Valley Bounty: Oak Hollow Livestock
Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 31, 2021
By Jacob Nelson
All farming leaves a legacy, etched into the soil, plants, animals, the farmers themselves, and the greater community. That fact is high on Sara Davis’s mind as she and her family settle Oak Hollow Livestock into its new home in Shelburne.
Says Davis, “our farm gives me an opportunity to give more than I take. It lets me feel like I can have a positive effect on the land, my family, and our local community by leaning into the sustainable and regenerative practices that we’ve committed to.”
Davis founded the farm in 2006 on rented land in north-central Massachusetts, where her husband Carl was raised. After a decade there and 3 more years on rented land in Deerfield, she returned to the area where she grew up, finally buying 25 acres in Shelburne in 2019.
“It’s been difficult to move several times as a farm,” she shares. “There’s a lot of re-starting and we’re still ramping things up, but we’ve been really well accepted in the community here.”
“We’ve got a little of everything – fields, streams, woods, big glacial rock outcroppings,” she describes. “Around 11 acres are hillside pasture, and at the bottom of the hill we’ve got a beautiful mature forest that backs right down to the Deerfield River.”
Davis the takes the lead in managing the farm, helped by her husband and 5 children, whom they homeschool and who are deeply ingrained in farm life. “Raising our kids in this setting is hugely important,” she says. “Our youngest is 2 and the oldest is 10. To have them involved and taking ownership of pieces of it…they’re growing up encouraged to think about the long-term repercussions of their actions and what they can do to improve things.”
At Oak Hollow, leaving a positive imprint on the world starts with managing their land and livestock in a pattern of rotational grazing. They let their animals forage in succession on smaller areas for short periods of time, eating intensely, leaving manure, then moving on to let that space recover.
As Davis explains, “With the animals adding all that organic matter and eating the woodier invasives, native plants have a chance to fill back in. It’s been well studied and shown to improve the biodiversity of plant species health and the overall productivity of soils and pastures.”
“Goats evolved as a browsing animal, eating vegetation off the ground,” says Davis, “So they get the first pass.” These include dairy goats raised for home milk consumption and their herd of Boer goats bred for meat and as show animals. Davis has bred Boers since the 90s. “They’re what we’re most known for,” she says.
“After that, we’ll run the pigs through, and they turn everything up, waking up the native seed bank,” she continues.
Poultry move in next, eating insects and other organisms that can harbor diseases that affect other livestock. “It’s a nice way to control pests and keep everyone healthy without having to use many chemicals,” says Davis. They raise Cayuga ducks for meat, as well as Black Copper Maran chickens, “which lay a chocolate brown egg,” she describes. They also raise chickens for meat.
The rest of Oak Hollow’s animals are grazers – sheep, which are new additions, cows, raised for their own table, and rabbits. “Since the sheep and cattle are grazing animals, they do a good job cleaning up what the goats ignore,” she says.
“My kids started raising the rabbits,” Davis explains. “Some are Mini Rex breed, which they show through 4-H and sell as show animals or pets. They also raise American Chinchilla rabbits, which are pedigreed to be show animals too, but also a meat breed.”
The rabbits are kept separately from other livestock, but their manure is composted and used across the property. As Davis puts it, “we try to recycle every piece of nutrition we can back into the soil.”
Putting nutrition back into the soil is the goal of any rotational grazing scheme. By layering many species into that rotation, Oak Hollow Livestock adds a level of complexity and sophistication. The key to success, Davis explains, is that each species plays a complimenting role – an ecologist might say they filled separate niches in the farm ecosystem.
“We try to structure it so we don’t have competing types of energy and resources pulled out,” she explains. “The animals all eat different things, and put nutrients back on in a way that improves soil health overall.”
Soil health is the foundation upon which Davis aims to build food security, both for her own family and her neighbors. That term often means physical access to food in the immediate, but Davis takes a longer view.
“To me, food security means reliable access to good food, food that’s produced humanely, and produced in a way that gives back to our environment, rather than just taking,” she says. They want to ensure that future generations farming their land have the resources to keep feeding this community.
Currently, Oak Hollow Livestock sells their animals and meat directly from the farm. “We have chicken, half-shares of our pork, rabbit available on request, and in the fall we’ll have duck,” says Davis. Due to COVID complications and slaughterhouse wait times, goat isn’t available right now, but maybe next year. Breeding and show animals are sold as available.
All their animals are pasture-raised, eating “what they’re designed to eat”, which Davis says leads to a healthier animal. “Their meat likely has more healthy fats, omega-3s, vitamins A and D, iron, and other minerals and antioxidants,” she says. “And honestly it tastes better. I would encourage anyone who hasn’t to try pasture-raised meat, because the difference is really noticeable.”
Davis gets the last word. “As we live our lives,” she says, “it’s important to think of the long-term effects that each of us leaves behind.” Her approach to farming embodies that.
Jacob Nelson is Communications Coordinator for CISA (Community involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about local farms and find local food near you, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.