Alfalfa anchors this unique grass-fed farm

By Mike Rankin, Managing Editor
Scott Barao oversees Hedgeapple Farm, which markets beef from about 150 grass-fed and finished head per year. Profitability and environmental stewardship drive the farm’s operational model.

Scott Barao oversees Hedgeapple Farm, which markets beef from about 150 grass-fed and finished head per year. Profitability and environmental stewardship drive the farm’s operational model.

Sometimes you have to break from standard procedures to take advantage of an uncontrollable situation or location.

Hedgeapple Farm sits just north of Buckeystown, Md., and is an easy drive from the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., metro area. It is unlike most beef operations in many ways. From their forage program to Angus genetics to their log cabin direct-market store, the farm also aims to serve as a model for sustainable beef production and environmental stewardship. It has a one-mile border with the Monocacy River, which flows to the Potomac River and then to the Chesapeake Bay.

Hedgeapple Farm also places a high priority on demonstrating profitability and is eager to share its reams of production and marketing data. That’s where Scott Barao comes into the picture.

Barao, who served as the University of Maryland’s extension beef specialist for 20 years and directed the beef cattle research facility on the state’s Eastern Shore, retired in 2006 to work for the Jorgenson Family Foundation as executive director and oversee the beef operation. One of the primary missions is to conduct research and educational outreach. Once operated as a dairy farm, the Jorgenson family had owned Hedgeapple’s land and buildings since the 1960s.

These days, Barao, along with farm manager Jay Fulmer, oversee the 100-cow Angus herd that is 100 percent forage-fed. The farm direct-markets all of the beef it produces on a per-cut, per-pound basis, about 150 grass-fed and finished head per year.

Given the environmentally sensitive land base of Hedgeapple Farm, having a business model that was totally forage based made good sense.

“Our overarching goal was to build a model operation that was profitable and environmentally sound in a moderate-sized beef operation typical of the mid-Atlantic and Northeast region of the country,” Barao said. “We felt that we had to control the marketing of the end product. Investing so much time and effort in breeding, genetics, and forage management, then giving the product away at weaning or as yearlings didn’t make much sense for us. We felt that too much profit was lost by not direct marketing, especially given our location,” he explained.

Alfalfa drives gain

Alfalfa and grass- alfalfa mixes are grazed and made into baleage for winter feeding.
The farm currently consists of about 500 acres of pasture and hayfields with 150 of those acres being rented. The registered Angus cows graze either alfalfa-orchardgrass or tall fescue-clover mixed pastures. During the winter, they are supplemented with dry hay. “We’re usually grazing by April 15 and, on average, graze into February on stockpiled fescue for the cow herd,” Barao said.

Growing and finishing cattle are rotationally grazed on pure alfalfa or alfalfa-orchardgrass mixed pastures for the entire growing season.

“To accomplish what we want to do here from a finished carcass perspective, our cattle have to gain 1.8 to 2.2 pounds every day from weaning to finish. The only way to do that is with high-quality forages and a high percentage of legumes,” Barao said. During the winter, the growing and finishing cattle get baleage that is made from the alfalfa-based pastures and hayfields.

The farm begins a rotation by seeding pure stands of Roundup Ready alfalfa. In Year 2 or 3, orchardgrass is interseeded into the stand to extend usable stand life to six or seven years. Once the decision is made to terminate the forage stand, the field is sprayed and sorghum-sudangrass is used as a rotational crop and provides midsummer grazing. Winter rye is then seeded in the fall and left over winter. Come spring, the pasture is seeded back to alfalfa.

Bred for the system

The cow herd is split into spring (February 15 to April 1) and fall (September 1 to October 15) calvers. Barao prefers using Wye Angus genetics as the foundation for much of the breeding program. Wye Angus is a well-known and proven forage-based herd at the University of Maryland. “Cows have to calve within our two 45-day windows,” Barao said. “The bulls go in for a specific amount of time and if a cow isn’t bred, it leaves the herd . . . there’s no tolerance here.”

