Cattle are key to a healthy ecosystem, that is if we manage cattle in natures image.  Nature provides examples of how herds such as the bison of North America or the buffalo and wildebeest of Africa work as keystone species.  An important feature of these large animals is their ability to eat grass.  Much of the grass they eat, comes right back out the back end (POOP) as high quality nutrients that feed soil life and creates new grass.  The process is very simple and efficient.  The hard thing for us humans is to keep it simple.

In elementary school I remember when any type of nutrient cycle (carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus) was shown as a graphic, the COW was the central or a key part of the process.

nitrogen cycle

The nitrogen cycle, note the cow! As an aside, legumes in our pasture “fix” atmospheric N for free. Industrial fixation of N requires 300 atmospheres of pressure and 1000 degrees F of heat!

Maybe you have heard the bad rap cows have received in the global warming/climate change discussions.  Basically that cows are adding to much methane (green house gas) to our atmosphere.  Here are a few things to think about:

  • Our current cow herd size in the U.S. is about 10 million fewer animals than historic bison herd estimates.  Not even counting the elk, deer and antelope that use to roam our lands.
    • How can fewer animals cause problems today when larger herds of the past built deep rich soils and abundance?
  • Methane from cattle on healthy pastures are quickly mitigated by soil microbes.

I think we can agree that cattle confined to dirt lots eating non-natural diets such as corn will produce more methane than grass based cattle.  So it is not the cattle causing the problem, if anything it is how humans manage the cattle.

Our nutrient cycles are now broken as pointed out in this article from Nature World News “Loss Of Animals’ Poop Disrupts Nutrient Cycles…”.  We need to get animals out of confined feeding areas and back out on the land.  Our lands are starved for the biological active nutrients that could be naturally cycling through large herbivores such as cattle.

Prior to brining cattle to our pastures in 2011, this farm had not had a cow on it for over 30 years.  We have re-established nutrient cycling in our pastures by using cattle in natures image and are starting to see excellent results in the grass we are able to grow!

Want to stay up on the most recent science of how beef can heal our environment?  Check out the Defending Beef FaceBook page.

Image source: UN-L Extension Circular 155.

An update on our 2016 Beef Offering.  Here are a couple of photos of steers that we will be offering in September as custom processed beef.  These steers have just turned two years old and we look for them to gain well, over the rest of the summer.

Two year old DS Family Farm Steer. 100% grassfed and has spent it's entire life in our pasture in the same herd as it's mother.

Two year old DS Family Farm Steer. 100% grassfed and has spent it’s entire life in our pasture in the same herd as it’s mother.

Remember flavor is linked to:

  1. Age – typical grocery store beef is harvested around 16-18 months (bland flavor).
  2. Diet – our pastures contain diverse forages resulting in complex flavors (unlike bland corn only beef).
  3. Dry Aging – custom processed beef will be dry aged, grocery store beef is wet aged.
2016 Pasture Grazed (100% Grassfed) DS Family Farm Steer

2016 Pasture Grazed (100% Grassfed) DS Family Farm Steer. Steer is 2 years old and spent its entire life in our pasture, never in a dirt lot.

The forages consumed during the last sixty days are key to the nutritional make up of harvested beef.  These steers will be harvested directly off green growing forages, not stored forages.  The green growing forages will give the best possible fat profile as demonstrated from our 2015 beef analysis.  The fatty acid profile will be some of the best you can find.

Why don’t our steers look fatter?

We will add some excellent gains over the next two months but grassfed beef will never look “fat” like a feedlot steer:

  • Pasture grazed beef must walk for their food:
    • We don’t burn fossil fuels delivering feed to our cattle.
    • Cattle have legs, they can walk to feed and water.
    • The exercise keeps them fit.
  • Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA):
    • A diet high in green forages = high CLA.
    • CLA is the anti cancer “fat”.
    • High CLA is believed to keep cattle leaner, prevents them from getting fat.

Do you want to be fit, trim and healthy?

Eat an athlete like one of our pasture grazed cattle that have high levels of CLA.  Avoid the couch potatoe feed lot beef found in your grocery store.

Please drop us a note if your interested in trying some of our pasture grazed beef.

We are really excited about the post below.  I recently had the opportunity to meet Daniel and Allyson of Lovegrass Beef.  Daniel has a passion for prairies!  Enjoy Daniel’s guest post:

Prairie Gains

By Daniel Frank – Lovegrass Beef

With spring finally here, and plants just beginning to green up, it’s time to get geared up for prescribed burning season.  March 19th to 27th was the seventh annual Training Exchange (TREX) at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, near Johnstown, Nebraska. This is a chance for people around the United States and beyond to knock the rust off, and get back in the burning game. People come to learn, to teach, to get more experience, and also just to help the Preserve burn the acres they have planned.

