Posted September 14, 2006: It’s a
balmy mid-August evening, and the mercury has finally dipped
enough to offer some relief from a solid month of all heat
and no rain. We’re gathered—about 50 farmers and
“foodies” from across the state and even as far
away as Cusco, Peru—around a picnic table under the
shade of a welcoming maple tree listening to Dave Stutzman
introduce his family and offer a brief history of his home
Andrew, 19, is raising chickens in an adaptation of Joel
Salatin’s moveable hutch system. Jenna, soon to be 17,
is raising lambs to bolster her college fund. And 13-year-old
Trevor is in charge of the heritage turkey flock.
“That’s our workforce, basically,” Dave
Stutzman says after also introducing his wife, Joy. “We
really appreciate it. We couldn’t do it without them.”
The gathering is part of the Pennsylvania Association for
Sustainable Agriculture’s (www.pasafarming.org)
field day series, one of 19 such farm visits that have taken
place during the 2006 summer season.
Genes that fit the farm
The Stutzmans’ primary grass enterprise is its beef
herd, which includes Red Devon and Devon/Angus cows. The cattle
are being bred with the goal of selecting genetics better
adapted for finishing on the types of grasses this farm’s
southeastern Pennsylvania ecosystem will support. The Stutzman’s
are also looking to develop higher carcass yields that will
exhibit the meat qualities that their customers value.
Dave Stutzman moved back home—their farm is just outside
of Virginville, about 15 miles east of Reading (Berks County)—in
the early ’90s and purchased the 110-acre farm from
his parents. He now has 90 acres converted to pasture, rents
another 20 acres of pasture from his mother about a mile down
the road, and takes hay off another 50 acres leased nearby.
Stutzman acknowledges a divine hand in all that he and his
family have been able to accomplish over the past decade,
converting to sustainable farming practices.
“In 1997 I started doing some reading and research
on organic agriculture,” says Stutzman, who up until
then was growing conventional commodity grains and hay. “I’d
become disenchanted with the economics of it, the droughts
and the low prices, and I didn’t like the chemical part
of it,” he says, revealing that he lost both his father
and a brother to cancer.
Stutzman began running the numbers on several possible scenarios,
all the while considering what type of operation might best
suit his farm and family. He settled on grazing animals on
pasture as the quickest way to organic production, “rather
than going through all the chemical withdrawal,” and
started with 20 feeder cattle in rotating paddocks on about
7 acres of meadow. By 1999, a third of the farm was in, and
by 2001 the whole farm had been converted to a pasture-based
Converting to grass
In those early days, the Stutzmans were simply buying in
feeder cattle and selling heavier feeder cattle. “It
was still commodity trafficking,” Dave Stutzman says.
“We had no control over setting price or the quality
of the product.” Eventually, though, they figured out
their niche market: grass-finished beef.
With researchers and consumers alike discovering the many
health benefits of grass-fed beef—including the presence
of cancer-fighting conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and Omega-3
fatty acids—business is booming. (As this reporter can
attest, the end product tastes pretty darn good, too.)
Pasture’s Pride Natural Meats is not certified organic,
but no chemicals are used in the grass and forage production,
and antibiotics are only used as a last life-saving resort,
with the treated animal then taken out of the natural product
here for more on Pasture's Pride Natural Meats.)
About 20 hogs once raised on pasture have now been brought
into the barnyard after “some real interesting family
experiences” trying to catch the 250- to 280-pound animals.
They’re fed a natural diet and given plenty of straw
bedding. The pigs partially compost the manure and straw,
which then gets applied to the pasture as fertilizer.
Before heading out to pasture, the field day participants
take turns peaking at the naturally raised turkeys in the
shed turned brooder (about 100 poults are brought in each
July and processed for Thanksgiving; they’ll be turned
out to pasture at about 9 weeks).
Trial by fire
Probably the biggest learning curve, Stutzman says, has
been the Katahdin ewes and lambs brought in to pave the way
to college for the Stutzman’s daughter, Jenna. Experience
is the best teacher, of course, and sometimes the harshest.
A bit of bad advice and an overdose of vitamin E cost the
Stutzmans a lot of the first year’s flock. A refortified
flock now roams the back pasture through summer and winter,
sharing a natural stream with the beef herd.
The Stutzmans now buy in 400- to 700-pound feeder cattle
in the fall and finish them off to around 1,000 to 1,200 pounds,
holding them over a second winter and processing them the
following May through December. Three finishing cycles include:
- May through mid-July with cool season grasses and legumes.