In addition to Hedgeapple’s own calves, the farm works with three other cooperating cow-calf operations to obtain additional stockers. “We set them up with our breeding program and then the calves come back here at weaning,” Barao said. “We don’t have the pasture base to take on any more cows. For every cow-calf pair that we keep, that’s three growing-finishing head that we can’t support.”

Once calves are weaned, they are split into either a heifer group or steer group. They stay in those groups until they’re within 60 days of finishing, then are combined. About 20 percent of the heifer crop is kept as herd replacements.

“Heifers work way better in this system than steers,” Barao said. “Our steers average 22 to 23 months to finish, whereas the heifers take 18 to 20 months. The heifers just get fatter faster. We never have a USDA Select grade heifer at harvest, but we occasionally get a Select Plus steer,” said Barao, who also oversees his own family’s beef herd that produces certified kosher meat.

Barao is passionate about keeping financial and production records. He can tell you to the penny what it costs to raise cattle on the farm and what it costs to put a pound of meat in the cooler. Complete carcass data is kept on every animal that is processed. He also tracks performance metrics, and one of his favorites is percent of maternal body weight weaned. This is simply the calf weight divided by the maternal cow weight at weaning. “We like to see it in the low to mid-50s,” Barao noted. “It’s the best measure of cow efficiency in a forage-based system.”

Barao shares his numbers and how the farm operates at many educational events held on the farm and throughout the mid-Atlantic region.

Everything sold on-farm

All of the meat at Hedgeapple Farm is direct marketed from a retail store located on the farm.

The signature building on Hedgeapple Farm is the circa 1700s log cabin that houses the retail market. All traditional cuts of beef are sold along with some gourmet cuts that are unique to the operation. Every pound of meat that is produced on the farm is sold through the store.

“Our number one appeal is locally produced; grass-fed is secondary,” Barao said. “There are over a million people who live within 50 miles of this farm, but it’s also a mixed blessing. Keeping our land base and overdevelopment are our biggest challenges here. We’ve lost some of our rental land to development and there’s simply no more land on the market to purchase,” Barao explained.

The farm market and farm operation are viewed as separate financial enterprises with the market purchasing cattle from the farm. Both need a black bottom line on their own merit. “This place is packed on the weekends,” Barao said. “I tell our customers that they can go out and see where their steak came from, but they usually take a pass. Nevertheless, knowing the meat is produced locally seems to be a huge factor for most of our customers,” he added.

Though production location may be a calling card, the product also has to look and taste good. A quick gaze into the Hedgeapple cooler display tells customers that their beef is not of the lean and tough grass-fed realm, but rather it is well marbled with more than acceptable fat cover.

Good neighbor and good soil

Environmental stewardship remains a high priority at Hedgeapple Farm. Named a Certified Agricultural Conservation Steward by the Maryland Farm Stewardship and Certification Program, a fenced buffer is kept along the 1-mile length of the Monocacy River that borders the farm. Hedgeapple operates under the guidance of a nutrient management plan with a goal to leave the land in better condition for future generations.

The farm is already seeing significant improvements in soil quality. In 2010, most of the fields had soils that were 2 to 3 percent organic matter. Those same fields are now in the 5 to 6 percent organic matter range after six years of forage production and intensive rotational grazing.

“We get people here from the surrounding region and all over the U.S.,” Barao said. “The one comment we always get is that this is a really difficult system to operate . . . and they’re right. You’re moving cattle daily and renovating forage species every five to seven years. You’re combining intensive genetic management of the herd with intensive pasture management of the forages with intensive management of the whole system.

“You can’t just turn cattle out in the spring, round them up in the fall, and call it grass-fed beef. The consistent production of high-quality grass-fed and finished beef is possible, but it’s very difficult to do it right; however, if done correctly, it’s one of the most sustainable and lowest cost beef production systems that you’ll find because your gains are high and it maximizes the animal harvest from forage across the farm,” he concluded.

This article appeared in the March 2018 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on pages 6 and 7.

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