(The rural ag scene is made up of many people who often go unrecognized. In 2016, our Rural Roles series will feature some of those personalities, and why their voices are so important to agriculture.)
HANOVERTON, Ohio — Some could say conservation is a family thing for the Conkle family. However, Pete Conkle never considered a future in it — it was just something his family did.
In 1999, Conkle had a different plan. He had returned home after graduating from the Ohio State University with a degree in wildlife biology management. He started applying for graduate school, planning to leave the farm — and Ohio.
That plan got derailed by some cows he purchased.
Even his dad, Larry, thought he was crazy.
Instead of grad school, Conkle went to work for Gary Irwin, owner of K&S Millwrights at the time, and learned welding skills and how to deal with the public while he worked there for a couple of years.
Then, in 2002, a phone call changed his plans again.
It was Kevin Swope, who was leaving the Columbiana Soil and Water Conservation District and thought Conkle would be a good successor because of the conservation work on the Conkle farm.
“I thought he would be a good fit to fill in after I left,” said Swope.
Fast forward to 2016. Pete works as a technician at the Columbiana Soil and Water Conservation District and was recognized earlier this year by the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association for his own farm’s environmental stewardship efforts.
His cattle operation has grown from those few cows he purchased in the late 1990s to a herd of 50 today. He now operates a commercial, grass-fed Red Angus operation near Hanoverton, in southern Columbiana County. He starts calving in the middle of April and finishes up around the first of June.
Color does matter
Conkle said he always heard Black Angus was the only way to go, and for some, it is still the only way to go.
“Everyone said we needed cows with a black hide,” said Conkle.
He got started with his registered Red Angus herd when he went to a sale in Old Washington, Ohio, and bought his first open heifer.
He immediately saw the benefits the Red Angus brought to his operation.
Conkle said his cattle herd is fenced out of the woods, which doesn’t create much shade for the animals. He said he always found the black cattle panting in the middle of the summer, which hampered weight gain.
“They just struggle with the heat and no shade,” said Conkle.
So now, while his herd isn’t only Red Angus, he is working to make it entirely Red Angus.
“I like them because they are quiet and handle well.”
Conkle said they just continually eat, and the heat doesn’t impede them. He also finds them to be more docile and better mothers.
Conkle serves on the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association board of directors and is also a board member of the Columbiana-Mahoning-Trumbull Cattlemen’s Association.
Conservation and cattle
Cattle isn’t the only thing on Conkle’s mind. What Conkle loves to do is to combine what he has learned from working at the SWCD with his cattle herd and on the farm.
He was able to do that by helping to establish the Eastern Ohio Grazing Council through the Columbiana SWCD.
He said he likes the combination of the SWCD and cattle because no two days are alike.
Conkle said it was clear the farm was not going to support the number of cattle that he was producing in his herd. The acreage was hilly and growing crops was just not his favorite thing.
However, the farm could grow grass. Conkle said he and his dad transitioned the farm from row crops to grass over years.
“The cattle herd kept growing and we needed more feed, so we kept transitioning acres,” said Conkle.
He said he rotates the 50 pairs every 24 hours during the grazing season. They are provided an acre and a quarter for grazing.
Check out other stories in this Rural Roles series:
January: Amish farmer and author shares story of the simple life.
February: Mary doesn’t have a little lamb, but she is a friend of the sheep industry.
March: Connie Finton volunteers off the farm to build quality of life for her family.
May: Gerards helped give equine trail riders miles of opportunity.
July: Passion for the fair runs deep: Tanya Marty.
August: Tuscarawas County farmer answers the call of his industry
September: It’s all because of the Jersey cow
October: Risky business: Tire repair has its share of dangers
November: Family tradition, trees and rescue
Conkle said intensive grazing management works for his operation because it means low inputs. The cow herd is fed solely grass the majority of the year, but they do get additional hay in the winter.
Conkle admits the tractor seat is not his favorite place to be, so by not having to grow crops for the cattle herd, he can spend less time in the seat.
He loves the grazing end of cattle production and teaching others about the benefits.
“We all have a responsibility to give back. Whether it’s the SWCD or a seat on the board at the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association to represent northeast Ohio,” he said.
Conkle’s stewardship efforts began by fencing the stream on the farm in order to protect it from cattle.
“I don’t just worry about cattle. I worry about the water quality,” said Conkle.
But his first involvement with the Columbiana SWCD began in 1998. He said there was an emergency conservation program and his parents were interested in it.
They were interested in developing the springs on the property and the funding helped to purchase one of the first concrete water tanks on the property.
That was the start. Now, the farm features 7,000 feet of 1-inch pressured water line. By having the pressurized waterline, Conkle is able to divide the pastures so that the cattle can be moved from paddock to paddock to get the biggest benefits out of intensive grazing.
“It (the waterline) is good for the cattle. They don’t have to travel a lot to get their water, which means they can concentrate on grazing — which means a greater gain,” said Conkle.
There are now four concrete stock tanks on the farm that don’t freeze. The waterline is drained at the end of November because it can freeze since it is on top of the ground.
And the streams Conkle started out fencing, now include 3,600 feet of stream exclusion fence, which is designed to keep cattle out of the streams on the property.
“My granddad and his great-granddad would be happy to see what he has done,” said Larry Conkle, Pete’s dad.
Conkle said the home farm where his parents live was his grandparents’ farm, and they were the first to build conservation projects.
His dad adopted tillage strips and his grandparents built ponds on the farm dating back to 1952.
“The last 14 years have flown by. I couldn’t ask for a better job,” said Conkle.
Conkle is very humbled to be in the position he is at the SWCD.
He said he appreciates being able to work in the community in which he grew up in. He purchased a farm not far from his parents’ farm in 2010 and it has allowed both properties to be used for grazing. He said by living close to his parents and his sister and brother-in-law, it makes life easier for everyone.
“Some days can be a headache; I couldn’t do it without them,” said Conkle.
Five Minutes With Pete Conkle
YOUR FIRST JOB OR CHORE? Feeding hogs and delivering baby pigs.
YOUR BEST FAMILY MEMORY?
Conkle said his best memory was when he received his award from the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association in January. He said it meant a lot to him to have his entire family, including his mom and dad, Alice and Larry Conkle, along with his sister and brother-in-law, Mary Alice and Josh Sigler, his niece, Tatym Sigler, and his significant other, Tammie Ambrose, there to help him accept the honor. “To be recognized by cattlemen from across the state was an honor all of its own. But the award wouldn’t have been possible without what my family has done to help me as well. We have worked together to get it all done,” said Conkle.
PEOPLE WOULD BE SURPRISED TO KNOW:
“That I raise chickens. I raise several batches of broilers out on pasture just like the cattle.”
YOUR FAVORITE VACATION DESTINATION?
Conkle likes to travel out of state for bull sales and beef production sales. He said the trips give him a chance to see other farms and how they operate.
TELL US ONE THING ON YOUR BUCKET LIST?
To travel to Africa someday and work with farmers there on grazing management.
BURGER OR STEAK?
DO YOU HAVE A NICKNAME? “Disco.” No comment on what it means except that he got it in college.
THE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE EVER RECEIVED?
“Money isn’t everything.” He said that people often assume since he has a government job that money isn’t an issue. But what he says people forget is that he works for the county government and money can be a problem. However, he has learned to live within his means.