NEW WILMINGTON, Pa. — Meet Loren and Darren Elder, two brothers who grew up wanting to farm, and now they are working to make their operation their own.
They have doubled the amount of land they own since graduating high school and feel that thinking outside of the box is what keeps their farm growing.
Loren and Darren grew up following their grandfather, Carl, around on the Lawrence County family farm. They watched as he farmed and worked with the Natural Resource Conservation Service to implement conservation projects.
Almost 30 years later, the memories are still fresh and now it is the grandsons who are working with the NRCS to get projects done in their operation.
The brothers produce beef cattle, corn, soybeans and wheat on their land. They raise about 70 calves a year, farming 305 owned acres plus additional crop land and pastures.
Loren, 31, works full-time on the farm and Darren, 29, juggles a full-time, off-the-farm job with his work on the farm.
In an effort to make the operation profitable, the men have turned their attention to grazing their cattle.
The cattle are mainly Angus and are bred to have a moderate frame, so that they do well on grass. The Elders have a customer for the cattle once they are weaned. A neighbor finishes the cattle out on grass and then markets the beef himself.
Both brothers said they feel if they can lower their cost of production through grazing, then they can make the beef operation more profitable.
Loren said stockpiling forage like graziers in other areas does not work for their operation because of the landscape. This means they are more dependent on hay when the grass stops growing.
However, four years ago, Loren and Darren tried something new. Something their grandfather thought was crazy. Now, no one thinks they are crazy.
They planted a field of turnips and radishes as a way to provide the cattle with something to eat in an attempt to reduce the amount of hay needed.
The Elders admit that when they turned the cattle out on the turnips the first time, they thought maybe they had wasted their money. But within a couple of days, the cattle had developed a taste for the vegetables and had began chomping on the field.
“There’s no fun in feeding round bales. There’s a lot of satisfaction in watching the cows take over a field of turnips when we turn them out,” said Darren.
Loren said the secret to making a profit is in the production costs.
“If we can lower the hay cost with grazing turnips, it helps the bottom line,” he said.
The benefits of using turnips and radishes are exponential for this farm. The cattle begin eating the leaves, which contains the energy content. Another benefit is that as the cattle move across the paddock and eat the turnips, they help deposit the manure onto the soil and as they are tramping across it, they push the nutrients into the ground.
The fields where the turnips were planted had been in wheat and after the July harvest, the turnips and radishes were planted in late July.
The wheat is sold at market and the Elders have a customer base for the straw.
The farm planted a total of 35 acres of the vegetables for the cattle to graze.
“We are trying to look outside of the box to extend the grazing system so that we only have to feed hay for four months out of the year,” said Loren. “This fits into our system. It might not work for others, but it works for us.”
The Elders also graze their cattle in harvested cornfields. The corn is combined and then the cattle graze among the cornstalks, and are also fed some hay.
The brothers say it cuts down on the amount of hay the cattle need by using the cornstalks.
When the Elders decided to pursue grazing with their herd, they made changes in fence lines utilizing a perimeter fence on the property, which is then divided using polywire, as the farm decides how much grass is needed by the herd every day.
One of the projects the Elders completed in their grazing plan through the NRCS was installing a frost freeze nose pump developed in Canada for their cattle.
One of the paddocks had no water available and the plan needed to include a way to get the cattle water.
Loren and Darren said the nose pump was their grandfather’s idea. He told them if they dug into the ground, they would uncover water not far below the surface.
The brothers drilled with an excavator 16 feet below the surface and found water. They created an underground reservoir with gravel at the bottom and then ran a pipe to the surface into the nose pump.
Within a couple of days, the cattle had acquired the skill necessary and were using their noses to get the water to drink.
The pump does not freeze partly because it contains 4-inch insulation at the top of the pump.
Darren said the pump cuts down on the amount of time chores take in the winter. It allows the farmers to more quickly check on the cattle, ensure they have water, check the hay supply and get back to their chores.
He added that they care about their cattle, but also believe profits are not made by spending a large amount of time breaking ice for a water supply.
“They (the cattle) work for us,” said Darren.
The Elders believe that a lot of infrastructure is not needed in order to produce quality cows and make a profit.
“I used to think cement and buildings were necessary, but I have discovered that cattle do very well with this system,” said Loren.
He added volatility in the market makes an investment in large infrastructure shaky because there is no guarantee.
The duo have also found that having the cattle in pastures and not in barns helps develop an open dialogue with the public.
“There are no secrets here. It’s all out in the open,” said Loren.
In addition to the grazing fences and walking paths to move cattle, the farm also has enclosed part of the pond so that cattle can use a ramp to get a drink of water but they can’t get into the pond.
Another project the Elders have constructed is the use of a solar pump on their second farm. It provides a consistent water supply for cattle stationed there.
The farm also has a pressured hydrant system with 3,700 feet of pipeline to provide water to individual grazing paddocks.
On another area of the farm, a springbox sits on the hillside. It helps to feed into cement waterers in some of the paddocks. A petlock on the waterers lets the Elders regulate flow into them.
In total, there are six spring developments on three farms to ensure the pastures have an adequate water supply.
“Water is the key to grazing,” said Loren.
The cattle calve inside the barn and not outside. The Elders say it ensures the calves a healthy start, but Darren is quick to point out that it is not a pampered environment.
The farm aims to calve in April so that the cattle are not fighting the weather, which enables a higher success rate.
“Breeding with nature instead of against it is what our granddad taught us,” said Loren, with Darren shaking his head in unison.
The Elders have made changes in their operation so that it is not like the past six generations that have farmed there, but they working to keep tradition in it as well.
Just like all family farms, they couldn’t succeed without the help of their uncle Dale Elder or Loren’s wife, Jodie Elder.