Trying to Build Carbon with Beef at Steady Lane Farm
Like many NOFA members, Janet Clark and her husband got into farming in their mature years.
Having grown up on an Illinois farm with a hard driving father, Janet’s husband never wanted to go back to that life again. But he helped her with her dream. Thirteen years ago they bought a 70-acre dairy in Ashfield, Massachusetts to raise beef. For ten years they came out from the Boston area on weekends to build fences, fix buildings (new roofs, a bigger well a new electrical system) and move stock. Three years ago they made the big move out themselves. He runs a small business from a home office, and she runs the farm.
The farm is in a beautiful spot, right off and visible from scenic state highway Route 112, with a view overlooking the Berkshires. But it has not been idyllic.
“I’m getting arthritic,” Janet admits. “We haven’t been at peak performance. I have a grass-fed beef operation that has integrity, but it breaks even. It supports the farm and the repair of these old buildings, but I’m just beginning to attend to the soil, which is my major driver.”
Clark has put together a strong base of beef genetics, including Hereford, Angus, Belted Galloway, Murray Grey (an Australian breed) and a few Gelbvieh (a Bavarian breed) in a herd of about 50 cattle. At the time of my visit (April) she had 15 breeder cows and one bull, with the rest yearlings and two-year olds, plus calves just being born.
Janet divides them into two herds: one cow/calf herd of mothers and nursing calves, with the bull added in July for a few months to breed the cows back, and the other of growing feeders who will be harvested at 550 to 600 pounds. The feeder herd contains heifers, so the bull never gets in with them. After weaning in December the calves are moved into the feeder herd and the cows are put on a lean diet of first cut hay. The feeders are kept on a higher protein second cut hay in order to gain weight faster.
“The cows are on pasture during the winter,” she says, “but they have two open barn areas with hay where they can come in at will. If there is no wind it can be zero degrees and they will still be out in the sunshine. They just eat more! This time of year we have new-born calves on the ground and the cow/calf herd remain being aggressive feeders throughout the summer.”
The animals graze on pasture until a hard frost comes at the end of October or early November. Then they get hay for 5 to 6 months until the middle or end of April, when they are able to live on pasture again. They get minerals free choice from a mineral block, along with extra selenium spread on the ground around the block.
Of the farm’s 70 acres, about 60 are open — half in hayfields and half in pasture – with a stream meandering through. The area has a permanent perimeter fence, and is subdivided into 17 paddocks with temporary electrical fencing on plastic posts. The actual paddock size at any point depends on the size of the herd and the lushness of the grass.
Clark has a sketch of her paddocks which she overlays on a map of the farm prepared by the state department of fish and wildlife defining critical habitats.
“These yellow areas are our hay fields,” she explains. “But with the amount of rain we have in the spring we sometimes haven’t been able to take the first cut when it is best for the field. So we often graze them at that time of year. We like the grass to be knee high before it is grazed. A lot is trampled, not eaten. But that is good for the soil life. We move an electric fence line forward every day, giving the cattle access to new grass. They really line up – it’s beautiful to see. I can’t do mob grazing as intensively as I would like, but I’m just now getting more people involved so I can move them more often.
“The biggest paddock,” she continues, “might be 5 to 8 acres, which would be too big in June but in August might be the right size when the cows are hungry and making lots of milk. When the animals are in any paddock bordering the stream they are limited to how much of it they can reach. The stream is classified as a drainage area in our pasture, and as long as cows have had access to it historically, they can continue to graze it now. Sometimes we let them water there, but often we put in a tub and don’t give them access to the stream.”
One of Janet’s biggest goals for the farm is to improve the quality of the forage. That will result in more livestock on the same land, and faster gain for the feeders going to harvest. Both will make the farm more financially viable. But the fields at the north end of the farm are wet.
“The farmers here before us seeded them with reed canarygrass,” she explains. “That forms a dense mat of roots and enables you to get equipment onto the field earlier. It is a good forage, too, if you harvest it quite green and wrap it for haylage. But then you are using a lot of plastic and after being used for haylage plastic is so dirty that even the people who make plastic lumber and buy things like marine wrap won’t touch it. So you have to landfill it. I don’t want to do that!
“But we can’t make round bales of it,” she continues, “because early in the year we have so much rain we don’t get enough time to let them dry. If you wait until it is mature, however, it is like bamboo – it is not edible. So we often end up grazing it in the spring.”
If she could get more biodiversity in the grasses in that field she feels it would be more productive, with different plants coming into periods of maximum growth at different parts of the season. But she says she needs to learn more about soils and grasses to know what would work best in wet and sometimes anaerobic conditions.
To help her move the cows, which she does every 2 or 3 days if possible, Clark has her loyal dog Emma.
“When I’m moving the cows,” she explains, “I need Emma to be with me and quiet, so when I call to them they come. But it is fine for her to move them out of my way when needed, and manage their movements generally. Emma is good at nudging cattle, rather than driving them.”
There are coyotes around, of course, and for a week or two after birth the calves are vulnerable to them. So Janet keeps a burro with the cow/calf herd for protection. After a few weeks, however, the calves seem to know enough to stay with the herd for safety.
