A Farmer’s Journey to Raising Grass-Fed Beef.
By Marvin Moyer
“How do you raise your beef? Do you use growth hormones? Do you feed your animals GMO grain and what about antibiotics and herbicides?” These are questions I hear again and again. Consumers are showing an interest in how their food is produced. Ever since the late 1990s, when my family was young and growing, I have been concerned with producing healthy food. I began attending grazing seminars, and one speaker in particular, Dr. Bauman from Cornell, stood out to me. He listed the health benefits of raising grass fed beef: a healthy ratio of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, the value of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) and others. I must admit that the first time I heard Dr. Bauman speak, I was not able to grasp what he was saying but after the second time I left the meeting thinking, “This is what I want my family to eat.”
Since the late 90’s, I have continued to read and attend seminars, learning everything possible about grass fed beef. I learned that cattle and other ruminants have the ability to turn grass into high quality protein and that when we leave our beef on the same pasture for weeks, they gain very little and put on very little finish. I had been using corn and oats to help my cows put on weight and finish quickly and was naïve when I thought this was a better, faster and more lucrative way to raise beef. Thanks to those who went back to the old ways of grazing (with modest variations), I learned that what I believed was a success was actually a source of some of cattle’s biggest health problems.
When a calf is born, it stays with the mama cow for about 10 months. It needs that time to fully develop. After, it can easily grow and gain weight on grass, hay, and balage. Since most calves are born in the spring, they are weaned in March and fed good quality hay or balage until the beginning of May when they are put out on pasture. A good grazing plan must include a daily or very short term rotation. On my farm, I move my beef every day, and they gain 1 ½ to 2+ lbs. per day. A cow with a pound or more gain per day will usually produce a tender meat. With this type of program, calves are finished beef in about 24 months. Feed lot beef are finished in 12 to 15 months. There is a premium for quality beef.
What are the benefits of all grass fed beef? For me there are many, from the environmental benefit to bettering the health of both the cattle and humans. Firstly, grass farmers produce grass. We plow very little. We don’t need to use herbicides, pesticides or dry fertilizers. The sod catches the rain and a lot of run off and there is minimal erosion. When cattle are rotated often there are many cattle on a small area for a short time. This means they tramp down grass, which becomes worm food and of course they leave lots of fertility when they change paddocks. This, along with a rest period for the plants to recover, produces a lush and thick sod. With no herbicides and no dry fertilizer the soil biology can thrive and work 24/7, spring, summer, and autumn. Talk about getting something for free. How can I top that with my own inputs? If we follow nature, we will prosper.
The health benefits are also remarkable. I already mentioned that grass fed beef has a good omega 3 to omega 6 ratio. Doctors tell us when we have heart problems that we can eat venison but not beef – meaning grain fed beef. Jo Robinson, a beef expert, tells us that eating grass fed beef is like eating a skinless chicken breast. E.coli likes the acidic environment of the rumen of grain fed beef, and we are told that we can avoid E.coli by not feeding grain two weeks before slaughter. Then there is CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), which research tell us reduces tumors, the risk of obesity and diabetes, and helps to keep the arteries clean.
Another benefit is to allow a cow to be a cow. My beef are not confined to a building and they harvest their own feed. Each of them gets fresh grass, water, sunshine and exercise. In the cool of the evening, I enjoy watching the young calves run around the fields. Occasionally the older ones will join and what a show that is. It makes my day, and I know I am doing the right thing.
It can be very fulfilling to raise animals but if we don’t have a market for our products we can’t pay the bills. We producers are grateful for the local interest we see for healthy and quality food, and we have discovered that we get a better return for our products if we sell directly rather than selling on the commodity market. Therefore as our farms develop, we need to seek innovative ways to market what we produce. The methods are as wide open as your imagination. A few that fit my personality are: selling from a small shop on the farm, selling at a day care (it’s great to get healthy meat into growing children), and establishing buying groups at places of work, like schools and hospitals.
The demand for quality beef is growing and I, as a small producer, will soon be maxing out. I can produce only so much beef. I finish 25-30 cattle per year, and I can’t get much bigger. In order to meet the demand for quality meat, we must get more people involved. There is a lot of vacant land in upstate New York, and I encourage people with land and interest to think about getting involved. Start slow, buy a few beef cattle and get your feet wet.
I continue to learn every day and meet many people who are grateful that they can purchase healthy meat. Producing grass fed beef fits me, my farm, family and community like a glove, and I will never go back to conventional farming.
Marvin Moyer is a farmer at Twin Brook Farm. He can be reached at 607-687-4053.