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Planting trees was one of the first moves we made, even before the infrastructure installation, that proved relatively challenging.

The problem was to bring the landowners to agree to a relatively radical action. They had to understand the Why behind it all. That meant explaining the theory and application of regenerative grazing and silvopasture in full. Not a simple task to convince someone who had been bailing hay for the past 3 decades to suddenly plant hardwoods in the fields. Planting silvopasture, however, is the obvious first step if you want to get the business growing early (literally).

In an ideal world we may have gone with the Mark Shephard STUN method and created alleys of pasture in between rows of thickly planted food/mast crop canopy. Over-plant, let the weak trees die, and thin out the undesirables. But then we would have to prevent the animals from browsing all our plantings down during their most vulnerable first few years. We couldn't afford to exclude the animals from that much land and significantly reduce our pasture and we definitely couldn't afford that many tree tubes. Because the land doesn't belong to us and therefore isn't completely controlled by us, we had to ultimately compromise. We had to prioritize our goals with the plantings and we didn't want to spend too much money on leased land.

By compromising we had to let go of a lot of benefits. With fewer trees we wouldn't be able to profit from the biodiverse abundance provided by lower story species (such as Hazel, Elderberry, Raspberry) that would benefit the animals, us and wildlife. We also couldn't utilise the wind-breaking and weather-moderating potential of thick rows of plantings. Not being thick enough, the plantings couldn't serve as swales causing rain catchment.

By doing at least some plantings, though, we could still benefit. We would have to allow for losses and plant a bit denser. If we concentrated on larger hardwoods we would have mast and essential shade. When the animals can't move to the trees, move the trees to the animals. As we were stuck with doing relatively limited plantings, we wanted high assurance that those plantings were to be successful, so we decided to go with tree tubes.

We got and planted our trees in the winter. We bought the same species that we found around us, mainly white and red oak and hickories. Rough milled oak was relatively cheap and plentiful (this was before the pandemic) and from a single 10 foot board you can secure a lot of trees in tubes. We could have used Rebar to prevent the cows from breaking the stakes for $3.00 a stake but we had the material already. We read enough to know not to skimp and make pine stakes, these tubes need to stand for years. We set the distance between trees at 50 ft. Not too thick to suppress grass growth and thick enough to provide a few trees per acre. At about $1.50 per bare root sapling and about $3.00 per tube it's a minimal and very effective intervention on your land. It took a couple days, a couple of wagons, a few planting spades and some volunteer help.

Maintaining the trees themselves isn't too much extra work. We had an unusually blustery couple day right after we planted and had to go right back out to re-secure the loose ones. Maintenance has become a part of our daily routine. Rotate the animals and check on the trees.

But how do you maintain the pasture and graze these areas while allowing the trees to grow? You could completely exclude these areas from grazing but then you're going to be doing a lot of cutting brush back. I thought we got out of the business of burning through gloves anyways. A cow can snap even an oak stake with just a nudge, so you can't even give them access unter the polywire to the base of the tree. So our solution was yet again the sheep. They cant harm the tubes or stakes or get past them to the saplings. So we set up the polywire just a bit higher when excluding the trees so the sheep have access but the cows don't. Don't have to electrify it because the animals don't know the difference.

The tubes don't ruin the view.

Fast forward a few years and we've seen about a 70% survival rate overall. We have read about higher success rates. Maybe it's because it's relatively windy where we are? Did the cool season sward out-compete the trees? Having planted the trees so sparsely it became kind of a pain to fence out individual trees and admittedly we, therefore, got lazy. Over the years this definitely contributed to our losses.

So, as this is being written, we are planning part two of our plantings. The goal is to add biodiversity with food/mast species as well as provide wildlife cover. Once the land owners got used to the tree tubes dotting the fields and had a couple years to understand the way we are farming we decided to propose an improvement on our system. This will still not be the ideal scenario of having rows of trees through the fields and reaping the wind-breaking, shade-providing, water-retaining benefits, but it will be a step in the right direction.

