Animal Care and Family Matter the Most
‘A Gradual Evolution,’ At the Lewis Brothers Ridge Farms
By Heather SmithThomas, Idaho
Andrew Lewis and his family live on a farm in the southern tier of New York that was originally purchased by his great-grandparents. “I’m the fourth generation on this farm and my children are the fifth generation,” he says.
“My great-grandparents had 17 children, and two of the 10 brothers were the dairy farmers when I was a child. My main recollection of the farm was in summer during haying season. My uncles Lee and Sam would do the mowing, raking and hauling during the day. Then in the afternoon, the other brothers would show up after working their fulltime off-farm jobs to help put up the hay. The farm name, Brothers Ridge Farms, reflected this family effort,” says Lewis.
The farm is in hill country, about 10 miles from the Pennsylvania border. The soil is relatively poor in this hill ground—mainly heavy clay and very rocky. “When I first got back to the farm, my first question was what can the land provide (in an attempt to work with the land as opposed to forcing the land to do something that doesn’t make sense). For instance, growing corn on this ground is not impossible—my family grew corn in earlier years—but it’s not logical. What this farm does best is produce grass. So this was our initial decision, to pasture the land,” says Lewis.
Then came decisions regarding what type of livestock to raise. “The advantage in this area of the country is proximity to good markets. We are three hours away from New York City and other markets along the eastern seaboard that are fairly lucrative. We started out with commercial meat goats and that worked well except that hoof care was a tremendous job with the Boer goats. Ultimately we sold that flock and went into grass-fed beef,” he says.
“We are a 100 percent grass-fed farm. Last year we had more than 125 head of finished beef. We buy calves and keep them a year until they go for processing. I don’t calve out any cows at this point; I have partners who produce the calves and we buy them at weaning. We either purchase calves or keep cows on a retained ownership basis (calved out by the other farmers). I am a custom finisher, or a stocker-finisher,” explains Lewis.
“This works fairly well for us and we’ve also added a flock of 350 hair sheep. This has had its challenges but has worked out fairly well; the markets are very favorable for grass-fed lamb in New York City. We’ve developed some interesting markets for both the beef and the lamb. At this point our major focus is responsible expansion, with partner farms and additional farms that we’re leasing to graze livestock on,” he says.
The sheep and cattle are complementary in a grazing situation. “The ewes, once they are dried off, become my landscapers. We put them into brushy areas and riparian buffer areas to keep them cleaned out and not so overgrown. It’s been very beneficial to have the sheep,” he says.
There are multiple opportunities regarding what might be best for the farm. “We know we will be grazing these farms for a long time. What species are doing the grazing for us will remain flexible,” he says.
“There are a significant number of dairy farms in this part of the country that have gone out of business. This provides opportunities to either partner with some of these farms or lease the entire farm and begin grazing on former dairy farms. Unlike most parts of the country we do not have significant competition for ground like is seen in other areas. Our land won’t support much row-crop agriculture. Thus we have a significant opportunity to lease these farms for reasonable rent payments,” he explains.
This opens a door to find more pasture. “A dairy that was milking cows until recently tends to have more fertile soils, on average, that an old abandoned hill farm. I started out with four hill farms and we are still paying the price in terms of low gains on the cattle. We just don’t have the fertility back into the soil yet. Our high stock density grazing and the sheep help to bring that back, but it’s a slow process,” he said.
“Our grazing program has evolved over the years—from moving the animals every three days to every day, and we’re working toward mob grazing. We plan to do three moves per day and try to get our numbers to about 100,000 pounds per acre, increasing that number even more as our fertility increases and will allow it. As the grass swards increase in density we should be able to increase that number. I firmly believe in those benefits, as we move forward,” says Lewis.
“It’s been a gradual evolution. We tried to get away with doing it every three days but realized it just doesn’t work as well as when you can tighten it up. One interesting thing we have been able to do is hold our entire flock of sheep and lambs behind a single poly wire. We’ve been able to train them to where they don’t question it. There are certain times of year they will question it, however, if they see greener grass on the other side and are getting hungry. In that situation they will push it, but for the most part we can hold however many cows we are running, and the entire flock of sheep and lambs with a single wire. This simplifies moving fences. I don’t have patience for moving net fence. If I had to move net fence two or three times a day I wouldn’t do it!”
Whether the sheep graze with the cattle or separately depends on the time of year. “Generally we run them together in one big mob that we call a ‘flerd.’ Forage utilization is better that way, and the operation is simpler. The one time of year we may separate them is during lambing. During that time we may put the sheep a day behind the cows, just because the very young lambs could get stepped on or trampled. During lambing, which for us begins May 18, the cattle get the first day’s utilization and the sheep get it the next day. This doesn’t hurt the sheep because they eat different things; there are many plants they don’t compete for and there are some plants left that the cattle haven’t touched that the sheep love,” he explains.
“This is safer for the lambs. Once they get up to 40 or 50 pounds they are agile enough to avoid being stepped on. We’ve run them together as a flerd in the past and the issues we anticipated didn’t materialize,” says Lewis.
