Farming has been a way of life on the East End for more than three centuries. Although it was once common to see cows grazing in local fields, given sky-high land values and the amount of acreage required to raise them, it’s been decades since cattle have been a regular feature of the East End landscape.
But the cows have come home to Shelter Island. Since mid-May, 33 of them have been happily munching away in the pasturelands at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm. Another 10 or so are set to join them from upstate New York in the weeks ahead.
These beef cows are being “grass-finished” at the Manor by Stephen Skrenta of South Fork-based Accabonac Farms. Made up of Hereford, Angus and Devon breeds, the herd is genetically designed to perform well on the type of regenerative grass species — like rye and clover — that grow on the 60 acres it will occupy at the Manor in the months ahead.
“We buy cattle from Tennessee to Vermont, they’re all put together and socialized and trained to a hot [electrified] fence,’” said Mr. Skrenta during a recent visit with the herd.
He demonstrated how the cattle are moved from a one-third acre grazing section to another. Using a technique learned from farmers at grass-fed cattle operations in New Zealand and Ireland, Mr. Skrenta employs a simple system of plastic posts and spools wound with a single electrified strand of fencing which he can operate himself when moving the herd.
Though it may appear as though the cows are leisurely grazing in the field, this is, in fact, an important phase in their life cycle.
“Cattle have three stages to their life. The first is when they are calves and on their mother primarily eating milk and grass,” Mr. Skrenta said. “Then they are weaned and go into the stocker phase — it’s like the teenage years where they’re growing bone and muscle, but not fat.”
It’s in the third phase that the typical beef cow in America is switched over to an all-grain diet.
“At around 600 to 800 pounds, they’re sent to a feed lot where they are fed grain, which is pure sugar,” he said. “They’re going to get very fat in a predictable and fast way.”
The animals don’t get fresh air or exercise, he added. “They’re not given what they are meant to eat — which is grasses and legumes. Instead, they’re stationary and gorging on grain to get fat as quickly and cheaply as possible,” Mr. Skrenta said.
Because cows are ruminates, they aren’t designed to eat grain and this phase comes at a cost. Mr. Skrenta notes the cows get sick and their health begins to fail. For that reason, sub-therapeutic antibiotics are administered to grain-fed cattle before sickness can set in.
“We pump them full of antibiotics to keep them going. Then we implant growth hormones to put on weight that much faster,” Mr. Skrenta said. “Their system breaks down at that last stage of finishing.”
It’s in this final phase of development that Mr. Skrenta parts ways with the typical beef producer in the U.S. by keeping his herd on grass. Ultimately, his goal is to produce choice beef, which is defined by the amount of fat it contains.
“We buy grass genetics that finish out at around 1,000 pounds,” Mr. Skrenta said. “Since World War II in America, cattle have been genetically selected for large size and because of grain it’s easy to put fat on them. Prime is at 1,800 pounds, but now we’re putting antibiotics and growth hormones into them.”
“These animals have grass genetics. They have been prepared for many months for this moment — which is finishing on local forage, soils and environment,” he said.
Sylvester Manor board member Peter Vielbig noted that the fields in which the Accabonac Farms herd now grazes have been laying fallow for years. With cows back in the picture, those pastures are now being put to the use for which they were intended. In addition, he said that Mr. Skrenta has made every effort to employ Shelter Islanders for the project — from fence building and pasture seeding to on-site management.
“We saw that leasing these pastures provides lease income and also saves us the cost of employing additional staff to farm these fields,” Mr. Vielbig said. “Sylvester Manor has made a quantum leap for agriculture and for protecting our fragile environment here. ‘Regenerative grazing’ is the most productive carbon sequestration of any agricultural enterprise.”
“Pastureland will be improved by many factors — including the consumption of nitrogen and other harmful elements by a factor of four,” he added.
“When it comes to producing beef, it’s still about sugar. “Sylvester Manor’s pastures have high sugar content — we just got lucky,” Mr. Skrenta said. “Our priority is soil health.
“We take great care to manage these animals to promote soil health,” he added. “In turn, we foster quality and diversity — the by-product which will be beef.”
The final beef products will be sold direct to consumers through Accabonac Farms website accabonacfarms.com, which will soon be up and running.