In November 2019, the Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District (CSWCD) awarded its annual Greene County Clean Water Farm Award to Virginia Grassfed Beef, a 200-acre farm owned by Barbara J. Fried in Ruckersville. The award recognizes farms in the commonwealth that utilize practices designed to protect water quality and soil resources.
The farm maintains a herd of about 90 pairs (cows and calves) on 200 acres of pasture, with an additional 40 acres of forest land and riparian buffers which have been protected through three livestock stream exclusion projects. As part of the CSWCD’s Virginia Best Management Practice cost-share program, the farm began the first project in 2016 and completed the final phase in 2019 to exclude livestock from all streams on the property. These projects created 21 acres of new riparian buffer along Buckner Run, the South River and associated tributaries on the farm.
All told, the farm has protected 16,310 feet of streambank, creating new fields through the installation of permanent cross fence and an alternative water system and stream crossing to connect the fields on either side of Buckner Run.
“I am very pleased that the Culpeper Soil and Water District has selected our farm as a Clean Water Farm,” said farm manager Peter Traverse. “This award recognizes our farm management philosophy and our intentions to operate the farm in an environmentally sound way.”
Virginia Grassfed Beef utilizes a number of rotational grazing practices, including mob and strip grazing, to maintain and improve pasture and soil health and to maximize grazing efficiency. In the past year, the farm only fed hay for a total of 45 days, and they are striving for even less.
“Feeding hay is the most expensive cost to caring for your animals over the winter,” Traverse said. “The cost of managing hay fields, cutting, drying, baling, moving hay off the field, storing, and moving payback out to your animals each day in the winter … all of these steps have direct cash costs in fuel, machines and time. Reducing the total number of days feeding hay is the most economical way to reduce annual cost and therefore improve the farm’s cash flow.”
Traverse uses the Pasture Map App to track pasture rest time and plan upcoming rotations to be flexible to the weather, forage availability, livestock and management needs.
“I am finding that data technology such as apps do a great job at giving farmers tools to learn a new skill set,” he said. “This is very helpful when you are trying to get your head around a lot of details spread out over a lot of space (the whole farm) and over time (from each grazing rotation over the seasons).” Over time, however, he says that he has learned to trust his own firsthand observations more than the complex mathematical algorithms of managing purely through the app.
One of the statistics managed by the app is the days of rest for a field. On average, each field has 55 days of rest, which refers to the time a grass plant should be left undisturbed so that it can recover from being bitten or mowed.
“In a grazing system it is easy to forget that overgrazing (plants being eaten before fully recovering) can happen even when the rest of the field looks full of good grass,” Traverse said. “Controlling animal density and the amount of time they spend there is how you control the influence of grazing on the fields. When done properly the grasses can yield a much higher total volume of feed which translates to having more grazing days per season and less days of feeding hay in the dormant season.”
Another way technology has helped improve the grazing operations of Virginia Grassfed Beef is through the use of portable electric fencing and mobile shade shelters.
“These technologies are game changers in increasing land fertility and natural productivity, improving animal health and vitality, and leveraging other daily tasks associated with farm management,” Traverse explained. “Portable electric fencing allows you to control the density and timing of the herd to meet the unique circumstances of each day; sometimes you are moving the cattle every day, other times during the season they are more spread out and spend a few days in a field … this all depends on so many variables that a grazer becomes more and more aware of over seasons of experience.”
In addition to the movable fencing, shade shelters allow cattle to have shade even in the midst of a large open field.
“Keeping animals where you want them in the hot summer is not easy,” Traverse said. “But without shade, cattle are severely discomforted. Mobile shade shelters are amazing; these structures allow me to move the shade to the spots I want to have cattle impact—where the cattle shade themselves is where the fertility is being built up.”
These shelters are especially important when streams and riparian zones have been fenced to keep livestock out of the water, such as with the recent livestock stream exclusion projects.
“Simply fencing cattle out of streams takes away critical shade,” Traverse said. “I could not justify fencing out these cool spots on the farm if we did not have dependable portable shade.”
The ability to use cost-share programs through the CSWCD was a major factor in the ability of the farm to install the fencing, waterlines and stream crossings, and Traverse hopes the District will consider adding mobile shade structures to their list of cost share practices in the future.
“The loss of shaded habitats for cattle in stream exclusion projects can severely compromise animal comfort and productivity,” he explained. “I have been working to demonstrate the durability of these shade shelters on the farm (as) a viable long-term investment for program funds, as the program should not spend money on a structure that could be blown over and destroyed by a windy day. Over the past year, I have kept one of our shade structures fully deployed throughout the year—right through winter, which is not recommended—for the purpose of stress testing the structure. I have recorded wind speeds of 37 mph and gusts as high as 48 mph, thunderstorms, hail, and the shelters are extremely stable. We had trees blow down during several storms, yet the shade shelter remained unharmed.”
Traverse has shown the portable shelters to other area farmers who are considering adding them to their operations, but recognizes that such structures are costly and some farmers may not trust them to withstand the severe weather.
“My hope is that in the coming seasons we at Virginia Grassfed Beef will be able to demonstrate to the district that these well-built shelters should be added to the list of eligible cost share practices so that more farmers in our area can make the transition to stream exclusion practices without exposing their cattle to extreme heat conditions,” he said.
CSWCD District Manager Greg Wichelns commended Traverse on his hard work with the new technologies but pointed out that the cost-share programs are statewide and that the local districts only have the ability to make suggestions for new programs to the state board.
“The shade structures (suggestion) was made in previous years but was voted down,” Wichelns said, though he intends to reach out to Traverse for more information. “Regarding portable or temporary electric fencing, I think the state is working on that option since the Virginia General Assembly directed that to happen.”
To farm owner Barbara Fried, Traverse expressed deep appreciation for her part in the work that led to the district award this year.
“I appreciate her willingness to support the new ideas and practices here at the farm,” he said. “Barbara understands that farming, like all industries, needs to constantly evolve to meet ever-changing challenges and be prepared to benefit from opportunities when they show up. There are so many variables that influence the success of a farm: weather, supply chains, markets, animal health, environmental influences and many other forces that keep farmers always guessing what might be around the next corner. Barbara supports the regenerative agriculture movement and I am so pleased that she has allowed me to be a part of her endeavors.”
Virginia Grassfed Beef is located at 102 Dundee Road in Ruckersville.