Valley Bounty: Kinne Brook Farm
Daily Hampshire Gazette, June 26, 2021. Jacob Nelson
Turning sunlight into steaks and burgers. When you strip it down to the basics, that’s what Bart Niswonger and Eliza Lake are doing at Kinne Brook Farm in Worthington.
To complete that transformation, “Our real focus is actually the grass,” says Niswonger. “The cows are almost an afterthought on some level. And the last few years my focus has really been on soil health – cranking up the fertility of the soil so we can grow great grass that grows great cows.”
Kinne Brook Farm’s Certified Grassfed and Animal Welfare Approved cattle are raised on a patchwork of fields across the 185-acre farm. They own 100 acres and rent the rest. “About 80 acres are forested, and we do tap a fair number of sugar maples in the winter,” says Niswonger. The rest is pasture, which they graze directly or make hay on for winter feed. They’ve raised pigs and laying hens in the past too, but for now it’s just cows.
Their main strategy for maximizing soil, grass, and cow happiness is, conveniently, grazing cows. “Basically, we’re trying to keep the grasses actively growing as much as we can,” says Niswonger, “capturing sunlight and storing that energy in the soil. The cows are a management tool for that.”
Kinne Brook Farm practices what’s called rotational grazing. Rather than roaming free in large paddocks, cows are moved between smaller sections of pasture each day. They eat the fresh grass down (but not too far), leave their waste to fertilize regrowth, and move on.
Done well, this type of grazing has been shown to increase soil organic matter, water retention, species diversity, and even sequester more carbon in the upper layers of soil, according to university and government research. The key is balancing all the variables – number of cows, area grazed (and what’s growing there), time grazed, and time left to regrow – all of which a farmer must learn the specifics of for his or her own land.
The effects of this strategy are quite visible. “The fields that we graze with cows look great,” says Niswonger. “Some of the fields we lease where we’re only allowed take hay – their productivity is worse.”
Think of it this way – if the soil is like a bank account, haying a field withdraws fertility without replenishing it. Rotationally grazing animals on it can add fertility as they eat, leave nutrient-rich waste, and encourage more vigorous growth – a deposit with interest.
That’s not to say haying is bad. Indeed, for Kinne Brook Farm it’s necessary to support their herd through the winter. And through careful management and use of natural fertilizers, they grow some pretty healthy hay too.
“The hay we make is more nutritionally dense than what we buy in,” says Niswonger, “and I know that because when our hay runs out and we have to switch, we have to feed twice as much for the same weight gain. I can’t fully explain why, I just see it happen.”
Back to the cows themselves. “We have 40, all Scotch Highlanders,” says Niswonger. That includes 13 breeding cows, one bull, and calves being raised for meat or to replace breeding females.
“It’s calving season now,” he says, “and 5 of the 13 we expect are already born and running around.” Since this breed needs 30 months to reach slaughter weight, this time of year they have newborns, yearlings, and 2-year-old cows all still on the farm.
Scotch Highlanders have been bred for great grass-fed flavor over centuries, says Niswonger. “They have a heavy fur coat that keeps them warm, so they don’t develop a layer of fat under their skin like other breeds. That’s great because all their fat, which is harder to gain on a full-grass diet, ends up as marbling in the meat.”
Plus, the English royal family also has a herd. “If they’re good enough for The Queen, they’re good enough for me,” laughs Niswonger.
Kinne Brook sells beef by the cut and in bulk options called packages. “It’s the same volume as a quarter cow,” Niswonger explains, “but you’re getting a mix of different cuts and ground beef from all over the cow, and you know exactly what you’re getting.”
Flavor is a big reason why customers keep coming back. “They tell us over and over ‘that’s the best hamburger I’ve ever had,’” says Niswonger. He also feels there’s a correlation between the nutrient quality of the soil, grass, and beef that’s grown on it.
Plus, when being the change you want to see in the world also means eating the change you want to see, choosing Kinne Brook beef supports the land regeneration they’re pursuing.
That desire to see their land thrive is at the heart of their farm, says Niswonger. “We’re incredibly fortunate to have this little piece of the world that we’re responsible for,” he says. “I want our cows to be out there frolicking in the sunshine and deep grass, because then the bird and insect life is also amazing. It’s an incredibly rich little environment.”
“That has to include letting the humans in the system thrive, or at least not go broke,” he laughs. “But I can see there’s room to improve the vitality of our land, and that’s what keeps me pushing.”
Most of the farm’s beef is sold directly to customers from the farm in Worthington. “Closer to Northampton, the Williamsburg Market often carries our beef,” says Niswonger. Cuts are usually available at the Corner Grocery, and more recently at the Sawyer Farm Store, both in Worthington. To find more locally raised meat near you ahead of the holiday weekend, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.)