by Troy Bishopp
ODESSA, NY — Naturalist Charles Darwin said, “In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.
Two years ago, during the extreme drought in the southern tier, the Wickham family of Maple Terrace Farm opened up their all-grass beef farm to some grazing management improvisation for the benefit of fellow farmers. “Our goal back then was to show what was working and what wasn’t, and have a frank discussion and looksee at the land to see how we all could become more resilient,” said John Wickham, a long-time farmer and grazing professional for the Schuyler County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Upper Susquehanna Coalition.
Recently during a twilight pasture walk, a group of farmers (some new and some who participated in 2016), came to the farm to compare some notes on what has happened since. The weather was certainly a topic on the minds of everyone in the area, as the super dry spring and early summer became a deluge of rain that prompted a disaster declaration around Seneca Lake on Aug. 14 and 15. “We dumped the rain gauge twice,” said Wickham.
Blessed with Howard gravel under the sod, the 45 head Black Angus cow/calf herd, moved daily, did minimal damage to the paddocks.
This cattle movement through a planned flexible grazing regiment has aided in the resilience, since the animals are only grazing half the alfalfa/grass mixture while the rest is trampled or left so the plant’s recovery rates are quicker in covering up the topsoil.
“After what we learned in 2016, we are favoring the alfalfa with our recovery periods and management so we have deep roots that can sequester moisture,” said Jackie Wickham, who also works part-time as a natural resources planner and enthusiastic grandmother. “We had to plan in 48 days of rest because of the dry weather but are now on a 27-day grazing rotation with adequate moisture.”
Farmers were able to see her daily diary, weight gains and infield residuals which have become an important component for making informed decisions.
The pasture system uses long narrow paddocks and some portable watering points (continuing to add more) to feed the herd well which in turn has been putting over 2 1/2 lbs./day on the calves. Farmers discussed ways to improve the sward by fertilizing with chicken litter, concentrating animals in smaller areas and moving more often, adding some plant species to thicken ground cover and use stockpiled forage and bale-grazing as tools for progress. Growing denser, diverse forage was seen by all as a way to mitigate the pitfalls of Mother Nature’s wrath.
The guests ventured down the road to Jason and Jessica Skinner’s Farm, who are grass-finishing the dozen feeder steers from the herd on improved pastures; destined for the local market in and around Watkins Glen and Ithaca, NY. Jess, who operates Jess Engineering with her husband, said customers prefer smaller carcasses (around 600 pounds) which make their grassfed Angus genetics and their high quality grass a perfect match to harvest without much overwintering. “The marbling and eating quality has been exceptional based on customer responses,” commented Wickham.
John & Jackie, Jason & Jessica, Jeremy & Candice, Jim & Brooke and a slew of Wickham grandchildren use their formerly “recovering corn-alcoholic fields” and their cattle to provide income, pay the taxes, fill all their freezers and to teach the next generation about animal husbandry and responsibility. “We have a strong family dynamic and work together even though everyone works off the farm in some capacity. It’s our most important resource,” said Jackie.
The evening program ended with guests sharing plates of beef barbecue with all the fixings and feasting on homemade desserts made by the Wickhams. It was a satisfying way to spend a Friday night on the farm.
Ike Mallula from Red House Ranch in Van Etten, NY commented how valuable peer sharing is. “I saw ways to improve my pasture productivity and carrying capacity, simply laid out. I’m going to investigate if adding plant varieties and fertilizing with chicken litter may be right for our operation. The evening was another example of why farmer-to-farmer learning is so important, and quite fun to boot. I highly recommend these kinds of events.”
The evening was supported by the gracious Wickham family and the Schuyler, Chemung and Steuben County Soil and Water Conservation Districts, The Tri-County Graziers Group, The Upper Susquehanna Coalition and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schuyler and Steuben Counties.