Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 013 - Production on Pasture featuring Greg Brann and Robin Way

Greg Brann: That’s why I got into regenerative agriculture or sustainable agriculture because it just make sense working with nature and letting the manure fall where you don’t have to deal with it. That's labor. It’s just a lot easier if you get your timing and cycling and all right.

Mallory Daily: This is Our Farms, Our Future. A podcast by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. For this episode, two master livestock grazers discuss the nitty-gritty of raising animals sustainably. Greg Brann, who you heard at the top of the show, runs grass-fed cattle and sheep on about 220 acres in Southern Kentucky. He’ll be in conversation with Robin Way, who raises cattle and poultry on her grass-based farm near the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.

Robin Way: So we’ve been farming for about 25 years. We moved to the farm right when we first got married. And of course, aside from growing our family, growing our farm, diversifying, really trying to have a miniature America on our farm, with lots of different varieties of animals, growing a garden for our own use and for selling canned goods and value-added. So, Greg, where do you think we're going with agriculture in America?

Greg Brann: It's a real interesting time because traditional ag folks that are cropland folks are using the cover crops and they're seeing the benefits of the cover crops in building their soils and having to use less herbicides and just more water infiltration. So I think it's really catching on and going a good direction that way. And then, you know, it seems like the smaller farmers are getting more intensified and direct marketing is getting bigger and bigger. And in my area, as I understand some areas it's not as big, but in my area, there's a lot of direct marketers now. That's what I do, is sell to direct marketers. I don't direct market myself. So I'm positive about it. We know so much now on how to improve the land. It's incredible where we can go.

Robin Way: Yeah. And I think I agree with you. I think that soil is probably one of those things that we never thought about in years past. And it's the foundation of life. I mean, if we don't keep our soils healthy, then we're not going to be able to move on. And we do direct market and I agree. I see a lot of small farms popping up, people leaving the industry, going back to farming. I'd love to see the country made up of millions of small farms selling to their local communities, whether it be animal production or plant production, bringing food to the inner cities. I just really see that as so positive.

Greg Brann: Yeah. It'd be good for the land and the people wouldn't? People would know where the food came from. So I think it's very positive direction that we're headed. What important progress have you made in your operation? How have you changed your operation and made progress?

Robin Way: I really see that our progression is really for, like, animal housing has changed over the years. We are pasture-based. So of course keeping everything out on the land as much as possible has been really important to us. And we should have started I think where a lot of other people started with Joel Salatin, his model, and moved on to what was really working for our farm. And we've moved into sort of mobile-like poultry schooners so that it's a mobile greenhouse. More enclosed. We have lots of predation in our area, especially being on the Chesapeake Bay, tons of flying predators. Not as much as the Midwest where you guys have a lot of roaming predators with lots of sharp teeth.

Greg Brann: Yeah. So how do you deal with those predators?

Robin Way: Well, keeping our poultry enclosed to is one of the things. I mean, most of the time flying predators don't go after pigs or cattle, and turkeys are really too big for them, also. But our chickens are prime target for them. And we over the years have lost many chickens to flying predators. What about in your situation with your lambs and things?

Greg Brann: Well, we have some flying predators, too. It'd be the black vulture and the little lambs are pretty vulnerable, bu luckily in my area, they're not attacking live animals, but down south of us they are. So it's a threat, but the guard dogs watch the sky too. Some of them do. And so that's a benefit. But once they get bigger than that, that's not a threat. It's really at the birthing time. And I've got like 10 guard dogs and they're good dogs. You know, about half the dogs work out as being very protective. And so we've had some adjustments, but right now I have excellent dogs. And then I run a couple of donkeys, too, and have run lamas, but they're so prone to meningeal worm and my area is bad. So they're so prone to that that they didn't last in my area.

Robin Way: Do you have the donkey's just roaming amongst the animals?

Greg Brann: I try to run one donkey per group. Sometimes I'll run two, but they buddy up and they don't do as good a job. And if you'll have them have a colt then they're more even more protective, just letting the cows run with the sheep. So especially the Brahman breeds are real protective and do not like dogs being around, but they get along with the guard dogs good enough and they'll break up dog fights and all that. But yeah, so the predators are a huge thing that we can deal with about everything else, but the predators we have to really keep an eye on and manage for. We also have high tensile electric fence and that helps a little.