“We use a border collie to help move the sheep, but we also have every animal on the farm bucket-trained. If I whistle, the cows all come and the sheep all come and the dog is simply coming behind the group to encourage any slackers. I think it’s a necessity to have the cows trained to follow, as opposed to pushing them.” It’s safer, and you can take them anywhere you want them to go, with no resistance.
“The border collie is essential for large flocks of sheep, however. I had to learn this the hard way. Now Vic, our 9-year-old border collie, has complete control over the flock and he’s a joy to watch as he works. He can easily do what it used to take four or five people to accomplish,” says Lewis.
“We utilize low-stress livestock handling for both the sheep and cattle and this makes life much easier. One person can move the herd. Even in our chutes, it’s low stress for the animals. We are very quiet. They never get yelled at and they never get hit.” The animals are never reluctant to go into the corral or the chute. When they are put through the chute to go over the scale, for instance, it’s a non-issue.
“It’s amazing how readily they will adapt to going through willingly, if they don’t have negative consequences, and no bad memories.”
MEETING THE CHALLENGES
“We have growing pains, just like any business, but we are very optimistic about the future and our goals. We feel grass-fed programs are here to stay. The growth rate of grass-fed beef marketed in New York City is just huge. There is tremendous growth potential in this market,” says Lewis.
“We have challenges getting proper finish on the animals year round with our cool season grasses. Those grasses tend to be energy deficient and with excess protein in the grazing season, and winter haylage also tends to be energy deficient for us,” he says.
“We are looking at a number of strategies to offset this and one is trying to get better grass with higher energy levels—higher sugar. Possibilities include sorghum, sorghum-sudan, sudan-millet, brown mid-rib sorghum, etc. We want to increase the sugar content in our winter feed which is primarily silages, for us. For summer, we are looking at a number of things to increase soil productivity—everything from microbes to liming. We are looking at the possibility of key-line plowing, as well,” he says.
“There are a number of strategies we think we might be able to employ, over time, to increase our summer gains. Adequate, consistent gain in a reasonable amount of time is the name of the game, for grass-fed beef. This is where feedlots have a huge advantage; they have many years’ experience with what makes cattle gain and how. We are trying to replicate the science of a feedlot without using any grain, while keeping the cows on pasture. In a grass-fed operation they are on pasture year-round, so when using supplements those are all fed out on the pasture or fed haylage on pasture,” says Lewis.
“It all comes down to delivering the proper energy and protein balance with forages. We don’t have the flexibility to bring in a commodity and correct deficiencies in a ration. This makes things a little more challenging,” he says.
“The intent and the goal is to raise crops and grazable forages that have the energy content that we are looking for. This is the biggest challenge we face. Marketing, by contrast, has not proven difficult, due to high demand. We have had tremendous success and can’t begin to supply the number of animals we could actually market. Everything else is a work in progress, but the marketing end has been fairly successful—largely based on our geographic position, near the cities,” says Lewis.
“The forage side has been challenging, but we are striving for more consistency within the cattle, and consistent gains. We don’t need big gains like three pounds a day. If we can average 1.7 to two pounds per day, without drops along the way, this works. We must have consistent gains year-round in order to supply a fairly demanding year-round market.” This also creates a more acceptable product, since a gaining animal is more tender and flavorful than one that’s losing weight or merely holding its own.
“We can’t afford to have even one negative customer experience. The quality has to be there, each and every time. That itself will create market demand for a product. If you can supply a consistent quality, people will keep coming back for more. It just keeps multiplying. That’s a great problem to have, but we need to plan accordingly,” he says.
THE ROLE OF FAMILY
“My wife Katie and I have two daughters, 7 and 9 years old. They are beginning to be helpful on the farm. My wife works fulltime off the farm, but the girls enjoy helping me. It’s amazing how they’ve picked up on low-stress livestock handling. The youngest has a very good grasp of Bud Williams’ stock handling techniques. She walks with her arm out and her eyes down and she can walk right up to almost any steer on the property without any fear and has complete control over that animal,” he says. Often children have a good relationship with and ability to handle animals because the child is trusting and unafraid. If the child has total trust the animal doesn’t sense any nervousness or fear and is also trusting, with no negative consequences.
“This is one of the most enjoyable things about being on the farm fulltime; I get to see my children interact with the livestock and enjoy the many benefits of farm life. I have pictures of my youngest daughter as a 4-year-old holding a chicken by its feet. She’ll go and catch a chicken, flip it upside down and carry it around. It’s so fulfilling to watch kids grow up on the farm. We feel very lucky to be able to have them growing up here, with these experiences,” he says.
This is a great way to raise children. “Life and death to them is simply a matter-of-fact reality. We’ll be having steak for dinner and they will say, ‘Daddy, is this one of our steers?’ There is no negative connotation.” They have empathy and sympathy for the animals but the reality of life and death is part of their existence.
“The thing I am most proud of, in terms of what we are growing on our farm, is our children. The beef and sheep keep the bills paid, but the kids are the special part. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and the quality of life is very good, as a result,” he says.
Heather Thomas writes from her home in Salmon, Idaho.