could potentially be brought in. We also have 40 primarily Red Angus beef cows. We are just finishing up our calving season right now and those calves will be raised and fattened on our farm to be sold, along with the feeders we are bringing in.”
Most of the Stickel beef is marketed through Colorado-based Meyer Natural Foods through the Meyer Natural Angus program that requires at least 50% red or black Angus genetics and stringent, verified production standards with regard to humane treatment and feeding/medication practices. They must grade “choice” and meet strict weight requirements. A new barn in 2015 has really helped with efficiency, care and quality for the cattle.
“Over 99% of our cattle qualify for the natural requirements and that goes back to our sources for calves and our feeding program,” Andy said. “We bring them in at 600 to 750 pounds. Our calving starts in late December and we are done in April then they fit in with the loads of feeders we bring in. That lets us have something ready basically all the time. And our own calves fit right in with that. We sell some freezer beef as well.”
In addition to the hay produced on the farm, the Stickels chop some corn silage and cover crops, and source dried distillers grains from local ethanol plants to meet their feedlot needs throughout the year.
The cattle feed the soil…
The manure from the cattle, surface applied on cover crop ground, has significantly reduced the need for commercial fertilizer on the farm.
“We use manure on 300 to 350 acres primarily after wheat often going to tomatoes or ahead of beans,” Andy said. “Typically everything we spread is applied on a cover crop.”
The organic matter from the manure is a valuable part of improving the soil structure, health and stability to keep nutrients on the farm and out of the waterways.
“We have reduced commercial P and K through the application of manure from our cattle operation. We are apply almost no dry fertilizer,” Andy said. “If we do apply commercial P and K, we use a strip banding rig we built here on our farm. We place the fertilizer in 15-inch bands for either 30-inch corn rows or 15-inch bean rows. In those bands we place the fertilizer below the surface, usually 1 to 3 inches below the surface depending on the soil types. We are using less fertilizer by being more efficient and we are minimizing runoff events because it is below the surface.”
The soil feeds the crops (and the cover crops)…
A combination of no-till and cover crops sets up the farm for strong yields from the heavy lakebed soils in the area.
“No-till has become a big part of our operation. It helps reduce erosion and soil movement into our ditches and waterways. Cover crops keep a growing cover all year round to keep recycling nutrients for the crops and reduce erosion,” Andy said. “We have seen good yield benefits and our fertilizer levels are maintaining over the last 15 or 20 years because we have incorporated some of these practices.”
The 65 acres of management-intensive tomatoes are the top priority for the farm through much of the growing season. They are time sensitive and require rich soils and a 7-year rotation of wheat-tomatoes-corn-soybeans-wheat-corn-soybeans with cover crops in between.
Thanks, in part, to good fertility, the specialty soybeans on the farm have been able to maintain competitive yields.
“If we plant the right varieties the yields hold their own with non-GMO beans,” Brian said. “We are planting a 3.8 bean and the biggest thing is getting them out early.”
The goal is to have every acre covered with a growing crop all the time but years like 2018 offered minimal chances to get cover crops planted.
“If we can’t get it all planted, our top cover crop priority is cereal rye after corn and before the non-GMO, food grade beans because of the weed suppression,” Brian said. “Getting clover planted after wheat ahead of corn is our second priority because we cut it and use it for really high quality feed. For us, the clover has tremendous feed value and we are leaving nitrogen there for the corn. We can get huge biomass and cover for winter and use it for good feed when we need it. It also allows us the chance to spread manure on the growing crop.”
The benefits of the Stickels’ thoughtful approach to nutrient management, combined with no-till and cover crops, sets up the potential for strong yields across the board for the diverse crop rotation while improving soil and water quality in the process.
The farm feeds the people…
Sustainability starts and ends with profitability. In the absence of a profitable farm operation, all efforts to be environmental stewards are eliminated. Because of this, the Stickels have carefully evolved over time to remain profitable.
“Every part of our operation compliments the other,” Andy said. “With our crop mix we are really able to use our diversification to maximize our returns.”
Strong commodity prices for corn, soybeans and beef following 2010 allowed both Andy and Brian to come back to the farm.
“Part of the reason we could come back was the good commodity prices. We were able to make some good investments and set things up to be where we are now,” Andy said. “We are doing our own spraying. We apply our own fertilizer. We store our grain and try to get the most value out of everything we do.”
Though it requires extra labor, the diversity of the tomatoes, hay, straw, specialty beef, and food grade soybeans allows the farm to capture some premiums that have kept the farm afloat in leaner times for commodity prices.
“If we didn’t have the diversification we have, we wouldn’t be farming full time,” Andy said.
The people feed the world…
The Stickels, along with many other U.S. farmers, work hard every day to feed the nation and the world. They also face growing scrutiny in the process of doing so, making education and outreach efforts vital for the future of agriculture.
Being in the heart of the watershed of the Western Basin of Lake Erie puts the Stickels in the spotlight and offers them an opportunity to not only help feed the world, but educate about how farms work in concert with the environment.
“We are under more scrutiny all the time as far as the practices we implement on our farm,” Erin said. “We were approached by the Ohio Beef Council last year in an effort to do some promotion and consumer awareness efforts. Through checkoff dollars funded by cattle producers in the state, we hosted eight virtual field trips in Ohio. I hosted three on our farm. We reached over 1,100 students across the state last year in elementary classrooms, some high schools and culinary students who don’t have the funds or time to visit a cattle operation. It is a great program to showcase the things we are doing on the farm with the use of technology. We feel it is really important to be able to showcase what is happening here on the farm with consumers of all ages.”
While feeding minds and filling tables, Andy and Erin Stickel have plenty on their plates as they raise four children and farm full time, but the supporting cast of family, friends and valuable industry organizations makes their efforts possible. Erin serves on the Ohio Beef Council Board of Directors and Andy is involved with the Ohio Soybean Association to help complete some more pieces of their diverse farm puzzle.
“We find a lot of value on involvement, educating ourselves as well as being involved in industry decisions,” Erin said. “Being involved in our state associations is important.”
And, most important, is the relentless effort of the Stickel family to put all of the pieces together.
“I like it when everything comes together,” Andy said. “The goal is to set up the operation to continue to grow and hopefully everything will fit. When it all comes together it is pretty cool.”