Western Pennsylvania pasture walk shows lessons learned through grazing

People gather around a soil pit at a pasture walk Aug. 23 at Big Tom's Con-O-Creek Farm, in Fombell, Pennsylvania. The farm is owned by Tom Perkins. He raises and grazes about 100 Katahdin hair sheep ewes. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

FOMBELL, Pa. — Tom Perkins thought he was doing right when he cut hay in June. He cut several fields and left about 8 inches of growth on the ground, figuring the extra leaves would allow the the field to recover more quickly.

Then it got dry. The fields have barely recovered since then. With enough rain, things might have been OK but that’s a chance he shouldn’t have taken. Perkins will be the first to admit to you that he should’ve left them alone.

“Make a mistake, learn from it,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to own up to it.”

Perkins showed off some of his mistakes and some of his victories during a pasture walk at his farm, Con-o-Creek Farm, in Beaver County, Aug. 23.

The event was sponsored by the Beaver County Conservation District, U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service, Pennsylvania Grazing Lands Coalition and Southwest and Northwest Project Grass. 

Russ Wilson, a grazing consultant based in Forest County, was the featured speaker at the event. 

Big Tom’s farm

Perkins, known as “Big Tom” to friends, has been grazing Katahdin hair sheep and a mix of beef cattle at his farm in Fombell for several years. Perkins’ parents bought the farm in 1956. It was a dairy until the 1980s. 

Perkins left home after high school to pursue a career in music. He played keyboards in a variety of bands and toured the country. There were country bands, southern rock bands and even a Grateful Dead cover band. Since about 2000, he’s been playing mostly Christian music.

He came home in 1996 to find the dairy cows long gone and the farm in need of some direction. Most of the farm had been in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program for years. The USDA contract was about to run out when Perkins returned to the farm. 

“I wanted to get rich and take over the world, so I got into the beef cattle business,” he said, tongue-in-cheek. He raised feeder cattle and started a hay business. At the peak, he had about 200 acres of rented ground in hay and made about 13,000 square bales a year. He’d also grow a little corn for the feeder cattle.

As time went on, he lost most of his rented ground and the finances of feeding out cattle wasn’t adding up anymore. Around that time he discovered Joel Salatin and was introduced to rotational grazing. He started setting up smaller paddocks and moving his cattle daily.

“I set up my first paddock and 12 hours later it looked like a golf course,” he said. “I thought I was doing a good job but realized I needed to be leaving more grass behind.”

He got better at rotational grazing and focused less on making hay. Perkins later moved into sheep, buying 11 Katahdin hair sheep ewes about six years ago. Now he has more than 100 ewes that will be bred this fall. His flock is enrolled in the National Sheep Improvement Program.

They got rid of the cows this spring, a move Perkins said he’s glad he made when he did, given the dry conditions this summer. Now, they’re focusing entirely on sheep with the hope of selling seed stock. 

CJ and Brittany Zilka will take over the farm from Perkins. CJ grew up nearby and worked on the farm since he was 11. Now, he and his wife have a nearly 10-year-old son and an 18-month-old daughter. The family members are also involved in the farm.

Pasture walk

Walking down the lane past Perkins’ pastures, visitors to the farm could see the field where he cut hay in June. It was greening back up after some recent rain, but it looks lackluster compared with the field next to it that Perkins grazed early in the summer and let rest since then. That field was filled with blossoming red clover and birdsfoot trefoil. Perkins lets his paddocks rest about 70-75 days and has seen benefits from the long rest periods in his forage quality.

According to Wilson, pastures are always your best crop. That’s why people should think about grazing instead of making hay, particularly during hot, dry summers like this year.

It will be better for the environment, for the livestock and for the producer, he said. It could also reduce costs for inputs like wear on equipment, fertilizer and fuel. Wilson said he went from using 3,500 gallons of diesel fuel a year when he was making hay and other crops to about 200 gallons a year now that he’s gone fully into grazing.

Perkins and his farmhands dug two soil pits in the pastures to give pasture walk participants a view of what it looked like underground from an area where Perkins made hay and an area where he did make hay earlier this year.

Wilson hopped into the pits to crumble the soil, showing the aeration in the field that was grazed. Perkins improved much of his farm that was formerly strip mine ground through grazing, he said, particularly using the sheep, which are easier on the ground than the cattle. Perkins said he might soon be ready to part with his hay equipment.

“If you start focusing on the soil, everything else will come together,” Wilson said.

A field day is planned at Russ Wilson’s farm Oct. 14. For more information, visit clarionconservation.com. A field day for the Eastern Alliance Production Katahdins group will be held at Perkins’ farm on Oct. 15. Big Tom Perkins can be reached at 724-480-5187.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 724-201-1544 or rachel@farmanddairy.com)


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Rachel is Farm and Dairy's editor and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County, where she co-manages the family farm raising beef cattle and sheep with her husband and in-laws. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts. She can be reached at rachel@farmanddairy.com or 724-201-1544.



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