Birthday event celebrates epigenetics

Birthday event celebrates epigenetics


MARSHFIELD, Wis. – Cavern Point Farm owner Jason Cavadini couldn’t think of a better way to spend his birthday.

“It’s a great day of camaraderie and learning,” he said of Dec. 19.

It was a beautiful day for a winter bale-grazing event to showcase his small operation, where an old dairy farm is being revived for a new purpose.

“We’re breathing life back into it,” he said. “We’re honoring our roots and previous generations by finding a niche for our land and buildings."

Cavern Point Farm is a small family-owned and -operated grass-fed-beef operation just south of the University of Wisconsin-Marshfield Agricultural Research Station where Cavadini is employed as the assistant superintendent. He recently hosted a hands-on event at his 20-cow-calf-heifer beef operation where attendees learned the ins and outs of “bale grazing.”

“Bale grazing” is a reduced-input means of providing winter feed in the form of dry round bales to livestock, most commonly cattle. The bales are pre-set into select fields; cattle are allowed access to them by means of portable electric fencing. Cavadini gives his herd access to new bales by removing a single strand of polywire. A feed analysis of the hay bales showed how cattle immediately gravitated to the best relative-feed-value bales in the row. Uneaten hay is not considered wasteful; it serves as bedding and soil nutrients.

Cavadini likes to host events at his farm to show aspiring farmers how to begin farming without breaking the bank, he said. He’s a member of the Wisconsin Grass-fed Beef Cooperative where about half of his finished steers are marketed. The remainder are direct-marketed. He’s currently converting a small building on his farm to a farm store where products will eventually be sold.

He chooses managed grazing and winter bale grazing because, as he puts it, “it’s our only profitable option.” He’s a big fan of direct-marketing because it keeps him and his family in touch with conscientious consumers who care about land and animal welfare.

A cross section of industry experts, conservation employees, experienced graziers and farmers new to bale grazing came to his latest event. Ray Archuleta is a Certified Professional Soil Scientist with the Soil Science Society of America as well as an owner-operator of a 150-acre farm near Seymour, Missouri. He was in attendance to provide perspective on the benefits of bale grazing as a means of feeding both the cow and the soil.

An emerging scientific discipline known as epigenetics is the study of biological mechanisms that switch genes on and off. Evidence shows that environment and nutrition have more to do with genetic expression than once realized, Archuleta said. That should be considered when breeding cattle that finish well under certain conditions.

“We’re not as fixed genetically as we thought; the environment is involved in gene expression,” Archuleta said. “We essentially have bred animals that are like pets and often don’t finish well.”

He shared his experience with ranchers in the Chihuahuan desert.

“If you see the cattle raised by the Chihuahuan ranchers in that harsh environment it’s eye-opening,” he said. “Those ranchers have learned by observation; if animals don’t finish well they go to freezer camp. They are brutal in their culling decisions. These ranchers are finishing cattle on cactus and mesquite successfully through genetic selection.”

He said not all grass-fed beef is alike.

“Let’s be honest,” he said. “Some grass-fed beef is actually wretched. Poor genetics is part of the reason. People are searching for quality meat and they are willing to pay for it.”

Archuleta said when buying cattle, producers should buy from those who raise their stock in a similar environment to what they will raise the cattle in.

“That way you’re buying their epigenetics,” he said.

Dr. Guy Jodarski is Organic Valley’s lead veterinarian; he related a story about a dairyman who milks 200 cows. By culling the small percentage of problem cows in his herd through the years, rather than spending the time trying to deal with their problems, the producer’s cattle have evolved into a much-healthier herd.

Each farm is its own micro-environment, Jodarski said. Culling decisions are unique to each farm.

“You can’t say there’s a best breed of animals,” he said. “You can call it epigenetics or whatever you want. To me it’s the biologic fit for your farm.”

Cattle producers tell him they wish they had a whole herd like their best two or three cows.

“By all means keep the bulls out of cows like that,” he said he tells them. “You can make more copies of those animals through breeding.”

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Greg Galbraith and his wife, Wendy, sold their dairy farm after 30 years of grazing cattle. He now has 20 acres of his grandfather’s original farm with a sugar bush and cabin. From there he writes about the evolving rural landscape. Visit for more information.


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