by Elizabeth A. Tomlin
Rich Taber modified his long-horned herd into a mix of “British breeds” (comprising of mostly Angus cows crossed with Hereford bulls) several years ago, after his life had changed.
That change involved his marriage to Wendy in 2015. Wendy had grown up on a beef operation in Manitoba, and Great Northern Farm has evolved from their combined entrepreneurship.
Rich, who was raised on a small farm in the dairy farming culture of Connecticut, explained that together, he and Wendy decided to develop the current beef herd, using Herefords bulls “for their docility and tractability.”
“The farm currently has about 50-head of beef cattle,” calculated Rich, who had just finished moving the fence line.
Tabor concedes that moving fence lines can be laborious and time consuming, especially with the weather conditions that have plagued the northeast recently. Pastures of about 5-acres each are rotated weekly at the farm.
Great Northern Farm, located in the town of Lebanon, NY (Madison County), uses about 60-acres of their 165-acre farm for grazing land and the remainder as woodlands.
“Livestock are rotated over the farm and neighboring grassland, so that they are always on fresh, clean pasture during the grazing season” said Taber. “We rent about 35-acres of additional land within one-mile of the farm to grow hay on.”
Leftover baleage from local dairy farms is purchased and then used to round out winter feed supplies.
A 50-ewe flock of Dorset-cross sheep, currently being crossed over to Dorper and Katahdin breeds, is turned out to graze with the cattle. This management practice protects the sheep, while benefiting soil nutrients.
Taber explained the reasons behind modifying their flock’s breed is that as demand for fiber has diminished and since they are in their 60s, it seemed wiser to go to a “hair breed.”
Wendy, who continues to do all of her own shearing, said the Katahdin breed is recognized as an easy to care for meat sheep, tolerant of climatic extremes and able to thrive in a extensive variety of environmental conditions.
The Dorper, also recognized as a highly adaptable breed, thrives on any type of forage. They are said to be excellent for keeping weeds under control and work well as pasture-mates in grazing situations. Dorpers are also capable of producing three birthings in a 2-year period, expanding flocks quickly.
The beef herd and sheep flock are grazed for 5-6 months of the year and fed farm-raised hay, supplemented with the purchased baleage over the winter months.
Some of the farm’s animals, including yearling cattle, are finished on grass for Wendy’s retail business, “Meadow Raised Meats,” a direct market she established many years ago when she farmed in Vernon, NY.
“The beef and lamb are completely grass finished, while the other livestock are supplemented with an organic, GMO-free grain mix,” Wendy explained.
She continues to market meat at the Syracuse Regional Market nearly every Saturday throughout the year.
Tabers both agree there is a definite difference between “grass-raised” and “grass-finished.”
“Grass-raised can be most any ruminant animal that is raised on hay or grass,” clarified Rich. “Grass-finished is when, instead of finishing on grain, you feed your best quality pastures and hay or baleage crops in the non-grazing season.”
Taber, who works with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chenango County as a Grazing, Forestry, Ag Economic Development Specialist, explains that energy is the issue. “Most grasses have enough protein in them but energy can be lacking.”
He compares feeding grass-finished livestock to feeding a herd of organic, grass-fed, dairy cows.
“Bottom line,” said Taber, “is a finished beefer must be marbled to provide the customer with a delicious, tender, juicy steak.”
Tabers believe that knowledge comes with experience.
“We focus on providing a natural environment for livestock to develop at their own pace and on the foods that their bodies are built to utilize,” said Wendy, who had spent much of her earlier career as a nurse in British Columbia.
Rich said although diversity works well for them, and is desirable for success; it’s important to stay focused on what you are working with and not spread out so that you lose that focus.
“Become a student of your chosen enterprise; take classes, attend Extension and other educational activities, mingle with like-minded people, read books and magazines. Collaborate with like minded people,” he suggested.
The Great Northern Farm property was purchased in 1980 by Rich, a retired high-school Ag and biology teacher and an Army veteran, has seen positive changes in soil conditions attributed to good pasture management.
“The farm was purchased for little more than the price of a home in a village setting,” Rich recalled. Rich, with degrees in Ag and Animal Science/Ag Ed, and Forestry, and history in ecological sciences, said he tries to manage the land using “the principles of sustainable farming.”
“When originally purchased, the farm was an old, worn out hill farm,” Rich confirmed. “It has been gratifying to see the land responding to proper care.”
The Tabers have some advice to share from both their separate and their combined years of experience in the meat industry.
“Keep debts as low as possible,” said Rich. “And when you borrow money, borrow for things that will directly return a profit. Buy good used equipment if you need some rather than going into debt for new.”
He said to consider hiring out to have some of your crop work done rather than accumulating machinery that will require payments and maintenance.
A “new, used tractor” was recently added to Taber’s farm to help out with chores, and the tremendous snowfall and horrific winters in their area of CNYS, where they admit, weather conditions bring severe challenges, as it does with all farms.
“The winters are long, cold and snowy, and the high elevation location is in the much vaunted ‘hills to the south and east of Syracuse’ that the meteorologists fondly refer to,” said Rich.
“Start out small and develop markets,” he advised. “Have quality fencing, get good animals, join NY Beef Producers, get BQA certified, attend Extension meetings, network, read, study, set up a good grazing system and arrange for good hay for the winter months.”
Marketing is key in the beef and any meat industry. But, don’t wait until you are taking your animals to be processed before finding that market.
“Become a marketer,” said Taber. “Raising animals is easy enough, but finding ways to sell your stuff can be a challenge. Develop a customer base. If you provide them what they want they will beat a path to your door.”
For more information on grazing livestock contact Taber at firstname.lastname@example.org.