We originally, and kind of randomly, did some of the plantings as copses, or small groups of trees. These copses are quite easy to exclude by just encircling them with poly. So we decided to expand around selected trees and create 1-2 copses per acre. This time we will mulch with cheap hay and straw too. This would suppress the grasses while maintaining water infiltration and retention. We will be tubing and staking no differently. There will be 5-6 species per copse and 6-10 individual trees creating a canopy structure: 1-2 large emergent trees, 2-3 medium sized and 4-6 bushes/shrubs. We will stick with oaks and hickories and add persimmons, dogwoods, chestnuts, elders and hazels underneath.

In a few years once the tubes are off we will slowly allow access for all the animals for browsing, grazing, foraging, and enjoying shade and wind protection.

Exciting work! Thanks again for reading.

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How did we get the stock? They're expensive! Where? Which breeds? We approached this in multiple ways.

First of all we knew we wanted a breeding operation. It's a no-brainer that you can maximize your profits by producing and growing animals from grass and minimal inputs instead of trying to optimize the margin in a finishing operation. Buying stockers year after year is a lot of hustle. You deal with supply issues as well as product quality. There's just more risk. Furthermore, having not that many 100% grass fed stockers for sale in our area made the decision to go cow-calf way easier.

We also knew we didn't want to wean for as long as possible or even at all. A breeding operation done this way has its built in quality control measures. As with humans, the development of a calf is improved tremendously when it grows up alongside a good role model. The calf copies how its mother behaves around us as well as what she eats, thus creating a docile and fat animal in the end. If the calf makes the cut (no pun intended, this saying is apparently from Golf anyways) then it's kept and bred, if not it's not. This is not to mention the huge benefit of minimizing the number of herds you have to manage if you don't wean.

So what animals did we want? Do we really want cows? This question isn't a no-brainer. There are considerable downsides to raising cattle. They are huge and potentially dangerous animals that you can only slaughter after almost 2 years. On the other hand you can just wrestle a sheep into submission, sheep have even better grass genetics, and they often produce 2 lambs that you can then slaughter in about a year. The risk is also lower with livestock that cost a couple hundred dollars a head. With sheep you only have to wait a year to see return on investments.

We ended up going with both for multiple reasons. We wanted a diverse product range. We suspected correctly that you reach a considerably wider customer base when you've got a larger product range to offer. Also multi-species grazing is a great model. There's tons out there to read on the benefits. In short the animals fill different niches when foraging and there's no reason to have 2 groups of animals with twice the amount of work. We even plan on adding pigs into the mix (more on this later).

So which breed to get? It's great to have a herd of the holy grail of grass genetics in 4-seasons continental climates, South Polls, but not everyone can drop tens of thousands of dollars for a starter herd. In the end it doesn't matter the breed. If the seller is trustworthy, the cows look good on 100% grass, and they behave more or less calm, then they have good potential. You pay a premium for purebreds that you have to transport halfway across the country. Generally, searching for grass genetics brings you inevitably to the British breeds and crosses which aren't normally large framed (Angus, Devon, Dexter, Jersey and Hereford). Yea the USDA Prime steaks are usually from Angus finished on grain, so you ask why Angus? Because there are dormant genes in all those animals bred for the feedlot just waiting to resurface and show their phenotypes when given the chance on 100% grass. The Angus breed is older than the USDA. And who does the USDA think it is trying to tell me which meat tastes better anyways. There are exceptions (Limousin, Aubrac) but the continental European breeds (such as Simmental, Charolais) just can't gain on 100% grass. St. Bernards don't do well on the streets of New Delhi.

So we went for it. We got ahold of our first couple cows having bought them as stocker heifers. Yea, stockers aren't optimal as you have just read (there's another lesson to be learned here involving a weeklong chase through the woods and ending with a bucket on someone's head), but we needed some annual cash flow as well as some animals on the land as dictated by the CBF grant stipulations (see Blog: Beginnings). They were Angus and Devon but we knew they came from 100% grass fed farms and they had good body condition when we bought them. As expected, some turned out to be ornery jerks. But some turned out to be fat, docile animals which we decided to breed and since then have produced some equally great calves.

