Kevin Jablonski grew up on a dairy farm situated between the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains of Vermont. In the 1970s, he attended SUNY Cobleskill where he studied animal and dairy science.
“I came home, worked on several farms and started milking my own cows in 1979,” said Jablonski. “I sold out in 1988 during one of the ‘lows.’ I rented a barn, put up crops and had an off-farm job.”
Jablonski had an opportunity to purchase some inexpensive beef cattle to put on pasture. At the time he was dating Karen Christensen, who asked whether the cows were eating grass. “We started attending conferences,” said Jablonski, “and that’s how we got into raising grass-fed beef.”
Today, Mack Brook Farm in Argyle, NY, is home to a grass-fed beef herd. While Jablonski had originally purchased cattle to help manage summer pastures, he and Christensen wanted to continue raising cattle on grass and knew they needed to harvest crops for winter feed.
“I had tractors and a mower but I didn’t have a round baler,” said Jablonski. “I bought a round baler, then bought a wrapper to make baleage. It grew from there.” In winter, the primary feed is wrapped baleage with a mineral supplement.
Jablonski currently maintains 25 registered Angus cows and a herd bull purchased from Wye Angus in Maryland. He said when the Wye herd was developed, it was based on bulls imported from the British Isles. Wye imported breeding stock until about 1960, and the herd has been closed since then.
Each year, Jablonski selects two to four heifers as herd replacements from within the herd. “If a cow doesn’t breed or has a bad udder or conformation problem, I won’t breed her,” he said. Jablonski typically uses a bull for three years then purchases a new one. If a bull is related to retained daughters, Jablonski will breed the offspring via AI.
“Cattle are rotationally grazed on 60 acres,” said Jablonski. “We divide them by non-breeding and breeding animals.” Cattle graze native species pastures with red and white clover, orchardgrass, timothy and brome. His cattle will eat burdock to the ground until it matures in July. The livestock have access to a free-choice mineral supplement formulated for pastured cattle.
As he has become a more experienced grazing manager, Jablonski has found that pastures benefit from periodic rest periods. “With grazing, the longer the rest period, the better,” he said. “If it’s tall when the cows go in, I give them a smaller area to graze.”
Realizing that pasture growth varies throughout the year, Jablonski noted that rapidly growing pasture at peak capacity can handle quite a bit of animal traffic. Since starting to graze the herd, soil organic matter has slowly increased. Jablonski has also watched clover thrive in the pasture, and since it’s in the seed bank, there’s stronger clover growth.
Jablonski leaves the bull with the cow herd year-round in one pasture, with steers and heifers being finished are in another on better feed. “As cows start calving, I move them up with the steers and heifers so they get better feed,” he said. “Eventually, they’ll all be in one group.”
Since pastured cattle require a reliable source of clean drinking water, he installed a hydraulic pump to bring in water from a stream. “It pumps 1,000 feet with a 140-foot rise to a storage tank,” he explained. “There’s about 8,000 feet of 1.25-inch and one-inch line throughout the pastures.”
Finished cattle are processed at about two years old at a USDA-inspected facility not far from the farm. He and Christensen sell beef from their home store, where customers can purchase individual cuts or sides. Mack Brook beef is also available from several local grocers and through a CSA. A nearby a brew pub features Mack Brook beef, and this menu option sometimes results in new customers visiting the farm store.
Energy costs are important to the farm’s bottom line. While attending a conference, Jablonski and Christensen learned about a USDA solar grant that would allow them to install an array for farm use. The 12.5 kW system on the roof of the farm’s pole barn has a six- to seven-year payback.
Dealing with wildlife on any farm can be challenging, and Jablonski has chosen to follow the Quality Deer Management program. “It’s managing the deer herd,” he explained. “It’s harvesting mature bucks and letting the young ones grow, putting in food plots for deer, creating habitat and using ethical hunting practices. It helps keep the buck-to-doe ratio in check.” The management program also involves neighbors who work together to manage the deer population.
Mack Brook Farm is heavily involved in their community, including Slow Food (Saratoga Region) and the Washington County New York Beef Producers. They are annual sponsors of the Winter Raptorfest and the Washington County Fair rodeo. Mack Brook Farm is Animal Welfare Approved and American Grassfed Approved.
Visit Mack Brook Farm online at mackbrookfarm.com.
by Sally Colby