MOHRSVILLE, Pa. — Multispecies grazing is a popular topic, if attendance at a recent pasture walk is any indication.
More than 50 people turned out for last week’s farm tour, jointly sponsored by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture and Penn State Extension.
The event, Multispecies Grazing: Management Techniques & Animal Care, was part of PASA’s Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training and was hosted by farmers Will and Kelly Smith, owners and operators of Deep Roots Valley Farm.
“We always are happy to share our time with other farmers that are looking to do things different,” Will said, as he led the group up a steep hill to the pasture where his 2,000 layers and 5,000 broilers are raised.
He knows from experience that farmers talking to farmers is the best way to find out what works and what doesn’t on a farm.
“We wanted to give people the opportunity to come out and see our operation and see if they can get anything for their own operations,” he said.
The large group was a mix of beginning farmers and experienced farmers who are considering something new.
Sam Cantrell is a seasoned farmer from Chester County who is embarking on a new venture in Berks County.
“I was a little bit late getting here because I was busy signing an agreement of sale to buy a piece of property that I want to turn into a very small diversified farm — and that’s why I’m here: to learn about multispecies grazing,” he said. “This is where I start.”
Steven Parks, a self-described hobby farmer from Mertztown, was curious how the different species coexist on the farm.
“We have a piece of land and we like animals and we’re hoping to do something to make our lives more interesting,” he said.
The Smiths worked in tandem during the course of the farm tour, which started in one of the barns, then moved to the processing area where they prep 250 chickens each week for their direct-market sales.
“We raise grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chicken, eggs, pork, and we do turkeys for Thanksgiving,” said Will. “We have around 60 head of beef, 10 pigs and raise about 5,000 broilers through the season, about 2,000 laying hens, and then we’ll do about 200 turkeys.”
The couple started their operation seven years ago on the 150-acre farm where Kelly grew up, with steep hills and sweeping views of northern Berks County.
“Kelly is fifth generation,” her father, Larry Phillips, said. “My great-grandfather bought this farm in 1911. Back then they were milking cows by hand. And he sold it to my grandfather, my grandfather sold it to my father, my father sold it to me and I sold it to Kelly.”
Beaming with pride for what his daughter and son-in-law are doing, Phillips said at first he was skeptical when they wanted to put the whole farm into pasture and raise animals. Part of what made him nervous was just the idea of doing something new, but he was also worried that they wouldn’t find a market.
“You can have all the product in the world, but if you can’t sell it, it doesn’t do you any good,” he said.
But when you can sell it, it does you good.
The farm currently sells to area restaurants and directly to consumers through their on-farm store. And when a few years ago they were asked to sell their products at Phoenixville Farmers Market, they had to increase their output to keep up with demand.
Phillips has also noticed a change in the land since the farm converted to pasture.
“You don’t have erosion anymore. Everything’s in grass,” he said. “Really, on these hills and this shale ground that we have here, this is probably the best thing you can do with it. As cropland, you know, we only grew hundred-bushel corn here on a good year.”
As the Smiths led the tour around the farm, the group asked all kinds of questions. They wanted to know everything from how the grazing rotation works to how often they collect eggs (usually twice a day, collecting 600 dozen a week).
Like any farm in rural Pennsylvania, especially a farm with poultry, Deep Roots Valley Farm has had pressure from predators — foxes, coyotes, raccoons, hawks, owls, even weasels ... at least until the farm got guard dogs.
“Before we got our dogs we had a weasel attack our chickens, our 5-week-old broilers. They were pastured out in pasture pens, and it was killing 20 to 30 chickens a night,” Kelly said. “That was our last batch of chickens for the year, so we ran out of chicken that winter. We weren’t able to stock up.”
That’s when they decided to get guard dogs to live with the flocks. The first two dogs they bought are a three-way cross between Maremma Italian sheepdog, Polish Tatra sheepdog and Spanish mastiff. They’ve since added two purebred Maremmas. They haven’t lost animals to predators since.
Kelly Smith talked about the conservation work they’ve done around the farm in conjunction with USDA’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program and Stroud Water Research Center.
Just this week, the farm received a 2018 Clean Water Farm Award from the Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts.
“We are honored to be recognized for our efforts and thankful for the guidance and support that we were given from our local Berks County Conservation District,” Kelly said.
The last leg of the tour was up a steep hill to where some of the cattle are grazed. The 60-head herd is a mix of breeds.
“There’s a lot of Angus in there, but we also have some Hereford, we have some Red Angus and we have some mutts as well. We actually bought a White Park bull to breed for next year because we like some color and variety,” said Will.
The Smiths shared stories about the herd and explained their pasture maintenance efforts. Some of the fields had been hay fields and are still pushing alfalfa, while other fields that had been cropped have needed to be reseeded.
Finally someone from the crowd asked why they don’t raise sheep.
Will answered, “We raise what I like to eat. I like bacon. I like beef. I like chicken.”