Ohio Farmer

Millers: Healthy soils produce quality forages

The 2023 Ohio Conservation Farm Family Award winners are focused on producing sustainable cattle.

Jennifer Kiel, Editor, Michigan Farmer and Ohio Farmer

August 15, 2023

5 Slides

Putting conservation into a philosophy is difficult for Todd Miller because, to him, it just makes sense. “It’s simple. … It saves money, the farm and its natural resources, while helping to produce quality cattle,” he says.

But there’s no cookie-cutter way of doing it on the 107-acre farm, Farm Boy Cattle Company, he runs with his wife of 19 years, Melissa. They also plant another 70 acres to make hay on their 60-head cow-calf operation using regenerative agriculture and grazing in Leetonia, Ohio.

Todd is a fourth-generation farmer who says being flexible has allowed him to adjust to the needs of the day. “Sometimes we rotational-graze, sometimes we strip-graze, sometimes we mob-graze,” he says. “It’s just whatever fits the time of year and what we are trying to accomplish.”

While rotational grazing is moving cattle from one paddock to another, strip grazing uses a rectangular field, and a polywire fence on one end is moved to provide a slice of fresh pasture.

“Mob grazing is increasing the number of head on a smaller area where cattle not only intensively graze, but they also trample things down and concentrate the nutrients,” Todd says. “Whatever we did last year is not necessarily what we’ll do at the same time this year or next. No two years are alike when you’re at the mercy of the weather — we just roll with it.”

The farm does not have a lot of high-tensile fence, as the temporary polywire provides the ability to adapt. He’s got his eye on building organic matter and nutrients to feed that grass production. “Our nutrient management plan, including soil sampling on portions of the farm every year, allows us to utilize our pen pack and the manure from our winter feeding. It’s a huge part of our success in growing grass,” Todd says.

Noting where nutrients are lacking allows him to spread manure and graze cattle harder in those areas. It’s also where they will unroll round bales in the wintertime — all focused on increasing organic matter.

Taking the helm

In 2007, Todd took over the farm from his father, Herman, who passed away in 2015. Todd’s grandfather was a livestock dealer, mostly selling hogs. “My dad grew up hauling hogs and cattle to sale barns, and my grandfather actually owned a sale barn just south of the homeplace years ago.”

Herman mostly share-cropped the farm when Todd was growing up, until he got to be about 13. “I decided I wanted to take ownership back,” Todd says. “So we grain-farmed and raised hogs until we transitioned to cattle when I was around 18. We haven’t planted corn probably in 10 years because it’s all hay and grass at this point — it’s a cattle farm on grass.”

Melissa, who is a schoolteacher, uses her summers to help work cows for breeding and breaking calves for fair. “She’s not a tractor driver, but the farm relies on her support and involvement every day,” Todd says. “That includes an occasional 5:30 a.m. call from me to help pull a calf on a cold March morning.”

The Millers try to manage the ground sustainably, while also keeping an eye on profitability with low overhead and inputs. “As farmers, we’re stewards of the land, and we only get back what we put in,” Todd says.

It’s about taking care of the grass, Todd says, as his cows don’t see any grain.

He started intensive, rotational grazing in 2002 with spring development and a pressurized watering system utilizing about 1,500 feet of aboveground line from a well head on the western side of the farm.

“We do haul water, but the eastern side of the farm we’ll take some hay off,” he says.

As the cooler fall temperatures move in, cattle will be moved to graze on fields where hay has been taken off.

In winter, cows have access to an open-sided, 52-by-112-foot steel building, where all the hay is fed. “The air movement is fantastic through there,” Todd says. “Ideally, if the weather is conducive, we would unroll a round bale and let them graze, but if that’s going to present more damage to the soil, as far as mudding it up and tearing up the topsoil, that’s when we move them into the pen pack. It’s a very fluid, flexible situation.”

The Millers have hosted multiple Eastern Ohio Grazing Council pasture walks and the Columbiana-Mahoning-Trumbull County Cattlemen’s Association annual picnic with a farm tour.

To support youth, Todd grows dandelions and collaborates with a local business, Birdfish Brewery, to create a dandelion hefeweizen that is sold with proceeds going to benefit Columbiana County 4-H youth.

Protecting heavy use areas

Todd hates mud. It’s hard on cattle and equipment, he says. “I don’t like tearing things up because it affects herd health when they have to walk through it or stand in it while eating. It also leaves the ground exposed and open to erosion, and then there goes our topsoil.”

The solution was to sacrifice areas, giving up acreage to put in heavy use pads and access roads where cattle are moved regularly, or where they are fed in the wet times of the year.

A quarter-acre pond on the property has some great fishing, and Todd plans to keep it for recreational use. Through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, he secured help installing an exclusion fence to keep the cows out and riparian setbacks to provide filter strips to the pond.

“The Columbiana County Soil and Water Conservation District and NRCS have been incredibly helpful with all our conservation practices and assisting us in acquiring cost-share money,” he says.

About 15 acres of woods are also on the property that he selectively manages for the health of the forest and to fuel his home heating system.

Todd splits his time between the farm and joint-managing the business his father started, Bolt-Biz-Nuts Co., with his brother, Herman Jr., who is a schoolteacher.

“It works out well because during the summer when he’s not as busy, he can lead the fastener business, while I’m busy on the farm,” Todd explains. “I also have three other brothers who don’t run the day-to-day of the farm, but I can call on any one of them to help.” 

Paying it forward

It’s Todd’s goal to have something worth passing on to the next generation, as was done with him.

Todd and Melissa’s oldest son, Wyatt, just graduated high school and is headed to Ohio State University, Wooster, to major in animal science, specializing in beef. “He does everything from feeding to breeding and everything in between,” Todd says. “He’s my right-hand man and has been for several years. I think he knows more about cows than I do sometimes.”

Their 16-year-old daughter is a junior in high school, shows cattle at the county fair and is also heavily involved in the operation.

Their youngest son, Ryker, 13, knows a lot about cows. “He’s going to have to step up as the herdsman and help out more when his brother is off to college,” Todd says.

The plan is to expand the herd, eventually, and become a larger producer of club calves and feedstock.

Doing things right can take some time, Todd emphasizes. “I’m old enough to know that if there’s a wrong way to do it, I probably tried it. But I’m young enough to keep learning and trying to do it the right way.”

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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