Robin Way: So you were talking about having different animals together. Some of the things that we really don't do is we don't sort of co-habitate our animals. And in your experience, do you have problems with different size animals being together?

Greg Brann: No, it's odd. You know, a common question is: do the cows step on the lambs? You know, little lambs. I'll see them, I was watching this past week and the cows will walk around the lamb or lift a foot in the air and they'll avoid them. Now when we rotate to new pastures, we try to do low-stress handling and not stir 'em up, not excite them too much. We want them to just slowly go through the gate. They rotate so much, they know new grass is there. So sometimes they get pretty excited. So I've had about three step down in 10 or 15 years. And they were weaker animals, little lambs or goat kids going through a gate. But other than that, I don't know of any that have been stepped on. So they're pretty compassionate, I guess.

Robin Way: Pretty hardy yet. I mean, we've tried running our cattle in where chickens are, but of course, the lore of having chicken feet on the ground is way too much for the calf. And so they will go right through our fencing. And so we also use high tens. We use single strand electric for our cattle to move them around. We high-intensity graze. So we usually try and either run the cattle in before the chickens are there or our turkeys and then run the chickens or turkeys through trying not to have them there at the same time because it is such a temptation.

Greg Brann: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I'd like to have poultry on my farm. I don't have any to break the fly cycle, you know. And my understanding is it'd be best to have the chickens or the poultry move in about three days after the cattle move out to eat those fly larva and not eat the dung beetles as much.

Robin Way: Yeah, we had a student come out to the farm this past year, which was really interesting, from University of Maryland, working on a dung beetle experiment and looking at our farm. And we were very pleased to find out we had lots of Dung beetles and that meant I guess, healthy soil. And we were happy with that. Not that we had ever seen any. And so I do, I agree with you. The only thing we have to worry about with poultries is that we really don't want to run chickens and turkeys together because of black fly. And a lot of shared mites that we really don't want to introduce into our flux. So we try and rotate our fields around every year for different poultry and of course the cattle grazing, all of it.

Greg Brann: Okay. So you'll leave a field without poultry for a year, is that right?

Robin Way: So we have five or six different fields and every year we'll pick a different field to put the poultry. And not two years in a row do we use the same field. And of course our footprint isn't as big with poultry because you're moving a house and chickens only are, say, seven to eight weeks. And of those seven to eight weeks, three to four of them are usually in the chicken house while they're getting feathered out. So our imprint or our footprint over that is much less than running sheep or running cattle. You know, if you have an eight acre field, you may not even use the whole field for one batch.

Greg Brann: But it's a good enterprise for some beginning farmers because of that footprint being so small.

Robin Way: Yeah. And especially like, if I say for new farmers, I think that poultry is a great start. The only thing I encourage people is to really plan. One of those, as they joked is, you know, build it and they will come. Well that is not the truth when it comes to poultry. You really need to have your ducks in a row. No pun. And so you need to know where you're processing, who your customers are going to be. And I really think that's a great plan before you get poultry. But I think everybody should start with laying hens. They are the really simplest birds to have. And you'd get a return for your dollar.

Greg Brann: I hear they're more profitable than the broilers. Is that correct? Or?

Robin Way: Well, I guess if you have a good market for eggs, you could sell eggs from $4 to $6 per dozen and you know, you could get them into restaurants. So I think it's a really good starting point there. Laying hens are so easy to raise. They're much more hardy. You can keep them for several years. So it's less input that you need to start off with.

Greg Brann: I've thought about just raising them up to where they're ready to lay and then sell them and that way I don't have to deal with the eggs.

Robin Way: That's a great market. So in the last maybe six or seven years, we used to hatch our own poults and we stopped doing that just because we didn't have enough room in the brooder house. And so we do look for ready-to-lay and I think that's a great market. You can get $6 or $7 a bird for ready-to-lay birds.

Greg Brann: I was hoping $10!

Robin Way: You could get $10, if you do the specialty breeds! I don't see that you couldn't. I think it's a great market to get into for a young farmer to start. What's your opinion as far as starting off with young farmers with cattle?

