by Troy Bishopp

LATHAM, NY — Ben Franklin surmised, “An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”

With low farm prices in the dairy and livestock sector, learning improved-pasture management strategies has the ability to compound interest in saving money from forage. The 11th annual gathering of over 100 graziers, vendors and educators got a smorgasbord of insight on multi-species grazing, contract grazing, backgrounding stocker cattle, marketing grass-fed beef, using risk management tools and adding infrastructure upgrades.

To accomplish this task, seasoned grazier, Greg Brann, owner of Big Spring Farm located on the Kentucky/Tennessee border and 36 year grazing specialist with the Tennessee NRCS, talked about methods of pasturing his “Flerd” of beef cows, stocker calves, goats and hair sheep.  “Running one group is just a lot easier,” said Brann. “However, sheep can overgraze if the herd is left too long.” He typically rotates to a new paddock every 3 days or less, according to nutritional needs and plant residual goals.

His ideal pasture soil health mantra is to have 30 percent legumes and a diverse blend of grasses and forbs in a medium high phosphorus and potassium level soil with a pH above 6.2. “When I drop a pen, I want to hit 7 to 11 layers of green leaves and have 3/8” of residue cover on the soil,” said Brann. “The more cover, the more infiltration, period. I feel grazing to a higher residual is more important than fertilizing.”

As with anyone experienced, Brann had a cornucopia of pictures and homegrown anecdotes to share: “Cattle farms are the number one water quality concern for EPA. I go to my sacrifice area when residual is less than 3”. Hay is too expensive to buy and too cheap to sell — graze more days. Each ton of hay contains 60-13-48 of N-P205-K20. The cost of a high tensile perimeter fence yields more profit than making hay off the same acreage. The best fence is good grass. Take time to develop farm and life goals. Strive to lower inputs and produce more pounds per acre equals more profit.”

The reality grazing continued as Jason Detzel, Owner of Diamond Hills Farm LLC and Livestock Educator for Ulster County Cornell Cooperative Extension chronicled his experience in following Cornell’s Southern Tier Stocker Initiative guidelines. The young entrepreneur leveraged all he had to secure a loan to buy a pot-load of stocker beef cattle from three different sources and graze them on leased land. What he shared were the growing pains of a first year farmer. He described his fencing strategies, installing a finicky water system, grazing management style, animal health challenges, grass growth issues and marketing woes.

His youthful exuberance detailed ALL the expenses and income from this group of cattle. His honest assessment of this new grazing business model culminated with a net zero, only because he made the decision to truck the cattle to a Missouri market. “If I accounted for my labor, I would be down six grand,” said Detzel. His lessons to the audience were to source pre-conditioned cattle, don’t overestimate the productivity of the pastureland, have resilient plans for health and weather issues and possibly secure a market before investing in a certain cattle operation.

First generation farmer, Marc Cesario, from Meeting Place Pastures in Cornwall, VT detailed his extensive 800-head contract-grazing beef operation within 1,000 acres of leased and owned properties adjacent to and around the Lemon Fair River Wildlife Management Area, also known to Cesario, as the “Banana belt of Vermont”.

The humorous, deep-thinking, holistic-minded farmer recounted his journey of developing his interest in farming at the University of Massachusetts (UMass), where he studied Environmental Science, frequented Boston Red Sox games and immersed himself in an 8 year mentorship at Brookfield Farm in Amherst, MA running the livestock part of their CSA share. “I owe my farming life to Dan Kaplan,” said Cesario.

As luck would have it, Marc married a dairy gal in his wife, Cheryl, who is also conveniently a grazing specialist for the University of Vermont Extension. In 2009, the couple purchased their first 97 acres, conserved by the Vermont Land Trust as their base. It sent in motion a desire to scale-up land acquisition through what Marc says is, “Landowner relationship marketing.” Feeding cows, their small flock of hair sheep and soil microbes on organically managed pasture is an integral part of the Cesario’s farming philosophy.

Marc offered fellow farmers a glimpse into his contract grazing business model at $1.30/head/day. He raises and markets 250 grass-finished animals per year through a network of partners, namely, Thousand Hills Cattle Company, Big Picture Beef Company, institutional buyers, colleges, hospitals and local customers.

“Energy flow is where attention is paid. I follow the SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis framework every month to keep the work on track,” said Cesario.  “Quickbooks is my favorite tool.”

To complement the financial aspects, his grazing management style is “Don’t take too much, move often, and don’t come back to soon.”

He has found water delivery infrastructure at $36/acre to be more important than any other input to keep cows healthy and fertility transfer ideal. His soil health improvement and biological capital is pretty stunning as most of his fields have been measured to infiltrate 6” of rain in 30 minutes with soil organic matter levels running between 8 to 12 percent.

Big Picture Beef CEO, Ridge Shinn, provided a history lesson of sorts and a story of marketing opportunity. “In the Northeast, grass-feed beef is increasingly popular. Grass-fed will be a 30 billion dollar business. It’s a game changer,” said Shinn. He shared his company’s recipe for sourcing quality cattle from partnering operations so his customers enjoy a tasty eating experience.

His grass-finished program criteria included starting with the right genetics, a verifiable history of being born, raised and finished in the Northeast, has only eaten grass, legumes/forbs, herbs and/or stored feeds made from grass and legumes, been handled according to Animal Welfare Institute standards, a hanging carcass weight of 500 to 700 pounds for heifers and 550 to 750 pounds for steers with a minimum of 0.2 inches of fat cover and a minimum of 3.2 percent intramuscular fat. For these protocols he quoted to the audience of paying $2.60/lb./hanging weight.

Guests enjoyed a hearty lunch featuring local beef, chicken, greens and apples. For 11 years the conference has worked with the Century House in Latham because of a passion to provide one meal in each guest’s honor through its “Enjoy One Share One” program launched in June 2009.  That commitment now boasts to have provided more than 925,000 meals (with the number growing daily) to those who are hungry through the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York.

For more information on the day’s content, contact Ashley Pierce, Livestock Educator at 518.272.4210 or