Reaching Out

Heroes of Harrods Creek

Beef customers are invited to see what goes on behind this farm's gates. (Image courtesy National Cattlemen's Beef Association)

Harrods Creek is a rare environmental gem in heavily populated Jefferson County, Kentucky. The stream joins the Ohio River near Louisville and served in the early 1800s as a rest stop for settlers pursuing new lives west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Today, Harrods Creek winds its way through suburbs, farmland and golf courses on the outskirts of Louisville, Kentucky's largest city. Everyone loves the sparkling water, limestone cliffs and blue heron rookeries of Harrods Creek, but the Ohio River tributary is under heavy pressure from all the activity on its banks.

Cattle producers Jon and Sylvia Bednarski are doing their part to improve the water quality in the headwaters of Harrods Creek. These cattlemen, from La Grange, Kentucky, produce homegrown beef on the family's Sherwood Acres farm for local consumers.

In recognition of the Bednarski family's environmental efforts, Sherwood Acres received the inaugural Kentucky Leopold Conservation Award in 2013 and was recognized as a Regional Environmental Stewardship Award winner by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association in 2014. The Leopold Conservation Award program recognizes agricultural landowners actively committed to land ethics. Working with state conservation partners, the Sand County Foundation presents the prestigious honor that consists of $10,000 and a crystal award. Established in 1991, the Environmental Stewardship Award provides an opportunity for the beef industry to showcase the stewardship, conservation and business practices that work together on farms and ranches.

THE BEGINNING

The story of Sherwood Acres and its conservation efforts began in 2000 when Jon and Sylvia purchased 35 acres of fallow land and trees at the headwaters of Harrods Creek. The small farm started out as a place for their daughter Kristin to raise and ride horses.

In 2003, Jon chose to add Belted Galloway cattle to serve the emerging grass-fed beef market near their farm. The animal produces lean meat with carcass-dressed weights well in excess of 60% of live weight. Winter warmth is provided by the double coat of hair rather than a layer of backfat.

The 48-year-old beginning farmer spent his spare time from his log home learning how to manage a beef herd through the University of Kentucky Master Cattleman and Master Grazer programs. As beef sales increased and the Sherwood Acres herd grew, Bednarski added another tract of land in nearby Henry County, Kentucky, bringing the farm up to 150 acres. Once again, the new acreage was in poor condition from an environmental perspective.

As he took on more land and cattle, Jon consulted with his local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conservationist. Together, they developed a plan to improve the farm's land and water resources.

"Fortunately, I had no preconceived notions about raising cattle. I wasn't worried about how my Dad raised cattle or how my Grandad ran his farm. I wasn't young, but I was like a sponge soaking up all of the information available," the Vermont native said.

ACROSS THE WATER

One of Bednarski's earliest projects was fencing his pastures into a rotational-grazing system and fencing livestock out of the creek and woods. He placed the stream corridors in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and planted trees to stabilize the banks.

Fencing cows out of streams is important because animal hooves cause soil erosion along the banks and trample vegetation that otherwise slows runoff water from surrounding pastures. If cows lollygag along the creek banks, they also deposit manure and urine that contribute excess nutrients in the stream water.

In addition to a riparian buffer zone, Bednarski is installing waterway crossings and travel alleyways for his livestock. Once again, these steps prevent erosion and protect water quality. To install cattle crossings, excavation is required across a section of stream. That work is followed by the installation of a permeable geotextile fabric; it is then covered by a layer of riprap (football-sized rock). A layer of smaller rock (3-inch) fills the voids between the big rocks to make the crossing smooth. It also keeps the riprap rocks from tumbling during floods.

Bednarski does most of the work on the crossing with his equipment. The cost-share contribution for a livestock crossing that doesn't use concrete is $3,000 to $5,000, depending on the square footage needed for the crossing.

Bednarski is also installing equipment crossings that are similar to livestock crossings. But these have a 10-inch-thick concrete apron at entry to the stream that tapers to a 3-inch apron as it meets the streambed. Called "hard armor," this same concrete apron is used as the exit out of the creek. The work prevents equipment traffic from destabilizing the stream banks. The cost-share for an equipment crossing with concrete aprons is $5,000 to $8,000, depending on the actual square footage of the gravel road leading into and out of the creek.

BEDDING DOWN FOR WINTER

Kentucky winters are a little easier for Bednarski's cattle, thanks to 36-foot x 36-foot winter feed areas constructed from geotextile fabric and covered with rock. Native cedar trees serve as windbreaks. Bednarski spreads 800-pound bales of straw around the area for bedding during the coldest periods.

Instead of drinking out of streams or ponds, the cattle at Sherwood Acres drink city water out of freeze-proof water tanks fed by underground pipe. NRCS helped Bednarski design the system; cost-share programs paid for half the cost. The farmer's labor paid for part of his contribution. When cattle drink fresh, clean water, their feed intake and rate of gain increase, Bednarski observed. Steady weight gains are the key to success of the Sherwood Acres beef-management program. A few years ago, Bednarski studied the economics of his farm and shifted his operation from cow/calf to backgrounding steers for his direct-market beef sales. He sold his cows and started buying steers from other Belted Galloway breeders.

THE CUSTOMER KNOWS

Now, Bednarski buys 6- to 8-month-old steers and runs them primarily on grass until they reach approximately 1,150 pounds at 22 to 24 months of age. At first, Bednarski raised strictly grass-fed beef, but he soon began feeding a soy hull/corn gluten pellet at 2% (daily) of the animal's body weight. The supplement increases marbling and produces a more manageable cut for home-grill operators who have a tendency to overcook extra lean grass-fed beef. The calves receive no antibiotics or growth hormones, so they qualify as "natural beef."

Each animal yields approximately 700 pounds of carcass weight and, ultimately, 440 to 460 pounds of well-trimmed boneless cuts that sell for an average $7.50 to $8.50 per pound. Sherwood Acres markets the beef from approximately 50 steers a year direct to consumers.

There's great demand for locally grown "natural beef" steaks at $16 per pound, but this producer is working on ways to increase the value of his hamburger. Bednarski recently received a USDA value-added grant and is developing a line of all-natural beef chili and natural beef sausages. He sells the beef at farmers' markets, on the farm and through phone orders. Orders of $50 or more receive free home delivery in a SUV painted like a Belted Galloway (the Belty-mobile.)

"Today's busy consumers don't want to make another stop on their way home from work. Our delivery service has gone over very well," Bednarski said.

After 25 years of sales and marketing experience in the log home industry, Bednarski understands the value of public relations and branding. He and Sylvia regularly open Sherwood Acres to school groups and for field days. Customers are welcome to see the animals grazing in their lush pastures. Sylvia volunteers with the Harrods Creek Watershed Alliance (www.harrodscreek.org) to test water quality with goals to protect the environment.

"In a metro area like ours, consumers want to know what goes on behind the farm gates," Bednarski said.

(BAS)