The timing was perfect. Laid off from his construction job in 2008, J.L. Draganic decided to visit a new farm 200 miles away that a family member had just bought. He returned to Lake County with more than fond memories. He had a new job that combined his passion for agriculture, made use of his construction skills and eventually allowed him to start his own cow-calf operation.
“I came down to visit and wound up making a career out of it. My background in heavy equipment allowed me to quickly adapt to running the big tractors,” J.L. said. “I’ve had a love of cattle all my life and this became the perfect job for me.”
J.L. prides himself in taking whatever he has, whether it’s his skills or land, and making the most of it. He works full time for Ricketts Farm Inc., and he and his wife, Jessica, own Paint Creek Cattle, an Angus-based cow-calf operation in South Solon. They are the winners of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association’s 2013 Environmental Stewardship Award for beef.
The couple was honored to receive the award.
“It’s great to be recognized for this and to show people the importance of stewardship,” J.L. said. “You put work into something and it pays back. It’s a great feeling to do that and know we’re doing our part.”
While walking through the pasture where his cows are grazing, it’s obvious that J.L. loves this 45-acre lot. And he doesn’t even own it — he rents it. J.L. stops to point out a long, curvy line of fencing that hugs Paint Creek. He put in the fencing to keep his 35 cows out of the creek, protecting the waterway from unwanted nutrients and erosion. Nearby is a gate that allows the cattle to cross the creek with minimal damage.
The hilly area can be prone to flooding and stream bank erosion, but a mass of mint growing along the creek holds the soil in place and makes for a pleasant smelling pasture.
Taking proper care of the grass is key to the success of the couple’s operation.
“This is how we live. We have to take care of it. I like to say that we manage the grass, not the cattle. The cows are pretty self-sufficient in the summer,” said J.L. who used Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding three years ago to put in a heavy use pad for storing manure and keeping the cattle on during the winter.
Out in the pasture, J.L. put in a grassy alleyway so the cows could easily move in and out of each paddock.
“It helps us keep them safe as well as us. It’s low stress for the cows because they know where they have to go. We can run them up the main alleyway to a facility and work on them,” he said.
Temporary fencing allows J.L. to divide up the 45 acres into 8 to 12 pastures. He rotates the cows among the pastures every 1.5 to 2 weeks to prevent the soil from being trampled down too much and give the grass time to recover. During last year’s drought, he was able to rotate his cows enough to keep them on grass until August.
J.L. has the fencing set up so he can turn it on and off as needed, which comes in handy when the bottom pasture floods.
“When it rains enough, Paint Creek will flood and anything the neighbor has in their fields comes down into that pasture,” he said. “We try to keep the grass a certain height down there. As the water slowly recedes, it drops any sediments or nutrients in our pasture and fertilizes it for us, which is kind of handy. It allows us to use that pasture a little bit heavier than the other ones.”
Rye is also planted as a cover crop at a field next to J.L.’s pasture, and he lets the cows out into the field in late fall for additional feed. Another cover crop that J.L. likes to use after the wheat is harvested is oats. He wraps about 50 bales for hay and feed in the winter.
J.L. took advantage of a nearby artesian well to provide water for his cows out in the pasture. Using EQIP funding, he put in a windmill that pumps water to two concrete stock tanks that he put in.
Instead of buying the tanks, J.L. took a piece of 48-inch concrete sewer pipe and turned it on its side. He poured concrete inside it to make the bottom.
“If you’ve got a construction background, you may as well use it,” said J.L. who graduated from Hocking College with a degree in environmental reclamation, heavy equipment based. “I love running heavy equipment and construction and this was a great way to use my skills.”
During college, J.L. took mapping and mechanics classes and learned about EPA regulations, which has helped him on the farm.
“My degree gave me a very good understanding of the environment and it also taught me how to map out field tile and the best practice for that,” he said.
While working on Ricketts’ nearly 2,000 acres, J.L. uses many environmental stewardship practices, including variable rate technology for spreading fertilizer.
“We’re only putting on what we need and where we need it,” he said. “It helps save on costs for fertilizer and we’re not over applying. Phosphorus levels can be a problem for farmers and it’s good to know we’re doing our part.”
The land has filter strips, grassed waterways and water and sediment control basins that reduce the amount of runoff and sediment leaving the fields. About 60 acres near Sugar Creek are set aside in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. Native grasses planted through the program have not only helped preserve the land, but have become a habitat for pheasants and bobwhite quail.
J.L. credits his grandfather for instilling a love of cattle in him. He grew up in Lake County and would visit his grandfather’s farm where he raised 15 to 20 head of cattle. A family tradition was gathering every year to butcher a steer on the farm.
“My grandma has pictures of me when I was 3 years old out in the barn, pitchfork in manure, helping clean out the barn with my grandfather. He made me my own shovel and pitchfork to help clean the barn out,” he said.
While working construction in northeast Ohio, J.L. rented a 120-acre farm where he grew hay and raised a few cows. He and Jessica, who grew up on a fifth-generation farm in Huron County, hadn’t been dating very long when he got the job offer to work at Ricketts, which is run by Gene and Jo Baumgardner.
“I encouraged him because truthfully he was miserable working construction full time. He loved that 120-acre farm and if he could make it a full-time job, I was very supportive of it,” said Jessica, who was an organization director for Ohio Farm Bureau at the time and now is a loan officer for Farm Credit Services.
J.L. brought the cows to Fayette County with him and the next year he added more. The couple keeps some replacement heifers and said docility traits are just as important as good quality genetics. Jessica said the bull was friendlier than some of the cows.
“We have to work around these animals. I don’t want to have to worry when somebody goes up there to check on them,” J.L. said. “We want cows that produce good quality calves. We want to get them on the ground, get them up and grow them the best we can and do it as efficiently as possible.”
They have a spring and fall vaccination program that includes a wormer, ear tags and pour-on fly control. They do one round of AI before turning them out to the bull. Calving starts Sept. 1 and the calves are sold through word of mouth. Their goal is to buy their own property so they can raise crops and increase the size of the herd. They would like to raise F1 base female Angus-Simmentals or purebreds.
The Draganics are confident they will reach their goals some day, citing the strong support they get from family members.
“You’ve got to have the passion and drive to work toward it and you’ve got to have great support from the family,” J.L. said.
He also said the support from industry organizations such as OCA are critical.
“Without these organizations and volunteers that serve on the boards, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do. You have to do that part of the job too so you can come home and do what you love,” he said.
Reposted with permission from the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association.