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Mild weather lets beef ranchers use less hay, save money

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ADAMS — Donald H. Holman and his 50 black Angus beef cattle would rather have had a green Christmas than a white one so the 100-acre grass pasture at his farm would have continued to grow to feed his herd through the holiday.

Grass fields ordinarily stop growing in the second week of November, requiring Mr. Holman to cart four wagon loads of hay daily to the small herd used for breeding. But bizarrely enough, his cattle continued munching on pasture grass every morning well into December. It’s an anomaly the rancher, who began raising beef cattle in 1989, has never seen before.

Mother Nature essentially has rewarded him with a $6,000 check, he said, because in the spring he will sell 150 bales of hay he’d normally feed to his herd in the winter.

“Everyone is always whining about global warming, but like every other fact of life, there is two sides to everything,” he said last Thursday morning while approaching the pasture off Route 178 in his truck. “Here we are in the middle of December, and grass in the pasture is still growing. I’ve gone more than 30 days without feeding them bales of hay worth $40.”

As Mr. Holman parked his truck in the dewy pasture Thursday morning, dozens of black Angus cattle that were scattered throughout the field to graze encircled it in a tight cluster. He won’t give them hay yet because the grass is still ripe, but they looked inquisitive.

The majority of the cattle are heifers used for breeding, while only a handful of bulls with the best genetics are the fathers. Mr. Holman pointed to his largest bull, standing alone in the field, a 2,100-pounder responsible for most of the breeding.

“He’s been breeding for four years and now has about 30 children,” said the 67-year-old. Mr. Holman shares responsibilities on the farm with his wife, Susan R., and drives a bus part time for the South Jefferson Central School District.

Because the group of 50 cattle is used only for breeding, he said, it includes only the cream of the crop. His additional 300 cattle are raised to be sold to slaughterhouses and processors and are in separate fields and a 6,400-square-foot barn.

Bulls used at the farm for breeding are bought exclusively from Summitcrest Farms in Broken Bow, Neb. Mr. Holman makes the drive to Nebraska every month to attend auctions at the farm, where bulls with the best genetics are sold.

During a typical year, Mr. Holman’s bulls and heifers mate in June and July. About 15 calves are born in late March and April. Unlike dairy cattle, he said, heifers don’t need any help giving birth to their calves, which typically weigh about 60 pounds. Because of their thick skin and fur, the beef cattle stay outside throughout the winter.

“They’ll give birth when it’s snowing,” he said, adding they are much more resilient than dairy cattle, which are sensitive to temperature changes. “When it gets windy in the winter, they can run out to the woods for shelter.”

Mr. Holman always searches for ways to make his operation more efficient and sustainable. He said it took him about five years to learn how to care properly for his breeding herd. Cows gain the most weight and are healthiest when they feed on grass, he learned, and each cow needs to be allotted two acres to ensure pastures aren’t overpopulated. He also feeds his cattle using grain and silage harvested from a 125-acre cornfield and 100 acres of alfalfa hay.

Each month, he takes about 15 young steers and heifers in a trailer to an auction barn in Paradise, Pa. That region contains more small slaughterhouses, he said, and about seven to 10 buyers typically attend the auctions. The going rate for Angus beef cattle is about $1.30 a pound; they weigh anywhere from 1,150 to 1,450 pounds and are about 2 years old when they’re sold for slaughter. He sells about 250 to 300 cattle a year at the Pennsylvania auction, and about 60 more to private buyers in the north country.

Despite his age, Mr. Holman enjoys his active lifestyle raising beef cattle. And gifts from Mother Nature like the mild weather in December are always welcome.

“I feel like an employee getting a bonus check I didn’t plan on because I’m getting $6,000 for hay I planned to use,” he said.

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