Modern farming: Benefitting from science and technology, same old risk

The Enterprise – Sean Mulkerrin

Watch me for the changes, and try to keep up: Nick Tommell, owner of C.N. Tommell Farm, said that, at any given time, there are between 200 and 300 beef cattle on his farm in Berne.

BERNE – Nick Tommell is a bit of a farming anomaly.

There’s the traditional, he grew up on a farm; the not-so traditional, he earned his bachelor’s degree in finance; and, the anomaly, he started his own farm.

Eleven years ago, Tommell purchased 120 acres of land in Berne and started C.N. Tommell Farm, where he works in different areas of the cattle business; as a dealer, he will buy cattle with the intention of quickly reselling it, and, as a producer, he will buy cattle that he can add value to over a longer period. Tommel has anywhere between 200 and 300 cattle on his farm at any given time, and is the owner of 10 times that number.

Thomas Gallagher, a livestock and land specialist at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Albany County, said that Tommell’s farm is a modern example of how cattle farming is done in the Northeast. It’s one of the reasons, Gallagher said, that the extension is holding its second annual Family Farm Day there in the fall.

Risk management

Cattle, like any commodity, is about risk management.

Tommell purchases cattle at auction and from other farms without any knowledge of vaccination history – this is the risk: cattle are highly susceptible to respiratory diseases that can be contagious and aggressive.

A 2013 study of large cattle feedlots by the United States Department of Agriculture found that about 21 percent of cattle that weighed less than 700 pounds developed respiratory disease in the feedlot. The study said that the higher incidence of respiratory disease is likely due to the lighter cattle being younger and having less mature immune systems.

Tommell said that the cattle he buys are typically five to eight months old and weigh between 500 and 600 pounds.

He said that managing risk begins with buying the right kind of cow for the right price, which comes from experience, and from a good preconditioning program.

Tommell grew up on a cattle farm, Hilltop Farms in Voorheesville, and, now at 41, when he goes to a cattle auction, he can draw on a lifetime of knowledge to deduce the performance of cattle based on physical characteristics.

Preconditioning begins with a vaccination protocol that was developed by a specialty veterinarian with whom Tommell works. Cattle are then placed on a feed ration, a diet plan. In a typical day, a cow eats 3- to 4-percent of its body weight, Tommell said. Once a cow goes through preconditioning, it can be on the farm from a week to six months, but typically it is shorter-term, usually about three weeks, he said.

After preconditioning, Tommell will sort his cattle by similar type and size, and, when he has a uniform load of cattle, he will ship it to a feedlot in Kansas. The feedlot’s business is to feed other farmer’s cattle; those feedlots can serve between 50,000 and 70,000 cattle.

Cattle is a commodity business; volume is required, and that can’t be done in the Northeast.

Tommell benefits from the scale of the Kansas feedlots; competition, he said, drives down feeding costs.

The feedlots are located in parts of the Midwest that get about one-tenth of the precipitation that the Northeast does, Tommel said. This leads to fewer regulations and less cost.  

There is more competition for finished cattle in the Midwest, Tommell said, as there are about five major meat packers that bid on his product; in the Northeast, he said, there are two.

Finished cattle can weigh between 1,200 and 1,400 pounds, he said.

How much can finished cattle fetch from a packer?

Tommell prefaced his answer, “With a volatile commodity market,” he said, “standing here today, finish cattle are bringing in about $1.20 a pound, and, that is today. That has dropped 10 cents since a week ago,” he said on Friday, May 11.

When he buys young cattle at auction or from a farmer, he said that it can range in cost from 80 cents a pound to $1.40 a pound. “So you can see, there is a wide range.”

He also benefits from the feedlots being in the Corn Belt, which makes up most of the feed ration mix, he said.

Tommell doesn’t grow corn on his own farm for feed, as do most cattle farms in the area. He said that he can partner with local farms that are good at producing hay and grain, and that he is better off focusing on the cattle. “It works well for both,” he said.

Traditional and nontraditional problems

Tommell pointed out that, while he is from a family that has farmed for generations, his own farm is not generational

“I feel this is pretty important,” he said. He did not have the benefit of taking over an existing operation, which has influenced how he has run his farm, for example, buying feed from other farmers.

When he and his wife, Theresa, first bought their farm – it had been a dairy farm – over a decade ago, it had sat vacant for seven or eight years and had fallen into some disrepair, he said. A new barn had to be built and another from 1770 was retrofitted.

Tommell wasn’t completely green when he purchased his farm. He was working already as a cattle dealer, and, owned somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 cattle, he said. But, he was limited, he said, and, like so many farmers, he needed credit.

When a farmer needs a loan, a traditional, commercial lending institution won’t do. “Agriculture is capital intensive; there is a big investment in inventory, facility, equipment, land,” Tommell said. “It takes a huge amount of capital just to get in and play the game – and then you have to make money.”

