It’s all about the grass at Vermont’s Applecheek Farm. The 300 acre former dairy farm has 120 acres of open pasture, used both for mixed species rotational grazing and for hay production. John and Rocio Clark now run the farm, which John’s parent operated as a dairy farm for many years. They certified the dairy as organic in 1999. Today, however, the next generation has opted to focus on raising organic and natural meats, and recently stopped dairying altogether. The farm also hosts an on-farm event and catering business, and rents some land to vegetable growers, who are operating a Community Supported Agricultural program.
Pastures here are “maintained by the livestock,” John Clark said. “When you get good at rotational grazing, what grows best is the perfect balance of legumes and grass.” The pastures are a mix of orchard, bluestem and timothy with a lot of red and white clover, offering “a perfect balance of what the animals need.” Much of the farm has not been tilled in several decades, Clark said, and is lush and healthy, thanks to the animals’ grazing habits.
Beef and Veal
Cattle are the primary grazing animal here, and are 100 percent grass-fed, Devon or Devon crosses. The herd numbers about 80 head, with 20 being processed for beef sales per year. The cows are now overwintered on pasture. After exploring winter pasturing with the heifers and liking the results, everyone but the calves are outside year-round.
“When they are kept in a barn for a long period of time, they have more problems,” Clark said of his experience with the herd. The heifers he raised outdoors had no problems, and developed a thick, healthy coat to adapt to the winter weather. First year calves not destined to be veal are housed in a hoop barn for the winter, but have continual outdoor access as well. Round bales are fed in the pasture during the winter. The pastures have over two miles of piping to deliver well water throughout the farm, directly to each field. Over the winter, the system is shut off, but frost-free hydrants and hoses are used to run the water out to the fields, where the animals have a heated watering system.
All the cows are bred to calve in the spring, and the calves can remain on lush pastures with their mothers until the late fall. At that time, veal calves, raised solely on pasture and mother’s milk, are processed — about 12 per year. The veal is the product with the most questions asked as far production is concerned, Clark said, with potential customers being concerned about confined veal production systems.
Pastures are grazed by the herd at 10-15 inches in height, and the cows are moved every two to three time per days to fresh grass. The pastures are given a rest of about 20 days before they are properly recovered for repeat grazing. Every time the pasture is grazed, the plants cut off their own roots, which then form humus, enriching the soil, Clark explained. In addition, as the cows trample the fields, pushing organic matter into the soil, they are creating really healthy soil through managed grazing. Manure is an added bonus.
“Managed rotational grazing is one of the fastest ways to sequester carbon,” Clark said. “You can really build your soils.”
Laying hens are kept in mobile chicken houses, on pasture, as are the broilers. Laying hens follow the cows in rotation, breaking up the manure and foraging for insects to help break the parasite cycle, and reducing the fly population, Clark said.
The meat birds at Applecheek Farm are not your standard Cornish Cross chickens. They tried that, and found that the Cornish Crosses didn’t gain enough through foraging. They’ve opted to raise “Red Bro” chickens, a French Poulet Rouge breed known for sustainable growth and gourmet-quality meat, This bird “eats a fair amount of feed as natural forage,” Clark said, and they’ve been able to decrease the amount of grain being fed to the birds.
The chickens are housed in multiple hand-pulled huts, about four feet tall, which are left open even at night. The birds range on each section of pasture, enclosed with net fencing. The fencing is moved every two or three days, and the 12 ft. by 13 ft. huts are moved to fresh grass within the paddock, twice per day. The birds are guarded by Sarplaninac dogs, a Macedonia breed. The farm has not experienced any predator loss since using the dogs. They raise 800 meat birds each year, in two or three batches seasonally, throughout the spring and summer.
But the chicken aren’t the only birds on pasture. About 300 French Muscovy ducks are raised in a similar manner to the chickens. The ducks require a larger portable hut, about 14 ft. by 24 ft. The ducks have the same feed regime as the broilers. The feed is all certified organic, as are the pastures, and consist of a broiler starter mix, which is blended with a growing mix when the birds are ready for pasture, to achieve the right amount of protein and minerals. The meat of the French Muscovy contains about half of the fat as the American Muscovy, making it healthier and easier to prepare.
Two rare breeds of hog, the Ossabaw Island and the Mulefoot, are raised for meat. The pigs are rotated through wooded areas which provide natural shelter and forage. The pigs till marginal ground, or ground which has too much nutrient content, and help to prepare it for replanting, Clark said. The pigs do forage, and need to be moved frequently to avoid too much damage. They are also fed local food waste: barley from a brewer and apple waste from a nearby cider mill, as well as other grains and whey. The pigs are not certified organic.
The farm butchers about 70 pigs each season. They just began breeding their own and have produced their first litter, with two more litters expected shortly.
The rare pork breeds offer meat which is different than the commercial pork commonly found. The meat tends to be darker, with more marbling, and is in demand by area chefs.
With a focus on animals that forage well, and a goal of “feeding ourselves” as well as their customer base, Applecheek Farm has found a way to transition from a commercial dairy herd to a mixed livestock operation. Along the way, they’ve incorporated organic certification, added agritourism enterprises and a bit of maple sugaring with 800 taps.