By Matt Reese
W.J. Fannin III loves to share the story of beef production.
“I enjoy the direct marketing. It gives us a chance to tell the story from the producer level. Big corporations have never been able to figure out a way to mass produce beef. They have never been able to take a momma cow and have calves in barns and have the success rate be high. Why would you want something grown in a petri dish to eat when you could have something natural and grown in pasture on a farm? Selling direct lets me tell that story. We’re trying to tell the story of what we do whenever we can,” Fannin said. “We are marketing in every way possible. We sell cattle in any way to suit a person’s needs. We sell freezer beef, we sell to restaurants, we sell them live on the hoof, we sell direct to packers. Through our website people can order a quarter, half or whole and we take it to processor. We sell cuts online in what we call bundle boxes where we sell a variety of different items. We have people come pick up at the farm. We also have a refer truck that we do deliveries for the quarter, half and whole to Dayton, Columbus and Cincinnati. It’s nice to sell someone you know a piece of meat and then they come back to you and say, ‘man that was the best steak I ever had’ or ‘that’s the best burger ever had.’ I really enjoy growing beef here on the farm and providing beef to the local community just for the simple fact that people know that it’s a nutritious product and they have a peace of mind knowing where their food comes from.”
And, once people try the high-quality beef from Fannin’s ohioartisanbeef.com, sales typically generate more sales.
“People who try it tell their friends after they realize the product we have is not a product they can buy in the store. When I sell to the big guys, it is mostly going to high end restaurants. When you educate people about what type of beef they are getting, they realize they can’t go buy it at the store. The taste is completely different,” Fannin said. “Everybody wants to eat cheap, but you don’t always get the quality. A lot of the quality you get in the stores is not the same. What we sell is totally different.”
Last year around 10% to 15% of the farm’s beef production (roughly finishing 800 to 1,000 head annually to differing weights based on market demand) was sold direct to customers and Fannin is working to push that higher, possibly with a storefront and a drive-in freezer for more storage on the farm. He works with two different processors and he would like to add a drive-in freezer system for more opportunities of direct sales.
Fannin’s passion for cattle, from the buying to the marketing and everything in between, earned him the title of 2022 Commercial Cattleman of the Year from the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association. The Fayette County farm consists of around 2,000 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat, and alfalfa. Much of the crop production goes to cattle feed. They bale 500 to 800 wheat acres for use on the farm and to be sold.
“We use mostly no-till and reduced tillage. We have done a lot of vertical tillage and we get a compaction layer 3 or 4 inches down. Every 5 to 7 years, we go through and rip things on 200 acres or so to address that compaction layer and get the nutrients down deeper,” Fannin said. “We chop silage in August, apply manure and then come in behind that with a cover crop, triticale wheat or rye. We’ll chop the triticale for roughage for the cattle. Our rations are built from dried distillers grains with solubles (DDGs) we get from Valero in Bloomingburg and corn silage. We do feed our own hay and we grind some straw. Most all baled stuff gets ground so the cattle can’t sort it.”
Fannin works on the farm with his father, Jay, wife, Lenita, and their three sons, Chase, Cameron and Colton.
“For the beef and the row crop operation it takes a team of people to make it work and I’ve tried to surround myself with good people that know a lot in certain areas that we need as far as nutrition, buying the cattle, selling the cattle, and then of course all the hard work that goes in here on the farm,” he said.
Fannin grew up with cattle on the farm operation started by his grandparents in the 1960s.
