by Tamara Jean Scully
The Park family has grown. Tricia and Matt Park, along with son Cameron, 17, recently moved from their 26 acre farm to a nearby 150 acre one, in DeRuyter, NY, and have been working tirelessly to improve the soils as they grow pasture for 20 head of beef cattle, 50 turkeys, 800 meat chicken and 30 pigs.
The key to their success is grass. Managing pastures for better forage has led to increased weight gain, decreased need for inputs on the farm, and “high-quality, pasture-raised meats” sold directly to customers via a meat CSA, the farm store and an online farmers’ market. The family practices Holistic Management, considering the health of the land, the animals, the community and the family — which includes being profitable and having time for non-farming respites — when managing and setting goals for the farm.
Their farm, purchased in May, 2011, had been planted in alfalfa hay for years. The soil was bare. Moss was growing everywhere. They began to improve the pasture quality, so it could support their animals. Today, they graze much of year, stockpile forages, and use minimal off-farm inputs.
All of the farm’s livestock is pasture-raised. Chicken isn’t raised in the winter, but is pastured April-August. Birds are day-ranged in paddocks surrounded by electric poultry netting. Hoop houses are moved within the paddock twice each day to fresh grass. The birds are locked into the portable houses at night, to protect from predation. The houses, made with silo wire and covered in white plastic, can withstand wind and rain, and protect from sun, and can be moved by one person.
“We rotate them around because the manure is quite a heavy impact” on the soil, Tricia said. Several times per week, the paddock is moved to a fresh area of pasture. Chickens won’t see the same pasture for two-three years. Turkeys, raised in one batch for Thanksgiving slaughter, are similarly pastured.
Each group of 100-200 chickens grazes on fields, with a few guard geese to help keep out predators. Their chickens are fed fresh grain, in addition to pasture. Whole grain is purchased from local farms, and is ground on-farm. Since they began grinding their own grain, the family has seen more weight gain per pound of grain fed. Grit is also given in the pasture. Tricia estimates that 20-30 percent of the birds’ nutritional needs are met via forage, particularly legumes.
“This type of chicken really likes an acidic environment,” Tricia Park said of the Cornish-Cross birds. They use apple cider vinegar in the water. Water lines run through all pastures, eliminating the need to haul water.
Chicken are slaughtered on-farm at six to eight weeks old at about five pounds. All offal from the slaughter is composted on-farm, mixed with cow manure from the winter barnyard, local equine manure, and lake weeds. They also practice mortality composting. They stir the pile every two weeks, and add manure and wood shavings whenever they add offal. They don’t currently monitor the temperature of the pile, but don’t have problems with wild animals or odors.
The herd of 18 beef cows is primarily Hereford, with some Belted Galloway genetics as well. It was downsized prior to their move, because the forage available on the farm isn’t enough yet to support a larger herd. The cows are 100 percent grass-fed. They harvest six cows/year, and are working to increase the herd as the pasture improves.
The pastures are now primarily a mix of orchard grass, Timothy, and clover mix. They were not seeded in decades, but the dormant seedbed in the fields was activated by grazing, Tricia said, and this mix grew on its own. Reducing alfalfa in the cow pastures has been important, as it tends to cause bloat when grazed at certain times of the year, after frost.
The cows graze high, leaving about six inches of grass. They are moved to fresh ground twice a day, and the rest period of the pastures is long, in order to let a full, healthy root system develop. They graze pastures at heights up to four or five feet tall. The cows will graze most of the tall pastures, and trample down the rest. The cows’ saliva, plus the manure and the trampling action, have all worked to create lush pasture via the intensively-managed, rotational grazing practiced here.
The farm practices stockpiling, leaving forage in the fields for longer-season grazing, rather than cutting for hay. This is a balancing act, and weighing the costs of making hay versus the risk of losing forage is an ongoing discussion as winter approaches.
“We do as much stockpiled forage as we can, to reduce hay feeding, which costs us money,” Tricia said. “Hay is expensive to buy, which we don’t do anymore, and expensive to make. The longer we can keep cows out on pasture, the less work we have to do to care for them,” Tricia said.
Keeping cattle on pasture means more manure and urine on the fields, naturally, so fertilizer is deposited where it needs to be. It means less bedding material — the farm uses leaves and old hay, sawdust from their portable sawmill and some wood shavings — is needed in the barn.
“We have enough standing forage on the farm to make it at least another month easily, and likely into December with minimal hay feeding,” Tricia said.
They will feed hay on pasture, and the cows will graze green pasture as long as they can. When the snow comes, the animals are fed hay in the barnyard, but continue to have access to pasture year-round, with a three-sided barn shed for shelter. How long grazing continues on stockpile forage depends on the snow.
“If we get a heavy load of snow in the next two months, well, that forage is still there for some early spring grazing, which we did in March of last year,” Tricia said. “We still have excellent weight gains on the cattle even in winter, they have great-looking feet, build muscle with exercise, and they are pretty content. Cows out on pasture do really well. Lighten up your cattle numbers, get working on your pasture rotations, move animals often, leave pastures alone for longer rest periods, make less hay… graze better,” Tricia said.
Creekside Meadows Farm is a family farm, with a goal to be as self-sufficient as possible, support other local farms when inputs are needed, manage the land for soil health and animal health, make efficient use of their land resources while enhancing them, and to earn a viable living through sustainable farming, direct-marketing nutritious meats to local customers. So far, so good!