by Tamara Scully
Hidden down an old dirt road, Aspen Ridge Farm is home to Meredith and Bucky Acly, their two young children, and the assorted livestock they raise in rural Warren County, New Jersey. The 25-acre farm, located in Oxford, is home to pastured broilers, laying hens, pigs, dairy cow, veal calves, and Icelandic sheep.
Recently relocated from Utah, where Bucky worked as an archaeologist, the family recently planted their small farm dreams in New Jersey. Meredith’s New England roots gave her plenty of opportunity to become familiar with farming, including a stint working with livestock at historic Old Sturbridge Village, in Massachusetts. While Meredith is the primary farmer, the couple makes all farming decisions together, she said, as she gave a tour of the family’s operation.
The farm is equal parts pasture and woodland. Animals — except for the laying hens, who wander freely during the day — are rotated separately through the fields, with shaded areas included in each pasture. A newly-added perimeter fence has made things easier, preventing escapes as the electrified netting is moved to provide fresh pastures for grazing.
The pastures here came unimproved, with no fencing, irrigation, barns or other infrastructure. They weren’t in good shape when they began farming here three years ago. And it’s still a constant battle to improve the pastures while grazing a diversity of livestock. They don’t have a seed drill, and a nearby farmer who does has been too busy to fit them into the schedule yet. Mowing has been helpful in decreasing weed pressure, but difficult to do consistently. The soil — unlike most soils in the area — is sandy. They’ve learned the hard way that the topsoil is easily eroded. It’s been a slow struggle to improve the pastures through grazing patterns, but they are seeing improvements.
“If you can increase the quality of your grass, you can increase the capacity, animal-wise,” Acly said.
Broilers have been extremely useful in increasing the soil’s fertility, and getting desirable plant species established. They are currently running batches of 100 broilers at a time, with some overlap, and plan on finishing 350 broilers this season.
The broilers are rotated on the poorest areas of the pasture each season. They’re housed in 10 foot by 10 foot hoop house chicken tractors, and pulled to fresh grass daily.
Originally using Salatin-style chicken tractors they found there was not enough air flow, and lost birds on hot days. They then went to the hoop house model, and letting the birds out into surrounding pasture during the day. Owl predation, including losses at dusk, just before the birds were put in at night to roost, along with the extra labor of having to corral the birds each evening, led them to the hoop house chicken tractor model.
The farm finishes one batch of Freedom Rangers per season, with most birds being Cornish Crosses. The Freedom Rangers are, hands-down, the taste winner, Acly said. The Crosses, however, finish quicker, requiring less feed, and can be offered at a lower price per pound. Cornish Crosses are processed at eight weeks of age, while the Freedom Rangers aren’t ready until 11 weeks.
Chickens, as well as pigs, receive supplemental grains. The grains here are soy and GMO-free. They’ve recently purchased a grinder, and purchase non-GMO corn from a local farmer, and grind it fresh as needed. They also purchase other soy-free and GMO-free grains from a Pennsylvania farmer, 60 miles away, making the trip frequently, in order to get freshly ground product, which offers better nutritional value, Acly said.
Grinding grain themselves “does improve profits tremendously, but is very time consuming,” she said.
Pigs are pastured, and moving them regularly is the key to doing so without damaging the pastures. It seems that rooting may have a genetic component, Acly said, with some pigs being more prone to root, while others graze better. The farm has Tamworth/Chester White crosses, as well as Yorkshire/Berkshire crosses, bred on a local farm. The pigs are rotated together in a mixed-age herd. Although pasturing the pigs has challenges, Acly is determined to improve the system.
Strip-grazing the pigs in the wooded, sloped pastures worked well in the past, with the pigs primarily foraging, not rooting, but moving the 27-inch electrified netting fence through the woods was tedious, and without a perimeter fence in that area, the pigs were getting out. Future plans include planting field crops such as turnips, specifically for the pigs to graze. For now, to prevent hard-packed soils and erosion issues, pigs are moved, on average, every four days. The pigs have a hedge row in their pastures providing shade and shelter.
Dairy, veal and lamb
Aspen Ridge Farm is home to two dairy cows, which Acly breeds using artificial insemination. A bull isn’t in the picture, at least not yet. They continue to working on the stocking density, to see how many dairy cows, as well as how many veal calves, are the optimum fit for the farm.
“I like milking cows,” Acly said. “Resources that I can grow on our farm are key,” and the cows provide milk for both the pigs, the family itself and the veal calves.
Veal — raised on cows’ milk and grass — is the farm’s premier product. Few other producers in the area offer veal, and the market here is eager for humanely-raised veal. Veal calves are grazed on pasture, separate from the dairy herd, and bottle fed milk until slaughter. Although beef may be added in the future, it makes more sense with the farm’s limited pasture resources — and because they don’t make their own hay — to raise the calves for veal.
“It’s profitable. Veal is one of the few farming ventures that pays you for your labor,” Acly said.
Lambs, too, are raised exclusively on milk and pasture. Icelandic sheep, which are raised for wool and meat, are naturally bred on the farm. All of the ewes were carrying triplets this year, but they all aborted the triplet, leaving them with twins, Acly said.
“It was a good wake-up call,” Acly said. “I like diversity. I think people like diversity.”
The farm offers Community Supported Agricultural Shares, with pickup on the farm, as well as a few off-site locations.
Customers currently can choose from the basic share, which is two chickens and 2 dozen eggs every two weeks. Pork shares, as well as veal shares, are available. Retail cuts of meat are also sold at the local farmers’ market.
Profitably running a small farm while raising two small children is a challenge. But for Acly, it is one with many rewards. Raising the kids outside, and providing good food for the family, as well as their customers, is a main objective. Doing so profitably is the goal.
For more information visit Aspen Ridge Farm, www.aspen-ridge-farm.com
Aspen Ridge Farm: naturally-raised meats
by Tamara Scully