We did want a cow-calf operation so we couldn't get around dropping some cash for a bull. We didn't go the whole way to get semen tested but did some vetting and found a trusty seller with solid grass fed South Poll bulls. We were able to get an unproven but good looking and temperate bull named Albertson.

Now onto the flagship breeders. Waiting for the right season and the right deal is sometimes worth it. We also figured that being opportunistic in finding some Angus, Hereford and Devon cows or heifers to cross with our South Poll bull would be potentially good. We would have to play with our herd genetics later because we didn't have the cash to get exactly what we wanted up front. So we got some South Poll/Angus and Devon crosses. In the short term we would have product and in the long term the replacements would be pure South Poll anyways if we kept using a South Poll bull. We would have good meat to sell with our grass fed genetics and would have a range of live animal products from purebred to cross and stockers to breeding stock.

Sheep!…. There are not many breeds that don't do well on grass. We went for hair/meat sheep (St. Croix, Katahdin and Dorper) because it was in line with our business model. Time and again personal relationships and connections pull through. We knew of a few sheep operations through our past internships that had great stock for sale. Since then we've been continually impressed with these animals. It's actually a bit unnerving when your flock size grows by almost 200% each year. You can totally see how a poorly managed sheep operation can promote desertification.

So this was a great plan to build a flerd (flock/herd) and all but we still didn't have enough cash to go out and get 30 AUs at once. So we kind of expanded on the method Greg Judy has championed of getting cash flow through custom grazing. In our area there aren't a lot of people looking for custom grazing so we had to create some ranchers. We contacted friends and family. By now they all knew we were starting something crazy and interesting. We offered to custom graze newly bought individual animals for them. The customers pay finding, transport, processing and of course custom grazing fees. It was quite a success and lots of people were willing to sign up. Some were looking for a stocker steer/heifer for slaughter. Or maybe the customer is looking for an investment in breeding stock that will show a return every year. It's great for both parties. In the end they get some meat out of the deal and ultimately in a few years break even on initial investment while we get a steady income. A pamphlet was handed out that summarized the finances and included helpful visuals such as this simple graph of projected investment return. I guess you could call it customized custom grazing.

Your profit margin is tight with custom grazing but you more than break even and that's the point. Once we had our numbers so that the herd could actually do some work out there building soil and busting brush, we were happy with the amount of custom grazing we were doing. After a certain point we stopped offering new custom grazing contracts and began buying for ourselves. After all, it is more leg work for less profit and we didn't want to “spend” more grass than needed on cows that were not our own. Shout out to those who trusted in us and custom grazed with us!

Our model intended to float us all financially from the beginning while providing some extra cash to reinvest. It all starts as a side gig into which you pour all your love and ingenuity. Thanks again, lots to talk about so stay tuned.

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Updated: Nov 27, 2021

This blog will be very practice-oriented, maybe simply an example of how some newbies got into grazing. It will display our ideas and intentions and ultimately our successes, lucky strokes, and mistakes. Relatively little will be focused on the basics and theory of the why. Instead it will be a magnified display of the practical application. Keep in mind, too, that the blog is being written now, after we learned our lessons, so we may seem annoyingly hypocritical at times. If not a guide, maybe it will serve as an example of how we changed course in our lives to start a successful regenerative grazing operation.

To begin this blog we'd like to begin by talking about the beginning of Green Rock Farm. The Partnership of Green Rock farm includes Ryan O'Connor, Olivia Donachie, and the three Shabb Brothers Calvin, Duncan and Robert. We're all coming from extremely different backgrounds: Finance, Art, Sales, Medicine, Natural Resource Management. In a way we are disadvantaged without any background in conventional farming, but on the other hand fresh and unbiased. Robert got to know Ryan and Olivia through farming internships and started planning, then the rest of the brothers followed along.

In order from left to right Robert, Calvin, Duncan, Olivia and Ryan.

