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Year in Review: MOOO-ving cattle at Sylvester Manor

Happy and hungry cows follow temporary fence lines into a new pasture to feed on fresh, nutrient-rich grass.

Over the next several days, leading to the New Year, the Reporter will be posting our annual Year In Review series of important stories from 2018.

Agriculturally speaking, Sylvester Manor hit the bull’s eye this summer when the cows came home to beef up in order to become cash cows. Thanks to the manor’s utterly delicious grass, they became the cream of the crop. The community came out to steer the cows between pastures because the grass really is greener on the other side.

Around 40 grass-fed cows booked a summer home on the Island this year.

For the second consecutive summer, Sylvester Manor Educational Farm was home to a herd of grass-fed cattle that belong to Acabonac Farms. The Amagansett-based beef producers lease 60 acres from the Manor to “finish” cattle, utilizing an intensely managed system of rotational grazing that promotes soil health regeneration and carbon sequestration.

In June, about a dozen curious guests arrived at the Manor to learn about the grazing method and to help move the cows from pasture to pasture. Sharing their knowledge were cattle ranchers Stephen Skrenta and Cristina Cosentino from Acabonac Farms.

Ms. Cosentino, who is one of three team members at the farm, explained that the 100 percent grass-fed cows were in their finishing stage, meaning from their early May arrival until their October departure, they were fattened up on rich, healthy grass before being sent to Pennsylvania for processing. Essentially, the Manor’s grasses were the cow’s last meal, before becoming a meal.

After a quick trek to a pasture beyond the Manor House, the herd stood together looking curiously at their visitors. Acabonac’s cows, a herd of steers and heifers, were of English genetics and meant for beef. They were “feeder” cattle purchased from carefully selected partner cow/calf producers in the Northeast, from Virginia to Vermont.

Mr. Skrenta stood within the field’s electric fence close to the cows. “Don’t worry, the electric is turned off for your safety. But don’t tell them,” he said, with a nod toward the cattle.

Mr. Skrenta said the Manor’s pastures offer an abundance of perennial rye grass, an energy-dense forage species containing higher levels of sugars than other grasses. It’s a meal fit for finishing cattle with a need to, well, beef up during the last stage of their life cycle.

Mr. Skrenta and Ms. Cosentino dubbed the hearty meal “ice cream grass” because their cows manage to pack on at least three pounds a day while eating it.

Acabonac’s cows grazed between three and four pastures daily, Ms. Cosentino said, guided by the ranchers’ use of temporary posts and fence lines that block off just-grazed areas.

The ranchers then gently “moved the cows,” which essentially consists of walking a few yards behind them while calmly saying, “Come on guys, let’s keep walking.”

“You want to think of there being an invisible force field around them. They’re friendly and used to us, but you don’t want to get too close and stress them out,” Mr. Skrenta said. “Try not to break that force field.”

In addition to the right grass, plants commonly known as weeds play an important role in a cow’s diet too. Mr. Skrenta explained that many common weeds serve as sources of minerals such as selenium and calcium. Cows with a deficiency have a sort of sixth sense that allows them to instinctively seek out plant sources that offer the minerals they need and they’ll find those before they eat the sugary grass.

“I never stop learning from these animals,” Mr. Skrenta said. “It’s really gratifying work.”

Raising cattle on a completely grain-, hormone- and antibiotic-free diet, is “not an easy task,” said Mr. Skrenta. Grain-fed beef is known for being richer in both taste and texture, thanks to its higher fat content.

Mr. Skrenta said, because 99 percent of US beef is grain/corn fed, it’s not uncommon for store-shelf beef brands promising 100 percent grass-fed, pasture-raised beef, to be grain-fed meat in disguise.

“If it’s grass-fed beef that tastes like grain-fed beef, then it’s probably grain-fed,” he said.

A cow’s health, happiness and meat quality are all affected by stress, Mr. Skrenta said. For cows, stress leads to slow weight gain and health issues. Stressors include being separated from the herd, excessive fly population from waste build-up and external stressors from humans, such as being rushed and surprised.

“These cows lead a super peaceful existence. They eat for close to two hours before moving to a new pasture and graze about three times a day,” he said. “We also have very few flies because they move often so waste build-up is very low.”

When the time came to move the cows, several people volunteered to help Ms. Cosentino stake the fence line and everyone helped with the move. While ambling along behind the cows, voices encouraged them to “Move along guys,” and “Come on, that way to your new food.”

“They’re very smart and they know the good stuff is over there,” said Mr. Skrenta.
He added that they also remember which grass they’ve already grazed on within a pasture.

“They’ll remember bites one, two, three and four, and won’t repeat them,” he said.

Just seconds after crossing into the fresh grass, a loud, peaceful rhythm of “chomp, chomp, chomp” could be heard. Our work was done.

“These animals are making a great sacrifice, but they’re living happy, healthy lives.

Compared to 99 percent of US beef, this is the way to do it,” Mr. Skrenta said. “But it’s a tall task to ask Americans to revamp their taste for grain-fed beef.”