Ohio Farmer

Wickerhams: Conservation means paying attention to detail

Three brothers zone in on soil health and adopt rotational grazing.

Jennifer Kiel, Editor, Michigan Farmer and Ohio Farmer

August 18, 2023

6 Slides

If you think the only people who can be farmers are those who grew up on a farm, think again.

Three Wickerham brothers were raised in the country, but not on a farm. Sure, they worked on different farms from time to time, but it wasn’t an interest of theirs until later in life, after they all had other full-time jobs.

It all started when Dan Wickerham and his wife, Jenny, inherited a 150-acre farm in West Union, Ohio, southeast of Cincinnati near the Kentucky border. They initially leased the land for row crops.

Brother Bill Wickerham, a 20-year employee of Adams County Soil and Water Conservation District as the wildlife specialist, was drawn to the area for recreational activities. In 2001, he bought a small, 36-acre hobby farm adjacent to Dan and Jenny’s property. 

Bill was the first to move to the property. Eventually Dan, who is the director of the Adams Brown Community Action Program, and Jenny built a house, and then the third brother, Mark, was approached.

Mark, who operates West Union Electric and Plumbing, and his wife, Dara, eventually bought an adjacent 60 acres. “All three of our properties, although we own them individually, are contiguous, and we operate them as one farm,” Bill says.

In the unglaciated part of Ohio, with hills, cliffs and woods, the brothers, Dan, 57, Bill, 55, and Mark 53, are grazing 250 acres on End of the Ridge Farms. That includes three other neighbors’ properties they are managing for regenerative agriculture.

Venturing into beef

A small portion of the land was in tobacco for a period before the buyout. That’s when the brothers decided to go into beef, starting with two cows and a bull, one fenced field and a drinker.

They started out conventional but began asking questions and experimenting. “We are still trying new and different things,” says Bill, who agreed to be the spokesperson for the family.

They were intrigued by the idea of giving cattle smaller sections at a time, allowing grass to rest in between pasturing, which would ultimately yield more grass in the long run. They figured out, if you manage the same amount of ground, you can pasture more pounds of animals, which will grow faster because they’re eating better.

They went to work focusing on increasing soil organic matter, knowing it was the foundation for the whole operation.

“We’re building soil, and it’s visible because here in southern Ohio, we have shallow bedrock, and there’s a lot of places when we’re clipping the pastures we have to watch for exposed bedrock,” Bill says. “That’s becoming less and less as we’re building soil over the top and a lot faster than ever before — it’s pretty impressive.”

Water benefits

Many of their farm improvements were cost-share projects through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and under the guidance of Adams Soil and Water Conservation District and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The key to a good grazing system is a good water supply and system, Bill says. 

End of the Ridge Farms utilizes a variety of sources, including a pond, a reservoir, and an incredible spring, along with county water as a backup. Most of the drinkers are on a pressurized system. However, a few are gravity fed. Drinkers include concrete tanks, heavy equipment tire drinkers, automatic drinkers (some that are heated for winter use) and frost-free hydrants for ultimate flexibility. All permanent drinkers are surrounded by a heavy use pad to withstand the impact of cattle congregating.

Having water more available across the farm, where cows need not travel more than 600 feet, helps to improve grazing as cows will come individually and more often to the water source, versus coming to the water as a herd and creating trails on the pasture, Bill explains.

Feeding the land

No commercial fertilizer is applied, but hay is purchased for fall and early winter. “We do bale-grazing and spacing them out, taking the cows to them where they deposit the nutrients — spreading it out for you,” Bill says.

Hay used during the winter forms a deep-pack bedding that is later composted and spread in areas most needing the nutrients. “We bring nutrients to the farm in the form of hay and run it through the cows,” Bill says.

Once on pasture, they are rotated every day. They experimented with selling feeder calves and stockers, but this year are pivoting, selling their bull and cows to concentrate on buying stockers and selling grass-fed beef, by the whole or half.

Having a “grazer’s eye” means being able to truly assess the situation daily. “With experience, you go out there and move cows and figure out if they need an acre, 2 acres or what, based on your forages, number of head and pounds,” Bill says.

There are two places on the property where cows must cross a stream, “so we put in rock to preserve water quality,” he says.

In late summer, he will take cows off the fescue, allowing it to grow, even if he has to feed hay for a while. It’s called stockpiling. This fescue is not a cow’s favorite during the growing season, but as temperatures plummet, the sugars develop. “It’s able to maintain its nutrients clear through winter. So even after it turns brown, the cows love it,” Bill says.

Sharing knowledge

The brothers are happy to share what has been done and learned. End of the Ridge Farms has hosted pasture walks, two grazing schools and invited conservation program applicants to observe how the system works and the benefits of a successful grazing management program.

Bill is looking forward to retirement in about six or seven years and concentrating more on the farm and increasing sales.

Eventually, they’d like to increase sales from 30 head to 75, selling direct market as wholes and halves. The farm has a holding capacity of 85, but Bill points out that grass-fed beef takes two years or more to finish.

So far, the kids haven’t embraced the farm, as Dan’s three sons are pursuing other careers or are in college. Mark’s two daughters are both married, but not involved, and Bill’s 17-year-old daughter, Mary Grace, while not involved on the farm, helps with marketing, trucking meat and the farmers market. “Down the road, if the kids still aren’t interested, we’re hoping to find someone who has the same conservation ethic interested in leasing it,” Bill says.

“I like clean water, and I like healthy soil, which creates good, clean food,” Bill says. ‘“All those things go hand in hand with conservation.”

About the Author(s)

Jennifer Kiel

Editor, Michigan Farmer and Ohio Farmer

While Jennifer is not a farmer and did not grow up on a farm, "I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone with more appreciation for the people who grow our food and fiber, live the lifestyles and practice the morals that bind many farm families," she says.

Before taking over as editor of Michigan Farmer in 2003, she served three years as the manager of communications and development for the American Farmland Trust Central Great Lakes Regional Office in Michigan and as director of communications with Michigan Agri-Business Association. Previously, she was the communications manager at Michigan Farm Bureau's state headquarters. She also lists 10 years of experience at six different daily and weekly Michigan newspapers on her impressive resume.

Jennifer lives in St. Johns with her two daughters, Elizabeth, 19, and Emily 16.

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