By late afternoon, the cattle at Middletown Valley Beef are gathering at the gate in anticipation of being moved to a fresh paddock. The following morning, they’ll repeat the process and start grazing another paddock.
Matt Morris, one of three partners in the Frederick County, Maryland business says the season begins in mid to early March when about 30 backgrounded feeder calves arrive from Virginia. Since the calves are already fully vaccinated, they receive only pinkeye vaccine and deworming upon arrival.
“Cattle have a fly control tag in their ear,” said Matt. “Feed-through minerals also help with fly control and the mineral feeder itself has a felt liner that can be impregnated with fly repellent if necessary.” Matt says it has been a bad season for flies, likely due to mild weather the previous winter. He also believes that pinkeye in the herd is limited because there are no other cattle in the immediate area.
“We aim to finish strictly on grass and get them to 1,100 to 1,200 pounds,” said Matt, who is also an extension agent in Frederick County. “This year looks good — we’ve had a lot of rain and the grass has been excellent all summer.” Matt added that the grazing season lasts through late fall to early winter.
The farm includes 85 acres with permanent perimeter fencing and portable interior fencing to create about 70 paddocks. By the end of summer, each of the paddocks will have been grazed three or four times. “When we pull them off, there’s still a lot of grass left,” said Matt, adding that cattle are moved every 12 hours. “The more we can leave, the better. The more ground cover, the less weed pressure. The cattle are only taking the top third of the plant, so they’re getting the highest energy portion of the plant.”
Some of the pasture species include orchardgrass, clover, sudangrass and fall turnips. This year, each field on the farm was treated with 60 pounds of nitrogen/phosphorus, 100 pounds of potash and 15 pounds of sulfur. A steep-sided field of Kentucky 31 fescue is the only area Matt isn’t satisfied with and says some cattle have lost tail switches after grazing it. Although he’d like to eliminate the fescue and replant the field, the steep hillside would make it close to impossible to access with a drill. “Weight gain goes down if we put cattle on it in summer,” said Matt. “We probably won’t graze it until October.”
One field that was particularly heavy in clover was frost-seeded with 10 pounds of red clover and three pounds of white clover the last week of February. “Then March was really cold and it worked into the soil well,” said Matt. “It was straight grass before and I’m hoping that the red clover will go to seed.” Matt pays close attention to the grazing habits of the cattle and has noticed that cattle tend to strip the lower leaves and leave the seed head behind. “If you graze it before the red clover flowers, I think it sets it back a bit,” he said.
Like other graziers, and because weeds were the topic of his master’s degree, Matt is keenly aware of undesirable species on the farm. “Horsenettle is the number one weed issue on the farm,” he said. “Part of my strategy has been to get the broadleaf weeds out of a field and save the grass, then come back and try to get some clovers in. I’d like to try some no-till oats and turnips to get some good growth before winter.”
Wrapped round bales are on hand for emergency feed if pasture becomes too sparse, and dry hay is also available. Water is supplied in 100-gallon Rubbermaid tubs with skis mounted underneath for easy towing to different paddocks.
A stand of BMR sudangrass and turnips still looked good in late summer. “Part of the idea was to keep renovating pastures with this,” said Matt, describing the use of sudangrass and other non-traditional grazing species. “Sudangrass is so aggressive in spring that it outcompetes everything. Now that weed pressure is lower, that isn’t an issue. I’d like to get it into perennial pasture, but it (the sudangrass) might not die until first frost, and it’s hard to tell when that will be.”
Emily Snyder, who grew up with livestock and received a degree in ag science and technology from the University of Maryland, handles marketing and social media for the farm. She says the cattle they’ve obtained are thriving and finishing well on grass. “We’re trying to stick with the smaller framed animals,” she said. “The older style Angus that are chunkier do much better on grass. Large framed cattle do well in a feedlot and can put weight on that frame, but we’re never going to have a finished weight of 1,400 pounds. We aim for 1,100 to 1,200 pounds, which sounds small but they’re finished and marbled.”
Most cattle are sold live to a Maryland farm winery while the rest are processed with cuts going to the Ritz Carlton in Washington, D.C. and ground beef to a local food truck. Emily says smaller cuts of grass-fed beef appeal to health-conscious consumers who prefer smaller, leaner portions and that customers are interested in the fact that meat is raised locally. Customers can also purchase beef at the farm.
Emily is working on developing a website and maintains a Facebook page. “I want an online order form on the website,” she said, “and a frequently asked questions section. I encourage people to try the beef before they commit to a quarter. They can buy a couple of steaks, a roast and some ground beef. It’s grassfed and it’s different, and I want to be sure they like it.”
Mel Berman, the third partner, just turned 86 and says that although he tried retiring from raising beef cattle, it didn’t suit him. In addition to moving cattle daily, building fence and working cattle at the chutes, Mel provides first-hand insight from years in the industry. He’s especially aware of how cattle types have changed over the years: from short and stocky to tall and lean and now back to short and much thicker once again.
Now in their third year of working together, the partners at Middletown Valley Beef are finding a rhythm in what they do from day to day. Mel and Matt move cattle in the morning and all three move cattle in the evening. This gives everyone an opportunity to observe the animals and the pastures. “We look at the fields and decide where to move them and what might need to be sprayed,” said Emily. “We all keep an eye on everything.”