Last week, 13 beef cattle arrived and are now contentedly grazing in our pasture. This is the most cows we have ever had on our farm – and this is exciting for us. Over the summer we expect them to bulk up – feeding on the rich pasture grasses and clover in our fields – producing some of the very best meat you can find, full of flavor and nutrition.
We have some folks ask us if they are a specific breed – if something in the genes makes them especially good for producing beef.
No. There is nothing special about them. What makes the difference is how we take care of them and get them to gain weight.
First of all, it is important to us is that we get them from a local grazer. We don’t just want to find “the best deal.” We make an effort to work with local businesses we can count on. These are our neighbors and we want to build trust in the community. Once personal relationships are developed, we can call on these friends and get their expert advice. That means a lot.
Along with finding locally-sourced beef cattle, it is important that we treat these cattle ethically. You see, most of the beef at your average grocery store comes from animals raised in massive feed lots. The cows are often raised in horrible conditions. They spend hours (if not their entire lives) packed in grass-less enclosures standing in so much manure that it becomes a liability (a breeding ground for disease) and the farm has to truck it away. And they are fed mostly grains that are difficult for them to digest and thrive on. It is all incredibly unnatural.
Instead, we recognize that we have a responsibility to take care of our animals. Even if we are raising them for beef, we want to treat them humanely because we feel an obligation as one creature to another.
The cool thing is that when these majestic beasts are placed in their appropriate environment and properly cared for, they become an integral part of a very dynamic ecosystem -- and their role is significant.
Yes, they spend most of their day grazing, but while they are consuming large quantities of plant-life they naturally leave behind cow patties. This manure doesn’t just pile up to be hauled away (like at many feed lots). It is distributed all over the field, returning to the soil a rich fertilizer (that costs us nothing) which, in turn, naturally rejuvenates and strengthens the soil’s bio-culture, re-establishing a wonderful balance of grasses and clover that the cattle can feast on.
They also improve the pasture just by walking around. The plants they don’t eat get trampled down (and don’t reproduce as quickly) and cow’s hooves are well suited to break up the topsoil which improves its receptivity for moisture and the next cycle of grasses.
Our role is to oversee the herd’s movement so the long-term growth of the animals and the pasture area is maintained and improved. This (in past eras) was the work of a shepherd. The animals aren’t just left to wander around a huge field. The responsibility of the shepherd was to guide the animals and maintain the grassland at the same time.
To do this, we take regular “pasture walks” so we can continually assess the status of each grazing area. Some areas have better soil, others get more moisture. Some sections are rocky, while some don’t drain well. And just like our cultivated garden, we have to take into account recent weather conditions and the time of the year.
One of the fun things is moving the cows to a different pasture. It doesn’t take long for them to recognize that we are opening the fence to a new area full of lush grass. They can smell it and they eagerly amble passed us and immediately start chomping away.
Whether we move five cows or 15 cows, it takes about the same amount of work. But with our new fields, the bigger herd is laying down more manure, and having a bigger impact on the landscape.