New Hampshire grazier backs into pasture-friendly seedstock production from contract grazing

By Allan Nation

BATH, New Hampshire: Trying to make a living on 110 acres of pasture in New England is tough if you are unwilling to direct market a high value product.

“I just don’t want to deal with customers,” Tom Cope said.

A former dairyman, Tom switched to commercial beef cattle and wooled sheep in 1989. Today, he has a herd a 70 Black baldies and 100 ewes.

An on-farm gravel quarry is currently the farm’s big dollar earner. When this plays out, the empty quarry will be used as an irrigation reservoir for the farm’s pastures.

Intrigued with natural production, Tom began to produce grassfed beef, pastured pork and poultry for family and friends but his marketing reluctance kept it from developing into a true business.

In 2004 he was selling his grass-finished cattle wholesale to Hardwick Beef in Massachusetts and the lambs go to the Muslim trade in Boston.

After hearing Gearld Fry speak at a meeting in Massachusetts, he invited him to come up and see his farm and give him some genetic advice.

This was very opportune timing.

At the time Fry had a dozen Rotokawa Red Devon heifers in route from New Zealand and was looking for graziers willing to provide grass and care. He asked Tom if he would board three of them for him.

As payment Tom would be allowed to keep one of the 15 to 20 calves each heifer produced each year. In other words, three calves for boarding the three cows.

(The multiple pregnancies are due to embryo flushing and transfer.)

To make the deal real, Gearld offered to buy the calves back for $5000 a piece.

Needless to say this sparked Tom’s interest in seedstock production and he agreed to take the heifers.

“The Rotokawa Red Devon heifers were so calm and docile that I soon decided I wanted a herd of my own,” Tom said.

Toward this end, Tom purchased 10 pregnancies for $50,000. This allowed him to get in on the ground floor of what Fry trademarked as the Rotokawa Red Devon.

Fry said he first became aware of the Red Devon (also know as the North Devon) breed working as a genetics consultant for the New England Livestock Alliance - a grassfed beef marketing group.

“Every now and then as we went around New England buying cattle we would hit a little pocket of these Red Devons. They would be so superior in quality grade and tenderness that I had to take a long look at the breed,” Gearld said.

“Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any truly outstanding Red Devon bulls in the USA. This led to a worldwide search and to my finding Ken McDowell in Wanganui, New Zealand on the banks of the Rotokawa River.”

Fry said McDowell had a herd of 60 Red Devons that were superior to anything he had found anywhere in the world and he immediately purchased semen on three bulls.

One of these bulls, the Rotokawa 688 bull, has subsequently become what is believed to be the most widely used beef bull semen in the USA.

Fry, NELA founder Ridgeway Shinn, and Vermont venture capitalist Chuck Lacey, started a company called The Bakewell Reproductive Center to market grass-friendly genetics.

Their first big investment was to import live females from McDowell. Fry wanted the females to have to live under the harsher climatic conditions in North America.

McDowell then gave Fry free reign to go through his herd of replacement heifers and take whatever he liked. This led to the 12 heifers going to the USA.

“Ken McDowell is a true gentleman. He said he wanted the USA to have the pick of the best he had and didn’t try to hold anything back.”

While still largely unknown in New Zealand, since Fry’s discovery McDowell’s small herd has sent semen to eight other countries around the world.

Tom Cope and four other geographically dispersed ranchers are now cooperators with Fry on the Rotokawa cattle. “Gearld made a pretty convincing presentation about the financial possibilities in grass-friendly seedstock but what really sold me on it was his offer to handle all of the marketing,” Tom said.

“That way I could just concentrate on production which is what I love.”

Tom’s Connecticut River Valley bottomland soil is mostly alluvial glacial silt. As a result, it is highly mineralized and the grass produces exceptional animal performance. Fry was so impressed that he subsequently moved another three of the Rotokawa heifers to Tom’s place.

Today, the whole beef operation is given over to Fry’s genetic program. This includes the Rotokawa Red Devons, American Red Devons (Rotokawa bulls on American Red Devon cows), recreated 1960s Black Angus and Fry’s newest baby the Herbataurus Breed.

Tom’s commercial cows have been retained as embryo recipients. These cows will be phased out as the seedstock herd increases.

“I am very impressed with the quality of Tom’s soils and his pasture and cattle management. I want to develop a seedstock herd here as quickly as possible,” Fry said.

Tom said he hopes to have a herd of 35 to 40 Rotokawa Red Devons built up in a couple of years.

“I am continually amazed at how well the Rotokawa cattle do on just grass,” Tom said.

Fry estimates that from such a herd Tom will have 15 grass-developed bulls a year to sell. Today, Fry said he is selling such bulls for around $5000 a piece.

While this sounds like a lot, semen sales are the big potential dollar earner.

Fry said each bull is capable of producing 5000 to 6000 straws of semen a year and Fry is currently paying a wholesale price of $10 a straw of semen.

“I figure that Tom could easily sell $100,000 worth of semen a year to me,” he said.

How this will work out remains to be seen but Tom has his fingers crossed.

“I sure don’t want to have to go back to milking cows again,” he said.

© by The Stockman Grass Farmer

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