Established in 1998 by Bruce Hennessey and Beth Whiting, Maple Wind Farm reflects their deeply held belief in ecologically sustainable farming.
Beth and Bruce both hold master’s degrees in education, backgrounds that serve their interest in educating the public about the benefits of pasture-based farming for both the farmer and the consumer.
Bruce spent eleven years teaching science and mathematics to all age groups (k-12) in the classroom. He most recently directed the North Country Camps, a summer residential camp focused on wilderness trips with farming (including horses, goats, llamas and pigs!) offered as part of an extensive in-camp program, for eight years.
Beth is an artist, master gardener, and organizer, who also spent many years directing wilderness trips through both Wilderness Ventures and the North Country Camps. Beth is an experienced entrepeneur, with successful business forays into community mapping, hand-painted clothing and adventure travel. She currently is the CSA vegetable manager, bookkeeper, and marketing manager for the farm.
Beth and Bruce enjoy the farming lifestyle, sharing it with their son David and his younger sister Bryn.
For seven years I didn’t eat meat, not because I didn’t like it or objected to the killing of animals for food, but because the negative health and environmental evidence was overwhelmingly in favor of leaving meat out of my diet entirely. But then I started reading about grass-fed meats that were produced using methods that built soil rather than destroyed it and touted health benefits that reduced risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. The information touched off a long process of discovery and learning that eventually led not only to eating meat again, but also to farming grass-fed and finished meat products.
Deciding to Grass Farm
Like many life-changing journeys, our transition from a non-agrarian lifestyle to grass farming came through unexpected circumstances. The truth is we never dreamed we would farm at all. But caring for a piece of land has a way of changing and concentrating your focus.
My wife, Beth, and I fell in love with the old dairy farm at the end of our road. It had lain fallow for five years, the pastures and hayfields sporting poplar saplings and a healthy crop of goldenrod. The farm’s hilltop views, wildlife and easy access to the Long and Catamount Trails first caught our attention. When it went up for sale amidst rumors of development, we made an offer. You might say it was an impulse buy.
It’s amazing how different reality and fantasy can be. We’d given no serious thought to management, just vague ideas about keeping the meadows open. So we borrowed a tractor and brushogged eighty acres of rough, ledgy hilltop meadow that first fall. It was a miserable experience with lots of broken parts, diesel bills, and scary passes on our higher angle ground. We were miserable enough to decide never to do it again.
Our decision left us with some questions. How should we keep the farm open? Could we do it without compromising our environmental ethic; use the farm without abusing it? We did a lot of learning that winter and settled on a strategy that focused on management-intensive grazing. We started with thirteen Angus cows and a few horses (not nearly enough animals to keep ahead of our grass). Six years (four part time and two full time) later we’re raising 90 head of Angus, 100 sheep, 40-60 pigs, 400 broiler chickens, 100 layer hens, 50 turkeys, and 9 horses all rotated over the same pasture. Our ruminants (cows and sheep) are fed entirely on grass, while our poultry, pigs, and horses receive supplemental organic grain. In the process our soils have increased in fertility and organic matter without amendments.
Grass became the central part of our operation for a number of reasons. We wanted to capitalize on the fact that ruminants hold the unique ability to extract solar energy out of grass. We also wanted to minimize our use of fossil fuels by allowing the animals to harvest their own feed. There is concrete evidence that management intensive grazing can increase pasture production by as much as 40%, and increase daily weight gains in ruminants by up to 50%. Building fertility and eliminating erosion, reducing our chances of contributing to water pollution, and eliminating the use of herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers were also major factors. We also learned that relatively stress-free pasture-based systems produced healthier, happier, animals, a factor that has been correlated with tastier, more tender meat. The most important factor for us, however, was the growing volume of research that pointed to the health benefits of grass-fed-only meats.
The Practice of Intensive Grazing
During the grazing season we move our animals daily to fresh pasture. The paddocks are sized to accommodate each group’s daily needs for feed. Depending on the time of year, we’ll let each paddock rest and recover anywhere from 14 to 30 days before returning to it for another grazing session. The idea is to graze each pasture when the grass is at the height of its energy, its adolescent stage — well grown, but not to the seed head stage. This process allows the animals to gain the greatest benefit from the grass, while allowing the grass the best chance to recover fully before the next grazing. Many species of young weeds that are either eaten or trampled can’t seed out and are eventually overtaken by hardier grasses adapted to growing back quickly. Daily movement naturally distributes manure and increases organic matter and fertility on the farm.
