New Farm From the Ground Up

Young Couple Builds Profitable Small Farm Direct Marketing Business

Kenny and Natsuko Merrick stand in front of their original hay meadow. They have restored the soils with no-till and cover crops. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Jodi Miller)

Conser Run Farm is not a big place, and its owners don't follow the "get big or get out" mantra. But this grass-fed beef and pastured-pork operation in eastern Ohio aims to reach profitability by next year.

The farm began in 2005 as a part-time venture. In the years since its founding, Conser Run Farm boasts significant improvement in soil productivity and stands as testimony that young people can enter farming lacking land or machinery.

Kenny and Natsuko Merrick started their farm near East Rochester the last day of 2005, when they bought their first tractor and built the business with sweat equity and two off-farm incomes. They wanted this farm to reflect their respect for the land and its resources. Conser Run Farm is named after a creek that runs through the property.

At the time, Kenny, who holds a bachelor's degree in crop science and associate degrees in landscaping and greenhouse production and management from Ohio State University (OSU), was employed with a landscape design firm. Natsuko was a Yale graduate with a degree in environmental science and was working on finishing a doctorate in soil science from OSU.

"We decided to go with no-till farming and grass-fed beef out of necessity and the fact it just made sense for us and the environment," Kenny explained. The farm lies on a glacial till ridge in the rolling foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and consists of a mixture of heavy clay and sandy loam along with patches of sand and gravel. The land had been in a continuous corn and soybean rotation for 20 years with only preplant fertilizer applications. It had very little organic matter, an average soil pH of 4.5 and almost no nutrients.

EARLY DAYS

Using a borrowed conservation district no-till drill, the Merricks planted the place to red clover and orchardgrass, and as time and funds became available, they began spreading manure from home-raised beef cattle and pelletized lime over their hayfields.

"In the beginning, we were averaging 2 to 3 tons per acre of grass hay, and we struggled to finish 1,000-pound steers in 24 months on hay with lick tubs and minerals," Kenny said. Now, by cycling their feedlot manure back to the fields and timely harvests of their hay meadows, the Merricks average 8 to 9 tons per acre of high-quality alfalfa/orchardgrass/fescue hay and finish steers in 18 months on mostly hay and a small ration of buttermilk to an average 1,350-pound slaughter weight.

In 2015, Kenny struck a deal with a local dairy to take the dairy's byproduct. "They deliver the product for free, but I have to be able to take it a truckload at a time," he explained. The product analyzes at 75 to 80% protein on a dry-weight basis and provides excellent gains in beef and hog production. "We've built a shop and mixing facility to handle the buttermilk year-round. At one point, we were feeding 1,200 gallons per day.

"We went from having very skinny cattle that struggled to feed their calves well in the early years to struggling with overweight cattle even when letting them feed their calves up to two months before calving again," he said.

Today, the Merricks' hay meadows average soil pH readings of 6.5, and the soils are taking on a darker hue in the top 4 to 5 inches as organic matter builds up under no-till management and winter cover crops of winter triticale and rye.

"At one time, we had three gravelly spots on the farm that had pH readings of 3.9 and would grow nothing. Now, they are flourishing with hay. We're [also] working to turn around the rented ground we farm for a landlord who no longer wished to host conventional row-crop production," Kenny said. He expects the operation will be profitable on its own by next year.

DIRECT-TO-USER FARMING

Conser Run Farm sits on 35 acres, which includes 10 acres of hay meadow, 13 acres of pasture, 9 acres of timber and 3 acres devoted to the farmstead. The Merricks rent 60 additional acres, share-crop another 75 and custom-harvest 100 to 150 acres of hay for neighbors each year.

Their Angus-based cow herd includes 30 mamas, an average of 15 feeder steers, a half-dozen replacement heifers and 12 to 15 feeder hogs.

The hay meadows produce about 350 4-by-5-foot bales of hay for feed, plus 500 to 700 4-by-5-foot bales and 1,500 small square bales for sale. The farm's small bales find their way to local alpaca producers, who find mixed hay well-suited for its herds.

The Merrick's operation is small by a count of acres and livestock, but the couple has found economic viability in selling directly to end users.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

"When we started, we needed a farm plan that allowed us to farm on the side because we had to work full-time. Also, we had less than no money to begin with, so controlling costs and waste was a No. 1 priority," Kenny explained. "We decided to raise cattle and feed the hay we could produce. Selling direct allowed us to manage risk of market volatility."

The only time the Merricks use the sale barn is to move cull cows. The rest of the farm's beef, pork and hay -- not consumed on the farm -- is sold directly to consumers. "The difference in farm income is significant when you market your own produce," he said.

The meat retail business began among friends. "Friends, word of mouth and social media have helped grow the operation," Kenny said. "We sell quarter, half or whole carcasses for $2.50 per pound per hanging weight plus processing."

Natsuko developed other markets. "My wife, who is of Japanese descent, was able to develop markets among the Asian community in our area and coordinates the orders for 17- to 18-pound 'family packs' of beef and pork for groups of people who want pasture-raised meat but don't have a great deal of storage room for primal cut packages," he continues. "When we started, we had to make appointments a year in advance with our processor for the five to six carcasses we were producing. Now, they call us at the beginning of the year and ask for a schedule."

Conser Run Farm plans to sell 15 beef carcasses per year. "Likewise, we sold only eight hogs the first year, and now we process 25 to 30 each year as halves, wholes or family packs. The beauty of it all now is our customers are selling our product for us. When that happens, you've really got something," Kenny said.

IMPROVING INPUTS

With minimum till and organic matter inputs, the Merricks are boosting soil health with rotational cover and forage crops -- triticale and rye in the winter, and sudangrass in the summer.

"I wanted to make my land more efficient with additional crops, but I had to limit myself to something I could harvest with my hay equipment and not have to buy additional harvesters," Kenny said. "Also, I looked at what I could feed my cattle and reduce the use of my regular hay so I could save it for off-farm sale. That's how I got into cover/forage crops. It's a tremendous feed source for feeding cattle. It grows in the heat of summer and during the winter months when everything is muddy. You can harvest them earlier in the spring than hay and get a tremendous flush of growth in the summer."

The move toward "year-round green" got a boost this year when Kenny tried a new APV GP 300 M1 air seeder and tine harrow to establish the covers. It was a significant improvement, he said, over tillage and a ground-engaging drill. It also has opened up the possibility he could begin using a milo/forage bean mixture for summer covers.

"I really like how the harrow roughs up the soil just enough for good seed-to-soil contact, and the air seeder distributes the seed evenly across the width of the planter in broadcast fashion to provide a thick canopy that resists weed emergence," he said. "I like it so well, we're adding it to our hay equipment machine shed, along with a Kubota M7 to run the seeder and a 13-foot disc mower, and our BR7060 round bailer."

Kenny said the even spread of cover/forage crop seed fits well with his desire to mimic nature in his operation.

"Nature had it figured out millions of years ago. If you distribute the seed evenly, you can use less seed, and the desired crop will smother out weeds for you," he explained. "It was modern man who decided to put seeds in rows and then work feverishly all season to kill the weeds in between the rows. The machine evenly spreads the seed and uses a toothed cultipacker to press the seed into the soil in a more natural way."

**

Editor's Note: Kenny Merrick writes a regular blog about his operation at crreport.blogspot.com.