hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Going against the grain

Breeder of grass-fed cattle earns respect while challenging conventions


Contributing writer


On a cold drizzly day in late April, a few dozen area farmers showed up for a pasture walk at Black Queen Angus Farm to learn about Morgan Hartman’s unconventional approach to calving and just about everything else.
Hartman’s farm in the hills of eastern Rensselaer County produces grass-fed meats, and he has developed a national reputation as a breeder of cattle suited to this tradition.

Most of Hartman’s herd had over-wintered on an eight-acre field that had been dominated by goldenrod five years earlier. Hartman explained his interventions to make the land productive agriculturally.

He had collected a soil sample for analysis in 2009. Dairy One, the testing company, recommended he apply lime to reduce the soil acidity and fertilizer to supply nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. He also was told to seed the field with a legume like clover.
Hartman, ever the contrary farmer, disregarded the advice completely.

Instead, he bought 80 tons of hay and allowed 30 cows and their calves to consume the bales over four months that winter. With 600-pound round bales placed in a checkerboard pattern throughout the field, he allowed the cattle access to new hay after they consumed their previous allocation. He accomplished this by the simple process of moving an electrified twine fence to give the cattle access to new areas.

The next year he had the soil tested again. Dairy One said the soil needed no additional inputs; the pH, soil fertility and the soil organic matter all had markedly improved. Waste hay provided a considerable amount of nutrients and organic matter, and the cattle left behind a lot of well-distributed manure. Both nourished soil microorganisms and earthworms, magically transforming the soil.

The cattle had to eat anyway, so Hartman says he saved a lot of money. And he pointed out that chemical fertilizers tend to have a detrimental effect on soil organisms, which have proven essential for soil health.

Hartman, 46, doesn’t do a lot of other things that most farmers take for granted as necessary. He never worms his animals, treats them for parasites or trims their hoofs.
He also is skeptical of the notion of weeds. Take bedstraw, a universally reviled weed of hayfields. It’s 14 percent protein, he said.

Or consider Canada thistle, the scourge of overgrazed pastures.
“We’ve got to spray it, mow it, eradicate it,” Hartman said, alluding to the widespread advice and practice. “My cows eat it. And if they don’t, my sheep and goats will.”

He puts out a mixture of salt and minerals for his animals to eat, as little or much as they like.
“Most of what they consume goes out the back end,” Hartman said. “That’s the way I add nutrients to the soil – into cows, and then onto the soil.”


Breaking taboos of cattle breeding
Hartman’s willingness to pursue unconventional approaches has led to success and respect from his peers. In late July, he was named the “grassfed innovative producer of the year” at the annual conference of the Grassfed Exchange, a national organization that promotes grass-fed beef and helps farmers and breeders share ideas and techniques for the genetic improvement of cattle. The group’s conference, held this year in Columbia, Mo., drew 400 people from 40 states and three Canadian provinces.

A statement on his farm’s Web site sums up the philosophy behind Hartman’s commitment to raising cattle on pasture.

“Nature intended cattle to forage for a living,” it says. “Cattle were not meant to live their lives in confinement, standing on concrete, receiving all their daily nutrition from a mixer wagon. If that was how they were meant to live, they would have wheels instead of sturdy legs, funnels instead of broad muzzles, and a paint-job instead of thick hair.”

Hartman named his farm business after the first registered cow he bought. Black Queen Angus may have been an obvious choice, for she belonged to the Queen tribe, one of the oldest families of Black Angus cattle. But using the name of a chess piece also appealed to Hartman.
As a play on words, the name underscores the importance of “making good decisions as a breeder,” he said.

The contemporary, academically endorsed approach to breeding livestock involves continual out-crossing. In other words, cows are bred with unrelated bulls, ewes with unrelated rams, and so forth.

Hartman and his mentors, including Allen Williams, who holds a doctorate in animal genetics, subscribe to an altogether different philosophy called “line breeding.”

Line breeding allows a breeder to narrow the variation in a population. The Wye Angus herd in Queenstown, Md., for example, originated 75 years ago with one outstanding bull serving as sire for the first three generations of the herd’s cows.

Hartman used line breeding to quickly create a more uniform herd with consistency in the traits he wants.

The approach offers the means to concentrate the genes of specific ancestors. It also breaks the taboo of mating between the closest of relatives: In line breeding, bulls sometimes are bred with their own daughters and granddaughters and cows with their sons.

Once the gold standard for breeders, the now controversial method of line breeding fell out of favor in the early 20th century because out-crossing can yield much more productivity, especially in the short run. By mid-century, line breeding had been demonized because a handful of genetic defects, such as dwarfism in the Angus and Hereford breeds, were popping up more frequently.
But Hartman contends that if people had been practicing line breeding all along, those defects would have been revealed much earlier -- and breeders would have weeded them out.

