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
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 system.
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 line. (Click
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
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
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 ears
- 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 spring grass.
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 says.
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
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
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