It's our belief that true sustainability focuses on symbiotic biological systems (i.e. nutrient recycling via livestock, crop rotation, pasture-based production, and soil). It's tough to encompass all of these things into two or three words (ex: grass fed, pasture-raised, etc.). It's also impossible to qualify all the details listed below to fit USDA labeling rules. Our general rule of thumb for labeling: as the farmer, we'd be happy to explain/show you.
1) We raise a variety of non-GMO crops on our farms for a couple important reasons:
a) Nutrient Recycling
b) Business Risk.
-- Nutrient recycling: We rotate crops across our acreage to recycle nitrogen and carbon. Certain crops (legumes) are nitrogen fixating (investing nitrogen into subsoil): clover, alfalfa, soybeans. They're also a great source of protein.
-- Grasses consume nitrogen from the soil. Grasses include: bermuda, timothy, oats, and corn. Grasses are not a great source of protein but rather carbon and carbohydrates. Carbon is important for the microorganisms that live inside a cow's rumen. Low grass = low counts of microorganisms; low microorganisms = poor performing cattle. Happy and healthy microorganisms mean happy and healthy cows. This is the central point to why grass is important to ruminants (cattle & sheep).
-- Grasses and legumes complement each other very well. We run a 2:1 ratio of legume:grass ratio. Our fields are in legumes for about 4 years and in grass for 2.
-- We rotational graze our pastures. This is where we allow cattle to graze a restricted area and then move them onto the next "paddock" once they've mowed it down. This creates a robust pasture but also spreads manure evenly back over the pasture.
-- Business risk: Because we live in a climate that gives us a wide-range of weather and a short growing season, we need to protect ourselves against extremes. Through rotational grazing and crop rotation, we are constantly adding vigor and organic matter to our soil.
A few examples to better explain:
-- In 2009 with a depressed economy, we had no rainfall from mid-July to October. This severely stressed our pastures. In fact, we had to start feeding hay in August. This caused a deep cut into winter hay supplies. Hay was expensive everywhere (because of drought); to purchase more would've been a financial strain. Thankfully, we had a good corn silage crop. Corn silage is where the whole stalk is chopped. It's higher in energy (carbs) because of the kernels but yet high in fiber because of the stalk. Our crop rotation allowed us to prevent a serious blow to our business from a variable that we cannot control (drought).
- May 7, 2013, we had a bona fide blizzard. Whistling snow and wind in May. As part of our crop rotation, we seed down new pasture. The cover crop is oats. It grows fast and protects the pasture bed to gain root. A byproduct is straw. We went through A LOT of straw during the 2013 spring calving season. Again, another example of where our crop rotation saved our calves and our business.
2) Our values are to allow the cattle to live and grow as nature intended. Sometimes the pasture is a frozen tundra but we believe that ruminant animals are best suited to move freely across pasture, drink clean water, and be treated humanely.
-- Side story: Animal welfare is centrally important to us. If it's important to you, please know that we're on the same page. There have been instances when we've had calves born in a spring blizzard that we've kept in the house for hours to warm-up, weeks spent mending momma cows back to health after they've injured their foot. There is NO animal rights organization that cares more about livestock welfare than us. Animals provide us a living - we don't receive our sustenance via donations through infomercials - so rest assured, we treat our animals with dignity.
4) Animal diets. Our hay can be considered organic but it's not certified. We feed non-GMO corn silage (rough-chopped corn stalks) in the winter. When it hits -40 F degrees outside, the cattle need more energy in their rumens (think of the rumen as a furnace for the cow).
In 2013, we were approached by Lift Bridge Brewery to utilize their spent brewer's grains. It's a waste product to them and since it's been stripped of carbs & sugars after the fermentation process, it makes for a nice fiber feedstuff. We feed our cows the spent grains twice a week as a supplement.
-- Calves that enter our beef program are 100% grass-fed until the last 1/3 of their life. With the exception of June-July-August (access to rich, prime grasses), our finishing phase diet is 90% grass/hay and a portion-restricted mixed-grain supplement. The supplement consists of cracked corn, dried distillers grain, and organic whole grain oats. It's important to note that we NEVER restrict grass during the finishing phase. Our cattle can eat as much grass as they desire. They cannot, however, eat as much grain supplement as they want.
-- Our supplement program is also designed to assist the marbling in our steaks and roasts. Our Limousin cattle tend to be leaner than other breeds.
We welcome visits to the farm so we can demonstrate this in action. Early summer is perfect for demonstration because of the beginning of the growing season but we can accommodate anytime.