Maybe I should start by talking about the benefits of prescribed burning. Controlled burns help suppress unwanted woody plants, such as eastern red cedar. They help reduce excess plant buildup in areas that weren’t grazed or hayed, allowing new growth to catch sunlight and flourish. If timed correctly, prescribed fire can also help suppress exotic species like Kentucky bluegrass and Smooth brome. Prairie ecosystems around the world evolved with the presence of fire, and with responsible prescribed burning we can maintain healthy ecosystems that can support a wide variety of life.

This was my second time attending TREX, and like the first year, I had a blast. I learned from the people around me, and I was able to use the knowledge I’d gained from the first year.

test prescribed fire

The test fire is lit, conditions look good, and the firing progresses.

I am a big proponent of prescribed burning. I’ve seen first-hand the benefits of putting controlled fire on the ground. My major goal is to maintain a healthy, native, diverse prairie ecosystem. Fire is not the only major force that acts to shape our grassland ecosystems. There are three main forces that shape prairies: fire, grazing, and drought. We have little control over the moisture we receive year to year, so we can focus our management on the other two forces.

The Great Plains evolved with the presence of bison. They would move around the country grazing grasses and some forbs, being pushed by the weather, the quantity of forages, and the time of year. Though bison are not a dominant presence anymore, cattle are a pretty good substitute. With proper management, they are an excellent tool to manage the land. Without grazing, pastures can become overgrown, and some species can be choked out. When cattle graze some areas more than others, plant species respond and their composition changes. This is how rangeland becomes a mosaic of plant communities.

Purple coneflower

Echinacea angustifolia, Purple coneflower. Photo by Allyson Dather.

This brings me to raising cattle on grass. I sell grassfed beef because I believe that ruminant animals which evolved to eat grasses and forbs, should be able to eat that diet exclusively. I am trying to reduce the inputs required to raise market animals. At the same time, the cattle raised on grass are leaner, and are healthier for people to consume. As I already mentioned, grazing is necessary to maintain a healthy prairie. Using cattle as management tools while simultaneously producing a healthy, delicious type of meat is a win-win.

My partner, Allyson Dather, and I started selling grassfed beef under the name Lovegrass Beef in 2015. Sometimes we laugh about how cheesy the name sounds, but it was picked for a couple reasons. Here in the Sandhills we have a lot of Sand Lovegrass (Eragrostis trichodes), and Purple Lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis). These are native warm season grasses with showy seedheads, and the presence of Sand Lovegrass can be indicative of good range management. The other reason we picked the name is because since our cattle are grassfed, they sure ought to love grass!

Cattle grazing Nebraska Sandhills

Cattle grazing native rangeland in late summer/early fall 2013. Photo by Allyson Dather.

Here at our ranch, we are starting to move our operation to becoming more environmentally aware. We have applied for cost-share programs to plant cropland back to rangeland. Hopefully in a few years we can sell the center-pivot irrigation systems after the native plants have a solid foothold. We will be using these pastures to graze cattle during the summer mostly. I’m hoping to be able to create a burn plan for our ranch, where we can defer grazing of certain pastures, and use fire to hold back any invasive plants. We have a 70 acre burn planned for this spring, where we will be putting fire on our land for the first time in probably 100 years. I’m excited to watch the burn in action, and very excited to see the results. 

Thanks Daniel!  “Lovegrass Beef”, I laughed also the first time I saw that name, awesome!  If you would like to comment or connect with Daniel and Allyson, please visit their Facebook page!

This month we started a farm email newsletter to keep our customers up to date.  Feel free to subscribe by using the form on our Contact page.

Among other items in this past email newsletter we asked the question, can cows live on grass alone?

Most cattle can live on grass alone, but the challenge is to raise healthy cattle that get to a level of “finish” (fat enough) to harvest and provide a quality eating experienceUltimately it is about YOU, providing YOU our customer, with a healthy product.  Many cattle today are no longer able to do this on grass alone.

Over the past 75 years cattle have been bred and managed to consume high starch (corn/grain) diets.  If you have not yet read Michael Pollan’s NY Times 2002 POWER STEER article, you really ought to take the time to do so.  This is an excellent story/explanation of how conventional beef reaches the supermarket.

grass type bull

BUDDY! Our herd bull thrives on grass. 75% Red Angus and 25% Devon.  100% Pasture Grazed!