“When I was younger, it was cow-calf on pasture. Then we would feed some of the calves out. I took a liking to that. We used the old system to feed out calves. We sold freezer beef locally and then to the stockyards. In 2017 we decided we wanted to change and upgrade the facilities to handle more cattle and basically take it to a new level. We built the 80 X 276-foot monoslope barn. We did some research and I felt I could get the best performance out of it. The air flow is unmatched compared to anything else. In the summer the cattle are always in the shade. In the winter the sun can get all the way through the barn. We can also visually see the cattle easily every day,” Fannin said. “For it to work, the barn has to face south. It is all about the position of the sun in the summer months and winter. By facing south, the cattle can be in some form of sunlight all the way through the winter with sun reaching the back of the barn. In the summer, it is just the opposite. The cattle will be in the shade all day. The south overhang is 10 feet on the high side. The north side is 6 feet. I chose the bed-pack concrete floor instead of slats. I wasn’t sure what size cattle I’d start with, and we have wheat straw available for bedding. If I started with younger cattle, I thought they’d do better on that.”
The impressive barn replaced the traditional open feedlot. All the manure is kept under cover until it can be spread in a timely manner.
“We wanted to get away from what an open lot looks like after a 1- to 2-inch rain. By having the barn, the runoff is virtually zero compared to the old open lot. There is no slop like we used to have. It is better for the environment, better for the cattle and easier to maintain. It is more efficient and easier to feed 400 than it used to be to feed 50,” he said. “We also can better manage the manure and the cattle are more comfortable. We have comprehensive nutrient manure management plan. We grid sample the fields to know our nutrient levels and apply based on that and the manure samples. We scrape the feed the lane and around the water tanks every couple of weeks and put new straw down. The manure from that area goes to the manure bay and is stored until it is spread. I can usually get around 6 months of manure storage. We leave the bed pack alone. The higher it gets, the better the cattle like it. When you clean the barn down to the concrete it is the hardest part. The pack is like a big sponge that absorbs all the urine and everything and it gets more comfortable for the cattle. We usually clean all the way down in the spring ahead of planting and then again in fall as soon as the combine starts rolling. Then we spread manure with a vertical beater style spreader to cover the fields most in need based on soil samples.”
The continuous flow water tanks in the facility are cleaned daily to maximize cattle health.
“In my opinion, water is the cheapest mineral source on the farm. From a health standpoint it just makes sense to have clean water tanks,” Fannin said. “We use feeding software to track every ingredient on a daily basis with a Cloud-based system. I have a ration set up for every 100 pounds of body weight from 400 to 1,450 pounds changes a little at every 100 pounds based on the pen average. We watch how they gain and track cattle from different sources to see how they perform. I am building data on the cattle side like we have for the crop side — feed, rate of gain, and we track cattle from different farms so I have a good idea of what to expect. Year after year they are fairly consistent.”
Fannin buys cattle to finish from a variety of sources at a variety of weights.
“When I started on this, I did not limit myself. I look at the market for opportunities to buy and see what makes sense. I don’t want to get in a rut of only buying one weight, so I buy from 400 to 850 or 900. I look at the opportunities and the general situation and buy accordingly,” he said. “This spring there were about 100 on grass and I’ll bring them in during late summer and I’ll bring in another set for fall grazing on 100 acres of pasture. I graze hard in the spring then let it rest until fall. I like to start them out in the open before bringing them into the barn. Once cattle get acclimated to the barn, they stay healthy. I use very few antibiotics. If something gets sick, we treat it. We catch any illness early and treat early because we’re seeing them all the time. I’m not going to make a living pushing needles. The monoslope style is good for the general health of the cattle. Shipping fever is still an issue for us. The cattle I buy, I want to have treated with a modified live two rounds of vaccination shots and weaned at at least 45 days. If they haven’t had that, I won’t bid. I get cattle from Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia. I buy some local directly and at auctions. I have my own pot trailer because when I buy cattle, I want to get them home by evening feeding that day for their receiving ration. We want them home as soon as possible.”
From the pastures, to the monoslope barn, to the farm fields, the Fannin family is writing a unique agricultural story they delight in sharing it with others, especially those who enjoy beef from the farm.
“When I was a kid, I just wanted to farm. I love to see the crops emerging, I love harvest and then seeing the crop go into the roller mill for feed. My father fed cattle when I was younger and I pretty much fell in love with cattle from the time I was a little kid too,” he said with a smile. “It is all my favorite part.”