Grass-fed cow at Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Fairview, NC.
Hickory Nut Gap Farm is a family-run Century Farm that started in 1916 and has served many purposes over the years, including a dairy, an apple orchard, and a summer camp. For the past 18 years, Jamie and Amy Ager—part of the fourth generation of farmers on the land—have owned and operated both the farm business and the wholesale company, Hickory Nut Gap Meats. They raise grass-fed beef and pastured pork and poultry, in addition to providing plenty of agritourism opportunities.
Walker Sides (right) leads WNC CRAFT farm tour participants through the pastures of Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Fairview, NC.
Walker Sides has been managing Hickory Nut Gap Farm for the last 10 years, and having grown up right next door, was able to give the WNC CRAFT farm tour participants a quick rundown of the farm’s history and how its operating today.
The farm business is divided into three distinct components—farm production, the farm store, and wholesale.
- Walker runs the farm production on 90-acres of family land in Fairview with a co-farm manager and two interns. They also manage a second 200-acre farm in Rutherford County with help from a live-in caretaker. All the farm products they raise on the two farms are sold through tailgate markets and the on-site farm store.
- The farm store has a full butchery and kitchen, an event space, and sells an array local products in addition to the farm’s meats.
- Their wholesale company, Hickory Nut Gap Meats, has contracts with 20 other farmers who must meet specific standards for raising grass-fed beef and pork to sell to wholesale markets.
Mama cows and their calves graze in the pastures of Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Fairview, NC.
Raising Grass-Fed Cattle and Pasture Management
On the Fairview farm, they have 25 mama cows, 25 calves, and 40–60 steers each year. The Rutherford farm has similar numbers. Having the two farms allows them to move the cows to the best grass-growing location to spread out the impact of the herd on the pastures. All the beef they raise is USDA Certified Organic and Animal Welfare Approved. The general rule of thumb for raising a cow exclusively on grass is that you need two acres of pasture per cow per year. The herd is primarily Black Angus, and the steers are grazed for about two years before they head to the butcher.
Raising grass-fed beef is “all about timing,” Walker says—knowing when and how long to keep your herd on a part of the pasture. The herds are rotated across the farm using intensive rotational grazing and strip grazing. Movable electric polywire fences are used to divide up each pasture into segments. The herd is given access to a new segment for a short period of time, 1–3 days, based on how much forage is available. This type of grazing helps reduce the impact of the herd on the landscape and reduces the amount of “wasted” forage that is leftover by the grazing herd. By limiting the space the cows have access to, they graze more efficiently and aren’t as picky about which plants they eat. This helps keep a healthy stock and diversity of forages in their pasture and keeps more problematic plants from taking over.
A herd of Black Angus grazes in a pasture that’s been sectioned off with the movable electric polywire fencing.
However, you don’t want to leave the herd on a section of pasture for too long. Otherwise you risk compaction of the soil and irreparable damage on the forages. Ideally, the cows are only there long enough to graze the grasses down between three and six inches. After a section of pasture has been grazed, the cows won’t return until the grass has sufficiently recovered.
In the summer, Walker can leave the herd on small sections for a longer period of time because the forages will bounce back more quickly. In the winter, however, they are moved at a faster rate. Typically, Walker will run the steer herd through a pasture first because they tend to be pickier—and you want a nice mix of different grasses so the steers can gain weight. Then, the mamas and calves will follow behind. Over time, Walker has learned how to visually assess a field to see how much grass is there and how long the cows ought to stay.
Walker assesses the grass at Hickory Nut Gap Farm.
The farm also grows as much of its own hay as it can. When you’re a grass-fed beef farmer, “you start to see grass as money,” Walker explained. Certified organic hay can be expensive, so managing the pastures to keep the cattle healthy and gaining weight—as well as making enough hay to carry them through the year—is crucial. Hay is used to supplement grazing in the winter and also into the early spring when the fresh grass can be hard on the cows’ stomachs. When they roll out a round hay bale, it also helps reseed the field, keeping grasses as the dominant plants and adding nutrients to the soil.
After hanging out with the cattle, we took a turn through the fields where the pigs were happily lounging in the fresh puddles from all the rain. We also heard about their pastured poultry and wrapped up the afternoon tour with a delicious potluck!
Check out these cuties and more in our Flickr album from the WNC CRAFT farm tour of Hickory Nut Gap.
Thank you to Walker and Hickory Nut Gap Farm for hosting us and sharing how they operate the complex systems of raising animals on pasture. We learned so much! Until next time…
WNC CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers, farm workers, and aspiring farmers networking and learning opportunities. Learn more about and join WNC CRAFT today! If you have questions, please contact Cameron Farlow, Organic Growers School Farmer Programs Director, at (828) 338-9465 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Cameron Farlow
Cameron Farlow is the Executive Director of Organic Growers School. Hailing from Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, she has now made her home in Western NC. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, Cameron dove headfirst into the realm of sustainable agriculture and local food systems, and later completed her Master’s Degree in Appalachian Studies and Sustainable Development from Appalachian State University. She also brings experience in the realms of farmland preservation, food security, farm to university, and land access for farmers. She came on board with OGS in April 2012. In addition to her work with OGS, Cameron is a dancer, baker and avid adventurer.