Greg Brann: Cattle are the easiest, you know. They're so resilient and the single-strand hotwire, but they take some land. Now there's some options out there. One of the coolest things I've heard in recent times is for a producer to farm out his cow herd to somebody else and then he would buy the calves back and he would run just stocker cattle, because you can run three stocker cattle for that cow and calf and that way you don't have maintenance in the cow. And so you could get as big as you wanted to by doing this, working with other producers to raise your stock. And that way the young farmer doesn't have to buy cattle.

Robin Way: I think that's great. We've A.I.-ed our cattle. We have a very small herd. We have about two dozen animals and we used to do cow/calf. And again it takes so long. From the time you breed your cow, you've gotten 10 months and then you've got a calf who then has to go a year and a half to two years and you've got three years into something that you've got no money back on.

Greg Brann: It's, yeah, it's pretty tough. Yeah, that's real hard. And it's hard to improve genetics, too, that way.

Robin Way: I agree.

Greg Brann: Yeah. So that's the benefit of the sheep and goats is gestation being much shorter, five months. And then being able to break them at 10 months. So, and them having twins or you can average about one and a half lambs or kids. And so you can build quick.

Robin Way: What kind of sheep do you run?

Greg Brann: Katahdin. I like them real well, thought about adding a little bit of Dorper, but my main market is selling ewe lambs. So get about $200 or so per ewe lamb. And then the ram lambs sell to the Amish or direct marketers and they resell them. But they, they'll average, oh, $2 a pound.

Robin Way: Do you have a big market for it? For goat?

Greg Brann: I'm selling sheep now, but, goats are even a better price. They're like 60 cents higher. But when you raise goats versus sheep, you've got 60 cents more in. They're that much harder to raise. But they've got huge benefits. But this past year I bet I could have sold--this is a conservative number--400 ewe lambs and I didn't have them available so I had to send them to other people. So it's a huge growth because cattle right now, just price per weaned animal, I would just say it's about a $1.50 per pound. Sheep: $2 a pound. Goats $2.60 a pound. So it's lucrative and you can run about five ewes for one cow, and that's a thousand pound cow. And then you run about six goats instead of the cow. And back to the original question, if somebody was gonna run cattle, I would recommend small cattle, but unless they have a market, don't go so small that they can't sell at the auction because they'll get hammered. If they have too small cattle, they'll be called shorts or dwarfs. So you gotta watch that and keep them looking more for the traditional market unless you've got this niche market.

Robin Way: Yeah. Price for lambs by us in the northeast is actually higher. We're probably almost $2.80 a pound for lambs. And goats? Goats is a harder market, and there's a huge ethnic market out there looking for goats. And not everybody's raising goats because they are a little challenging. Goats have their own minds and they go wherever they want to go. For us, we have to direct market more than sell at the auction. So we're running cattle a little bit higher prices in grass-fed. Grass-fed is the way we're going. And I think that's, I would hope that that's the wave of the future. I hate seeing the large feed lots out West. It's just such a really sad, sad state of existence for those animals.

Greg Brann: Well, yeah, land-wise, you know, just the cost of all the feed being shipped in and then the manure having to be shipped out. That's why I got into regenerative agriculture, sustainable agriculture is because it just makes sense working with nature and letting the manure fall where you don't have to deal with it. Less labor. It's just a lot easier if you get your timing and cycling and all right.

Robin Way: So we're talking about pastured animals. And do you have a lot of shelters for your larger animals?

Greg Brann: I don't have shelter for any of the animals other than woods, but that's a real good question because if you just leave the rams and bucks out there, then they're going to breed about June 20th. So, they're day-length breeders, as the days get shorter, they breed more. So you'll have lambs or goats in January, which is a terrible time to have them without shelter and it can be disastrous. Another problem with the lamb and her kid in that time of year is ketosis, which is an energy draw and cattle are not near as prone to it, but sheep and goats are very prone to this energy demand. So you can have huge losses. So it's best to time the, and you do this by turning in the bucks or rams of course in a timely fashion. But I turn them in about November and that way they lamb in a late-March.

Robin Way: Are you doing A.I. with your cattle or you have a bull?

Greg Brann: Mine are all commercial and I don't do A.I. I've got a couple of bulls there, balancer bulls, which is a Gelbvieh and Red Angus Cross, so my herd is multicolored, diverse, like my forges and everything else. So, yeah, so I got a great hybrid vigor from adding that balance or that continental breed.