- Mid-July through September with sorghum-Sudangrass, turnips
and green leaf corn.
- Fall/early winter (into early January) with turnips,
forage oats and some stockpiled cool-season grasses.
Brought-in, barely weaned calves come from either one specific
farm that knows what type of animals the Stutzmans are looking
for—including that the animals are grass fed and hormone
and antibiotic free—or a specific broker who tracks
down specimens with those same characteristics. Dave Stutzman
characterizes his product as a “well-marbled, high-quality
gourmet-type of beef.” (On-farm offspring represent
the Stutzman’s ongoing breeding program to improve genetics
and the goal of a more closed-loop farming system.)
The animals are rotated in pastures that include a mixture
of cool-season grasses and legumes as well as some experimental
forage crops. Forage and pasture types include:
- Broom grass
- White and red clover
- Orchard grass and perennial rye grass
- Corn (young leaves and tender stalks grazed long before
- Field peas
“Probably 75 to 80 percent of the pasture is a cool-season
legume mix,” Stutzman says.
“Forty percent of our beef still finishes on spring
grass...The hot weather will lignify it, and it doesn’t
have as much energy.” So, mid-June to mid-July, the
corn seed comes out. “They went in and grazed it during
August and September before the cobs developed. They’re
not getting any grain, they’re getting green leaf.”
Stutzman says the young corn plants have similar energy as
In the final finishing cycle—November and December—the
animals are turned out on turnips and oats, where they will
graze until mid-January. “We rotate daily,” Stutzman
Stutzman has also been trying out interplantings of soybean
and corn, turnips and corn, and sorghum-Sudan grass and turnips.
Particularly in these mixed-crop areas, a dry late summer
period has made weeds a challenge.
While Stuzman is not a big-time record keeper—he eschewed
organic certification as a paperwork headache as much as the
fact that word-of-mouth marketing gives him all the business
he needs—he reckons that his beef herd is finishing
out in excess of 2 pounds weight gain per day (somewhat less
with the younger animals).
“They can really gain a lot on turnips,” he says,
adding that diets are supplemented with alfalfa/grass baleage
when there’s a need for it. The herd is additionally
supplemented with a free-choice salt/mineral mix. (Stutzman
says, based on the work of Gearld Fry, that he plans to add
selenium to that mix.)
The animals are strip grazed, with the finishing group getting
first turn in a given pasture. Depending on the crop and the
time of year, the brood cows may follow the finished crop
or the pasture may be left to recover. In late summer, the
herd might be grazing on waist-high sorghum-Sudangrass. Winter
forage might include the sugary turnip roots that get pushed
up as the ground freezes. Stutzman says the herd will go for
weeds in spring when they are tender, but not in fall when
the weeds are tough and full of lignin.
The Stutzmans started out advertising their product in the
local shopper but now do most of their business through word
of mouth and through listings on websites such as AgMap, PASA
and Local Harvest. About 60 percent of their business is done
in halves and quarters and the remaining as individual cuts.
All sales are on-farm. While they used to do one farmer’s
market a week, they now find that they have no time—and
no need—customers are happy to come to them.
While Dave Stutzman finds the Red Devon breed to be the right
phenotype and frame size for his experiments with cool-season
forages and for the quality of meat he’s after, the
genetics are hard to come by. The breed used to be common
in this country, until grain feeding of animals became prominent
about 50 years ago (though Red Devons do well on grass, he
says, they get too fat on a grain-based diet). Now Stutzman
pays a pretty penny for embryos produced in the U.S. from
Red Devon stock originally purchased in New Zealand. But artificially
placing embryos has only about a 50-percent success rate.
Stuztman walks us to a 4-acre field where he’s interplanted
corn and turnips, and where dry weather has been more hospitable
to redroot pigweed than to the cultivated crops. Here, he
explains, is where he had hoped to finish off his fall animals,
with an adjacent interplanting of corn and soybeans to accommodate
the beef that will be processed in December-January. “It
was looking really beautiful; then it got hot and the weeds
took over,” he says. “It was also a little too
wet when we worked this area.”
The ultimate goal here is to create animal genetics and permanent
cool-season pastures that match. Then, Stutzman says, he can
give up “farming” as he calls the daily struggle
to provide adequate pasture and forage through creative cropping
that tries to stay one step ahead of Mother Nature.
“It’s difficult to get good-quality cattle that
finish well on grass,” Stutzman says. “I really
don’t want to be doing this—farming and plowing
and planting annual crops. I really think it can be done without
that if you have the right genetics."