by Judy Van Put
Thunder View Farms, of Grahamsville, NY, was recently announced as the National Winner of the prestigious 2018 Environmental Stewardship Award Program by the National Cattleman’s Beef Association. The farm, located in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, first competed for and won the regional ESAP award, one of seven such awards based upon state of residency; then competed against the other regional winning farms to become the national winner, which was announced at the 2019 Cattle Industry Convention and NCBA Trade Show in New Orleans.
The Environmental Stewardship Award Program was established in 1991 to recognize outstanding land stewards in the cattle industry, who understand the importance of improving environmental management practices and protecting their ecosystems.
Thunder View Farms, a family farm that has operated since the late 1950s, was faced with the challenge of farming successfully under stringent rules imposed by New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection due to its location — situated between two of New York City’s premier Catskill Reservoirs, the Rondout and Neversink, that supply unfiltered drinking water to New York City’s nine million residents.
The two major assets that the farm offers are the fact that Thunder View Farms is a fully family-run farm now in its 5th generation; and that it follows strict conservation measures and the philosophy of living with the land and working with the land to employ the best management practices. The farm was established by Philip (Phil) and Richard “Dick” Coombe in 1958.
Dick related how the two brothers were born and raised in Grahamsville, NY, and were the third generation on the family’s “gentleman’s farm”. The barns housed Hereford and Angus brood cows, and he thought the Angus “were the best.” While originally the Coombes had raised corn crops at home, they realized that with the steep and stony soils of their Catskill Mountain farm, cattle seemed to make more sense than crops.
In 1958, the brothers brought to their family’s farm six registered Aberdeen Angus cows, purchased from Rally Farm in Millbrook, NY, which, according to Dick at that point in time, was the seed stock capital in the world for Angus. Today the Coombe Family’s Thunder View Farms has grown from those original six cows to becoming a cow/calf producer to finished beef operation of more than 300 head of registered Angus stock.
The original family farm of 60 acres had expanded by the time the Angus operation began, and over the past 60 years the family used opportunity to aggregate land — growing little by little, adding in forest and family land, as well as purchasing neighboring farms when neighbors decided to sell. Today the farm is comprised of 1,500 acres in the Red Brook drainage basin that flows about four miles to the Rondout Reservoir.
When New York City Department of Environmental Protection began their special regulations program in 1990, which included requirements for crops and livestock to be setback 200 feet from streams, Dick, then a NYS Assemblyman, organized a group of farmers to protest the city’s efforts, saying it would effectively “kick them out” of the watershed and discourage agricultural practices. He appealed to the NYC DEP saying that the reason the waters in the Catskill reservoirs were pure enough to provide an unfiltered water supply is because of the land — 85 percent of the land in the watershed was comprised of farms and forests — and, he explained, if you treat the land well, and utilize best management practices, the environment will benefit. He reasoned that a well-managed farm that prevents run-off and controls erosion is better for the watershed than large subdivisions of homes with individual septic systems which can fail.
Dick and his group were successful and won their battle; now the NYC DEP partners with conservation and environmental organizations as well as Cornell Cooperative Extension, in addition to the Watershed Agricultural Council, an oversight group which Dick founded and chaired for many years. Today there are programs that provide funding to farmers in the watershed for fencing to keep their cows out of the stream and water supply improvements so that they can graze rotationally. As a result, they can raise cattle more efficiently, and protect the land and the water — a true win/win situation.
To restate what the city of New York had originally argued against, it IS possible to raise cattle and protect the watershed if you treat the land well and use the best management practices.
To run the Catskill Mountain farm efficiently within the watershed, Dick’s son, Ric, Thunder View Farms (TVF) manager, helped design a reliable gravity fed water system. The family developed ponds utilizing the mountain springs, with USDA oversight, to have continuous water flow over the hills, delivering clean water to all their pastures with minimal effort.