The practice amounts to mimicking the natural methods of wild ruminants who eat intensely in close herds for security, then move on as a group, allowing the previous ground to recover before returning. It also allows farmers to take advantage of high quality feeds and essentially free sun, soil and rain inputs without the added financial and environmental expense of tilling, harvesting and transporting feed to animals using modern machinery. The animals benefit from the movement, fresh air, and sunshine as they enjoy unrestricted access to their natural food, and move away from areas contaminated by fresh manure.
With a developed electric fence and water line infrastructure, the amount of labor needed to manage our animals is far reduced over many other methods. Temporary fences go up in minutes, and the animals adapt quickly to moving from paddock to paddock. Our labor for basic cow care, for instance, averages less than a half an hour a day for one person.
“The consumer trend in this country has been to buy food as cheaply as possible and pay for the health consequences later at any cost.” Ed Martsoff, innovative sheep producer.
Most cattle and sheep (even those raised in natural and organic programs) are fed grain as a primary diet source for thirty days or more. The advantage to this method is that animals can be fattened quickly and brought to market faster. Unfortunately, ruminants are not evolved to eat such high-energy, easily digested feeds without serious negative ramifications for their health and the health of those who consume them for food. Grain diets raise the acidity of the rumen, allowing unhealthy bacteria to flourish and often making the animals sick with a disease called acidosis. This condition is so rampant in conventional feedlots that antibiotics are fed as a regular part of the daily diet.
Feeding grain also changes the fat make-up of meat. Much of the Omega-3 fatty acids and Conjugated Linoleic Acids (CLA’s) found in balanced amounts in grass-fed-only meats are missing in grain fed meats. Omega-3’s and CLA’s in human diets have been linked to lower cholesterol levels, and reduced risk of heart disease, some types of cancers, and adult-onset diabetes. By contrast, consumers have long known that conventional red meat holds increased risk for these conditions. It used to be that your only source for these essential fats was wild fish or flaxseed oil. Now you can get the same benefit from your local grass-fed meat producer.
There are also environmental benefits. While we still use tractors and other equipment to make hay and baleage for the winter months, we finish cattle for market using about half the fossil fuel energy of confinement or feedlot methods. The natural distribution of manure alone saves hundreds of gallons of fuel. Our farm remains a very low risk for nutrient loading or polluting from manure run off into the local watershed.
Perhaps the most sought after benefit for our customers is the fact that grass-fed beef and lamb, with their naturally varied diets, have more robust flavor than other meats.
The benefits to our farm family are embedded in our everyday life. Working outside within the natural cycles of growth and orchestrating carefully timed movement of five different animal groups on the same piece of land has its own intrinsic rewards.
With any method there are challenges and management intensive grazing is no different. Currently it takes us twice as long to finish beef steers on grass in Vermont as it does to finish steers on grain. This means we take our steers through two winters before market — an expensive proposition. It is also difficult to raise grass-fed beef and lamb with as much intramuscular fat (marbling) as conventional meats. The result can be toughness, though we’ve made great strides in this area through rotation management, finish timing and genetics.
Our methods sit outside the commodity market norm. It follows that our marketing is going to be different as well. Obviously, we could not be sustainable financially if we were paid at commodity prices. In addition to our increased time to market, we do not have the unfair advantage of highly subsidized grain production enjoyed by conventional producers. Being outside the mainstream means that we have to market directly to health conscious consumers who are willing to pay the real cost of food. As tough and time consuming as direct marketing can be, it comes with a distinct benefit. Our customers get to know us personally, and through that relationship, come to trust us and the foods they eat.
We’re not satisfied. We want to extend grass-farming and rotational grazing into new frontiers. Currently we’re looking seriously at developing enough stockpiled pasture to take all our animals through the winter without making hay or baleage. Seeding high value, cold tolerant, winter annuals into our pastures may be a part of this program.
Looking for the same health benefits from grass-fed dairy products that we find in our meats, we’re considering seasonal, once-a-day milking of cows or sheep to offer high value, healthy milk, yogurt and cheese without using grain.
As we look to improve our pastures, we’ll be analyzing our soil and searching for any natural amendments that might increase our yields.
A livestock farm with grass as its foundation can be profitable and relatively easy to operate, needing little in the way of expensive machinery and labor. The quality of life produced from a grass-based operation is excellent. We’ve learned that a successful operation comes primarily from knowing how to mesh your ruminants with the natural environment. Let the animals do what nature intended them to do!
Sources: Why Grass-fed is Best, by Jo Robinson. Eatwild.com. University of California — Chico, Dept of Agriculture, University of Vermont Center for Sustainable Agriculture., Stockman GrassFarmer, Ridgeland
Here’a another article Bruce wrote in Vermont Commons, Voices of Independence.Winter 2007 issue. Titled “Grass Fed is Best, Growing Vermont’s Farm Future”