“People critiquing line breeding assume that you won’t do any culling,” he said. “Not every mating results in a winner. In fact, the point of line breeding is to find the faults and not propagate them.”


Focusing on quality meat
As a breeder, Hartman markets live registered cattle and bull semen all over the United States. People have used his cattle genes as far away as South Africa and South America, and one of his bulls has 700 progeny. This spring he traveled to the Sand Hills of Nebraska to buy another bull that is closely related to his herd -- along with a 50 percent interest in breeding him.
Producing quality grass-fed beef requires both good management and appropriate genetics, Hartman said.

The foremost goal of breeding, he said, is to achieve commercial viability for producers.
“And the best way to achieve commercial viability is to have a consistent high-quality eating experience for the consumer,” he said.

Among the influences on the Black Queen Angus herd is the Wye Angus. Hartman bought a Wye Angus bull and has used other bulls related to the herd. Resembling the traditional Scottish Angus cattle in appearance and stature, Wye Angus easily fatten on grass alone (unlike the taller, narrower modern Angus), so they are a good fit for Hartman’s farm.

But as far as what to breed for, Hartman’s view may be surprising.

“Maternal efficiency is the only thing to talk about,” he said. “You get that right, and everything else falls into place.”

By maternal efficiency, he means the ability of a cow to calve every year and to raise a healthy calf. In a beef operation, he noted, a cow doesn’t make a profit until she reaches age 6 and has raised four calves.

When a cow doesn’t reproduce, she leaves the farm as meat. Since Hartman is in the business of selling breeding stock, he doesn’t want his name associated with inferior animals.
Hartman said he gives all his heifers a chance to breed unless they have a bad disposition. If he doesn’t like an animal’s conformation, he may pull its breed registration papers. Such animals then become commercial cattle: They can be raised for meat but will never be bred.


Cultivating a niche
Hartman has a long-term lease on 600 acres, of which over half is forest. About 170 acres are open fields. He’s working to bring more land into productivity as pasture.
His relationship with the landowners is complex.

“The owners like what I’m doing so well that they bought out my partners,” he explained. “They’re very happy with the way the land is being managed, and they like my business plan. I have an equity stake and am also the managing partner.”

Hartman said he aims to increase his herd size to 100 brood cows by 2017. Currently he has about 65 cattle, including 30 cows, some of their offspring and a bull.

He said he “pulled way back” from selling beef after the price of commodity beef shot up. Previously, he contracted with a grazer in the Finger Lakes region to finish his animals on pasture, but he said he can’t afford to pay a premium over commodity, let alone compete with businesses that are far better capitalized.

But Morgan has far more flexibility than larger producers to adapt to changing conditions.
He sells his meat to a handful of restaurants, farm stands and natural food stores in the Berkshires. His local customers include Mezze Bistro in Williamstown as well as The Meat Market, Prairie Whale and Allium Restaurant & Bar in Great Barrington.

To fulfill their commitment to buying local, however, all of these businesses source meat from other area farms as well.

“I can’t meet demand by a long shot,” Hartman explained.
Besides beef, he also sells lamb. He doesn’t yet have enough goats.
“I’m trying to increase their animal numbers as fast as I can,” he said.


Letting animals do the work
Hartman will need more pasture for his expanding herd, so he is reclaiming about 50 acres of scrublands. Some of the land is covered thickly in multiflora rose, yet he is not using heavy equipment, chainsaws or herbicides.

Why deploy fossil fuel, chemical poisons or human labor when animals can do the job by eating and trampling?

Hartman acquired sheep and goats for land clearing and found he enjoys having them. Land overrun with woody vegetation is ideal for goats. By instinct and physiology, they are browsers, not grazers, he explained.

Earlier this year, Hartman initiated a public demonstration of the value of goats for clearing land – at an overgrown three-acre parcel at Pine Cobble School in Williamstown. He kept goats on the parcel all spring, using guardian dogs to protect them from coyotes.

Around the start of the new school year this fall, the goats will return, though without the dogs. Some neighbors objected to the dogs’ barking, so Hartman is putting up an electric fence.
At the farm in Berlin, he plans to convert 12-14 acres of an old spruce plantation into silvopasture, which combines productive pasture and productive woodland. The spruce, which provide habitat for the pileated woodpecker, will shelter the black locust seedlings he is planting next spring. In the future, animals will graze the understory and facilitate a transition to pasture with trees.

