Eye on Agriculture: Deer Run Farms: From pasture to plate

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By Sue Henninger

Tompkins Weekly

 

David Tregaskis, owner of Deer Run Farms in Groton, prides himself on raising beef cattle the way that they’ve been raised for centuries. “I raise our cattle like our grandparents and generations before them raised it,” he said. “They lived long lives eating beef like that!”

Though Tregaskis estimates that he’s spent over 60 years with cattle, his parents were not farmers. They raised beef for personal consumption only, so he spent countless hours riding his bicycle to neighboring farms to learn more about living off the land. After receiving a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science from Cornell University’s Department of Agricultural Economics, he bought the Hilliard Road farm, which he described as forty-five acres of brush. He and his partner, Ms. Chris Irving, now have a farmhouse and barns on the property and own and rent 145 acres of land. Tregaskis firmly believes that farms and farmers benefit Tompkins County by helping to contain the population sprawl. “Cropland preservation is important. I’m very much a land steward. If I could buy more I would,” he noted.

The first small group of beef cattle arrived at Deer Run Farms in 1983. Today the herd averages about seventy cows, depending on the time of year. Like many farmers, Tregaskis’ primary method of breeding is artificial insemination. This is followed by “bull clean-up” where a live bull is put in the pasture with all the cows that artificial insemination didn’t work for. His favorite time of year is winter when the calves arrive. “That’s where I see the benefits or disappointments of my breeding program,” he explained. “Where I get to say ‘That calf’s a keeper!’”

A new calf, born between January and April, drinks only its mother’s milk for the first ten to twelve days. After that, it becomes more aware of what the other cows in the barn are doing, primarily eating hay. The baby will nibble a few strands, then a few more, gradually morphing into an herbivore. By Memorial Day, when mother and baby are put out to pasture (nicknamed “summer camp” by Tregaskis and Irving!) the calf will be supplementing its daily milk with grass as it frolics and roams about with the other young cows. Tregaskis’ summers aren’t quite that carefree as the haying season is his busiest time of year. He does all three cuttings himself, having come to the conclusion that finding reliable help is more trouble than it’s worth. “Farmers don’t retire, they wear out,” he observed.

Once fall arrives it’s time for the calves to be weaned; something they don’t appreciate one bit if the volume of their bellowing is any indication. Next stop is the feedlot where Tregaskis supplies them with his best homegrown feed, which includes clover hay, baleage (wet, wrapped hay), and grain, along with some supplemental vitamins and minerals not found in New York soils. A balanced diet is the secret to good beef, Tregaskis contended adding, “Beef and cattle are all the same. The difference is in how they are fed. This determines the end product.”

While at Cornell, Tregaskis joined Alpha Gamma Rho, a professional and social agriculture fraternity. His meat processor is a Cornell fraternity brother, but that’s not the only reason Tregaskis chose Owasco Meats. First of all, he appreciates their consistency in processing. Owasco uses a vacuum-sealed clear plastic package with a cut and date processed label, allowing the customer to see exactly what they’re getting. Additionally, the business is local, along with being United States Department of Agriculture inspected. Finally, Owasco Meats has the freezer capacity to store the farmer’s boxed beef so he can better schedule his own deliveries and they’re willing to accommodate off-hours delivery needs.

There were several reasons he chose Black Angus cattle to raise. According to Tregaskis, “They’re universally recognized throughout the world.” He added that he saw no reason to “reinvent the wheel” when the Black Angus breed also has a good cost/benefit ratio, giving the buyer more meat product and less bone. He has a real affinity for cattle as well. “I’m not a sheep kind of guy, I’m not a goat person. Pigs escape…Beef fits my lifestyle and my palate.”

Speaking of which, there’s one misconception about beef that Tregaskis, who eats meat at least six days a week, was eager to correct. “Fat is not bad for you!” he maintained. “It’s necessary to provide quick energy.” Fat marbling (the white flecks) in a cut of meat increases the flavor and tenderness, he continued. A piece of all red meat with no marbling will not taste as good. Though prime grade of meat is the best, with choice grade close behind, select grade is what many stores carry.

“You won’t find cattle finished like mine in a commercial lot. My method leads to a better taste,” Tregaskis said as he held up a freshly grilled hamburger. “This is 90 percent lean product, 10 percent fat. The benefit to the consumer is the eating experience. When you eat beef do you have an ‘Oh wow! This really tastes good’ experience? My clients say mine is the best beef they’ve ever had and most of them are experienced beef eaters. New clients say ‘Put me on your list forever!’

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