The 50 head of cattle at Heirland Farm in Woodsboro looked on last week as farmers were taught about rotational grazing, a method used by owner and veterinarian Steve Derrenbacher.
Derrenbacher, a full-time vet, and his family are the third generation to manage the farm, which has been in the family since the 1930s. For the past 10 years they have been producing grass-fed beef, and have used a less intensive form of mob grazing for the past two years.
The farm was open to the public for a "Pasture Walk," an informal education program hosted by the University of Maryland Extension, Frederick County Office and Stanley W. Fultz, an extension agent in dairy science.
The walk attracted more than a dozen people from across Maryland, many of them cattle and dairy farmers.
Under Derrenbacher’s version of the method, the cattle are allowed to roam and graze in one paddock each day before moving to the next. Rotational grazing is thought to improve herd health by reducing the incidence of disease and need for therapeutic antibiotics.
“There’s a lot more potential for problems on grain feeding for the animals,” he said. “You can see liver abscess, you can also see gastritic ulcer and foot problems. ... It’s a lot easier to thicken [cattle] on corn feed, but you lose the health benefits. The animals are much happier on grass.”
Although mob grazing, or a variation of it, is Derrenbacher’s preference, he and Fultz both emphasized it’s not for every farmer.
“I would not encourage a dairy producer or a producer who is dependent on high quality feed [for their animals] to go this direction,” Fultz said. “Beef animals have potential in this area.”
In addition to some diminished health risks associated with manufactured feed, rotational grazing can help to reduce and improve soil quality, Derrenbacher said.
“I know I’m taking care of the ground,” he said. “The pasture many not look like a lot, it may not always look that good ... [but] my goal is to graze a good 10 to 11 months out of the year.”
Initially it wasn’t the various benefits of grass-feeding that motivated him to try the method on the farm, he said. “The beef will spoil you, that was the selling point for us. It has a more robust flavor than hay-fed.”
The farm typically sells its products in the spring and fall, and advertises on www.eatwild.com. They also sell ground beef through the Common Market, Frederick's natural food co-op.
“There’s a lot of demand for grass-fed products,” Derrenbacher said.