CLEAR SPRING, Md. — “I overdo everything and err on the side of doing what you should do,” said Joshua Ernst, of Ernst Grain and Livestock.

Providing quality feeds for their own livestock opened up a new business for the Ernst farm and 25-year-old Ernst is committed to providing quality feeds with sustainable farming practices, while staying strictly non-GMO with the rations.

“As a small family farm trying to make it in today’s agricultural world, either you get really, really big or you get creative,” said Ernst. “My target market is not commercial ag, it is folks that are raising their own food and they want to know what is going into their animals.”

Ernst said that all the grain is tested for glyphosate levels and GMOs. There are also no by-products added to the feed.

“Our customers want the feed to be just grain and they want to know what is going into it,” he said.

He makes feeds for poultry, cattle, swine, sheep and goats.

“We have 30 different rations,” said Ernst. “When I started I had layer mash, broiler feed, starter and hog grower feed.”

Ernst makes feed primarily for farmers who sell meats at farmers markets. He said that people who raise a few backyard animals also use his feed.

“This past year a lot of the backyard chickens didn’t like how dusty my farmers blend feeds were, so now I have figured out how to remove that dust from my feeds and make a whole grain feed which is my high-end Homestead Harvest blend,” Ernst said. “I also add essential oils, herbs, extra probiotics and omega-3s.”

The grains are tested yearly in order to balance the rations. Ernst works with two nutritionists and has a mineral company review the blends and balance the feed.

The Ernst family has experience in the benefits of quality feed.

Ernst’s grandfather taught nutrition at the University of Maryland and his father is a dairy nutritionist.

The farm has 40 sows, 200 ewes, 500 acres of crops and 50 acres of hay. All the grain goes into making their feed.

Ernst graduated from West Virginia University and knew he wanted to be on the farm, but making feed wasn’t part of the original plan.

“When I got out of college, a lot of the people who were buying our hogs to finish on pasture were asking if we could produce a non-GMO feed for them,” said Ernst. “We had the grinder mixer that my grandfather set up and I started bagging in the barn. I remember hand-scooping my first ton of feed.and thought how stupid that was so I built a bagger out of plywood.”

The farm now sells 20 tons of feed per week.

The Ernsts grow 80% of their grain and work with neighbors to grow additional grain for them.

“We store 70,000 bushels of grain on the farm and the beans are roasted once a month,” Ernst said.

The farm uses a roasting company out of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, that roasts 800 bushels per hour.

“As we grow, we become more and more efficient,” Ernst said.

Profitability is necessary for any farm, but sustainability is critical to the Ernst farm’s operation.

“We were the first farm in the state of Maryland to be a Certified Stewardship farm and in 2011 we got the Excellence in Stewardship award,” Ernst said. “Our streams are tested and we have less runoff than the average home.”

Ernst experiments with growing grain to find more sustainable methods.

“Last year we added 4 pounds of liquid sugar per acre and got a yield boost since we were feeding the microbes in the soil,” he said. “This year we are putting sugar with all our plantings and I have modified our no-till drill with a sugar system. We are working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and others to find more sustainable practices, like adding fish meal, kelp and essential oils and herbs to our plantings.”

Ernst is working on growing his business by using social media as a marketing tool. He hopes that a larger social media presence will help his customers get to know him and his business.

The feed bags themselves are also important to Ernst. He designed the logo himself and the bags include the story of the business and a photo of Ernst and his father.

“Today, social media is your first impression,” Ernst said. “When they see our nice bag and everything we can do to keep the farm nice, well, everything pays off.”

Ernst is driven to make the best feed he can for his customers.

“Here on the farm, it’s a three legged stool consisting of management, nutrition and genetics,” he said. “There are people who will buy feeds cheaper elsewhere but the rate of gain and the feed conversion ratio is higher with our feeds. I need to support my family but I don’t want to be all about profitability, so sustainability is important. My customers would know by the performance in their animals if my feed was off.”

Rick Hemphill is a freelance writer covering western Maryland and northern Virginia.