by Elizabeth A. Tomlin
“Macauley Farms LLC was established in 1936 by my great-grandfather David Macauley,” remarked John Macauley, of Livingston County, New York.
The farm began with a few Holsteins and two registered first-calf, Brown Swiss heifers that were purchased from a 4-H member.
John said his great-grandfather liked what he saw in the Brown Swiss breed and eventually sold the Holsteins. He then built an entire registered Brown Swiss herd until he was milking about 85 cows.
Jim Macauley, John’s dad, said the decision to leave the dairy industry was made in 2017.
As the farm already had a small herd of Hereford and Black Angus, the decision was made to add the Brown Swiss cows to the existing cattle herd and produce a Brown Swiss/ Angus cross. The Brown Swiss cow/calf pairs are pastured on the home farm, with the Hereford /Angus close by on another.
“We didn’t know about going from dairy to beef,” admitted Jim. “You really don’t know about making the switch until you make it,”
Macauleys credit Cornell’s Small Farms Specialist, Nancy Grazier, for her help in assisting them in making the transition.
“We made the switch and we ran with it,” said John.
Macauleys purchase their Black Angus bulls from other breeders and are phasing out of the Brown Swiss, selling them off a few at a time at auction.
“Next year I won’t have any Brown Swiss at all,” said Jim. “We’ll have all Angus.”
Presently there are about 70 Brown Swiss on the farm, with about 150 head total.
The herd is mostly grass fed with supplemental hay as needed, and a bit of grain or oats “to keep them easy to get a hold of,” with the Brown Swiss-cross grazing 30-acres and the Hereford /Angus-cross grazing 80-acres at the lower farm.
“That is all I want to commit to the cattle right now,” Jim explained, adding that he has a goal of diminishing the herd size to focus more on crops. He points out that prices fluctuate considerably with the cattle business, making it hard to plan on steady income.
“And there’s less labor involved in crops than with animals,” he reflected.
The farm sells mostly feeder calves and does no slaughtering or direct marketing.
While Jim and Jeff, and more recently son Michael, have been mostly involved with the cattle, John is the crop manager.
“Between 1936-2008 we were a conventional farm,” says John. “We would plow, then disk two or three times, then culti-mulch, and then finally plant.”
John says he recalls his grandfather telling of how he and his brother would come home from school and count the furrows his great-grandfather had completed that day with a horse and plow.
“Boy, how things have changed!”
“One of our big transitions was going from conventional to all no-till,” said John.
After watching neighboring farms try their hand unsuccessfully with no-till, Jim and John decided to take the challenge and see if they could make it work for them.
“In fall of 2008, my dad and I decided to try something new and plant no-till wheat. We had a problem at first with not being able to get the drill into the ground — even with new blades and higher down pressure. It was very dry that fall, but we added weights and away we went. We weren’t sure what method would work for our land or what type of modifications were going to be needed for our equipment, so we started slow. We knew there would be an added cost of switching to no-till.”
When they first transitioned to no-till, John modified their existing equipment to do the required job and used a no-till grain drill out of Pennsylvania.
“In 2012, after proving over a few seasons that no-till was working, I decided that we would give no-tilling corn a shot. We planted half no-till corn and the other half strip-tilled. I thought if we did both it would be a good comparison to see if no-till corn really was as effective. After much discussion and a good comparison in the fall on our strip-tilled corn versus no-till corn, I was able to convince my dad that no-till corn would be successful for us in yield and cost savings.”
“So we started out conventional plowing and we went to using a zone builder. It has deep ripper shanks and cuts about 8-inches deep, we started using that for the corn and the soybeans.”
Jim compares the principle to a raised garden bed, explaining that the zone builder creates raised seed beds and has “rolling baskets” behind that break up clumps of dirt and levels the ground out a bit.
“Then the corn planter plants right into the seed trenches in the bed.”
“I used that for 3 or 4 years early on,” John remarked. “It was a transition tool. I’m 100 percent no-till right now.”
John said he switched the corn planter around and bought a no-till grain drill for the wheat, oats and hay, modifying the corn planter until he bought a new one.
“The final stages of our no-till journey was transitioning our hay to no-till. After five years of proven success — and many lessons learned — I was able to confidently plant 100 percent of my crops with no-till methods. With that being said, I can’t say there hasn’t been a learning curve with no-till farming — or that each season doesn’t present new challenges.”
John is exploring many new avenues to his farming adventure, with Jim right along side of him in the decision making.
While experimenting with no-till, the team also began experimenting with cover crops.
“In 2012, we started out with radishes, Austrian winter peas and oats. Then a few years later, we moved to a more diversified mix with crimson clover, daikon radish, purple-top turnip and buckwheat.”
Hairy Vetch, pearl millet, sunn hemp and cereal rye have now been added to the inter-seeded mix.
They soon realized the many benefits cover crops provide, such as holding soil in place to discourage erosion, while encouraging earthworm populations and creating a habitat for other beneficial insects to help control pest insects. Water infiltration was another benefit.
“Cover crops also put nutrients back in the soil and help to suppress weeds. It’s good for conservation.”
John said, “cover crops and no-till go hand in hand.” He uses certified seed for each planting.
The farm has nearly 1,000 acres in crops of soybeans, wheat, corn and hay and John advocates the use of soil testing to determine soil health.
“I am planning to use the Haney test now that I’ve switched to more cover crops.”
Although they have seen some Round-Up resistant marestail, John is keeping on top of it.
John’s goal is to reduce his use of commercial fertilizer and use more cover crops to supply nutrients to the soil. “I’m hoping to save quite a bit by doing that. I want to cut my fertilizer cost by at least half to two-thirds.”
“We’re shooting for high yield,” said Jim.
John has some advice for other young farmers.
“Start off small,” he advised. “Don’t do everything at one time. Gradually step into it. Figure your cost of production, call around and check for prices and shoot for your goal. Watch the market in the spring. Once the market hits that target, sell!”
He also advises working with your local NRCS and Soil & Water programs. Apply for grants.
“Some counties have no-till drills they lend out.”