Robin Way: Yeah, we've always raised White Faced Angus and Herefords. That's something we raised for many years. And then we really started to be interested in the Devon cattle, which is a really old breed. Very square type cattle, you understand that the conformation is more square-looking and than tall and skinny and they take about two to two and a half years to get to full maturity, which is where we run our cattle. And so we've been breeding for Devon. We've also found farmers that we can buy in calves that are 100 percent Devon and which we're loving. And so we've kept a few cow/calf that we A.I. with Devon, Devon semen, and then the rest we're running 100 percent Devon and we've been very happy with them.

Greg Brann: Well they're deep-bodied. I like that about them.

Robin Way: Do you think that's the future of where cattle's going as far as running grass-fed to a longer time period than--we got away from that. When our grandfathers farmed, cattle stayed out on the pasture 'til they looked wonderful, nice and fleshed out. And then we got to the grain feeding time when we rushed everybody. And it was a year and a half. And you had to get them to market. Do you think we're going back to sort of old-time farming?

Greg Brann: I don't think it'll all go back. But I do think that niche is there and, and it's more difficult because it's a longer time span and we have to take better care of them and you've got to give them good forage to get it done. You know, time is money so we don't want to wait too long. But I do think it's definitely a trend that way. And it's a growing market for sure. It's more sustainable to do that way.

Robin Way: Yeah, somebody asked me the other day if I had to rank the animals that I'm raising by their profitability. And that's really an interesting question because it's, you can have profitability, but it's also, there's so much intensive labor for certain animals that if you have to do a return on labor. And so I was thinking about that and I said, "Well really turkeys were our best moneymaker. 'Cause you only have them for, say, three months. You make an enormous amount of money in two or three days. And then they're gone. But of course cattle and pigs are so easy to raise. They're less hands on. They're such personable animals that I love them, but, I do like poultry, but it is very labor intensive.

Greg Brann: Yeah. The diversity gives you that seasonal thing, too. It spreads out the cash flow, doesn't it? Now back to the turkey, are they just for Thanksgiving or are they, do you grow them the rest of the year?

Robin Way: So we've done lots of different things with turkeys. When we first started out, we thought heritage breeds would be it. Heritage breeds take a really long time to grow. You have to figure at least six months time into heritage breeds. So we've sort of done everything. We've bred our own heritage birds by doing actually artificial insemination on turkeys. We've hatched poults. We've gotten them in a little larger. Right now we're pretty concentrated on Broad Breasted White because that's what the Thanksgiving market really is looking for. And, we're real seasonal and it gets very, very cold up in the Northeast. So when it's starting to freeze, we really don't want animals outside. So we sort of end our season at Thanksgiving for all of our poultry and we just encourage people to buy an extra turkey at Thanksgiving and put it in the fridge for Christmas.

Greg Brann: Right. I liked that, being seasonal.

Robin Way: Yeah, it's wonderful for the farm. It gives the farm some respite. It also gives the farmer some rest. We get to educate ourselves in the winter and go to great conferences and meet people and visit other farms and really have a little bit of downtime to work on projects, you know, fix things and build things. And so I like the seasonality of that.

Greg Brann: Do you do any dairy, any milk or yogurt or anything like that?

Robin Way: No. No. I wish we did, in a way, just because of the freshness of it. I don't know if I want to be attached to the farm as much as dairymen are, but we have a wonderful friend who we trade for dairy and that works out great for us. And so we sort of have a barter network where we trade some of the produce or the chickens that we raise and we get some of the products that they raise. And that works out real well for us. But no, we let all the animals do their own milking and we really don't do anything on our farm like that. What about you?

Robin Way: Oh, no. I'm low labor, but if I did run a dairy, then I'd probably leave the calves on them. That way I could take a break.

Robin Way: Yeah, that would be nice. We have a large dairy by us and they milk three times a day and then they have the separate calves and they're making ice cream and yogurt and, you know, all that wonderful stuff. But it's very labor intensive and they have lots of employees. And speaking of employees, do you have employees?

Greg Brann: I do. And I want to hear if you do or not, but, you've got children, so you've got--

Robin Way: Slave labor. Ha ha.

