Ohio Farmer

Master Farmer Bret Margraf embraces regenerative system

He keeps going deeper into the soil with roots and hooves.

Jennifer Kiel, Editor, Michigan Farmer and Ohio Farmer

March 9, 2022

8 Slides

Is it possible for agriculture to take a 360?

Bret Margraf, a fourth-generation farmer based out of McCutchenville, Ohio, remembers the 1970s, when the farm had cows on pasture, and corn, soybeans, wheat and hay growing in the fields.

Over the years, the farm transitioned out of hay and animals to mostly a corn-soybean rotation with a little bit of wheat.

Now, Bret and his father, Gene, have transitioned back to a full three-crop rotation with wheat. And four years ago, Bret’s son, Jace, 17, started a cow-calf (Red Poll breed) operation, bringing animals back to the farm.

“Reintroducing animals is my driving goal — to improve soil health dynamics through the animal and the ruminant,” says Bret, who embraces regenerative agriculture. Jace’s twin brother, Kael, has added some lambs and is expanding his flock. The twins also introduced chickens on the farm — they’re up to about 20.

 “And if there’s a little bit of profit to be made through those animals, more power to the kids because that’s their side of it,” says Bret, who is more interested in what the animals bring to his farming system.

He put up a perimeter fence around the 100-acre home farm. “We run the cows across every acre at least once a year,” he says. “I don’t have to spread manure, and I don’t have to haul hay, for the most part. They work for me, rather than putting them in a barn and me working for them.”

Bret joined his dad farming in 1998. Today, they are farming 1,250 acres with minimal machinery, while embracing no-till, cover crops and other conservation practices.

“Healthy soil has always been one of Bret’s primary farm goals, so the next generations of Margrafs have productive and vigorous acres to grow things on,” says Beth Diesch, team leader for the Seneca Conservation District.

Bret’s off-farm job is a nutrient management technician with the Seneca Conservation District. He’s used to recognizing others for farming and conservation achievements, but this time he’s (reluctantly) on the other end, as Diesch nominated Bret as a 2022 Ohio Master Farmer.

“The Margraf family focus is on continuous improvements on each of their goals — making what they made better last year better again,” Diesch says. “They keep going deeper into the soil [with roots and hooves only] for more complex and robust health. Spreading out to more acres may happen as each of the children makes their life choices, and Bret is preparing to help them grow, whatever they choose.”

Other choices

Growing up on the farm, Bret was a farmhand. But when he left for college at Bowling Green State University, he had no intention of going back to the farm, although he did come home on the weekends. “I never envisioned myself being a farmer,” he says. “Not that I looked down on it or anything, I just didn’t think there was a future for me in the late ’80s.”

It wasn’t until the late 1990s, after Gene’s uncle Bob died, that Bret decided to farm with his dad. He left his school administrator position and went to work for the soil and water conservation district because it allowed him to pursue farming.

Bret met his wife, Beth, in college. She is a speech and language specialist for Tiffin City School, and after 26 years of marriage, they have four children, Chet, 23, who has a civil engineering degree from Ohio Northern University and is a county engineer technician; daughter, Aubrey, 20, is a full-time student studying early childhood education at Capital University; and twin boys Jace and Kael, 17, high school juniors.

“She’s not a city girl, but she’s not a farm girl,” Bret says of Beth. “But she has become a farm wife. She’s played a really big role in bringing the animals on the farm.”

Bret, who has been a wrestling coach at his alma mater, Mohawk High School, for 24 years, is the secretary of the Ohio No-Till Council and has hosted more than 10 field days at his farm. He’s also participated in many videos to inspire others to adopt conservation practices.

No-till farming is not only good for the soil, but it also helps simplify farming, Bret says. “We farm with two tractors — relatively small with roughly 160 horsepower — and one combine. So, our overhead is really low, and our maintenance is minimal. That’s how we make it work.”

There are a lot of challenges in a regenerative agriculture system, he points out. “There are a lot of positive things, but I always try to tell both sides. There are some pitfalls and ugliness, so it can be a double-edged sword.”

He doesn’t proclaim to have any particular special skill other than being willing to try something new and make mistakes.

The Margrafs were some of the first to try annual ryegrass. “It can be tough when it’s planted too thick. We reduced the seeding rate and use it in a blend,” Bret says.

The full circle concept has played out with waterways, as well, Bret explains, as many were installed 20 years ago, but are now being taken out. “We don’t need them with our regenerative practices — we don’t necessarily need a permanent sod waterway when something is living out there year-round,” he says. “So, what we were doing to make things better, we’ve now kind of gone the other way, and I think it’s still making things better. It certainly makes it easier to farm when we don’t have a waterway running diagonally through a field.”

The farm has installed some water-control structures, at first to control manure nutrients from moving off-site, but now they are used primarily for controlling the water table and reducing losses in the winter months.

Bret cites Dave Brandt and Lynn Eberhard as mentors. “Dave’s door is always open, and he’s more than willing to help and give advice, but he doesn’t cast aspersions on those who are nervous or afraid to try something,” Bret says. “He’s so valuable to us here in Ohio and across the nation.”

Eberhard is a former co-worker of Bret’s. “He’s been doing cover crops for probably 30 years or more,” he says. “He was probably the one who got me into cover crops. And it’s kind of funny because I’ve heard him reference me in his expansion of cover crops.”

Golf is like farming, Bret says, “because when you maybe think you have mastered it, it bites you in the behind to remind you, you really don’t know as much as you thought. I’m grateful for this award, but it’s hard to accept because who knows what 2022 and beyond will bring?”

Bret Margraf at a glance

Farm: Bret Margraf farms 1,250 acres, raising corn, wheat, soybeans, hay, chickens, sheep and grass-fed beef, and he custom-grain harvests.

Ag and community leadership: Secretary of Ohio No-Till Council; hosted more than 10 field days and worked to produce conservation videos; worked with Seneca Conservation District office for many years and is employed as its nutrient management technician; head wrestling coach at Mohawk High School and continues now as an assistant, volunteer coach; works with his church performing maintenance and grounds; maintains local baseball fields

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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