Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Growing Practices for our Certifed Organic, 100% Grass-Fed Cattle

(Article by Richard de Wilde and Andrea Yoder)


As you can see by looking at our cattle, they are happy and healthy inside and out.  We have chosen to raise our cattle in a certified organic, 100% grass-fed production system, which is much different than industrial meat production and other conventional practices. There are numerous differences; however we would like to hit on a few differences that we feel are most important for you to understand when you are making the choice to purchase any meat in the future.
We want to start off with the pasture grasses since they are the main food source for our cattle.  We take great care to make sure our pasture has a good mix of grasses and legumes. Since we have plenty of grasses already in the pasture, each spring we use a practice called frost seeding to plant more legumes (usually red clover for us). Frost seeding is putting the seed on top of the pastures, usually during March, on days that alternate between freezing at night and thawing during the day. Along with the spring rains, this helps the seed make its way into the soil surface. Frost seeding offers several potential advantages, including the ability to establish forage in undisturbed sod, a reduced need for labor and energy compared to conventional seeding methods, and the ability to establish forages with minimum equipment investment.  Once the pastures take off and start growing in the spring, the cattle are anxious to start grazing. It’s important, both for the health of the animals and the pastures, to manage their grazing. We do this by dividing the pasture into smaller sections called paddocks. We rotate our cattle from paddock to paddock every five days to make sure they are getting the best of what each has to offer and adequately grazing the grass in that area so it will regrow. Sometimes we over-winter animals as well. Since our cattle are 100% grass-fed, you might be wondering what they eat when the hillsides are covered with snow. Over the course of the summer, we harvest alfalfa as well as premium pasture grasses, which sometimes are in abundance compared to the amount our small herd can eat. We bale the grass and alfalfa and store it in the barn to feed during the winter.
But what about those pesky weeds that pop up in our pastures? We mow our lush pastures when we can to either harvest the grasses or to manage the weeds. Sometimes we have to hand-dig some of those stubborn weeds. There is a newer bad boy invasive species in town, and its name is the multiflora rose. Our animals will eat off the new young shoots to prevent any more spread, but even so it can get out of hand quickly.  The other alternative that conventional farms use is to spray herbicide directly onto their pastures, weeds and grasses included. This creates a residue that stays on the good grasses and seeps into the soil. Then you also have the run-off that occurs from these chemicals when it rains and washes into area waterways. So with a little extra effort, and sometimes ‘elbow grease’, we can control the weeds without contaminating the environment or our animals’ food source.
One of the concerns with raising beef cattle is managing internal parasites. In a conventional system animals are treated with a something called anthelmintic products. Most of the products used are either avermectins/ milbemycins (ivermectin, dormectin, eprinomectin, and moxidectin) or benzimidazoles (oxfendazole, albendazole, fendbendazole), (from UW Extention Cooperative).  If you are like us, you are having a hard time even trying to pronounce those chemicals. The chemical residue is then absorbed into the animal and accumulates in the organs and fat to combat the parasites. Then what happens to the chemicals? You guessed it - they work their way through the animal and are deposited into the pastures and thus passed through to the pasture environment. We rotate our animals to different paddocks every 5 days and they do not return to a paddock again for at least a month. Because of this, we actually ‘break’ the life cycle of the internal parasites. We also use Diatomaceous Earth (DE) to help kill off those pesky buggers.  We have the DE mixed with the very desirable kelp meal and Redmond trace minerals salt that we offer as a free choice ration, which they love.  The DE and minerals move through the animal and get deposited in random plops throughout the pasture. This is one way we utilize our pasture and it also helps prevents fly larvae from hatching. 
Our animals stay very healthy in our pastures and are never confined or crowded.  This helps to avoid any other health problems that may naturally occur. In confinement operations, disease can spread easily since the animal population is so dense. Because of this, conventionally raised animals are routinely fed antibiotics in their feed, mineral blocks or are given routine injections. This overuse has caused antibiotic resistant bacteria, such as E. coli 0157. While antibiotic use is prohibited in organic animal production, we would use an antibiotic to save a life or prevent suffering in any of our animals. If an antibiotic were to be used, we would sell that animal on the conventional market as it would no longer be certified organic. 
Mineral Feeder
What about flies – we all despise those little buggers too!  But they can cause great hardship and pain to cattle.  If not controlled, they can create and spread Pink-eye to the animals.  So how do we control the flies you ask?  Good question!  We make a mixture of Organic Citronella and Organic Sunflower oil and put it on strips in front of the mineral feeder. When the cattle go into the feeder for minerals, the oil mixture is then distributed to their faces and repels the flies.  This has been wonderfully effective for our cattle and we have not had any problems since we implemented this system.  The alternative would be to use either a dust bag or Cattle Rub containing insecticides to treat the animals.  Some insecticides used include Methoxychlor, Pyrethroids or Imaden, Permectrin Dust or Rabon Dust. Those chemicals are absorbed into the animal’s skin and through the air they breathe. The insecticides are then passed though the animal and into the manure and pasture environment. This is not allowed in organic production.
Now we move to the back end of the cow.  We have already touched on a few things that move through the cattle’s system, hence the reason we don’t give them those bad things we call contaminants.  Because our cattle eat the luscious grass and legumes in our paddocks, those little patty plops are great fertilizer for our pastures.  Because we rotationally graze our animals, we make sure to get a wide spread of ‘cow pies’ throughout the entire pasture area.  Some of you might think it’s not so good to have those, I agree you don’t want to step in them, but because our animals are spread out in the paddocks, we don’t have to ‘find a place’ for all that concentrated manure in one spot. Our manure stays in the paddocks and increases the pasture fertility. This means no hauling, no fossil fuel use and no disposal problems. On the conventional feedlots or non-pastured cattle, with so many animals crowded in one spot, and the average beef cow producing 10 tons of manure a year, that can spell (or smell) trouble.  All of that manure has to go somewhere! Where it goes it varies from feedlot to feedlot, but they have to find places to dispose of what really ends up as a liability instead of a valuable asset.
When purchasing meat from our farm, you can rest assured that our animals are well taken care of. We encourage you to visit our farm and see for yourself.  If you have questions about our animal practices, make sure you ask your farmers.  We are here to help further aid you in making an informed choice, one that you feel is best for you and your family. If our meat is a part of that choice, we are happy to be your farm!

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