FAIRFIELD, VA – “Farmers make money when the natural cycles on their farm work properly,” said Becky Szarzynski of Mountain Glen Farm in Rockbridge County, VA. That’s why she and her father Glenn practice regenerative agriculture on their South Poll cattle operation.
Adaptive grazing and a commitment to being self-sufficient are at the center of the Szarzynskis’ farm philosophy. The goal is to make the most of what their pastures have to offer without spending too much on inputs. In their experience, adaptive grazing is the best way to develop healthy pastures and healthy soils which in turn lead to nutrient-dense forage and profitable farming.
Growing up, Becky helped her father manage the family’s Black Angus herd. When she got to college age, she decided to learn by experience and make a living farming. But she wanted to utilize a breed suited for grazing, and her sights settled on South Poll.
A cross between Hereford, Red Angus, Senepol and Barzona, South Poll cattle are small-framed, docile, long-lived and highly fertile. The breed was developed by Teddy Gentry, the bassist from the band Alabama, with the goal of developing a heat tolerant animal with a gentle disposition which would produce tender beef on grass. Their red color helps with the heat tolerance. The breed is also adapted to perform on Kentucky 31 tall fescue.
“They’re super-efficient on grass,” Becky said, “easy calvers, moderate milkers and easy keepers. It’s not a high-input breed. They also have good longevity – some animals can be productive in year 20.”
The Szarzynskis got into the breed about 13 years ago, and today most of their herd is South Poll, though there is some remaining Black Angus influence.
“It’s the right breed to make money with adaptive grazing,” Becky said.
The farm uses stockpiled forage and takes an unconventional approach to letting pastures rest, in that they’re not afraid to let forage stand longer than others might.
“We might let a field stand 75 days or longer when others would graze them in something closer to 30 days,” Glenn said. “People have said ‘Look at what you’re wasting.’”
But the Szarzynskis see something different. “The rest period is really important,” Becky said. “It lets forages develop their roots which leads to more plant growth which leads to more photosynthesis, which helps build organic matter in the soils and also sequesters carbon dioxide from the air into the ground. It’s truly a beautiful cycle.”
And the grass does eventually get eaten during the winter months as a highly palatable stockpile.
One of their farms is a 160-acre piece they bought six years ago. Forty acres had been cropland and the remaining 120 had been in continuous grazing. After they purchased it, one May the Szarzynskis let it rest through the remainder of spring, and through summer and autumn, until winter, when the pasture species were thigh-high.
“The plants in the pastures were exuding sugars into the ground which were feeding the microbiotics of the soil,” Becky said. “The diversity on top of the ground increased and so did the diversity underground.”
Today the farm comprises nine permanent fields which are split with polywire, depending on the amount and quality of forage in the fields and the needs and characteristics of the herd on the ground.
They operate another farm as well, with 120 acres divided into 18 permanent fields, which themselves can be divided as needed by polywire.
“With stockpiled grazing in the winter,” Becky said, “we don’t need as much hay.”
The herd, which is spring calving, was initially developed with animals from numerous herds, including some from Missouri and Alabama. Today, Mountain Glen Farm is a source for South Poll cattle, and their animals are in high demand.
“With COVID there’s been an increase in homestead farms,” Becky said, “and those farmers have been looking for a docile, smaller-framed animal which is efficient on grass. There’s been a big demand for South Poll.”
Becky is active in the Virginia Forage and Grassland Council, and promotes grazing with a presence on Facebook and YouTube. Long-term, she hopes to double the size of her land base and her herd. As a regenerative farmer, she’s also looking to increase her soil organic matter, and to that end she intends to measure the microbiology of her farm’s soils. Her goal is to improve her farm’s ecology and economic productivity.
“She’s going to be a better farmer than I am,” Glenn said. “She already is.”
by Karl H. Kazaks
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