by Sally Colby
On any given day, Mary Jane Turnley might be checking newborn calves, feeding cattle or delivering hay. For a city girl, she’s come a long way.
Mary Jane knows she’s one of very few women doing what she’s doing. Not only is she a female farmer, but she’s a full-time farmer working alongside her husband Greg on their cattle farm in Spotsylvania, VA. Although Mary Jane grew up in the city, her husband Greg is a fifth-generation Virginia farmer who grew up raising cattle, hogs and sheep.
“I’ve always liked farms and animals, but I had no idea I’d end up being a farmer,” said Mary Jane, who also raises Tunis sheep. “Growing up in Philadelphia was enjoyable, but it gave me a craving to learn more about the country. I love farming and I’d never go back now.”
When Greg was growing up, there were quite a few full-time farmers in the area, but he said he and Mary Jane are among about five or six full-timers remaining in the area. The Turnley’s Blackrock Farm is in a rural area, but some of the properties they farm are in congested areas and they have to deal with drivers who aren’t always patient when it comes to dealing with farm traffic.
Greg and Mary Jane work together from first thing in the morning until all the work is finished at the end of the day. “She’s one of the few women you’re going to see doing this every day,” said Greg. “Coming from the city, it was overwhelming when she was first on the farm, but now she hates to go back to the city.”
Mary Jane said there’s always going to be friction when husband-wife teams work together, but she added that it’s important to get over it and move on.
Although Mary Jane had to learn everything about farming from scratch, she believes she brought a fresh perspective and new ideas to the farm. She said Greg knew every cow in his herd and had a good set of records in his head, but she started keeping more precise records that would help them make decisions on individual animals. “We weigh calves at birth, then we know which cows are having bigger or smaller calves and how they’re growing,” she said. “When they’re sold as feeder calves, I keep track of the numbers so we know how much they weigh and how much we got for them. It really helps when you’re holding back your own heifers to know which are the best ones and how they produce. Then when they get older and they aren’t raising a good calf any more, we know it’s time to cull.”
Both Greg and Mary Jane keep up with the latest cattle genetics and trends, and Mary Jane has introduced new genetics to the herd. The herd has always been straight Angus, but Mary Jane convinced Greg to try some Simmental bulls that were guaranteed to produce black calves. She believes it’s important to use the best possible purebred, tested bulls on the cowherd. “If you can’t afford to have registered herd, at least have a registered bull,” she said.
The Turnleys have worked hard over the years to improve the quality of the cowherd and retain the best females for replacements. They recently sold some of their best cow-calf pairs and will start to build the herd again.
The Blackrock herd currently includes about 200 Angus and Sim-Angus cows and eight bulls. Cows are kept in groups for year-round calving. Heifers are bred to a calving ease bull and watched carefully at first calving. “We move the bulls from group to group,” said Mary Jane, “but we definitely want to match the cows to the bull. Keeping track of calf weights is important.”
Several Holstein cows in the herd are used as surrogates when a nurse cow is needed for a calf. If an exceptionally good cow calves and has ample colostrum, Mary Jane milks her, notes which cow it’s from, dates and stores the colostrum in the freezer. “It’s good for a year, so if a calf needs help, I have good colostrum to give it,” she said. “We also freeze milk to give to calves if the cow’s milk doesn’t come in for several days.”
Calves receive creep feed and the best quality hay, which helps at weaning and selling time because they’re already started on feed. Calves are usually weaned by eight months. Mary Jane said feeding grain in the field from the truck is the easiest way to check cattle for condition and health, and also helps tame the cattle and make them easier to work around.
Greg and Mary Jane watch market reports and have found that late February and early March is a good time to sell light weight calves. “We aren’t stuck with one market because we spread it out,” said Mary Jane. “If we’re getting closer to weaning a group, I’ll watch the reports and weights.”
The Turnleys’ home farm includes about 500 acres, but they also farm nine additional farms over a 20-mile radius. Their cattle are distributed over the various farms according to pasture availability. Although they used to make silage, the Turnleys now concentrate on making as much of the best quality hay as possible. “Making silage was too intense,” said Greg. “Fuel is expensive and its days on end of intense work.”
Greg and Mary Jane make about 3,000 round bales every year on various farms. Greg taught Mary Jane how to rake hay and said she’s the best raker he’s ever worked with. She enjoys raking and especially enjoys working with great hay. When the weather is dry, the Turnleys unroll the bales to feed, and if it’s raining or snowing, bales are fed in roofed sheds. If a snowstorm is coming, Greg moves bales close to hedgerows so the cattle have plenty to eat through the storm.
Like other farmers, Greg has found there’s a lack of respect among the public for farming, especially when it comes to moving large equipment on the roads. “In my farming career, I’ve tried to downsize some of the big equipment we used to have when we did a lot of grain farming because it was so hard to get around with it,” he said. Greg and Mary Jane try to stay abreast of all laws and regulations that pertain to farming since so many of them affect them.
“There are so many ups and downs in farming,” said Mary Jane, “but the harder you work for your money, the more you appreciate it.”