Henry Rosenberger is feeling as recharged and energized as his pastures and cattle after a desperately needed midsummer overnight soaking. "The change of weather is a relief for us, and for them," he says.
Photo courtesy of Adam Cohn.
Like all farmers, a grass-fed beef cattle farmer is dependent on rain. Sitting still and waiting, he admits, can be depressing at times. Rest assured, it'll rain. It's just a matter of when.
That's basically what's happened in the grass-fed beef market in Pennsylvania. It was just a matter of time, but that time has arrived.
"You can buy beef from Pennsylvania," The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture's Marilyn Anthony announced a couple of years ago.
When Rosenberger moves a herd from pasture to pasture, an occurrence every two or three days, depending on the grass supply and condition, he really doesn't have to lead them. They clump together and follow, lured by the prospects of a new, greener feeding frenzy. "Come on girls," he says, more for the show. "You know where you're going."
He whistles as he pins back an electrified spring gate to open the new acreage. "It's like a Slinky," he says. Then, he moves their water trough and refills it through almost 15,000 feet of high-density black plastic pipe that's buried 1 inch deep and screwed into a .75-inch garden hose back at the farmhouse.
He repositions a salt block (he goes through 1 ton of salt blocks a year), pausing to take in the scene: "Is that a pretty picture?" Rosenberger asks rhetorically. "I love that first hour of investigation [of the new pasture]."
He stops the John Deere Gator to cut thistle - "the bane of his existence" - at its root, and adjusts his vinyl advertising banner on the fencing, stretching it out so passersby can see that at Tussock Sedge Farm he's selling 100 percent grass-fed Red Angus/Devon beef. "I'm always asked what the difference is," Rosenberger says. "Others may be on grass for four or seven months of the year, then they head to the feedlot, but that's a different animal than what I'm selling."
A changing market
Tussock Sedge Farm cattle in Blooming Glen, Pa., are fed with grass, hay at times, minerals and salt, which all-natural proponents argue is better for their health, and for human health, than grain and corn. Think about it, Rosenberger says, feedlot cows are always covered in flies and manure.
"We can't be content with an economy based on chemically driven agriculture," he says. "We have to adjust at least."
Rosenberger slaughters 80 a year - typically three to five every three weeks, and never a single to reduce last-minute stress - producing about 50,000 pounds of pasteurized beef a year. The beef is sold mainly to doctors "and people who know better or are changing their lifestyle," he says. Through website sales at www.tussocksedgefarm.com, a new buyer will typically start with an 8 or 12-pound sampler.
There's new awareness. Consumers are saying they want healthier meat, not just good, greasy, fatty meat. They want to know what they're eating. "There's an inherent sense of trust and a buy-in if they can see it," Rosenberger says. "Plus, with the price of corn at $7 or $8 a bushel, how much money can you afford to put in?"
Expenses were a leading consideration when Bill Elkins, a retired physician and now cattle farmer at Buck Run Farm in East Fallowfield, Pa., converted his operation on old King Ranch land into a grass-fed operation two years ago. His grass didn't need to be started anew or from defunct or tilled field corn land.
"Even getting rid of weeds is expensive, as is reseeding," Elkins says. "There's such huge expenses with machinery, hay, mowing, fertilizing, diesel fuel, and it's all constantly going up and up. I thought this is a way to break out of it. I got rid of the hay equipment. Now I have just one tractor in case something needs to be pulled out of the mud."
When Rosenberger moves a herd from pasture to pasture, he really doesn't have to lead them. They clump together and follow, lured by the prospects of a new, greener feeding frenzy.
Photos courtesy of Tussock Sedge Farm.
Elkins is also quick to point out that his grazing program, with 160 head of Black Angus, is a work in progress and subject to modification. He says he's uncertain how it will pan out. Divided into 16 pastures and two herds that are moved at least once a day, the cattle are mob grazing. His first year, he stopped mowing cold turkey halfway through the summer.
Rosenberger's five herds average 30 to 35, though there's one finishing herd of 120, all divided in paddocks on five farms totaling 385 acres of pasture and hay and 85 acres of woods and wetlands on both sides of Route 113. When he moves herds, he's typically moving them to pastures that average 7 to 9 acres. Mob grazing would put 120 cows on 2 acres.
"I'd like to mob graze, but so far I haven't had the courage to march 300 animals down [Route 113]," he says. "It's a management issue, but also a public relations issue, too. Guys who do it say they take along a box of ground beef patties and hand them out to cars in traffic."
What makes Rosenberger's venture more interesting is his last name. Rosenberger is a Pennsylvania dairy cow name. For 78 years his family owned a local dairy with a dominating market position that still carries the same name, despite a subsequent sale since the Rosenbergers sold out in 2003.
One of nine surviving children, and the third from the youngest, Henry, who is now 66, couldn't make much headway in dairy. After college, he could have worked for his older brothers. Instead, he carved his own niche, first in the cold storage and ice business that he sold in 1998 in the midst of acquiring farmland with his wife, Charlotte. He says his brothers admire him, but think he's a little crazy.
Tussock Sedge Farm was initially a crop farm, rotating corn, soybean and wheat. When Rosenberger added cattle, they were fattened in traditional feedlots. Now, with 100 calves a year and demand for grass-fed beef, herds grew, and so did bills. Two years ago he went cold turkey, feeding only 100 percent grass and hay. Not only did it make his workload more manageable, but eliminated a $100,000-a-year fertilizer bill. He was spending $30,000 in crop seeds, now he spends $1,500 to $3,000 in grass seed for pasture improvement and repair. His fertilizer is cow and poultry manure and his own farm-made compost, a combination of manure and leaves the township collects. About 1,000 yards of that a year goes back onto his fields. He's experimented with other natural feed - 18 acres of turnips recently.
Even at the end of his rounds, Rosenberger returns with round hay bales for his finishing herd and regular bales for the younger cows. He's even careful to drop hay on bare spots in the pasture to help with grass regeneration next season.
A typical Red Angus/Devon cross dresses at 650 pounds. The Devon mix provides for a stockier, smaller carcass with a better yield - say 72 percent - and better flavor. Tail fat is indication of readiness, and with the necessary weather and grass, Rosenberger can finish a cow in 18 to 23 months. Cattle without the right frame and genetics can take 30 months to finish.
When it's time to switch pastures, though, they're like thoroughbreds at the gate. "They're saying, 'Come on, let's move," Rosenberger says as he approaches another herd. "They don't know that I'm not moving them. I'm just checking on them [and a couple of newborn calves]."
As he meanders among them, counting the little ones like a mother's nod to her kittens, he calms them. "Hey guys," he says.
Elkins, 78, says he's still learning. He first read about mob grazing in an article by Greg Judy and has since taken classes at the Judy/Innes Mob Grazing School at Judy Farms in Clark, Mo.
"Like all of farming, it'll be different every year no matter what," he says. "But we've definitely cut our costs. Then, once you get going it's all by word-of-mouth. Now, people are looking for us, and for the last two years we haven't been able to supply all the requests."
The risks: Too many cows for the available pasture. Even Elkins has run out of hay and had to buy some this past spring. The fescue outgrows all the other grasses. Once, he feared ending up with a monoculture, but says mob grazing has actually helped promote diversity without any preparations or seeding.
"We let the cattle do all the changing," Elkins says. "If change is going to take place, we let the cattle do it."
The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.