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Home, Garden, and Car Care Special Section The Altamont Enterprise, October 8, 2009

Foliage and animals evolved together
Modern farmers follow nature’s way

By Saranac Hale Spencer

BERNE — A dozen wary cows survey a familiar landscape, eyeing a group of about as many strangers.

Winding through one of several pastures, the group pauses to assess the content of a random patch of green.  More grass than clover, they say.

“They prefer clover, but we give them grass,” said Dr. Darrell Emmick, referring to the cattle, after discovering that this particular field was lacking.  Clover has high nutritional value, making it better for feeding to cows in a grass-fed beef operation.

“‘Grass-fed’ beef is a rapidly expanding segment of the US retail beef market,” according to the United States Department of Agriculture, and it has begun to become standardized over the last few years with the USDA’s labeling certification as well as some state standards — a United States Senate bill passed in March of this year regarding “naturally raised beef cattle” references certification programs in Montana and Washington.

“It’s so much more appropriate to work with the land,” Timothy Lippert explained about choosing this method to raise his beef cattle.  Lippert hosted the recent pasture walk on his 50-acre farm in Berne.

Evolution informed the advice Emmick gave to the gathered farmers — animals and foliage evolved together, he said, explaining which plants impart the most nutrition.

Illustrating the importance of plant diversity, Emmick recounted a story from several decades ago in Dugway, Utah, where it was first assumed that several thousand sheep had been killed by an Unidentified Flying Object.  The sudden death of the sheep was next attributed to chemicals from the United States Army's nearby Dugway Proving Ground, where it had been testing nerve agents.  In the end, he said, it was chemicals that killed them, but they came from toxins in the plants growing in the field on which the sheep had been grazing.

Toxins are quite different from poisons, he said.  Toxins offer a necessary balance for animals, which are able to identify what they need to eat in order to supplement what they have already eaten, he said.

The tannins in bird's-foot trefoil, for example, are used to neutralize the alkaloids that may have been eaten in other plants, he said as he plucked a delicate stem with leaves resembling their namesake from the soil of a field that got much higher marks than the first.

The cows not only take care of themselves, Lippert said, but they do a lot of the work that farmers have been doing with machinery, like tilling the soil and spreading manure.

Instead of getting on a tractor “to tear up the land, spewing hydrocarbons into the atmosphere,” Emmick suggested while standing in Lippert’s sub-par field that he spend the day moving a wire around the field, letting the cows graze down the vegetation and use their “hoof action to tear up the land.”  It can then be planted with worthwhile seeds, like clover.

Lippert has spent the last three years cultivating his pastures, which hadn't been used for nearly 25 years, he said, and he's now using about 20 of the 40 acres that he's cleared.  He spends about an hour in the morning and 45 minutes at night on his 13 cows and 7 calves, Lippert said — the bulk of his income comes from his contracting business, but he’d like to increase his cattle count to 40 head.

“Grass pasturing is a matter of opening one gate and closing another,” he said, since the cows are on a rotation, from one pasture to another.

It’s a good use of the land, Lippert said of grass-fed beef farms.  “We’re losing farmland on a daily basis, from New York to California,” he said, adding that people are now recognizing that it’s a dubious trend.  Since he feeds his cows hay in the winter, Lippert can’t get enough land for growing, he said.

“This is what the Hilltowns were made for,” Lippert said.

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