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Out to pasture

Last modified: 3/24/2012 12:00:00 AM
It was a field trip like any other. As soon as the chaperones turned their backs, one of the kids made a run for it. Angel, a 1,000-pound strawberry blonde Scottish Highlander cow, snuck out of the gate shortly after arriving at the 10-acre pasture behind the New Hampshire Audubon center. She stood on the other side of the electric fence, daring owners Carol Soule and Bruce Dawson to come get her.

A few minutes of cajoling and cooing and wooing later, Angel was back inside the pasture and back to work.

Work, for Angel, means two weeks of tramping the field, basking in the sun, kicking up dust, playing with 30 of her closest friends and eating all the grass she can.

Angel is one of Soule and Dawson's 85 cows from Miles Smith Farm in Loudon, and this will be her third summer as an ambassador for grass-fed beef and low-tech agriculture.

Soule and Dawson delivered three trailer-loads of cattle to the Audubon's field yesterday, cementing a deal that will benefit both: The farm's cattle will have acres of pasture, and the Audubon will be able to tend the field in a way that could encourage rare birds to move in.

"This is the way cattle used to be raised in New Hampshire back in the day," Soule said. Farmers would move the cows around during the summer, clearing land as they went.

"They're an all-in-one machine. Not only do they provide us nutrition, they help maintain open land and the rural environment, where they can do better than a machine that might

miss something, or can't get on the hilly, rocky parts," Soule said.

"At the same time, they're fertilizing the land again, and then they feed us. You can't do that with a tractor. That takes constant input of gas and fuel and maintenance. But the cows are just wonderful to deal with. They take the kind of maintenance that's good for the soul."

The animals will spend about two weeks on the land, which is owned by St. Paul's School but managed by the Audubon.

At the end of those two weeks, last year's leftover hay will be gone, along with whatever grass has grown so far this spring. The herd will move to another pasture and return later in the summer to tend the land again and visit with students at the Audubon's summer camp.

The students will learn a little about handling the animals, but that's not the only benefit, said Phil Brown, Audubon's director of land management.

Not using tractors or other machinery in the pasture will help the group's efforts to encourage rare birds.

There's a nesting box up in one tree on the edge of the field, ready and waiting for any kestrel couples looking for a starter home, "but probably more important than that would be the grassland nesting birds that were formerly more a part of the landscape of these fields," Brown said.

The field is large enough to attract eastern meadowlarks, savannah sparrows and bobolinks, but it takes just the right mix of vegetation and care to coax the birds into calling it home.

"A lot of the cool-season grasses that they use for nesting are being overtaken by a more woody stemmed weeds like milkweed, goldenrod, and asters. The cattle will munch what was in the field from last year and hopefully with enough presence, they'll be able to weed out some of the woodier species and give the other grasses more of an edge," Brown said.

Indeed, as the herd frolicked around, they sent up clouds of puffy white milkweed seeds that floated around like bubbles. (Another field, closer to the Audubon's offices, will keep the milkweed and other plants that attract pollinators such as monarch butterflies.)

But even once the right plants are growing, mechanically haying a field at the wrong time can till the birds' hidden nests, killing babies that are too young to fly or shattering unhatched eggs.

Before settling into their eight-year contract for Miles Smith Farm "lawn mooers," as Soule calls them, the Audubon had tried delaying their mowing, but that gave the woody plants too much time to grow, Brown said.

They thought about tearing the field up and starting from scratch with seeds of the desired plants, but that's prohibitively expensive. Controlled burning is also difficult, and none of those options had the full-circle feel of cattle grazing, he said.

"What appealed to us was the ability to work closely with a local farmer and where everybody can benefit. It's a long-term goal. Cattle and birds don't necessarily mix if they're in the same place at the same time, so we may have to wait several years, and control the timing and the access of the cows to certain areas," Brown said.

For now, though, the Highlander herd had the run of the field. They trotted up and down the hill for water and strode along the perimeter, as the girls who had been there for a few days showed the newest ones around.

Angel is usually at the head of the pack, Soule said, but her excursion out of bounds delayed her yesterday.

Once Soule wrangled her back into the pasture, Angel took a long drink of water at the trough, then realized the rest of the herd had vanished up the hill into the wider part of the field. She leaned back, bounded forward and did her best 1,000-pound version of a gallop.

A news reporter, head down writing notes and clicking through his mobile phone, stood between her and the herd. He looked up, seeing the cow just as she saw him. He dodged one way, she jumped the other, and up the hill she went, her shaggy rump wiggling side to side until she was out of sight.

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com.)


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