by Tamara Scully
SHERMAN, NY — The cattle grazing the pastures of Green Heron Growers, in western New York state, are 100 percent grass-fed, certified organic by NOFA-NY, and being bred back to pure Ruby Red Devon genetics. That’s reason enough to hold a pasture walk there. Add in some laying hens and meat chickens, shiitake mushrooms and value-added products, plus camping facilities, and it’s the perfect spot.
NOFA-NY has held several walks at Green Heron Growers. The latest attracted many beginning farmers, who wanted to learn about the grazing system on this diversified farm enterprise. Attendees at the event were interested in the methods of moving the cows, the mobile chicken coop for the hens and the broilers’ chicken tractors, the cow genetics, and forage management and improvement. One attendee, from California, wanted to see how cows were raised on pasture out East, in comparison to methods used on the west coast.
“Because we are 100 percent grass-fed, we process July-December,” Steven Rockcastle, who farms with his wife, Julie, said. The farm is currently processing about 12 steers per year, and the demand for their meat is growing faster than the supply.
The cows are Devon, a heritage breed. The breeding stock is Ruby Red Devon. The couple selected the breed for its exemplary foraging ability. The farm recently began breeding, rather than purchasing stock each year. Some of the current animals are cross-bred, but the herd is being bred back to 100 percent Devon genetics, utilizing purebred semen. Rockcastle artificially inseminates the cows beginning in September, timing the calving so that the pastures are lush.
According to Rockcastle, Ruby Red Devon are “the best grass-to- feed converters available,” and therefore well-suited to the farm’s system. “I look at myself as a grass farmer,” whose goal is to keep the animals “always grazing optimal grass.”
The pastures here are certified organic, and so are the cows and the resulting meat. With 50 acres in a rotational grazing system, the farm practices a modified mob grazing strategy. All of the cows are pastured together, and moved to fresh paddocks in an observational system. When the forage is grazed down to about six inches, they are rotated to new fields, where the grass is about a foot tall. Paddock size varies with the season, with smaller paddocks used in the summer.
The mob grazing is good for getting the grass clipped off, insuring the best nutritional intact, Rockcastle said. Agri-Dynamics mineral supplements are used on the farm as well, and Rockcastle is also a distributor of the line. Jerry Brunetti, owner of Agri-Dymanics, hosted a Cornell Cooperative Extension-led pasture walk on the farm last season.
The chickens are rotated through the same pastures as the cows, which “helps to build the pasture fertility,” Rockcastle said. The broilers are housed using the “Joel Salatin method” of moveable chicken tractors, moved to fresh forage each day. The hens are in a converted camper, which Rockcastle stripped and equipped with nesting boxes and perches, and is towed to fresh pasture as needed.
The mobile chicken coop houses 50 laying hens, who produce three dozen eggs per day at peak. They’ll be adding chicks this fall, in order to keep the egg supply in line with demand throughout the winter months, Rockcastle said. The hens have access to a large 150 by 150 pasture area, fenced with electric netting, and are moved about every three days to fresh grass.
The first crop grown on the farm was shiitake mushrooms. The mushrooms are grown on logs, outside in the woods, which are primarily harvested from the farm itself. Because shiitake are selective about their host wood, Rockcastle has had to harvest from state lands in the past, in order to provide the proper environment. Oak is a perfect growing medium, but the farm doesn’t have any. They do have sugar maple and beech, which can also be used. They originally used red maple logs, which are suitable as a substrate, but found that these logs didn’t hold up well. Because red maple is a weed tree, however, harvesting them from the property is beneficial, and allows more desirable trees room to grow.
Logs, which are about three feet long with a diameter of 4-10 inches, are drilled and inoculated with the spawn, then stacked and allowed to set. It takes about a year for the logs to fruit. Soaking them in a tub of water forces the process, and these logs are stacked in teepee fashion for about a week, until the mushrooms have fruited. The soaking processes helps to keep the logs fruiting on a regular schedule, important to meet the demand and harvest regularly.
The farm harvested 800 pounds of shiitake mushrooms last season. The mushrooms are made into their own value-added products, such as mushroom pate and soup, as well as medicinal tinctures. Mushroom products, meat and certified organic vegetables from the farm are sold at the Williamsville Famers’ Market, the on-farm store, and to area restaurants. The meat is available in retail cuts, but is also sold by the side for the freezer meat trade.
Those attending the pasture walk were invited to stay and enjoy a cookout and to camp on the farm. The property is home to a camping grounds, originally developed for the Blue Heron Music Festival. The festival’s originator is Julie Rockcastle’s father, and the event has been held on the property every July for over 20 years.
While the family began hosting events prior to the advent of the farm, the farm itself has developed as a means of utilizing the inherent characteristics of the land, without compromising the hosting of the Blue Heron Music Festival. Other events, such as the Night Lights at the Heron, open the property to the public for holistic events designed to reconnect people to the land. Camping is available and is open to the general public by request, but this isn’t a typical campground: it’s focus is communing with the land, through the natural environment. It’s all about eco-tourism here, with respect for the land a primary concern.
With the growing movement of “local foods/know your farmer,” Rockcastle is finding that more people are interested in visiting the farm and participating in farm activities, such as moving the cows or collecting eggs. Plans to continue to host eco-tourism and agri-educational events, combining both the farming and the event hosting branches of the property, will continue to be developed as the interest in getting back onto the land increases.
by Tamara Scully