I shifted into park at Movable Beast Farm in the late afternoon on a sunny day in August. Gravel crunched underfoot as Charles, the farm’s owner, walked over to introduce me to the cattle herd.
I found Movable Beast Farm while doing local meat research for the Local Economy Project’s beef month. Movable Beast Farm is a small pasture-raised beef operation in the Rondout Valley run by husband and wife team Charles and Francesca Noble. Both have backgrounds in non-agricultural fields and started farming in their fifties. They sell their meat in bulk directly to the community and occasionally at the High Falls Co-op.
“Oh good,” said Charles, looking down at my already-muddy work boots after shaking my hand. “You have suitable footwear.”
We headed out into the pasture and it became clear why sturdy boots were a must: this was no manicured, herbicide-treated, or short-shorn lawn. This field was wild, with clumps of knee-high plants and a diversity of grass and weeds that contributed a wide range of nutrients to the cows’ diet. I avoided the occasional cow pats as we trekked along.
The herd sat clustered together in the middle of the field. The thirty-some animals watched with lazy curiosity as we trudged our way through the tall grass. “Interesting,” said Charles, “Looks like they aren’t tired of this area yet. When they’re really ready for new grass, they’ll come over and complain.”
Charles explained that we were going to move the herd to a new area of the field. The cows are corralled to an area by temporary electric fences consisting of a nylon line and four-foot tall fiberglass posts. The whole system is intended to be easy to install, remove, and re-install elsewhere, often by a lone farmer.
I asked Charles how he knew it was time for the herd to move.
“Some farmers use the ‘10 to 2’ rule: when the grass in one area is 2 inches tall, you move the herd off it. Once it’s grown back to 10 inches tall, you move the herd back on. I don’t like to let it get as low as 2 inches, I like to move them sooner.” Moving the herd sooner helps maintain the health and diversity of plant life in the pasture, which is a major goal for Movable Beast Farm.
“When we started, we were looking for a way to raise beef that was respectful to the animals, healthy for people, and beneficial to the environment,” said Charles.
Charles handed me a spool of electric fence line–“Don’t worry, I turned it off!” I spooled in the old partition fence and Charles took out its temporary fence posts. As he walked, Charles tucked the growing collection of fence posts under his arm and explained the nuts and bolts of pasture land access.
Charles described two main models of raising grass-fed beef. In the first model, the farmer owns everything, including their herd of animals and enough land to graze them on. In the second model, the farmer owns nothing, and instead rents land and grazes other farmers’ animals on that land as a service. Movable Beast Farm takes a hybrid approach: they own their herd, but not their land.
In Ulster County, as in many places, access to suitable land is a challenge for many farmers. Owning farmland is expensive. Luckily, many landowners are happy to have farmers cultivate their unused acreage. By doing so, landowners may qualify for an agricultural exemption on their property taxes, which helps encourage the practice of leasing land to farms like Movable Beast. Charles and Francesca rent a patchwork of privately-owned land that spans the greater Stone Ridge area, and this is where they graze their cattle.
Charles moves the herd to a new section of pasture every few days. Sometimes, this involves crossing the cows over roads and property lines. He described one especially complex migration path that even involved fording a stream with the cows. “It was about three miles long,” he said with a laugh.
With the partition fence removed, the herd took notice. One by one the cows got up from their cuddle puddle and walked past me into the new section of field, where they set about munching busily.
“Studies have found that the most important factor to meat’s taste is the level of stress the animals experienced,” said Charles. He asked, “Do these animals look stressed out to you?” A nearby cow, unphased by my proximity, stuck its head down into the tall grass. I listened to the whumph-whumph of its powerful chewing. “Not even a little!” I answered.
Like me, Charles is a former vegetarian. We talked about balancing the connections he makes with his herd with the act of later sending those animals to slaughter. “My least favorite day is slaughter day,” he admitted. “It helps to think that every other day of the year, I’m out here with these animals making sure they’re healthy and having the best possible life.” Having this connection to the herd, Charles feels a sense of gratitude to the animals when he later eats the meat.
There are some animals that Charles hasn’t been able to part with, like Eighteen, who’s been a member of the Movable Beast herd since 2006. Charles described Eighteen as a matriarch of the group, who sometimes butts her head against other herd members in true moooove-out-of-my-way diva fashion (too much?).
Standard practice is to take entire generations of animals to slaughter at once when they reach maturity. Charles, however, believes that having a mix of different generations of animals in the herd gives it a more natural structure and benefits the cows.
We watched Eighteen as she ate her way through a fresh swath of grass. “I think it’s incredibly important to feel the sadness of sending an animal to slaughter,” said Charles. “I used to think, ‘what’s wrong with me, that I feel this way?’ Now, I think, ‘if I didn’t feel this way, something would be wrong with me.’”
Thinking about this on our walk back to the driveway, my mind went to some existential, life-death, deep-questioning places. But the overall feeling I had leaving Movable Beast Farm was one of great calm. Being around the herd had made me feel very relaxed, and understanding the animals’ lives better has made me feel more connected to my food and community of local farmers.
There are many reasons to buy your meat from thoughtfully-run local farms like Movable Beast, and from farmers like Charles. However, being able to visit a farm like this and talk to the farmer about their practices is a particularly great experience.
If you are interested in purchasing local meat from Movable Beast Farm, you can do so by emailing them at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling (845) 532-8249.