The brothers had a perfect place to start: the family farm. Before their parents bought it in the 80`s it had been a milk operation turned hay farm. The farm is truly beautiful: still in the Shenandoah Valley but perched on rolling Appalachian foothills, an old stone mill and its mill pond, an idyllic old stone church, foxes, deer and turkey. Since then, there have been few domesticated animals on the place. As they grew up on the farm they saw its potential. They had actually been helping their parents and working to try and improve the property in their little free time during schooling. A lot of bush hogging and bailing, selected clearing of brush (especially invasive species), focused basal bark spraying of unwanted/non-natives as well as planting native species. It just never felt like they could get ahead, though, and they were burning through a lot of pairs of gloves, herbicide and diesel. Despite the efforts on the farm, the quail had disappeared long ago and didn't come back, the Russian olives were encroaching on the fields, and no native warm seasons were growing. Already consuming anything they could find in magazines, on Youtube etc, they came across the ideas of holistic management, MIG, mob grazing, and regenerative agriculture in general, and no exaggeration it was a revelation.

Instead of re-explaining the theory behind regenerative agriculture it would be better to hear from the big voices themselves. Start with Allan Savory's TED talk and let google guide you along. Recently there have been some excellent documentaries on the subject if you want an overview (Kiss the Soil, Netflix). Otherwise just search for some names. Gabe Brown on no-till, cover crops and integrating grazing. Greg Judy on grass grazing and south poll cattle. Sepp Holzer on the European approach and water management. Long story short, we move our animals every day. We provide them paddocks that contain enough forage to graze for a day. Then, we rest those paddocks until the forage species within them “recover” (i.e. regrow) so that they can be grazed again without permanently damaging their root systems. Imagine a group of ruminant animals moving from cell to cell across the landscape, only in any given cell for a few days per year.

In a way we have an interesting case study of how a regeneratively focused livestock operation can improve grassland that had already been maintained to promote wildlife. We knew we would be stepping on feet with our newfangled ideas about cattle management, especially in rural Virginia, dominated by Angus stocker operations (don't need to elaborate on this point of tension after you've done some Youtube surfing). On the other end of the spectrum we'd be irritating those who believe in conventional conservationism (the just-leave-it-alone-and-it-will-thrive camp, the farming-is-destructive camp), which is also very embedded in the Shenandoah Valley. There's a lot of literature on this particular topic but Savory hits the big points in his TED talk.

So we had the “where” as well as a bit of general experience, tenacity, and innovativeness. We just needed the financial means. What jump started the whole thing was an opportunity. We take it for granted now but it really put us years ahead. This was a cost share grant program through the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). We set up a lease with the Landowners and they agreed to invest the relatively small percentage of total expenses towards the necessary infrastructure improvements of their land, knowing that the rest of the cost would be shared by CBF. In hindsight, wow do these installations make the daily moves of our animals easy. Furthermore, entering into the contract with CBF set up a deadline to purchase animals and start grazing. Without this grant we would have waited years to gather the cash for infrastructure and stock.

There are obviously stipulations to such an agreement. In essence the CBF has a strong interest in building soil instead of letting it wash into the bay. They have realised that rotational grazing vastly improves the quality of water runoff and therefore supports sustainable farming in the Chesapeake watershed. Here is a map of the infrastructure installments. Red is high tensile perimeter fence (4 strands, 2 hot), yellow is electrified trunk lines, and blue is buried water (mostly frost free). The infrastructure essentially allows easy access to electricity and water anywhere on the property while excluding the animals from riparian zones.

That period between acquiring stock and completion of the infrastructure was stressful and really showed us how hard this type of grazing can be without the right setup. But soon enough the contractors started showing up and the installation proved uncomplicated. The work involved in daily chores and rotating the animals became a fraction of what it was before. Can't say it enough, CBF jump started our business phenomenally while drastically reducing our day to day work. After all, this should be a holistic operation and what that means for us is that we maintain our jobs and income while growing this business on the side. All the components had aligned: startup expenses and major infrastructure, finding a location, and a bunch of willing ‘wannabe’ farmers coming together.

Thanks for reading our inaugural post and stay tuned for more nitty gritty, hiccups, and insight. Next we'll be talking more about the animals.

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