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West Wind Farm's grass-finished beef sequestering carbon

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 12/12/2013 12:54 PM

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IOWA CITY — Martha Holdridge was thrilled when she learned that her grass-finished beef operation in Greenbrier County, W.Va., West Wind Farm, supported carbon sequestration.

Holdridge didn't start out as a farmer. An Ames native, she graduated from Cornell University with a degree in government and public administration. Her husband, John, was a West Point graduate who worked for the State Department and the U.S. Foreign Service.

"We spent half our adult lives overseas, and our permanent residence was in Maryland," Holdridge said in a presentation at last week's Iowa Organic Conference at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. "Neither of us had any background in farming."

The couple bought West Wind Farm in 1979 as a retreat from the city.

"We had all these pastures," Holdridge said. "All the neighbors were doing cow-calf, so that's what we did."

After about 10 years, they started raising stockers.

"We didn't realize that our product was going to the feedlot before it went to the meat counter," Holdridge said. "We were very much in learning mode."

They read Allan Nation's "Stockman Grass Farmer." At one of the magazine's conferences, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm told how he bought poor quality yearlings at the market in the spring, left them on grass through the summer and sold them as grass-fed beef.

"His customers were very satisfied," Holdridge said. "We decided to get into grass finishing. We knew very little in the beginning. Our county Extension agent told us he'd learn from us, and then he started going to school to learn more. We discovered many benefits along the way, but there was also a big learning curve."

West Wind Farm buys Black Angus steers in April as pasture-raised yearlings and pasture finishes them on the farm. The cattle receive no grain, antibiotics, hormones or steroids. West Wind supplements pasture with kelp in a mineral salt mix and feeds hay and/or soy hulls as needed. The cattle drink from movable water troughs. Average daily gain is 1.8 pounds per day.

Pastures have been managed organically since 1979. Nitrogen comes from seeded legumes, especially white clover.

West Wind Farm uses management intensive grazing, moving cattle to a fresh paddock each day. They use poly wire electric fence. Paddocks get a rest period of 14 to 28 days.

"Our steers are happy to move each day," Holdridge said.

Soil tests were common practice at West Wind Farm. In addition nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, Holdridge asked for organic matter readings in her soil tests from the University of West Virginia. She noticed that from 2002 to 2007, the farm more than doubled the amount of soil organic matter.

"I asked why so great a change, and the UWV Extension forage specialist told me I was sequestering carbon," Holdridge said. "He explained that grass leaves and roots are a product of photosynthesis. When the cattle eat grass leaves, the roots partially die back, leaving organic matter in the soil. He told me the cattle were growing because of the sun."

Holdridge asked Agricultural Research Service researchers a lot of questions and was invited to a planning conference on climate change in Denver. No one talked about carbon sequestration or pulling carbon dioxide out of the air. The focus was on adapting plants to climate change.

A few months after the conference, an ARS researcher called her with questions on how she managed her cattle and pastures. He determined that from 2002-07, her farm had a 4.1 ton per acre increase in soil organic carbon and about 15 tons of carbon dioxide sequestered per acre. The farm had a net greenhouse gas sink.

"I was very excited that my little farm was doing all that," Holdridge said.

Grass finished beef uses little fossil fuel, she said. Precipitation on pastures is well retained, and soil erosion is minimal. Soil quality and quantity have increased.