Pasture and Soil at Fat Apple Farm
When John Agostinho started his grass-based livestock operation at Fat Apple Farm in Pine Plains, NY, he described his pasture as a sea of goldenrod. Anyone who has driven through New York or New England in the late summer can picture it—the tall stems that grow to eye level with sprays of burnt yellow that can blanket the landscape. Goldenrod is ideal for a wild garden, next to a stream or wetland, and beautiful in a meadow, but not pasture. Goldenrod doesn't provide much nutritional value to cattle, and some species of goldenrod are toxic. On farmland managed for livestock feed, goldenrod represents pasture that needs improvement.
On Wednesday, October 14, John hosted a group of livestock farmers in the region for a pasture walk and plant identification workshop at Fat Apple Farm. John raises pastured pork, pastured poultry, pastured eggs, grass-fed beef, and grass-fed lamb. John is also a participant in Glynwood’s farm business incubator program and works closely with Dave Llewellyn, Glynwood’s Director of Farmer Training, who organized the event.
At the peak of colorful foliage, nearing the end of the grazing season and a bluebird day, it was a perfect afternoon at Fat Apple Farm. When John told us what his pastures used to look like just four years ago, we had to stretch our imaginations to believe him. Now his fields are a deep green mix of grasses, legumes and forbs, including ryegrass, bluegrass, orchardgrass, timothy grass, red clover, white clover, vetch, wild carrot, chicory, and more. The plants were dense, and there was very little exposed soil.
One attendee of the workshop at Fat Apple Farm wore a baseball cap that read “Grass Farmer” across the front. That short phrase distills the work of a grass-based livestock farmer perfectly. Understanding pasture and continually working toward its improvement is the key to healthy and productive animals. Learn more about why pasture health is so important. John spent much of the afternoon sharing how he transformed this landscape over such a short time. One key to pasture improvement is having the right number of animals. It may seem counterintuitive, but when there are too few animals on pasture, the land actually suffers rather than improves. You can think of the ideal number of animals as a bell curve; too many animals and the pasture will be overgrazed, too few animals and the pasture may succumb to species that aren’t desirable for livestock feed, such as goldenrod, thistles, rose, and milkweed. With the ideal stocking density and stocking rate, the livestock will keep plants from going to seed, keep the weeds in check, but not overgraze.
John has also introduced new species while creating particular disturbances that allow seeds in the seed bank to grow. The seed bank is a reserve of dormant seeds in the soil that will grow under the right conditions. For example, vetch is a nitrogen-fixing legume that we saw growing throughout the Fat Apple Farm pastures, but John never planted it; he improved conditions that allowed it to come up. We also saw red clover that had come up in places it was never planted as a result of increased soil fertility.
For new species introduction, John planted perennial grazing mixes along with fast-growing annuals that effectively provide a nurse crop for the perennials. The annuals will grow quickly, competing with less desirable species, allowing the perennials to become more established. One of the annual crops that John introduces is daikon radishes—they produce quick soil cover while also doing important work below ground of breaking up and aerating compacted soil. The roots also exude sugar, which feeds the microorganisms underground, and when the plant dies back, the roots add organic matter to the ground improving the overall soil fertility. This single plant—the daikon radish—is a living mulch, a weed suppressant, natural tillage, and a nitrogen cycler, all within a span of a few months. All the while, the planted perennial species such as orchardgrass, ryegrass, meadow fescue, and clovers are becoming established.
During the second half of the workshop, we were joined by Sid Bosworth, an Agronomist formerly with the University of Vermont Extension, via video conference. A couple of days before the pasture walk Sid taught an online pasture plant identification class that most of the participants of the pasture walk attended. During the pasture walk, Sid was there to help us with the in-field plant ID. The workshop participants practiced examining the plant leaf shapes, leaf blade folds, bud shoots, roots, etc. to differentiate between the diverse forage mixes. Sid looked on via the video and prompted us to investigate certain parts of each plant and provide the decisive answer when we couldn’t figure out a particular species.
The entire afternoon at Fat Apple Farm was an inspiration for all in attendance. John is still working on new approaches to improve his soil and pasture, but his results thus far are dramatic and impressive. Walking the land of another farmer and hearing about their successes and challenges can make a tremendous difference for a farmer who spends most of their time on their own land. It was especially meaningful for the Glynwood staff to see John, a participant in the Glynwood farm business incubator program, employ numerous land-improving strategies, share his successes with other livestock producers, and discuss land use challenges. Thank you John, for opening your farm to us, for sharing honestly, for your encouraging words and for being such a thoughtful steward of the land.
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