Greg Brann: But I have an employee that works, he's on salary. That way I don't have to worry about when he's smoking a cigarette or whatever, but he works about 30 hours a week and mainly rotates the animals and feeds in the winter. We build fence. Right now we're cutting locust post and driving those. So yeah. But it's good to have. That way I can get away.

Robin Way: You're a little bit larger than us. And so we have seasonal help. So we have our process crew that comes in six or eight times a year when we're processing poultry and I've got probably six or eight people. Thanksgivings usually. Oh, it's a lot of people. We usually hire about 20 people for the Thanksgiving process cause it's all in one day. We're doing several hundred birds and that's labor intensive. But for the most part we've adapted our farm for, I guess, the older generation. Not that I'm really, really old, but you know, my kids have grown up, they're moving on. And so we had to figure a way to still operate the farm with just my husband and myself, which meant changing pen styles, making feeders attached. So it's all in one move. Making it really easier for us to do what we're doing. And I wish we had thought about this 10 years ago.

Greg Brann: So, what about this temporary work? Are they just available in the area or you got an agreement, or?

Robin Way: So, a lot of retired folks, a lot of stay-at-home moms. Friends of ours. We try and process when it's convenient for everyone. So our non-USDA processing, we usually do on a Saturday morning. We pay people, we have an on-farm store and we do sell our products direct to the customers. So I either pay them cash or they get store credit so that they can come and shop and get whatever they need. Thanksgiving, except for the kids who I pay, which we have lots of say 10 to 15 year olds that think it's totally cool to be helping the turkeys. The adults usually get a free turkey for Thanksgiving and that's, you know, that is quite a cost for us.

Greg Brann: So what all do you have in your store?

Robin Way: So we sell our own meat products. We do sell on the hoof--halves, wholes, and quarters of beef and pork, but we also sell all cuts. So we have chickens, we have pork, we have beef. The rabbits that we sell, we get in an assortment of things from local farms like cheese and butter. And if I can get fish, I'll get fish. So there's a lot from outside the farm. We also put in a certified kitchen. And so that has really opened up an enormous market for us because I can do ready products. I can make stock from our chickens, and be able to sell that in our store so that we're a little more unique.

Greg Brann: Yeah, that's neat. So most everything frozen?

Robin Way: Most everything for us. And I wish I could say that I could sell really fresh stuff, but--

Greg Brann: Yeah, that'd be hard.

Robin Way: It's really hard. We've seen a lot of people doing that and I don't know how they can keep it all fresh.

Greg Brann: I don't either.

Robin Way: Where are your markets?

Greg Brann: I sell any number, I try not to limit myself, but mainly I sell the ewe lambs to other producers and then the ram lambs go to direct marketers, the Amish, they process for the public and usually immigrants. And then I'll sell colt stuff at the auction. So it's going real well. And this year I've got a direct marketer interested in my calves and I may carry them all the way to finish and he's going to pay me the same dollars per pound for a 700-pound animal. And that way I'm not losing money on that.

Robin Way: That's great. I think that there's so many options out there for farmers today to sell. I just think it's great. I think that there's so many niche markets.

Greg Brann: There is. Certain areas are not as prolific as mine. Mine, we've got lots of choices.

Robin Way: Yeah, same with us in the Northeast. We're close to where--we're like halfway between Philadelphia and Baltimore. So…

Greg Brann: Oh, wow.

Robin Way: You know, the sky's the limit when you're thinking of what you can do and working with other farmers and working with other restaurants and cooperatives. Well, thanks a lot, Greg. It's been great talking to you.

Greg Brann: Yeah, you too. Appreciate it.

Mallory Daily: That’s it for this week’s show. You were listening to Greg Brann of Big Spring Farm in Adolphus, KY. And Robin Way of Rumbleway Farms in Conowingo, Maryland. You can learn more about their projects through the links in our show notes. This show was produced in The Pod at KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, MO. Tim Pilcher is our producer, and I’m your host Mallory Daily. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast platform, like iTunes or Stitcher. We’re releasing two new shows each month. Our Farms, Our Future is presented by SARE - the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. SARE invests in groundbreaking research and education projects in sustainable agriculture. Grants are available to producers, scientists, educators, graduate students and others in the agricultural community. Learn more at SARE is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this recording are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the view of the USDA or SARE. Thank you for listening!