It’s funny how things work out sometimes. In fact, events in my life have gone so counter to expectation over the years that I have come to embrace the belief that our strengths often become our weakness and our weakness our strength. What does this have to do with hamburgers? The evolution of our beef enterprise over almost five decades and the quality of its present end product (the grass-fed ground beef and the accompanying cuts) proves the accuracy of this observation.
Dogwood Farm Herefords began as the enterprise of a fourteen-year-old boy who invested his entire life savings earned by mowing yards and working in tobacco to buy three registered Hereford cows. (Herefords are the red ones with the white faces.) My dad encouraged my project, provided pasture and a registered bull to service the cows, but he drew the line at feeding cows grain. Corn was for pigs; cows ate grass and hay. Early on I did convince him to allow me to feed and show a heifer. My heifer and I came in dead last at the county fair in a class of fourteen. Dad never said, “I told you so,” but the seed of doubt about the wisdom of showing and feeding cattle was firmly planted.
Again, things worked out for the better. As a consequence, I came to value those cattle that were able to thrive on grass alone. They did not bring a lot of money. They surely didn’t win any ribbons or bring home any silver prizes, but they did prosper and reproduce well on what was available on this farm. Meanwhile mass media and advertising have touted the flavor and tenderness of grain-fed beef. So strong has that message been that over the years I occasionally doubted my own convictions, entered some bulls in feed tests, and even sent some steers to a feedlot. The results were rarely encouraging, sometimes disastrous and almost always unprofitable.
When Debby convinced me to try marketing grass-fed beef locally, most of the genetics for our cattle to move into the growing niche market for all natural, all grass-fed beef had long been in place here. We’ve had to make some major adjustments in managing our pasture grasses, but only a few minor adjustments in our genetic selections over the past ten years. Descendants of those old lines of cattle that made it fine on grass decades ago still fare quite nicely in our pastures today. Funny how that worked out.
When Debby joined me, she brought, among her many gifts, a love of horses that soon evolved to include cattle. Since then she has become an invaluable asset, tending to the grass, keeping the records, marketing the beef and breeding stock, and doing many more of the necessary and seemingly endless chores that involve cattle. Though both sets of her grandparents were farmers, her parents were not. Looking back, I had little reason to hope that an attractive young woman would be willing to do the kind of work demanded by a livestock farm. But that too worked out.
I have always found cattle soothing company, especially Herefords. I spent much of my childhood in their society and readily recognized that the white-faced cattle were the calmest in my dad’s very mixed-breed herd. Hereford cattle are recognized in the livestock industry as the gentlest breed. Many of ours become pets that enjoy a good scratch from their caregivers. As Herefords were developed in England in the 18th century, they were selected for their ability to grow and prosper on grass whereas some other British breeds were selected to eat grain. Gentle often translates to tender. Gentle cattle naturally produce more tender beef. Stressed, skittish or nervous cattle, simply because of their disposition, can produce tougher meat or even dress out as “dark cutters,” a condition that produces meat with an unnaturally deep-red or purple color. Funny how the Herefords the boy selected for their gentleness worked out as the nearly ideal breed for producing tender grass-fed beef on the mature man’s farm.
Because Herefords are efficient on grass, because they fatten quickly when fed grain, many in the livestock industry in the ’80’s began to discriminate against them at the stockyard. They were searching for larger cattle that would consume more corn before they were ready for harvest. Cattle that finished quickly didn’t keep the feedlots full, so our Herefords brought less per pound than their contemporaries of some other breeds. Funny how these circumstances also led us to seek other venues to market our beef.
I’ve never been fond of iron and the machinery made from it, have preferred instead livestock farming. The decade of the 1980’s, with its dry years and low grain prices, not only drove me back to teaching after twelve years (another positive development to come from negative events) but also convinced me of the importance of sustainability. I could not sustain the constant equipment needs of grain farming and found myself working for equipment companies and fertilizer providers instead of for myself. My desire to grow cattle instead of crops seemed as likely an option as paying high prices for fertilizer and equipment and selling cheap grain. Grain brings higher prices now, but still requires incredibly high inputs. Funny how economics can make decisions we might otherwise not have had the courage or foresight to choose.
Soil health and erosion control have always been a priority here. My great-grandfather bought the farm we live on in 1897. We’ve stayed a while and want to pass this land on to subsequent generations in as good or better condition than it was in when we got it. Grass farming, allowing nature to work as intended, rotating pasture with crops, allowing cattle to enrich the land through natural fertilization is not only good for the cattle but good for the land as well. Funny how one passion often feeds another one.
