WAYNESBURG, Ohio – Mike Roberts says he has the Heinz 57 of farms. There’s a little of everything on his 180 acres in Carroll County – meat chickens, egg-laying chickens, turkeys, beef cattle, dairy cattle, garden produce, homemade biodiesel.
Through this hodgepodge of interests, Mike and his wife, Dawn, are striving to meet one goal. Sustainable agriculture.
The couple began farming in 2004 after a lot of research and they knew from the start they wanted to provide natural, pasture-based products. Both felt it would be the most economical and practical way for them to operate.
“This sounded like a really good fit for the farm,” Mike said.
Mike and Dawn started slowly, first selling eggs from their farm on a part-time basis. They added a crop of turkeys and some beef cattle before turning the operation into their full-time career in 2006.
Cattle. In January 2007, the couple took on another big enterprise – dairy farming. They milk a herd of 19 Normande and Normande-cross cattle, a breed known for its meat characteristics and its ability to produce milk on a forage diet.
The dairy is grass based, so the cows produce less milk than a conventional dairy animal, but there are fewer feed costs, which evens things out in the end, Mike said.
They ship Grade A, organic milk to HP Hood Dairy in New York where it’s sold under the name Stoneyfield Farms Organic Milk. The family is also looking at making homemade yogurt, butter and cheese.
The Robertses have a somewhat unusual goal as dairy farmers – they’d like to be seasonal producers.
“Our goal is to not be milking in January, February, March,” Mike said.
With two young sons – Michael and Paul – the couple said they want time to focus on things besides the farm.
If all goes according to plan, Mike and Dawn should have a seasonal dairy by next year.
The pair will also add another element to their dairy in April and begin offering herd share agreements.
Like the dairy cattle, the family’s beef cattle are on an all-forage diet. A managed intensive grazing program provides white and sweet red clover, rye grass and orchard grass.
They raised 10 Angus-Hereford steers in 2007 and sold wholes, halves, split halves and cuts.
Organic. The farm has been certified organic since November 2006 through the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. All of the Roberts’ products, except the milk, are marketed directly from the farm.
Mike and Dawn are the seventh generation of Mike’s family to farm the land, although much of the property hadn’t been used for nearly 30 years before the couple moved in.
Poultry. In addition to the cattle, the Robertses are working on a management plan to use the dairy herd and 70 free-range egg layers to benefit the farm. They hope to build a moveable shelter and put the chickens three to four days behind the dairy cows’ pasture rotation. The chickens will scratch apart the manure piles and eat the fly larvae. That will not only distribute the manure as fertilizer, but also help with controlling flies on the farm.
Mike and Dawn buy mature birds from a hatchery and replace the egg-laying flock each year in order to keep up with customer orders. Old birds are sold as soup birds.
They plan to raise about 300 range-fed meat chickens and 35-50 range-fed turkeys this year. These birds will be housed in portable range shelters that can be moved daily.
Biodiesel. Economics and sustainability are also the driving force behind Mike’s homemade biodiesel project. The farmer received a grant in 2006 from the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program that allowed him to buy a 40-gallon biodiesel processor.
Then, he had to decide if he wanted to fork over the money for new cooking oil or if he wanted to deal with “dirty, nasty” used oil. In the end, economics won out and Mike now collects used cooking oil from local schools and restaurants.
It’s not pretty, he said, but it’s free.
So far, the project hasn’t caused too many headaches.
“I figured I’d screw up at least two or three batches before I got it right,” said the former mechanical engineer. But it turned out to be successful from the start.
“Everything I’ve read has worked or come true,” he added.
Overall, Mike estimates his biodiesel costs between $1 and $1.50 per gallon. All of the fuel is used in the farm’s John Deere 2940. During cooler months, Mike uses a B20 blend, but he hopes to run B100 in the summer.
The farmer doesn’t have plans for large-scale biodiesel production, but he is interested in helping others learn how to make it, he said.
With everything from fuel to chickens to cows on the farm, it can be quite a balancing act to keep things running smoothly.
But it’s that balancing act that makes the Roberts’ farm viable and sustainable. There’s a lot of security in having a little bit of everything.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)