or, Why Our Beef Rocks
A customer recently asked us a very good question. She pointed out that she had found information about a farm selling “grass-fed” beef for a significantly lower price than us, and inquired about why there was such a difference in price.
Her questions prompted me to do a couple of things. One was to do an informal survey of beef in north-western Oregon (mainly coast range, and northern Willamette Valley) to compare prices, which is something I do periodically. Prices ranged from about $2/lb to about $4.80/lb (plus processing). The other thing I did was ponder (along with Rich) how to articulate what makes our beef, and specifically, our animal and land management practices, different from other farms.
What makes us different:
1) Intensive rotation (i.e Management Intensive Grazing) – not “free range” = improved grass/soil/ecosystem health
Many farms like to tout that their animals “roam free” on their pastures. I think they do this because of the idyllic picture it paints for people… happy cows, allowed to wander at their will. However, the reality of good management is that “free range” cattle creates many problems for the land, from soil compaction along paths, to damage to creeks and riparian areas if that cattle are not fenced out, to poor grass quality (and the need for off-farm inputs, i.e. fertilizers and/or herbicides).
When we bought our property in 2002, we witnessed the results of poor management first hand. The prior owner had more than 50 cattle on the property year around, and as a result, the land had a very poor complement of species, low fertility, high compaction, very poor water retention, and the creeks were degraded by gullies with no riparian cover.
We practice Management Intensive Rotational Grazing (MIRG), and ideas based on Holistic Management. We have 5 main fields with perimeter fencing (which we have worked long and hard to put in place!), and we subdivide these fields into many smaller fields with electric wire and water points. The steers are moved nearly every day in the peak growing seasons of spring and summer in order to take advantage of the huge pulse of growth that happens during that time of year.
Imagine you make a big feast, with a lot of ingredients. The first time you sit down to the meal, you eat some of everything, and especially the good parts. The 2nd day, you need to eat again, and there’s a good spread still in front of you. You probably have some of most of it, but maybe pick around some of the wilted lettuce or less appetizing ingredients. The third day you have it, you probably are very selective about what you eat from it, leaving behind all the parts you don’t really like. As the days go by, the good stuff is mostly gone, leaving the unappetizing-to-downright unpleasant bits to be eaten. You’re not eating as much each time, and it’s generally not as fresh and nutritious as day 1.
Steers do this as well, if left on the same pastures every day. The result is usually that they will eat the grasses they like best, and avoid the ones they don’t like. They will eat the “good” grasses down to the point where regrowth may take a long time. And by making the beneficial, high-nutrition species so short, the species they don’t like have better access to sunshine and are allowed to prosper. The farm then is left with a pasture of less appetizing species, that will probably need to be eradicated through re-seeding, herbicide application, fertilization, etc.
Our approach means that the steers get a fresh feast every day in the growing season. They can eat as much as they want, stopping only when they’re full.. The next day, they are moved to a new paddock and have a brand new feast. This allows the “good” grasses to be eaten down to the point at which regrowth is stimulated, and for the less desired species to not usually have the chance to out-compete the good grasses. In this situation, even the less desirable species get nibbled on as part of the feast, and don’t become a problem.
(Next post will discuss why our steers never receive grain, and also the issue of scale.)