Thunder View Farms (TVF) is a grass based, registered Angus cow-calf operation. The cattle are grazed rotationally, moving them every four to five days to new paddocks. During the long Catskill winters the cattle are fed via heavy use pads that the family developed with the oversight of engineers from the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Watershed Agricultural Council. The 30 to 40-foot wide by 250-foot-long pads are made of compacted gravel placed on geotextile filter fabric. This serves as a hard but permeable surface providing ease of manure clean-up and removal; the nutrients contained in the manure is captured and spread on the farm’s pastures and hayfields. The pads are laid out with J-bunks along a fenced access road in areas that comply with distance from watercourses as well as proximity to the forestland for natural windbreaks. Cattle are fed on both ends of seven “ag bags” — which provide 14 pens for efficient feeding of hundreds of cattle with an ease of operation that enables the farm to run smoothly with a minimum of labor. To provide flexibility with feeding smaller groups of cattle Thunder View Farms bales 2,000 squares, as well as 300 round haylage bales, producing all their own forage.
TVF follows the city’s new management plan requirements for cleaning and spreading manure to ensure the health of the herd and minimize runoff; they save on fertilizer bills as well. The cattle are outside 365 days a year, with windbreak areas, and as a result, are hardy and healthy, not having to adapt to changing environments of being moved into and out of a barn, and saving the cost of buildings to house cattle.
Another plus for the farm is the energy efficiency they’ve achieved by constructing a wind turbine and installing arrays of solar panels, which provide 100 percent of the energy required to operate their farm shops and frozen beef business. They were able to capitalize on cash outlay through USDA’s rural development grant as well as NYSERDA, to cover 75 percent cost of the solar installation. Costs have come down through the years and their project out-produced expectations; in just five years they broke even on their initial investment.
The cattle that are headed for processing are grain-finished on a 90-day diet of corn-based grain to achieve maximize gross potential. They are fed free choice minerals year-round, and receive no antibiotics and no hormones. The cattle are in excellent health; TVF has worked with their veterinarian since the 1960s and over the years of have enjoyed nearly 100 percent calving percentage with very low calf mortality and very high weaning weights.
For the past seven years, the farm hasn’t had to purchase another sire to supplement their own, instead utilizing embryo transplant coupled with A.I. to provide genetic diversity as well as having a closed herd, keeping outside animals virtually non-existent and eliminating the risk of most diseases. The owners are very protective of their herd health and their environment, keeping show cattle in isolation and disinfecting them when they return home, and have had great success selling seed stock Angus bulls, heifers and cows. They produced the 2017 Atlantic National Reserve Champion Junior Bull with TVF The Last Frontier 505; and won the #9 bull in nation in 2017 and 2018 for the Angus breed, and the #2 Senior female in the country.
Thunder View Farms is proud of the high marbling and tenderness of their high-quality beef. Ric explained that although the beef business generally focuses on pounds, the Coombe family believes that highest quality is as important as the number of pounds per carcass. They use a freezer truck to travel to Steiner Packing Company in Otego, NY, which is a full-service USDA inspected slaughter and processing facility where they cut, wrap and flash freeze the meat. TVF uses local outlets, farmers’ markets and restaurants to sell their beef, and have some customers stop by the farm to pick up by appointment.
Today, some 60 years later, because of their readiness to make TVF a multi-generational family farm and try new ideas that might involve taking risks, Thunder View Farms is still run by brothers Phil, Jr. and Dick Coombe; as well as Dick’s son Ric Coombe, and Ric’s son, Patrick. The older family members consult with the younger for fresh and new ideas; Patrick is a college student at Cornell University, studying in the general Agricultural field. His younger sister, Becky, a student at Tri-Valley High School, also has role, and aspires to attend Cornell University to study Veterinary Science. When needed, the entire extended family comes together to help.
The dream that had begun so many years ago has flourished into a National award-winning and profitable operation that provides an outstanding example of land stewardship and environmental sustainability for generations to come.