Living off the land in Ohio’s Harrison County

CADIZ, Ohio — The land is hilly and empty near this old coal-mining town in southeastern Ohio. Forested areas give way to open valleys and meadows, ravines and more forests. The scenery is the same for thousands of acres in any direction. Houses are sparse and deer and other wildlife seem to outnumber the people who live here.

A history in coal

Decades ago, as late as the 1940s and 1950s, coal miners staked their claims in this region, mining and stripping the land for the black gem that became their way of life, supporting families and communities, making some wealthy and leaving some injured or dead.

Today, much of the land that once comprised the coal mines in Ohio’s Harrison County has been reclaimed, gorges smoothed with machines, new ponds and lakes formed and a covering of crown vetch and birdsfoot trefoil.

Right conditions

It’s a nearly perfect condition for cattleman James Coffelt, who bought a 1,000-acre ranch just south of Cadiz in February, and relocated from another ranch in Cadiz.

He’s been raising beef cattle since 2000, but not quite like the ones he now has.

Coffelt has no planting or harvesting equipment, no plow or tillage equipment, and he has only one tractor. There’s no barns for cattle or hay storage and there’s no bins for grain. Yet his 150 registered Angus breeding cows are fat and healthy, and so are the heifers and bull calves they produce each year.

From the seat of an all-terrain Kubota vehicle, he hollers across his pastures and the cattle come near. Coffelt admits they could have bigger frames and finish faster if raised on grain and hay. But his goal is to be efficient, which he says comes with smaller-frame cattle that make the most of their natural environment.

“It’s not performance cattle, if anything, they’re low-performance cattle,” he said. “But because they’re efficient, because you can run more of them, because you can get through the winter with minimal inputs, your costs are much lower and the beef production is greater.”

Production philosophy

Coffelt follows three main production philosophies.

First, using the resources already on the farm in a way they can be maximized. For him, it’s through rotational grazing and large pastures.

His second goal is to keep inputs as low as possible, if inputs are even necessary. Outside of natural grass, he feeds hay for only about eight weeks a year in winter, but is trying to reduce that, as well.

The cattle are able to survive and thrive on grass largely because of his third goal, which is good genetics. He prefers smaller-frame cattle with big guts (capacity), and is quick to cull any that are too large or do not birth calves on their own.

Coffelt figures by raising smaller-frame cattle, he is able to produce about 10 percent more beef per acre, and market seedstock that are more attractive to buyers, because they’re more durable and efficient.

Trucked to Colorado

Shortly after his bull calves are weaned, they’re trucked West to Pharo Cattle Company in southeastern Colorado, where they’re raised into mature bulls and sold during annual seedstock sales. Coffelt is a contracted producer, and is paid a percentage following the sales.

Kit Pharo, who manages Pharo Cattle Co., an 11,000-acre ranch in Cheyenne Wells, Colo., oversees cooperators like Coffelt, who grow cattle around the country according to his standards.

“We’ve got them (producers) in different environments so different things apply, but it’s the same basic type of genetics and low-input philosophy,” Pharo said.

Pharo began his low-input, high-efficiency program with seven bulls in 1985. Today, he figures he sells 700-800 bulls a year.

High value

Coffelt said an average Pharo bull will sell for $3,700, well above market price for grain-fed bulls. That may be out of range for some smaller producers, but his lower-third of production usually sells for $1,500-$2,500, a more affordable price for a bull that will still out-perform many, he said.

“When you consider these bulls will breed longer and more cows, spending a little bit extra makes some sense,” Coffelt said.

He uses one Pharo bull to breed up to 75 cows, a number he said the bull has proven to breed successfully, while keeping good health.

Pharo said cow/calf producers have experienced profitability the past 12 years and expects they will continue to do so, if they can learn to manage inputs and breed cattle that make the most from the land.

Network of support

Pharo sends weekly e-mails to about 12,000 people across the country, updating them about production practices or sharing Biblical lessons and insight.

Coffelt said he hopes to continue improving the efficiency of his herd, and is in the process of building a log cabin on top of one of his many hills. Currently, he lives 80 miles north of Cadiz, in Stark County’s Hartville. He estimates he spends at least three days a week at the ranch, but with ponds and streams in every pasture, and cattle that care for themselves, he could be away much longer without issue.

Coffelt’s biggest farmhand is his cow dog, Jake, who helps move them from one pasture to another.

“He and I can get more done in one hour than four people in four hours,” he said, jokingly.

The right plan. Coffelt could sell his own bulls without going through Pharo Cattle Co. But with such a reputation and market plan, it just makes good sense.

“It seemed to me that if there was a business model that is capable of producing 10 percent or more beef off the same land and forage resources, it was wise to do,” he said.

Through his cattle production methods, Coffelt also is making an improvement to soil that many would disregard. Because there’s no tilling, very little is ever disturbed or lost through erosion.

And, everything his cattle eat and drink is directly deposited back onto the ground — reclaiming nutrient content — which helps restore soil,increase the growth of grass and, ultimately, improve the quality of his herd.

About the Author

Chris Kick lives in Wooster, Ohio. An American FFA Degree recipient, he holds a bachelor’s in creative writing from Ashland University. He spends his free time on his grandparents’ farms in Wayne and Holmes counties. More Stories by Chris Kick

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