Turner Shorthorns relies on conservation to farm over former silica mine

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A man in a blue coat and a woman in a red coat stand in a pasture with several shorthorn cattle in the background.
Tom and Susie Turner, of Turner Shorthorns, at their cattle farm, in Somerset, Ohio, Jan. 27. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

SOMERSET, Ohio — In 2008, Tom and Susie Turner, of Turner Shorthorns, were looking for somewhere to start their cattle farm. Tom was a faculty member at Ohio State University, teaching animal science and coaching the livestock judging team. One of his students mentioned a 215 acre property, in Somerset, Ohio, to him when it came up for sale.

The property was exactly what they needed and wanted: rolling hills, some tree cover, plenty of land, just an hour away from Columbus. The catch?

It was a reclaimed silica mine. The Turners were buying directly from the mining company, and would be the first people to farm there since it was mined. Raising cattle there would come with challenges, including soil erosion and water management.

“I’m not sure we realized the extent of the issues that needed addressed,” Susie Turner said.

But even if they had, it probably wouldn’t have stopped them, Tom Turner added.

About 12 years later, on a gray Jan. 27, cows dot the hillsides around the Turners’ farm. Driving around the farm in a gator, with Trooper, the farm dog, running ahead, the Turners point out some of the work they’ve done over the years: fencing, watering systems and projects to address soil erosion and other issues.

Recently, the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association recognized the Turners for their commitment to improving the farm with its Environmental Stewardship Award.

“I think if you’re in agriculture, conservation is what you do,” Tom said.

Conservation

The company stopped mining around 2000, after about 25 years on the land, he said. The company filled in the mine, then added a few inches of topsoil. Now, the soil on the farm is fragile.

“It impacts where you put cows, when you move cows, how you move cows,” Susie said.

Managing water, grasses and erosion allows the Turners to graze their cattle, only housing them for short times during calving season.

The Turners rotate their cattle through about 30 different paddocks, moving them as often as every one to three days, depending on how much rainfall they get. This reduces wear and tear, gives the grass time to recover and keeps the cattle in a good environment. Rotational grazing increases the number of cattle they can raise by about 20-25%, Susie said.

When the Turners bought the property, the only structure there was a steel shop building. They’ve added a house, several barns and sheds, waterlines and fences for their cattle. They’ve also developed four springs. They keep their cattle fenced out of and work to improve their 50 acres of woodlands, a wetland area and four ponds.

The Turners are gearing up to start one more project to fill in some gullies in one area of the farm. Some of those gullies are as deep as six feet. After that, they’re hoping to be done with major projects and focus on just maintaining the land.

“I never will say it’s the last one, but that’s close to the last of the major projects,” Tom said.

The Turners have been also part of several research projects, including an aquaculture study with Ohio State, and a nutrient balancing study with Texas A&M University to measure manure and hay quality.

A woman in a red coat and a man in a blue coat stand together on a road on their farm.
Tom and Susie Turner’s farm, in Somerset, Ohio, is on a reclaimed silica mine. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Background

During Tom’s Ohio State years, they didn’t farm much — just a few acres for their children’s 4-H projects. But they both worked in agriculture. Susie grew up raising sheep for 4-H. She has an agriculture business degree and has worked for organizations including Monsanto and the Ohio Soybean Council.

Tom has served in leadership roles at the cattlemen’s association, the American Shorthorn Association and the Ohio Beef Council, and Susie is now on the beef council’s operating committee. Tom’s family has had shorthorns for over 100 years.

The Turners sell their cattle for genetics to other cattle farmers, and sell many of their steer calves for 4-H projects. They’re always trying to improve their herd’s genetics. At this point, about 60-70% of the herd was born on their farm.

They started small the first year, since Tom was still working at Ohio State. Now, the farm is Tom’s full focus, and they’re up to about 70 cows. Susie still works in real estate. She does much of her work from home, but sometimes has to make the long drive into Columbus.

“It’s a nice place to come home to,” Susie said about the farm. “It’s our home, our vacation, our hobby, our occupation; it’s all of those.”

Looking out his bedroom window, Tom can see hills, rock faces and trees, and the cows grazing in the fields make the view even better.

Farm life

That doesn’t mean their work is easy. It’s just the two of them, and having 70 cattle pushes their limits for labor. Calving season, which just started in late January, is especially challenging.

The Turners rotate the cows through a calving barn as their due dates come up.

The calving barn is only about a quarter mile from the Turners’ house, but that’s a long way at 1 a.m. They have camera feeds from the barn set up on the TV in their living room so they can check on the cows from a distance overnight, or in the evening while flipping to the camera feeds during commercials.

“It’s crazy, but to watch that life happen, that’s pretty rewarding when you think about the past year of breeding that cow, nurturing that cow,” Susie said.

A woman in a red coat stands next to an electric fence and several shorthorn cattle.
Susie Turner opens a gate to a pasture at the Turners’ farm, in Somerset, Ohio, Jan. 27. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Success

The award from the cattlemen’s association was an honor, Susie said, and listing some of the projects they’ve done on their land made her realize just how many there have been.

They aren’t afraid to call in experts, either. They’ve worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, their local extension office and their local soil and water conservation district on things like spring development and water, grass and soil management.

“We solicit as much help as we can find to help us … make the best decision we can,” Tom said.

Improving the grass and the soil lets their cattle graze with less support from feed and hay, and makes the Turners’ business easier and more profitable.

“I hope what we’re doing will inspire somebody else,” Tom said. “We’re all in this together.”

They’re also seeing the fruits of their labor in the body condition of their cattle, which is better now than it’s ever been.

“We feel like that’s a personal accomplishment,” Susie said. “We try to please ourselves, and I think we have.”

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