Stewarding soybeans, livestock, and neighborly relations on the edge of suburbia

By Dusty Sonnenberg, CCA, Field Leader, a project of the Ohio Soybean Council and Soybean Check-off

Perrysburg Ohio, with a population of over 25,000 is on the southeast edge of Toledo and is a booming community. The city’s water towers, new housing developments and warehouses are within eye shot of Eckel Grain Farm and Cattle Company. The Eckel family has been farming in northern Wood County for six generations. Nathan, Nick, and Nolan Eckel, along with the help of their grandfather, have been farming fertile lakebed soils since the boys’ father passed away in 2010.

The Eckels grow approximately 2,000 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and some hay, as well as have a feedlot for Holstein steers. Their operation stretches 20 miles (10 miles either way from the base of operations) with new housing developments and suburban expansion mixed throughout. One of the challenges they experience with urban sprawl is the traffic congestion and taking large equipment down narrow roads to travel from one field to another.

“There are just some times during the day when we cannot move equipment down the road,” said Nathan Eckel. “We have purchased some German engineered farm equipment that is more narrow, such as a high-speed tillage disk that is only 120 inches wide traveling down the road, but moving the big corn planter or combine takes a little bit longer to go from field to field.”

Managing and utilizing livestock manure is an area that the Eckel brothers are constantly discussing.

“We have talked about how we manage the manure to the best of our ability and utilize it over as many acres as we can,” said Nick Eckel. “The manure is a good nutrient for our soils and adds organic matter and microbes that improve soil health and organic matter. We have bedpack manure that we have been spreading on some farms in a rotation for over 20 years and have seen our soil organic matter increase by 2% on those farms. The rain infiltration and water holding capacity has also increased on those farms. We are adding cover crops to increase the soil health and soil tilth. We are trying to be smart about how we manage them and try to get cover crops on about a quarter of our acres each year.”

The Eckels farm primarily Hoytville clay soils with some of the fields having a mix of other soil types.

“When we were farming conventionally with Dad, we were moldboard plowing everything,” said Nathan Eckel. “We transitioned to chisel plowing, and now with a combination of the composted cattle manure, utilizing cover crops, and rotating a hay crop on some of the farms, we have changed our soil organic matter (SOM) levels. I can look at some of the soil test results when Dad was farming, and we were at a 2.5% to 2.9% in some fields, and now with all the changes, we are pushing a 5% SOM in some cases. That pays big dividends. With have developed a farm nutrient management plan, and with it we have really cut our fertilizer application rates and also our costs.”

The Eckels raise about 300 acres of wheat each year. They generally split the rest of the acres between corn and soybeans, but lean heavily toward soybeans.

“I believe that a three-crop rotation really benefits the soil health,” Nathan said. “Having wheat in the rotation works well because Wood County can grow really good wheat. We also will double-crop soybeans behind the wheat. Having wheat in the rotation also gives us a place to go with the manure in the summertime.”

The Eckels chop about 100 to 120 acres of corn silage for the cattle every year.

“We are able to get soybean meal from ADM and soybean hulls from Bunge in Bellevue,” Nathan said. “We are utilizing a lot of biproducts in the cattle feed ration. We use the hay and corn silage from our farm, and then will get wet DDGs from an ethanol plant. We can also get corn screenings from the Andersons. We will use our straw and corn stalks for bedding the cattle. The manure will be applied back on our fields.”

The Eckels are fortunate to have a grain elevator or cooperative within five miles of every one of their farms, so they have not needed much on-farm storage in the past. They are looking at building a grain storage facility in the near future to help increase their harvest efficiencies and marketing opportunities. They market their soybeans and corn to the Andersons or Luckey Farmer’s Co-op. They will also haul some soybeans to ADM in Fostoria.

Service to the industry is important to the Eckel’s. Nathan served on the Luckey Farmer’s Cooperative Board for 9 years. He currently serves as Vice President of the Ohio Soybean Council and is in his 11th year. He is also Vice President for Airable Research Laboratory. As a member of the Soybean Council, Nathan has helped facilitate the virtual field trip program for the past 6-7 years, hosting students from all across the state in the cab of his tractor via technology and a video conference. He has seen that program grow from 600 students to nearly 6,000 students from all across the country. Nathan also serves on the Soy Transportation Coalition committee.

Nick works full-time off the farm as the Wood County OSU Extension Educator for Agriculture. He conducts educational programming and coordinates on-farm research projects with area farmers for the eFields On-Farm Research network, as well as helps conduct research at the Ohio Ag Research and Development Center, Northwest Research Station near Hoytville. He enjoys helping farmers grow their knowledge and taking the research information gained and putting it into practice. Nick is currently working on a team doing a drainage research project, helping coordinate the agronomic side of the project and looking at the soil health and disease environment aspect.

Nolan started the cattle operation as a high school FFA Supervised Agricultural Experience SAE project and has grown it over the years. Jim Eckel (the father of Nathan, Nick and Nolan) told the boys that when the doctor told him that he needed to get more active to be healthier, he was not going to go to a gym to work-out. If he was going to get more active, then they were going to make money doing something, and so he jumped on board the cattle side of the business with Nolan until his passing in 2010. 

The future looks bright for Eckel Grain Farms and Eckel Cattle Company. There are plans for a new grain storage and drying facility. The seventh generation is coming up in the family and showing interest in farming. New technology in the industry also interests the brothers. They are open-minded to seeing what the potential is and how it fits their operation economically. Evaluating the benefits of cover crops and soil health testing, as well as the use of biologicals are also things on the horizon for the Eckels.

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