By Matt Reese
After a successful career in marble, granite and tile work, Bill O’Neill III retired to rural Licking County north of Granville over 25 years ago.
“We moved out here and I quickly figured out I needed to do something to keep me busy, or I’d just sit on the couch and watch Oprah and get fat,” O’Neill said. “We decided to get cattle and we went to the Beef Expo in Columbus. We got Longhorns because when I watched westerns as a kid, the cattle all had long horns. That is why we got them. I really like the way they look. They have more appeal to me than a pasture full of black cattle.”
The novelty of the Longhorn breed, and the goal of having cattle on the pasture and beef in the freezer, led O’Neill to connect with one of the top Longhorn breeders in the country, Dickinson Cattle Co. in Belmont County.
“We got hooked up with Darol Dickinson just and hour and a half east of here. We put up high tensile fence with my neighbor. We built fences and pens and chutes,” O’Neill said. “Then we went over and bought our core herd from Darol sometime around 2000.”
Without an agricultural background, O’Neill has spent the last two decades learning the finer points of cattle production, making hay and, more recently, pasture management. He rotationally grazes his 26- or 27-head on 36 acres of pasture. He round bales around 40 acres of his own ground and a total 200 acres of hay for use on the farm and for sale. The pastures and hay ground are all orchardgrass and clover based, with some fescue. All paddocks have access to portable piped water.
“We move the cattle every day. My lots are a little over an acre, 24 lots on 27 acres. We also have the flexibility to do big lots or small lots depending on how the grass is growing. I’m with the cattle every day so I can keep an eye on them and they are used to people,” he said. “Rotational grazing is common sense, I think. You have to utilize the grass you have available and you have to give your grass time to recover. But I am learning that my pastures could be better.”
O’Neill has noticed increasing amounts of weeds in his hay and pasture fields and he has been working to boost productivity with better nutrient management and re-seeding. These efforts got a boost when O’Neill’s Lighting Ridge Farm was a featured stop on the Ohio Forage and Grassland Council Summer Forage Field Days earlier this year.
“This wasn’t group just coming to see what the neighbor down the road was doing on the farm. These people were educated in the science of grass and pastures,” O’Neill said. “I realized I can make my grass do better. Whatever grows is what people usually have for their calves. There are ways to make it do better.”
Weeds like poison hemlock and Carolina horsenettle are becoming more common on the farm and are the source of growing concern for O’Neill.
“Years ago I never saw a hemlock and now it is everywhere. I look at my pastures and hay fields and it seems like the last few years I have gotten several kinds of weeds I’ve never had before. Where are they coming from? When you’re growing weeds that the cows don’t eat, it behooves you to get that out of there. One year there is a weed or two and the next year they are showing up in patches,” he said. “If my cows don’t eat it, I don’t want it to grow.”
He has also started to step-up nutrient management efforts based on soil test results.
“I started doing soil samples and now I have a 2-year baseline and I’m going to add lime and fertilize based on that,” he said. “I got a no-till drill to drill new seed into pastures and I got a fertilizer spreader so I can do that when it needs to be done. And I bought a sprayer to do a whole lot more spraying to get these weeds under control. To get spraying done when it needs to be done you have to do it yourself. It is more work and it is expensive, but it lets me take control of these problems.”
Along with looking great out on pasture and being worthy of stopping to get a photo for those passing by, O’Neill likes the Longhorns for their lean carcass, durability and calving ease.
“They are leaner and don’t get as meaty as an Angus. Our calves are usually 50 to 60 pounds. They do not have problems calving. I’ve never had to pull a calf,” he said. “They don’t get the body fat and my customers like that Longhorns are naturally lean. I have built up a base of people who call me when they want one. A lot of them are repeat customers and they come back because they know how it tastes.”
The calves are finished on hay and grain and marketed from 20 to 24 months. Finding local, quality processing has become increasingly challenging since demand exploded due to COVID-19.
“Now when you try to get an appointment to get them butchered it is over a year wait. We make an appointment and when we are 3 months out we select the animals we want to process and feed them out. It is backwards from what it used to be,” he said. “I pen them up in the barn and feed hay, then grain to finish them. I’ll do a maximum of 10 processed a year and I sell them by the half.
“There are butchers that cannot handle Longhorns. I take them 3 at a time for processing. Smithhisler Meats in Mt. Vernon is the most fabulous butcher I have ever used. I drive them to Heffelfinger’s Meats up by Wooster they do the killing and truck it to Mt. Vernon for the cutting.”
O’Neill (along with his friends and neighbors who help on the farm) is getting older and is looking to make some other changes in the operation to reduce the workload while still producing freezer beef.
“They are docile and not aggressive, but only to a point. They don’t want you messing with them,” he said. “My wife loves her cows, but the older I get I don’t have the energy to work with the cows any more so I am whittling down the number of cows. Longhorns have the challenge of the horns when you are trying to restrain them. You can’t get the adults through the chute and we can’t treat them very easily without the proper equipment. Because of that, I’m going to start buying calves to feed them out and phase out of breeding on the farm.”
O’Neill is hoping that by putting more emphasis on his pastures, he can still accomplish his goals for the farm with less hard labor.
“I’m trying to renovate some of my pasture ground to get more from it. I’m a small operation so I have to best use what I have,” he said. “I’m trying to make less work and still have cattle on the ground and meat in the freezer.”