Clark usually harvests two 2-year-olds per month, shipping them to Adams Farm in Athol for slaughter. She sells to River Valley Market and Debra’s Natual Gourmet in West Concord, as well as on the farm through her self-service shop. Ground beef, roasts, stew beef, and specialty cuts are all $7. Sirloin is $10. Rib eye and Tenderloin are $15. Soup bones and organ meats go for $5.
“The market for grass-fed beef is wide open,” she says. “My price point is high, compared to my competitors, but I can sell what I offer. Grass-fed beef doesn’t finish as quickly as grain-fed, however, at 2 years. It finishes at 2 and a half years!
“People who do this a lot,” she continues, “aim at a hanging weight of 600 pounds. If I can hang at 600 I can sell at a little higher price to the discriminating buyer because there is a little bit more fat in the meat. These guys here might weigh 550 now. They will put on a lot of good weight this spring, but they are getting old and I may lose their backbone. If their teeth begin to emerge the inspector will look at that and say: ‘Sorry, this animal is over 30 months and you are not allowed to harvest the spine or the brain because of Mad Cow Disease.’ It doesn’t really matter how old they are. If the teeth have emerged they take the spine and skull out and my quality butcher doesn’t get to get that meat which is close to the bone.”
Janet is focused on doing a better job as a farmer.
“This is a beautiful landscape, a wonderful community, a great place to live,” she asserts. “But this work really has to be able to pay a salary somehow!”
She thinks, however, that she knows what she has to do: “Our forage quality is not what it should be, we need to track the performance of individual cows better, and I need to attend to the market aggressively.”
Clark has been talking with a young couple about taking over the cattle operation. They have considerable experience with beef and she believes they will focus more on the things she should be doing. They are talking about introducing some Devon genetics into the herd, for instance. She is still negotiating with them exactly what the lease arrangement will be, but Janet says the idea is that in 5 or 10 years they will be successful enough to buy the farm and half of the two-unit farm house.
She is also considering diversification into value added product like beef jerky or smoked meat, raising turkeys, and grazing other’s animals at the farm during the summer for a fee.
One other product that Janet feels would help both as an additional item to sell and as an amendment to build soil (and thus forage) quality is a high end compost made from cow manure. She is working with Holly Wescott who, before moving to Ashfield, had made a career working with commercial composters in the state of Washington.
Right now the manure and bedding are piled into windrows and aged before being applied to the fields. But the women envision a far more sophisticated system involving careful testing, mixing with biochar, inoculating with fungi, placing into bins in a heated hoop house and composting with red wiggler worms. The resulting product, rich in worm castings and locally-produced biochar, should appeal to high end gardeners and landscapers, as well as helping the fields and forage at Steady Lane Farm after being limed and trampled into the soil.
Janet is particularly excited about using biochar, which she can get from a local sawmill that has purchased equipment to both generate power and make biochar.
“It is a very stable form of carbon,” she points out, “that still has the structure of the wood. It is very hard but has all these tubes in it that become the repositories for these organisms and some of the minerals which can otherwise be washed out of the soil. It persists in the ground for many years – for millennia. It doesn’t volatilize at the surface. The organisms in the soil, of course, can die. But the idea is to keep a thriving environment for them so there is always teeming life there. And the biochar holds moisture! So it has many benefits for the soil.
“It also helps by aerating the compost,” she continues, “keeping air available because of the spaces in the char. You can detect that aeration by the temperature and the smell of the pile. It doesn’t take a lot of biochar to make these effects – maybe 2% to 5%, by volume.
“Some farmers here are buying biochar from Canada,” she concludes. “Some people make their own by burning wood and then shutting down the air to it. There are many different mechanisms for making it. There is a reversed bonfire technique with the tinder on the top and the big logs on the bottom. As the tinder catches fire it works down and begins to shut out the oxygen and by the time the coals turn red you douse it with water. That is an open pile. The old way is to dig a pit and burn in that. You can go online to YouTube and see how to build these chambers within chambers that limit the air to the fire and make a cleaner burn so there are few gases given off. That is the kind of design that the one the sawmill has purchased is built around.”
Clark is also very excited by the work of Allan Savory, demonstrating that cattle can play a major role in building soil carbon because they graze, dung, trample, and then move off an area and don’t return for awhile. That time off enables photosynthesis to build up carbon in those soils so they will hold water, cycle nutrients, and enable long-term humification of that carbon. She feels that her operation can be an example of this approach to building soil.
She hasn’t really determined how she is going to measure and document the carbon increases over time.
“Will it be qualitative,” she asks, “or more quantitative? There are whole protocols to do that. And that will be a part of what we are doing here. A group is coming out from Boston in May to try to help us do that. They are more policy oriented, but I’m telling them it has to work for farmers. Unless you have practices that are at the surface very logical for a farmer it isn’t going to happen. That means that you have to have tools that show exactly what you are doing. That is what we are trying to create here. Something that works for any farmer to say: “I want to be sure that my soil is capturing and storing carbon.” That is what carbon smart farming is.