News from the Farm: Improved Pastures and Better Beef
Dear Friends of North Mountain Pastures,
We just got seven new beef cows!
This is exciting because it is our first foray back into beef cows (other than our few jersey oxen including Mace Windu with the horns in the photo above). Here’s how it’s gone down.
History of beef in the Meat CSA
When we first started the Meat CSA in 2009, we were raising the chickens and pork, and buying the beef for the CSA shares. We were farming on rented land in those days, with no startup capital, and had little experience with beef. When we got our farm in April 2011, it had been conventionally managed forever. This means hay was taken off of the hilly ground a couple of times a year, and corn and soybeans were grown conventionally on the ~20 acres of flat ground ("grown conventionally" means with GMO plants that could be sprayed with roundup to kill all weeds).
Brooks likes to describe those fields when we got here as being a “moonscape”. In early summer, there was nothing but bare soil with old corn stubble, and a few very sad and spindly weeds. These weeds were not common dandelions and lambs quarter and grasses that animals love to eat. Rather they were strange, cactusy and low growing, exotic looking weeds. We no-till-drilled in some heat loving sorghum sudan grass and turnips to create a meager stand of forage for our grazing animals to eat that first year.
This photo was taken on July 11, 2011 - I know, poor lighting and resolution, but you can still see all the bare soil and young sorghum plants which look like corn. Little else was growing, despite nature hating bare soil.
A friend of ours who happened at that time to be getting out of beef, sold us a mixed breed herd of 25 beef cattle that summer, with a generously long term and low interest rate.
We learned some hard lessons on photography, I mean raising beef in those days, involving escaping animals (found in neighbors fields, or two miles up the power lines!), beef finishing, and adequate forage. Our forage was just that: barely adequate. What we found was that we just didn’t have enough good pasture to ensure a steady growth rate for beef. Beef growing wisdom dictates that grassfed beef needs to put on 2 lbs minimum of weight PER DAY in order to be finished well, meaning with some fat cover and a little marbling. Well, as some of you may recall, our beef was perfectly fine, there wasn’t anything wrong with it, but the finishing was inconsistent. Because of the mixed breeds and less than ideal quality pasture, the finished beef cuts were of varying tenderness, fat content, size, etc.
We have always aimed to provide the highest quality product possible, both in terms of taste and nutrition. We felt at the time that it would be better for our customers to receive truly excellent grassfed beef than keeping finishing beef from our farm with less than excellent results. That is why we started buying in all beef a couple of years ago from local growers who, frankly, were doing a much better job finishing grassfed beef than we were. Since that time, we have been providing steaks, roasts, and ground 100% grassfed beef that is of superior quality from a seasoned farmer with established organic pastures.
Fast forward a few more years, and here is a photo of the same field:
Overflowing with abundance. Mixed grasses, legumes, and forbes (aka weeds) provide tons of forage per acre. No fertilization, plowing, or other agricultural intervention other than mixed livestock grazing and light hand seeding was used here. Only the combined effect of even distribution of various animal manure, carefully managed grazing to stimulate plant growth without overgrazing, along with trampling of plants into the soil has naturally created conditions for growing grass.
Now we have an altogether different problem: we have too much grass, and we need to get it eaten down! So we bought 7 heifer cows, and they are looking healthy. It took a few rather exciting incidents to get them trained to electric fence, but they seem to be understanding the system now.
Late June 2016
Here you can see the chicken hoophouses in the back, with the sows following behind the cows. The grass is tall and drying out now, since it didn’t get eaten down this spring, but that is OK. Mob grazing, or intentional high density grazing, shows us that "overgrown" grasses actually develop better root systems, as well as serve to protect an undergrowth of younger more succulent green growth, and inhibit unwanted weed growth. This trampling effect that you can see in the photo above is also intentional, as that builds carbon material in the soil.
The short story is this: rotationally grazing livestock on this ground has in fact improved the soils and the forage to the extent that this land can now support MORE livestock than it could before. More livestock will continue to cause more trampling of forage, more carbon sequestration, more soil building, and more pasture forage. Win-win!
Here’s hoping that we’ll do a great job finishing these beef and that we’ll be able to supply a good portion of the beef for the CSA right off the farm in the future!
Our Favorite Easy Ground Beef Tacos
There are so many variations to tacos, and that is the beauty of them. Because you can assemble your own, there is something to please everyone. This is almost a non-recipe since it is so basic, but here is our favorite way to make 30 minute beef tacos:
1. Fry up some ground beef, 1-3 lbs depending on how many people we are feeding. Place the ground beef in a heavy cast iron pan on medium high.
2. While the pot heats up and it starts to brown, dice 1-2 onions and throw them in with the beef.
3. As the onions and beef cook, break the chunks of beef up with a heavy duty metal spatula, scraping and turning frequently.
4. Season your taco meat. Recipe lovers: mix up a taco seasoning like this one. Recipe haters (we know who we are): The basics are- Salt, roughly 1/2 teaspoon per pound of meat. Black pepper, garlic powder (or fresh garlic), cumin, and paprika are our necessities, which makes for a mild taco that can be spiced up later for those that like the heat! You can adjust the quantities to taste - sprinkle, mix, taste, repeat, which has never failed me. OR, even easier, use a prepared organic taco seasoning mix.
5. Add 1-2 cup water or broth, and simmer for 20 minutes.
6. Serve with the fixins: tortillas, cheese, chopped lettuce, pickled hot peppers, salsa, sour cream (or our paleo friendly substitute for dairy-free sour cream: mayo! It works, trust me), chopped raw onion, cilantro, lime juice... the list never ends.
What is your favorite taco recipe?
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