NORTH BROOKFIELD, NY — When’s it’s raining enough to spoil hay-making, a good way to get your mind off the weather is to go visit your neighboring farmers. It just so happened that these neighbors were two hours apart. The common thread for the linkage of Delaware County farmers with Madison County farmers was grazing management.
A pasture tour organized by Conservation Planner, Dan Vredenburgh of the Walton, NY-based Watershed Agricultural Council’s Agricultural Program and Extension Watershed Team Leader, Dale Dewing of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Delaware County brought like-minded graziers together north into the headwaters of the Upper Susquehanna River. “It’s a good way to see how other farmers manage their pastures and animals. We have strived every year to provide a venue for sharing perspectives and practical tips,” said Vredenburgh.
The first stop was at the Barnes Farm in the hamlet of North Brookfield. Retired dairy farmer, Mike Barnes described how he uses his 25 years of rotational grazing experience to run a seasonal contract grazing business to feed 100 head of dairy heifers. The farm’s 200 acres of hill ground at 1600 foot elevation overlooking the Sangerfield River Watershed are divided into 25 paddocks with portable watering stations throughout the system.
He described the opportunities and challenges of working with “uneducated” heifers that have spent most of their life off pasture. “We get animals from all kind of origins and must be vigilant in our husbandry practices. It takes a solid 30 days for them to get accustomed to fences, herding and eating the ‘funny green stuff’. Once they get acclimated, they really thrive and our customer is pleased when he picks them up in late fall,” said Barnes. The animals and pasture also provide a scenic backdrop for Mike and his daughter, Megan’s new wedding venue at the farm.
The next place, located further up (1,650 foot elevation) into Brookfield’s Quaker Hill area, brought guests to the farm of long-time organic dairy farmers, Charles and Mary Blood. Aptly named, Rocky Top Farm boasts over 400 acres of pasture and hayland that feed 50 head of dairy cows for Organic Valley’s Coop, 100 percent grass-fed market and associated youngstock and a small beef herd as well as some hay sales. The land receives Tennessee Brown rock phosphate, gypsum and composted cow manure as soil amendments with regular, frost seedings of clover. The practices have elevated soil organic matter levels over 7 percent.
Chuck described his extensive pasture system where he utilizes more permanent paddocks (+ 1.5 acres) instead of moving a lot of portable fences because of the deer pressure. The multi-colored cows with shorthorn heritage breeding, thrive under this management. Many are still producing at 12 years of age. He shared his experiences about out-wintering, plant diversity in the pastures, establishing watering points, grazing behavior, and hunting leases. “Our passion for growing high quality grass pays us on many levels and it’s great for our consumers,” said Blood.
The final stop brought the group to Endless Trails Farm and Guest House in Hubbardsville, NY. The farm owned by the Paul O’Mara family and managed by Megan Wilcox is a 90 head Angus cow/calf operation that has 13 paddocks on 177 acres of pasture and an on-farm guest house/horse boarding business. Guests were introduced to a planned grazing chart, developed by the Madison County SWCD and used by Meg to monitor grass productivity and make grazing management decisions.
Paul introduced farmers to the local marketing and meat procurement effort in spearheading the Side-Hill Farmer’s Cooperative with other Madison County farmers and partners that is maintaining an old world retail butcher shop in Manlius, NY. “We see the pastures of Madison County as a valuable asset and economic driver in producing local meat and dairy products. We’re trying to find our niche and build a brand that provides benefits to all communities,” said O’Mara.
Meg took the group on a pasture walk and chatted about her struggles to get the cows and newborn calves to move simultaneously into a new paddock. “The cows are new to this pasture system and we are all in the learning curve. Some days have been quite stressful with multiple births in the tall grass and because I’m fearful of the possibility in over-grazing a paddock. Once we get through the first rotation, life will be easier.”
Retired Delaware County dairy farmer and 2015 chairwoman of the Watershed Agricultural Council’s Watershed Agricultural Program, Sally Fairbairn, commented on the robust tour. “We appreciate the time and access the host farms gave us and the willingness to share their poignant perspectives on subjects we care about. Farmer to farmer engagements are always fruitful.”
To find out more about land and grazing management planning, contact Dan Vredenburgh at the Watershed Agricultural Council’s Agricultural Program office at 607-865-7790 or firstname.lastname@example.org .