Veterans fall in for a grazing clinicIt was a beautiful, sunny October day when 20 attendees, mostly military veterans, descended on Great Northern Farm in southern Madison County, NY, for a day of sharing knowledge about livestock grazing systems. The event was sponsored by the Cornell Small Farms Veterans Program, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chenango County and the Chobani Foundation. The farm is owned and operated by Army veteran and National Guard retiree and CCE Chenango Extension Educator Rich Taber and his wife Wendy Taber.

For many years the Tabers have raised beef cattle and sheep. With the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, Wendy decided to shut down her retail meat business which involved selling retail cuts of meat at the Syracuse Regional Market every Saturday. They decided to downsize the sheep operation and concentrate on beef cattle, with occasional groups of dairy heifers brought in to round out the animal profile. In 2021 Rich decided to completely redesign the grazing system on the steep, high elevation farm known for its long, harsh winters.

The farm has 165 acres, with about 105 acres of it being woodland. There are 30 acres of improved grazing, 12 acres of unimproved grazing and a five-acre winter feeding lot. About 40 acres of hay land are rented from different neighbors near the farm. Most of the farm has mesh panels for perimeter fences, rather than the typical high tensile fence seen on so many farms today. This is due to the fact that most of the fences border on woodlands; mesh panels preclude tree limbs falling onto electric wires and shorting them out.

This year Rich divided the 30 acres of improved grazing into seven different paddocks of approximately 4.5 acres each. A laneway was constructed so the cattle have access to all of the paddocks when needed without back grazing on recently grazed paddocks. The individual paddocks are delineated by step-in posts and electric rope. The cattle remain in each paddock for about four or five days before being rotated into the next paddock. The electric fences are powered by a 15-joule electric fence charger.

The beef herd this year has 17 cows, three yearling heifers and this year’s crop of 16 calves were sired by a Red Angus bull. Across the road from the beef herd Rich keeps 16 Holstein dairy heifers which will be marketed before the full onset of winter.

On this balmy autumn day, the participants met while Rich explained not only some of the principles of grazing management but how he has applied those principles to this particular property. The emphasis throughout was to use as many cost saving measures as possible. Some useful ways to reclaim old fields and pastures was shown by Rich, and how to minimize the use of tillage as much as possible. Rich has reclaimed several old fields and brought them back into production by using brush hogs and relying on the native seed banks present in the soil to provide a source of seeds. He also tries to clip or brush hog each paddock at least once a year. The maintenance of plant cover on the land always and maintaining good organic matter levels all fall into the concepts of regenerative agriculture. Soil tests provide information about pH and nutrient levels that may need to be added to the fields.

It can be done! Steep, often wet fields are not suited to tillage and row-crop oriented agriculture. With careful and judicious management, however, these fields and pastures can produce grass, a beautiful commodity which can be converted into usable and sustainable products and help people remain on the land.