Grass-fed beef seems like a simple thing. You feed the cattle grass their whole lives and you don't feed them starchy vegetables or grain. And it's healthier meat because the fat profile is just like in the meat our ancestors ate when they hunted herds of ruminate animals as they moved through vast wildernesses. But if I were comparing the challenges of a life as a modern day grass-fed beef farmer vs that of a nomadic hunter following the herds, I'd argue the simpler life might be the hunter's! The problem is, based on my experience, that our farm is not vast wilderness and our herd size pushes Nature's limits in an effort to pay our modern day bills. My hope if I am to overcome the consequences of the artificial boundaries in my modern farmer life--also my only hope to produce delicious healthful grass-fed beef--is to recreate through design, trial, and re-design a grazing plan mimicking the ancient processes of migrating herbivores. This became crispy clear to me as I reflected on the efforts it took to create a November grazing opportunity for my yearling cattle, the ones that become your next grass-fed beef!
As I stroll through the yearling cattle on a sunny Sunday mid-November morning, camera in hand, first I count them. There's 33 yearlings here, plus three retired momma cows, and four 2013 problem calves. The problem calves include one who's momma didn't have enough milk to feed him, one who's momma prolapsed her uterus at birth, one who got stuck on the other side of the fence for too long in June and his momma didn't recognize him when we got him back, and one who broke his leg in August and needed to come home to heal (he's all healed now). The retired momma cows include a four year old Hereford who would prefer to kill humans when they get her in any kind of a corner--not safe. Then there's the lovely 17 year old Belted Galloway we call "Dinosaur" (for the obvious genuine reason). She's given us a lot of calves but we won't ask her to overwinter this year to give us another one, though she'd try if we let her. She suffers from worn out joints and her gift to us is fully received. Then there is the ultra fat Belted Galloway, Cow # 4. "Ultra fat" because she didn't raise a calf this year, but must think she is a bull now because she likes to jump on other cows--all the summer long. I don't know why she does this, but I sure wouldn't want her on my back. Anyways, these are the retires and their days in this version of the material world have a lot to do with a standing weekly order at Paddy's Pub for 140 lbs of fresh ground grass-fed beef for their "local burgers".
The 33 yearlings just came back from the Cape John Community Pasture on November 1st. There was another six yearlings, the calmest, fattist nicest yearling heifers. I pulled them from the Cape John group when I brought them home to add to the 46-head momma cow herd and their fat Black Angus bull. His name is Virginian, and he'll cause these heifers to become cows when they have their first calves in about nine months, next July and August. They'll replace the retired ladys who are going to the Pub.
Cape John is the cooperatively operated 700 acre pasture about an hour north of Truro where the yearlings had just spent the past 5 months since May 21st with nearly 700 other cattle from a dozen or so other farms. The pasture is managed intensively by rotating the herds trough a matrix of subsections where the cattle spend one to several days grazing at a time, depending on the speed of grass growth, stocking density of the cattle and, ultimately, how fast they eat the grass down to a certain height. The idea with this "management-intensive grazing" is that you make sure 1) the animals never have to work too hard to get their meals, 2) that they don't chew the plants down so low the roots becomes stressed and their length of green sward too short for continued photosynthesis and fast re-growth, 3) that you keep the animals off each section for a long enough rest to allow the grass to bounce back to a good re-entry height, and 4) to allow enough rest for most of the larvae of parasitic worms to dry up in the summer sun (these little buddies wait on blades of grass to be re-ingested after the cattle poop them, one of the glorious cycles of life in pasture ecology).
Many people wonder why I send my yearling cattle way up to Cape John. The cost is about $20 per animal each way for the three hour ride and about $100 each paid to the co-op for the five months of pasture grazing. We already graze about 200 acres in the Valley/ North Mountain area for pasture, 50 acres owned and 150 rented, (plus another 200 rented for winter hay production). So you'd think we'd have enough land here already. The same production can be achieved on less acres per animal, but the reality of the Wild Mountain Farm niche is that it started on mostly marginal (less productive soils) that were not being actively farmed when I approached the landowners to ask if I could start farming them again. The fertility of most of the fields is lower than needed for idealized production, but coming back through getting herbivores back on the land (or at least their manure back on hay land) and nitrogen-fixing clovers back into the swards.
In truth I would have enough land to get by without Cape John but I would have to feed hay for more months of the year. Cattle can do good on high quality hay, though rarely as good as on the fresh green grass, and never as cheaply. It costs me at least $2 per day to feed good quality hay to each yearling, the kind of hay that is highly digestible, harvested when it was young and green and without sitting under the harsh sun too long in the drying process, and without getting rained on which quickly washes out the soluble carbohydrates (grass-sugars). But keeping the cattle on the great grasses of Cape John cost less than one dollar per day. It's because cattle have their own haying and manure spreading equipment, and a great work ethic! What's more, Cape John has allowed us for the first time ever to stockpile grass at home for grazing through the month of November. Even our momma cows and their 2013 calves are still grazing a stockpiled pasture in a 30 acre over-wintering field because we didn't have to use it after first-cut haying for grazing the yearlings.
Compare this to last year's very dry summer when I kept my yearlings home on pasture. I had to start feeding hay in August because grass just doesn't grow when you only get three or four little rains in June, July, and August. Typically we get rain one in every three summer days in Nova Scotia summer. When we did get record rain falls in September, the pastures were stressed and didn't respond well. Our animals gained half the daily two pounds each they gained this summer at Cape John. And last year we ended up paying to custom feed the yearlings on high quality grass silage at another farm just to catch up because we didn't have enough high quality second-cut hay due to the dry summer.
And all this to the point of this narrative: it takes a lot of planning and trial and error to achieve inside the fences and finances of a relatively new cow farm the process of herbivores moving from one rested pasture to the next. Nature's version was herds moving through wilderness in massive groups along the migratory paths. This farmer's version is rotating the animals from one well-rested pasture paddock to the next for as much of the year as possible. So it is that pure and simple naturally-healthful grass-fed beef from Wild Mountain Farm finds it's way from our fields to your tables.
This year we are grazing into November; next year we'll aim for Christmas!