by Elizabeth A. Tomlin
“We’re kind of like summer camp,” explained Winnie Nelson of Nelson Family Farm in Schoharie, NY, at a recent tour and pasture walk on their farm.
Winnie and her husband Paul are raising a herd of young, mostly Black Angus stocker steers that they purchased out of Winchester, VA. They started this venture a few years ago, pasturing the stocker cattle over the summer, then sending them back to a Winchester auction in the autumn of each year.
“We’ve had really good success working with that particular auction barn,” Nelson said.
The cattle are born in Virginia, introduced to life and weaning, receive their vaccinations, are castrated, and then come to Nelson’s farm for “summer camp.” At the end of the summer, when the farm runs out of pasture, the steers get on the trailer and head back to Virginia.
“We get two truck loads coming up and then there are three truckloads going back — because they have grown, putting on pounds and muscle — and they’ve had a great summer camp experience.”
Paul says each steer puts on about 1.5 pounds per day.
Nelson Family Farm began as a dairy. However, due to a barn fire in 1998, the dairy was forced to close.
“In the middle of the night we had a fire and everything was gone,” Winnie recalled. “What was left was the land. We have about 112 acres here and we have about 50 acres on another road.”
Most of the acreage is open fields, with some woodlots.
Paul decided he wanted to have more livestock on the farm and initially brought in dairy calves to raise, but things did not work out as well as they anticipated, so they decided to try their hand at raising beef stocker cattle, purchasing a herd through a reliable connection Paul had made in Virginia.
They now bring in 200 head each year.
Nelson says their terrain with its sloping hills is perfect for cattle.
Cattle trucks back right up to a loading/unloading dock and the calves go into a chute where they are separated into groups and taught about electric fencing before going out to pasture.
“When we first get them, we put them into pens and we train them with a hot fence. We give them a relatively small area, where they’ve got haylage and a little bit of grass.”
After a few days they are turned into larger pastures.
“We have high tensile, 5-wire fencing. Some of it’s permanent fence, some of it’s sub-division that we’ve done ourselves, with help from our kids and some neighbors.”
Nelson says they use a lot of poly wire and the calves “respect it very well.” The fence is mostly two wires at two heights, but later in the season it is dropped back to a 1-wire fence line and the cattle do respect it and remain within its boundaries.
“No matter how good the electric fence is, it’s not a physical barrier, it’s only an emotional barrier,” commented Cornell University Beef Specialist Dr. Mike Baker, who attended the event.
Not only have neighbors helped out with the fencing, one has developed a waterline system running uphill to keep the water tanks full. “He’s got it set up with a pressure tank we have water coming from a pond into the storage tank and then it is pumped up the hill.”
Another neighbor has knowledge of keeping the valves and floats in working order.
Yet another neighbor makes hay for Nelson’s farm.
“We used to do hay ourselves, but our boys left. They graduated from college and went off to jobs, so there went our farm employees,” Winnie laughs.
Now the farm has no baler or other haying equipment, so they purchase wrapped round bales locally, to feed as needed.
“My husband has a passion for farming,” said Winnie. “And he also has a passion for finding the right people to help him do it. When something’s not working like it should, he’s good at picking the person with the expertise to help resolve the problem.”
Nelson said they have taken a beef stocker cattle course and have worked closely with Dr. Mike Baker on protocol.
Safety in handling the cattle was a topic Nelson emphasized and she advised setting up a handling facility with the proper equipment for management.
Nelson’s layout includes a squeeze chute that minimizes cattle stress, while providing safety.
“Those animals are bigger and stronger than any of us are,” Winnie pointed out.
And patience is necessary when handling the cattle to avoid stress on both sides.
Pastures are rotated about every two days or as observations of pasture and stocker condition decrees. Weather, of course, plays a part in the pasture viability.
Nelson explained that larger fields are divided to prevent the cattle from going through and grazing all of the best pasture, leaving the less desirable forage behind, much like eating your dessert first and ignoring the vegetables.
Stockers are about 800 pounds when they leave Nelson’s farm and head home. Paul says the stockers will finish out at about 1,400 pounds.
Richard A. Ball, NYS Department of Ag & Markets Commissioner, was on hand at Nelson’s for the tour.
“The economy has been struggling in Upstate New York,” he commented, adding that the area has access to water, good land and other agricultural resources, including the Cornell Extension team of specialists. Bringing it all together to benefit farmers is a huge issue.
Baker said the stocker cattle enterprise is one of few agricultural businesses available to beginning farmers that doesn’t require a lot of overhead and that it may also appeal to dairy farmers looking for a transition out of the dairy industry or looking to diversify.
Nelson’s say they have been involved with the Virginia Angus cattle for about 12 years purchasing and returning them for finishing.
“There is an advantage to shipping back to Virginia,” commented Nelson. “They know these animals are from Virginia — they know the quality of the breeding. They know their genetics. It’s just like they’ve gone to New York for summer vacation — or summer camp — and then they go back home.”
For more information on stocker cattle programs contact Dr. Mike Baker at .