“Without lending institutions oriented toward agriculture, it would be hard to do anything,” he said.

The Farm Credit System, Tommell said, has been a good partner.

Prior to 1916, credit was often unavailable or unaffordable in rural areas, and many institutions avoided farmers due to the inherent risks of agriculture, according to the Congressional Research Service, an agency with the Library of Congress that does nonpartisan research for Congress. That changed with the establishment of the Farm Credit System in 1916, a “a nationwide financial cooperative lending to agricultural and aquatic producers, rural homeowners, and certain agriculture-related businesses and cooperatives,” according to the Congressional Research Service.

Capital and farm in hand, Tommell was then hit by the Great Recession, which took down world markets, including the beef market. But he persevered.

The beef market, Tommell said, as opposed to dairy, pork, chicken, or poultry, has been able to somewhat insulate itself from the consolidation and overproduction that has plagued those other commodities and driven down prices to untenable levels.

How?

It’s the stork.

It takes nine months for a cow to be born, and, that long gestation period has enabled some beef producers to remain smaller and independent, and kept large corporate farms from overproducing.

Science as well isn’t doing dairy any favors.

Natural selection, since time immemorial, has given the world roughly half of each species, male and female.

With the introduction of sexed semen, that 50-50 split becomes 70-30 or 80-20, Tommell said. This has led to dairy farms producing more female cattle, which produce more milk, which leads to overproduction. Just this week, Kirsten Gillibrand, the United States Senator from New York, asked the USDA to authorize $300 million in emergency-relief funds for dairy farmers.

While consolidation and overproduction could be a threat to Tommell’s cattle business, it’s manure that can affect the farmer’s decision making.

Regulation with manure is the biggest constraint to adding more cattle, he said.

In New York State, in order to to protect streams, rivers, and other waterways, the Department of Environmental Conservation requires livestock farms over a certain size that confine animals for 45 days or more during any 12 month period to obtain a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation general permit. The majority of the CAFO-permitted farms, according to the DEC, are dairy farms with 300 or more cows.

Farms operating under a CAFO permit have to meet certain manure-storage system and spreading standards.

Tommell has fewer than 300 cattle on his farm at any time. If he were to add more cattle, he said, he would need to add more land in order to stay compliant with environmental regulations.

Tommell also pointed out that, as regulations have evolved and become more strict, along with that, the state has been able to provide him with financial help, cost-sharing, to build some projects in order comply with regulations as they’ve changed.

“The state really reached out to existing farms and did a good job with that,” he said.

Fake ‘moos’

The Family Farm Day in September is a chance to bridge the disconnect between agriculture and the consumer.

At the turn of the last century, 41 percent of the nation’s workforce was employed in agriculture; by the year 2000, it was less than 2 percent, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Gallagher, the Cornell Cooperative Extension livestock and land specialist, said that there are about 405 farms in Albany County, and, that includes farms that sell $1,000 worth of vegetables up to a dairy farm with 2,000 cattle. When he began at the extension over 40 years ago, he said that there were 135 dairy farms in Albany County; now there are six. But there are almost the same number of cows, he said.

To be sure, the technological advances that allowed agricultural productivity to grow an average of 1.9 percent annually between 1948 and 1999, according to the USDA, allowed consumers to spend a smaller portion of their income on food, while freeing up more workers to enter nonfarm occupations. This has led to staggering economic growth and development over the past century.

The larger point that Gallagher and Tommell are making is that, with a 21st-Century agricultural sector that is concentrated in rural areas of the country where less than a quarter of the population lives, consolidation has led to fewer people understanding where their food comes from – which is important, because a lack of understanding can be a boon for misinformation.

Consumers, for example, often believe that modern agriculture has a more negative environmental impact than the agricultural practices of 60 to 70 years ago, according to a study by Judith L. Capper, an assistant professor of animal sciences at Washington State University.

On a per-product basis, in 2007, the United States beef industry used 70 percent of animals, 81 percent of feed, 88 percent of water, and 67 percent of the land than what was used to produce the same amount of product in 1977, according to Capper.

Ashley Pierce, an agriculture educator with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Albany County, said that misinformation is prevalent especially on social media, and, by having Family Farm Day at C.N. Tommell Farm, the plan is to show the public a humane handling system that is very low stress on the animal and is also environmentally safe. Gallagher called Tommell’s handling facility “state-of-the-art.”

At C.N. Tommell Farm, its owner said, “A lot of what you see, speaks for itself.”

“When you walk through the barns, you are going to see very clean barns that are open and airy. You will be able to see healthy cattle that are being taken care of,” Tommell said. “You will see facilities that have been designed with best practices for cattle handling in mind. You can go into the feed barn and see all of the ingredients that go into what the cattle eat.”