With such projects, Hartman intends to diversify animal and plant communities and the soil ecosystem. Biodiversity, he said, serves as a buffer against the extremes of temperature.
He also wants to prove – contrary to the view of some farmers as well as some environmentalists -- that good ecological management is profitable for farmers engaged in animal husbandry.
“Animal agriculture can work in concert with nature,” Hartman said. “It can not only be ecologically sensitive but also promote biodiversity and ecological health.”

Hartman said he believes that “we have two choices in agriculture – one sustainable and regenerative, and the other a mining operation that is consumptive in its nature and destructive in its outcome.”

But he has shown a rare ability to navigate the treacherous divide between adherents of each system.

“I can put myself in other people’s shoes,” he said.


Landscaping to farming
Both of Hartman’s parents grew up on farms, his father on a Southern Tier dairy and his mother on an Illinois crop farm. But agriculture skipped their generation.

“My dad always wanted to get back into farming and raise produce, but he fell ill before he could,” Hartman explained.

In his family home, there was always a copy of Organic Gardening magazine on the coffee table, he recalls. But if his father had lived long enough to start a farm, it wouldn’t have been “strictly organic,” Hartman said.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in plant sciences at Cornell as an older student, Hartman started a landscape design-and-build business in 2001 with his now former wife.

But his interest in cattle, originally a sideline, developed to the point that he left the landscaping business two years ago to focus solely on his farm.

In 2001, the same year he and his wife started landscaping, Hartman went in 50-50 with his then father-in-law to buy a bull. He believed a better bull would help improve the 15-cow beef herd his father-in-law kept on a hobby farm.

A couple years later, Hartman said the bull developed such a nasty disposition that they had to get rid of him. Subsequently he chose a replacement bull, but that animal had problems from the beginning.

“You couldn’t feed him enough to keep him in shape to breed the cows,” he recalled.
Learning from his mistakes, Hartman was rethinking his strategy by 2005.

“The original bulls I bought didn’t function in my environment with my resources,” he said. “I was trying to modify my operation to meet the needs of the cattle. Instead, I began sourcing cattle from people that had similar resources and philosophies. My cattle have to work for me, not the other way around.”

Soon Hartman began leasing his large farm in Berlin from a New York City family with extensive holdings. With only two cows and one bull, he started a separate cattle enterprise with registered Angus.

But the pivotal moment came when he responded to two advertisements placed by renowned breeders in the Angus Journal, the official publication of the American Angus Association. This brought Hartman into contact with two men whom he calls his mentors.

Eager to learn as much as he could, he forged enduring relationships with Sam Wylie of Octoraro Angus in Breezewood, Pa., and Bill Hodge of Sustainable Genetics in Carrolton, Ga. Both are specialists in genetics for grass-fed cattle producers.

Around that time he also connected with Allen Williams of Mississippi, who became a networking partner. He praises the three for being so giving of their time and knowledge.


Spreading the word
Within a couple years, Hartman began “paying back” the generosity of his mentors by starting to educate the next crop of interested farmers and crafting new opportunities for others to learn. He has organizes numerous pasture walks on his and other farms and has helped farmers who want to manage intensive grazing on their land.

In 2007, Hartman approached longtime Cornell Cooperative Extension agent Tom Gallagher and dreamed up Cornell’s first big annual program on grass-fed beef. The first Winter Greenup was held the next January in Latham, outside Albany. Gallagher became a champion of the event.
“Tom didn’t have much of a clue about grass-fed, but, to his credit, he was willing to explore it,” Hartman recalled.

He added that Gallagher, motivated by his desire to help more farms become profitable, went out a limb in embracing the concept. But his reputation was redeemed when the first of their annual conferences attracted 225 people -- more than four times the number that Mike Baker, a professor and beef specialist at Cornell University, had predicted would attend.

Since then, Baker has acknowledged grass feeding is a viable way to raise beef cattle, Hartman said. He even started an all-forage (no grain) bull test. Given the widespread interest in grass-fed beef around the Northeast, this year Cornell has substantially increased the number of bulls it will evaluate in these trials.

Last spring, Hartman started to collaborate with Pine Cobble School, which his three children attend, and Williams College, to educate the public in Williamstown, Mass., where he lives.
And Hartman spearheaded an event planned this month called “Sheep at Sheep Hill,” a pasture walk, lamb dinner and lecture planned for Saturday, Sept. 27, at Sheep Hill Ecology Reserve, a former farm now owned and managed by Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation as an educational center.

The pasture walk and the lecture by Gary Kleppel, director of the Biodiversity, Conservation & Policy Program at the University at Albany, are free, as is a fiber spinning and weaving demonstration. The dinner is $25, and reservations are required. To register, follow the link provided under the “news” tab at http://wildoats.coop; for more information, call Hartman at (413) 358-8435 or Leslie Reed-Evans of the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation at (413) 258-2494.