What we produce with our grass-fed Herefords is commonly called “slow food.” Our all natural grass-fed steers are born here on our farm, allowed to grow in their home pastures at their normal rate without being pushed, and harvested one or two at a time when ready; food critics term this “artisan beef.” We like to say that we take the beef steers from conception to consumption. By contrast, most supermarket beef is born in farm pastures, weaned and sold at about seven months to backgrounders, trucked by the semi-trailer load to huge midwestern feedlots, where it consumes formulated grain rations for 90 to 120 days. We have learned that for grass-fed beef to be at its best, steers may need to grow for 18 to 30 months or more depending on grass quality and the weather (drought, for example, slows their growth), rather than the 15 to 20 months of age for cattle finished in feedlots on corn and other high-starch, high energy feeds.
With no need for grain, antibiotics, steroids, or hormones, our all grass-fed cattle develop at their natural genetic and environmental potential. Weaned calves stay out on clean pasture all winter, getting hay to supplement pasture when the weather is too cold for forages to grow. Instead of being confined to muddy lots in winter, the cattle are allowed access to larger acreages, with a limited fresh supply of stockpiled fescue, ryegrass, turnips or other winter forages. In spring when the grass grows quickly, we move the herds at least once daily trying to keep up with new growth. Throughout the green season the cattle graze fresh pastures—cool season mixed pastures for spring, fall and winter, and warm season grasses and legumes for the hottest summer months. After intensive grazing, the pastures are allowed to rest and grow for two, three, four weeks or more before being grazed again. As nearly as we can ascertain, this mimics the natural methods of vast grazing herds in the wild. We just have smaller herds confined to a smaller range with electric fence instead of huge herds bunched together by threat from predators. Grazing and resting grass for sufficient time to allow full re-growth rejuvenates pasture, deepens roots and improves the topsoil with each grazing. Funny how better soil and better grass produce better beef; how the cattle improve soil, nourishing better plants.
We’ve also learned that beef from cattle that are fed this way on forages offers people very different nutrition from grain-fed beef. All beef, of course, does provide quality protein, B vitamins, iron and zinc; however, with much higher levels of nutrients like Omega-3s, which are essential fatty acids, beta carotene, and Vitamin E, grass-fed beef provides much higher quality nutrition for healthier bodies. The fat of all-grass-fed beef is often golden or yellowish from the high beta-carotene content, rather than white like the starch-produced fat of grain fed beef. Another important difference between grain fed and grass fed beef is the fatty acid called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is available only from the meat and milk of grass-fed ruminants like cattle and goats. Funny how feeding cattle naturally provides a healthier product.
Studies have shown that CLA does a world of good as a quality nutrient to enhance human health, from our immune systems to metabolic functioning. CLA helps to prevent the onset of certain types of cancers, to reduce the number of mammary, skin and stomach tumors, to satisfy appetite, reduce body fat and increase lean muscle tissue, thereby fighting obesity, and reversing diabetes. Unfortunately, the meat of grain fed animals loses these advantages quickly as soon as the cattle are removed from access to forages. Only when the animal’s diet comes entirely from grasses, legumes, forbs and tree leaves does it contribute CLA to balance our human diet. Since CLA was not discovered until 1987, the feedlot industry was already well-established by the time people discovered we were missing out on this vital nutrient by taking our cattle off pasture, exporting them to the Midwest, and feeding them grain in feedlots. As research continues, other unheralded benefits of naturally grass-fed meats and milk in our diet are likely to come to light.
As more and more local people have become aware of the health benefits of grass-fed meats, we have quietly, slowly developed a constantly expanding local market for our product. People have come to us because of health concerns, fear of contamination of the industrial meat supply, desire to know more about the food they are consuming, a wish to help the local economy, and for a number of other reasons. I will never forget a customer who thanked me for providing her with food that she wasn’t afraid to feed her family. Another lady hugged me for “going the extra mile” to provide nutritious, delicious, safe food. When we began to produce meat for the local market, we had no idea how rewarding it would be: how it would improve our understanding of the beef we had been producing for decades, how it would make our farm more profitable, how it would create a network of consumers who would share their “find” with others, how we could consistently (after a fairly steep initial learning curve) produce beef that customers would repeatedly find delicious and satisfying. Funny how all of that worked out.