TOMAHAWK, Wis. – Jerry Conlan believes eating well is fundamental to healthy living. He also believes a large percentage of money spent on mainstream health care could be eliminated by eating, drinking and breathing well.
“My hope is that our farm can have a positive impact on these fundamental elements of life,” he said.
Nostalgia was a motivating factor that led him to his 73-acre farm near Tomahawk.
“My grandfather had beef cattle near Tripoli, Wisconsin, when I was young,” he said. “I have fond memories of walking with him through his pastures amongst the cattle and how peaceful it was.”
He decided early on he wanted that life someday.
“And here we are,” he said.
His wife, Stephanie Conlan, recalled the two looking for land and driving by the property they now own.
“That place right there,” they said. “That’s where we should farm.”
It belonged to a man who eventually responded to a letter they sent inquiring about the property; the couple bought the land
After establishing a Hereford herd in 2008 near Argonne, Wisconsin, at her parents’ 300-cow dairy farm, the couple in 2012 broke ground for a home at their Tomahawk farm. They’ve grown their Hereford numbers from within; they currently have 27 cow-calf pairs from their original eight Hereford mothers. They raise Hereford cattle and direct-market grass-fed beef.
The Conlan model is one of simplicity. One of the few hints that one is on a working cattle farm is a Temple Grandin-designed cattle corral composed of railroad ties and lumber in front of the home. The corral is designed to work cattle calmly. It’s laid out in a circular pattern that is more natural for cattle to follow. The solid sides prevent distraction and keep cattle proceeding forward.
Jerry Conlan said his wife is better at keeping calm when cattle are worked. She laughed.
“You know those T-shirts that say ‘Sorry for what I said while we were working cows,’” Stephanie Conlan said. “That’s what usually happens here.”
The couple is dedicated to producing grass-fed rotationally grazed beef. In the 11 years the family has owned cattle they’ve only had two cases of pinkeye, she said. She believes moving the herd daily to a clean paddock prevents a lot of problems and limits fly issues.
They consider pasture-raised beef more nutritious than feedlot beef because of the increased levels of Omega-3 fatty acids.
“It’s also better for the environment,” Jerry Conlan said. “The sod allows us to capture soil nutrients that would otherwise end up in the ground water.”
The Conlans refer to their pastures as solar collectors. They’re cautious about turning the herd out too soon in the spring.
“We like to let that solar collector get taller to absorb water and sunlight, giving the fields a good start to the summer,” he said.
Stephanie Conlan said they try to leave at least 6 inches of residual in their pastures when grazing a paddock. She said it bounces back a lot faster that way. She pointed out the different shades of green across several paddocks, illustrating the succession of recovery.
The couple chose Herefords for their beef herd primarily because those cattle have a reputation for docility. Their two daughters, Jessica, 11, and Julie, 8, are actively involved in the day-to-day care of the herd during the summer.
“They do a good job of spotting issues with the herd before it becomes a problem,” Stephanie Conlan said. “They give me a heads-up when something doesn’t look right with an animal.”
When the temperature approached 90 degrees the cattle were in a shaded paddock. Some of the mother cows were more than 1,700 pounds as they calmly stood nursing their calves.
“They’re also a great calving-ease breed and excellent mothers,” Jerry Conlan said. “The calves were all born in a tight window in April and May this spring.”
Stephanie Conlan said they’ve never had to use chains or a come-along to pull a calf.
“Because we’re not actively grazing during the April-early-May calving season we keep the herd close to the house,” she said.
It’s not unusual for her do a 2 a.m. check during spring calving to ensure all is well.
Jessica told a story about Daisy, the oldest mother cow in the Conlan herd at 13 years old.
“My grandpa gave my parents money just before I was born to spend on a cow,” she said. “They bought Daisy who was 2 with a baby on board. We have a ‘flower’ bloodline based on her genetics.”
Jessica showed several of her descendants, from Lily Lou to Petunia, explaining the family has tried to break away from the habit of giving the herd regular names.
“Because they’re going leave the herd for butchering,” Jessica said, “we give most calves numbers.”
Julie said they only name female calves that will be kept for future mother cows.
Jerry and Stephanie Conlan said they believe it’s important to influence their daughters with a strong work ethic. The girls need to care for something more than themselves, truly commit to something through good and bad, persevere after loss, and understand that satisfaction and contentment eclipses happiness. It’s important they have an appreciation of God’s creation.
Jerry Conlan talked about the intangibles of farming. He likes the peacefulness and beautiful sunsets without the congestion of people. He talked about seeing a variety of wildlife and the smell of fresh-cut hay. He talked about the satisfaction of seeing a family walk down their dead-end road. He said he’s glad he was driven by nostalgia to continue a way of life he first experienced on his grandfather’s farm.
Greg Galbraith, a former dairy farmer who owns woodlot property in eastern Marathon County, Wisconsin, writes about the rapidly changing nature of the agricultural landscape. He has built a lifetime connection to the land and those who farm it.