In the uphill battle to find grass type cattle to start our herd, here is a review of the path we traveled:

  • Pharo Cattle Company
    • Hearing Kit speak back in 2002 opened my mind to what we now call DS Family Farm.
    • Sign up for Kit Pharo’s newsletter, excellent info!
  • Terry Gompert
    • Past UN-L Extension agent and HMI instructor.
    • Check if any recordings are still available from UN-L in Knox County such as:
      • 2007 Ultra High Stock Density Event
      • 2009 Holistic Grazing Management
  • Stockman Grass Farmer publication
    • Excellent resources, CDs, DVDs, Books.
  • Grassfed Exchange
    • All things GRASSFED.
    • Recordings of their past events are a wealth of information.
  • Hidden Valley Ranches in the Nebraska Sandhills
    • We met Gary and Cathie Morris at the first Grassfed Exchange in 2010.
    • In 2011 we brought 10 heifers and a bull from their Ranch to our farm.
    • Previously Gary and Cathie had worked with grass cattle guru Gerald Fry.
  • In addition we visited and learned from a number of great local farms.
There are a lot of cattle herds in the vast ALL GRASS Nebraska Sandhills, but most of those herds produce cattle that end up in feedlots and finished on corn.  The Devon cattle influence and breeding program that Gary and Cathie implemented provided us with a great starter herd of cattle that thrive, reproduce and finish on an all grass diet.
With that said, here at DS Family Farm we are still learning and improving.
  • We are starting to add cows raised on our farm to the breeding herd.
    • Animals born and raised on our farm will out perform cattle raised elsewhere.
  • Our forages are improving:
    • Cattle were a missing part of our farm.
    • Cattle cycle nutrients, improving the soil and future grass.
    • Improved soil holds more water to grow more grass.
  • All with a goal to improve the level of “finish” on our harvested beef!
    • Our Ultimate Goal, providing a better product for you our customer.

So yes, it is possible for cows to live on grass alone.  Do your research and enjoy the journey!

In our previous post we described how complex pastures create complex flavors in our beef.  We discussed a number of other factors that play into the “beefy” flavor of our pasture grazed animals compared to the simple flavor of conventional beef.  When people first taste grass-fed beef they usually comment that it tastes “gamey”.  Around here I guess they are comparing that taste to deer.

citation buck

Jacob with his 2013 citation buck. Note the unusual second beam on left side of head.  Maybe someday Doug will get lucky!

Deer can travel wherever they like and eat whatever they like.  They can select the most nutritious food that is available year round.  Over the years I have shot a number of deer in this part Nebraska (still waiting for my chance at one like Jacob’s above).  During the cleaning of these deer I have noted that deer being opportunistic, will also feed on corn and other grains.  Yet, with over 50,000 deer harvested in Nebraska last year alone, I can’t think of a single time when someone said “that deer tasted like corn-fed beef.”

Healthy wild game tastes “gamey” for the same reason grass-fed beef tastes “gamey”.  It is the complex foods consumed by these animals that makes the meat flavor complex (and healthy).  They are not force fed a simple starch diet like conventional beef, with the sole purpose of getting fat.

The grain consumed by deer would be unlike the grain fed to conventional beef:

  • Whole kernel grains, not processed, rolled or roasted
  • Grain would be part of a complex diet, not a simple diet designed for getting fat
  • Grains would only be consumed seasonally, not for a significant time leading up to harvest

Now consider our beef herd.  We do not allow the cattle to run free like the deer (this keeps our neighbors happy).  We manage and control the herd movement to insure our cattle will have fresh forages year round.  During the non-growing season, “fresh” means a section of pasture that has not been grazed for the previous 4+ months.  Unlike deer, our cattle never receive any grain to insure that our beef has the healthy fat profile desired by our customers.

You know what nutrient dense food tastes like.  Remember the last time you ate an apple and thought to yourself, WOW that tasted great.  It doesn’t happen very often with a store bought apple these days, but maybe it came from a local orchard, and you just knew it was a good apple.  That good flavor came from complex nutritious compounds in the fruit.  Well, the next time you bite into some grass-fed beef with a noticeable flavor, just remember that flavor came from complex nutritious compounds in the meat.  This nutritious beef will satisfy you on a smaller portion size compared to conventional beef and you will feel better after eating it.

If you are finding the more complex flavor of pasture grazed beef is difficult for you or your children to adjust to, try our hot dogs or brats.  Consider using stew meat with vegetables or turning that pound of hamburger into meatloaf.  Use your imagination and your taste buds will soon adjust to what is naturally known to us as good tasting food, that is good for us.