A return to the old-school way of raising beef cattle can lead to food safety, security, and sustainability.
For most of their species’ existence, cattle grazed on native, organic grasses. But in the past century, humans have introduced massive amounts of grain into cattle’s diets to fatten them up quicker, sell them at an earlier age, and mass-produce their beef. Fortunately, a few of us have enough grassland for cattle to graze on, which allows us to offer grass-fed beef. And just recently, I decided to go for it.
Last year, Mike Nihsen, of Nihsen Family Farms, had 30 head of cows and calves he had to move overnight, so we struck a deal to graze the cattle on my land, and I would be in on a few head. Along with my sister Cynthia and her spouse, Virginia, I bought a few more bull calves to go with the herd after Mike moved the cows and calves, and we were in business.
The calves came in weighing 300 to 400 pounds each, and wasted no time grazing my stockpile of rye and other grasses. In the first month, they gained at least 65 to 75 pounds per head. I planned to keep them pastured all year, rotate them on six sections of grass pasture, and then finish them up in spring on fresh native grasses.
Statistically, black cattle bring the highest prices at the sale barn because they yield better at the slaughterhouse. And even though their genetics perfected them for gaining at the feedlot, Black Angus steers can gain 2 to 3 pounds per day on grass pastures in spring and summer, and in two years’ time, can weigh between 1,000 and 1,300 pounds. Other breeds are better-suited for feeding and finishing on grass, but for now, we’re mostly sticking with the old-school Black Angus, which is what Mike had in his herd, as well as a huge Black Angus bull.
We recently had a cull cow butchered at a local government-inspected processor, Hamilton Wholesale Meats in Weatherford, Texas, which made about 450 pounds of ground beef and stew meat, and 30 pounds of tenderized cutlets. We sold most of it to friends, family, a local restaurant, and a food co-op, and also sold some at a farmers market in Grapevine, Texas. I contacted the food co-op to let them know we had 100 pounds of ground beef from grass-fed cattle, and the manager said she’d see how much she could sell. Well, she posted it to their Facebook page that evening and it was all gone in three hours.
The demand is there, so we’ve decided to sell all our beef direct. On Earth Day, we set up a booth at the Grapevine Farmers Market and sold directly to the people of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. We’ve been there every Saturday since, because we’re swamped by folks seeking to buy clean, quality grass-fed beef straight off the farm.
One of our best customers is the manager of the Wichita Falls Area Food Share, Vicki Schweiss, who sold more than 500 pounds of ground beef, stew meat, offal, and more over the course of six weeks to the food share members. Eighty families in and around Wichita Falls and Vernon, Texas, get a good portion of their weekly groceries through the farm-to-table operation. Vicki contacts local farmers and growers to see what each of us has to offer for the week and posts the menu online, and then the members order raw milk, butter, cream, cheese, honey, vegetables, pastured eggs, pork, coffee, natural supplements, herbs, oils, and our grass-fed beef, to be picked up at her home each week.
We recently hooked up with Farm to Fork Foods in Arlington, Texas, the first storefront to sell our grass-fed beef. Owner Karen Dotson and Director of Marketing and Operations Kristen Robinson are committed to providing their neighbors in the region with local, farm-fresh, natural foods.
After some negotiation, we decided to sell our beef to them at a 12 percent discount. We’ve paid others 10 to 12 percent commissions (cash or trade) for their sales efforts, and we pay a weekly fee plus a percentage to sell at farmers markets, which amounts to about 12 percent. With Farm to Fork Foods, we make a delivery to the store, and then they handle the sales. They have a large customer base, which is to our advantage. They’ve freed us up to spend more time at the farm.
So, we’ve already built a large regular customer base and sold thousands of dollars of beef, and we haven’t even butchered a steer yet this year. We’ve processed the young cull cows first, and we’ve sold the tenderloins, briskets, stew meat, bones, and (literally) a ton of ground beef.
Our cattle are treated with respect, allowed to be cattle, calmly moved and doctored if needed, and fed only grasses, and in turn they provide the nutritious beef our society has been herded away from. While I do expect to make money, grass-fed beef makes for a lot more than that. It’s better for our health, the animals, and our natural resources. Intense mob grazing provides the soil with beneficial microorganisms, sequesters carbon in the soil, and removes greenhouse gases from the air. I want to feed my neighbors the most high-quality, nutritious beef they can get anywhere. Grass-fed beef fits that description and fits right into my natural life here at Sunflower Farms.
I hope you’ll saddle up with us and help turn the beef cattle industry back into a sustainable, healthy food-production business.
Robert D. Copeland is a farmer and writer who lives in Texas, where he runs Sunflower Farms Grass-Fed Beef. He also operates an off-grid bed-and-breakfast with straw bale and earth plaster cabins, permaculture workshops, and more.