Thistle Hill Farm – Blog

…doing what comes naturally

The danger of Super-Sizing…

It’s been some years now since Michael Pollin set the beef industry on its ear with his article in the New York Times expanded into the book The Omnivores Dilemna.

Speaking  in England…Pollin pulls back the curtain on the real story behind McDonalds French fries…or as they’re called over there…chips!


Caution…grass at work…

…it may look like resting and that’s what graziers call it…but this grass is hard at work!

Thistle Hill Farm Eastern Pasture
Photo by Curt Humphreys

The trick in grazing isn’t how much grass the cows eat…but how much they leave.

Ideally we like them to bite off about a third…and trample a third…and leave the rest for regrowth. That’s what’s happening here.

The cows have left…we’ve topped off the weeds and seed heads…and now the roots which have died back to mirror the amount of leaf surface above ground…are regrouping.

It’s that new growth which is most nutritious and the cows will be returned in 45 days for another pass across this pasture.

Not only will there be new grass, but new roots. And decaying old roots adding vital organic matter to the soil. It’s a wondrous thing watching this conversion of sunlight to food…food for microbes, for plants, for cows, for humans.

Despite the nonsense you have read, grass farmers are doing more for the planet than just about anything you could imagine. And yes, the red meat is good for your too!


An excellent explanation…

…of just what holistic grazing is all about.

About seven years ago we were introduced to the concepts of Alan Savory and even hosted a session here with Michael Mitchell-Innes.  It was a milestone in the history of the farm, particularly for Wooz, who had grown up here.

In sum, holistic grazing puts the land into the perspective of the entire ecosystem.  It can be pretty heavy stuff so I was delighted to come across this short video…just three minutes…by Blaine Hitzfield of Seven Sons Farm in Indiana.  In everyday terms Blaine describes what it has meant for their farm.

The experience Blaine describes…raising organic matter from two percent to as high as six per cent…exactly mirrors our experience at Thistle Hill.  Even places with desert-like conditions have seen incredible regeneration using holistic grazing practices.


Strip grazing…

…and the main herd has settled in…changing paddocks with no more than a whistle.  I’m sure you could set up an automatic gate opener and they’d move themselves.

Thistle Hill Farm - Trip Grazing

There are 33 pregnant cows in this group.  The section already grazed is in the foreground.  By enlarging the picture you may be able to see the single strand of polywire which is all we need to keep them together.

The grass as we began was about a foot tall, and we’ve taken the top half before moving on. 

In recent years a technique has developed called “mob grazing”…or “high intensity grazing”…that is jamming the equivalent of 500 to 700 cows into a single acre.  That is said to mimic the way buffalo once roamed this land.

The weight on the hooves pounds the grass…and manure…into the soil forcing the nutrients closer to the root system of the grass.  That happens anyway, but this technique arguably restores pastures to the ground our forefathers once new more quickly.

We’ve been hesitant to try that approach although we’ve visited the farms of friends who have…and are impressed.  But it’s not efficient for our smaller operation.  Getting the poundage focused would require tiny paddocks…1/4, even 1/8 of an acre…and constant moving of temporary fencing. And that would greatly complicate seeing that the cows get ample shade and water.

We’re also not convinced cows are meant to be that closely bunched in a fenced operation.  How do they feel (yes, I’m serious)!  And then there are possible health concerns.

Frankly we’ve never seen healthier, happier cows than at Thistle Hill.

Our conclusion for now is to keep things as they are…for the well being of the cows…and ourselves.


End of the trek…

…we take this for granted now but it is quite an advantage to raising Devon…particularly Thistle Hill Devon.

Here the herd has moved itself from one of our main pastures to another…perhaps a half mile with lots of tempting grass in-between…but they trust Church and don’t break ranks.

(Looks like they’ve survived the winter pretty well, too!)


Happy new year…at last…

…the scene we wait all winter to see!

Thistlehill Farm Grazing

The main Thistle Hill herd moving from the western to eastern pastures to begin strip grazing.  Here temporary fencing already has been put in place.  That will allocate roughly one acre paddocks per day.  The confined space increases the trampling effect….the cows pointed toes grinding in some of the grass…the result is organic matter and food for the soil.

This is the first pass over the eastern pasture…and if Mother Nature is good…there’ll be one and maybe two more.

That’s Church…our manager/foreman…supervising the herd.  Someone tell him he needs a haircut!  (Inside family joke)


The Thistle Hill Alumni Assn…

…well maybe not technically.  But he was bred here and went on to serve at Rich Hamilton’s Elim Springs Farm for the past 8 years.

Rojo - Bull

His name is Rojo and he’s been used in the Elim Springs meat business for the past decade and is still going strong.  Rich uses him as a terminal sire on his Senepol cow herd and it’s a winning combination!

Rojo’s pedigree on the dam side is packed with well-known Devon greats including Noyl Boy, Buckeye and Kinloch.  As for his sire, he is the first bull that made a major impact on our cows: Watson.

We found Watson at Don and Heather Minto’s farm in Rhode Island.  He was all Rotokawa with 667 line breeding in his history.  It was our introduction to what an impact a prepotent bull can make on a herd.

Some of his daughters are mainstays of our herd…still productive a decade later.


There’s nothing we like better…

…almost…than seeing the final result of what we do at Thistle Hill on a customer’s table.  (Well maybe being invited over for dinner is a little better!)

Thistlehill Farm Beef

Thanks to Jim Houck, he orders halves and wholes to share with his family, for sending this photo of a Thistle Hill rib roast.  Jim says the flavor was “amazing”!

Not many of our customers ask for the standing rib…preferring smaller steaks instead.  But Jim is a contractor and needs his protein!

We’re about to harvest a beeve
in a few days but there’s only a quarter left!  Contact Church quick for your amazing eating experience!

And contact Jim if you need a contractor.  Anyone who travels 100 miles for his meat must be a demanding and discriminating builder!


Make yourself at home…

..and our new piglets settled right in this weekend. Grandson Church gave a welcoming scratch of the head.

The source of the newcomers was Indian Summer Farm near Lynchburg, Virginia.  And these piglets are certainly a testimony to superior breeding and care.  Three are pure Berkshire and two are Berkshire/Tamworth  crosses.

I’ve been partial to Tamworth but Berkshire probably is the breed of choice for growers of gourmet meat.  The combination is exciting to anticipate!


A picture only a farmer…

Thistlehill Farm Dirt

…can love. 

A spade full of our western pasture taken at random.  The worms (I count six!) confirm a lot’s going on out there.  We’re planning on improved organic matter readings with more hooves on the ground in the coming year.

Here is what it looks like right now too…over in the eastern pasture.  Church is holding back the herd…wants six more inches of grass before he starts strip grazing.  A few more days like today and he’ll be putting in the temporary fencing.

Love the clover.  It’s the second year for this stand.  That’s nutrition for the cows…the ground…and those worms!