Transparent Cattle Production Practices
Grass fed, grass finished and pasture-raised
If things like financial inputs and extreme regional weather were not real concerns, we would have endless pastures with knee-high grass to rotate our cattle through all year round. This would most closely reflect the way large ruminant animals (think buffalo, for example) lived before western civilization changed the land where we live today. This would be the way to grow cattle for beef that is the most in-sync with Mother Nature's prescription and cattle biology.
In reality, extreme weather conditions, lack of rains, below zero temperatures for extended periods, and fences prevent cattle from roaming freely and finding those delicious and nutritious plains grasses all year round.
True story, all cattle start out "grass fed", and for this reason, any producer could use this label without being outright dishonest. Sadly, it is a widely overused label that has many interpretations and this in turn weakens its meaning and value. So, for the moment let's put labels aside.
Here's what we should all be interested in knowing from cattle producers (and other protein producers for that matter).
- How was it treated during its life?
- Where did it live?
- What did it eat?
Our cattle are treated well, they are subjected to very few stress-inducing experiences. We do ear tag the calves for identification purposes, we transport them via stock trailer only a handful of times depending on the circumstances during their lives. They are not given growth hormones or preventative antibiotics. They might get a course of antibiotics if they are sick and need it, but this would be a very rare occurrence.
Our cattle live in fields of plains and grasses. These I call pastures. I lease them from landowners, where I am able. Sometimes the land is a part of a working ranch with great regenerative management practices and has an organic cattle operation running on it. Sometimes it is a residential property with 20-40 acres surrounding it that have been over-grazed in the past by cows and horses and they are in need of some rejuvenation. Our cattle are not living their lives confined in metal or wooden corrals standing on dirt and muddy ground, unable to get away from their own manure. We use barbed wire for perimeter fencing and single-strand electric wire for temporary fencing to help rotate them onto fresh grasses for grazing.
What do they eat? Mostly grass growing under their feet with supplementation as needed. If there is grass growing in the pastures to graze on then that is option number one. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that will be the case all year long in Montana. There is this great thing called winter stockpiling which is where good grass is purposely left in the pastures for cattle to forage on all year long. However, it doesn't work in all fields or all circumstances. The cows are offered hay whenever the forage quality falls below what is required to meet their nutritional needs. Hay is just cut plants of some kind that are dried and stored to be fed to animals later on. There is a wide range of types and quality of hay. I buy the best hay that I am able to offer. It is often mixes of alfalfa with other grasses. The downside is that feeding hay for most of the year (up to eight months depending on rainfall and pasture conditions) can get expensive. We also broadcast a diverse mix of perennial seeds in the spring to help increase the biodiversity and biomass of the pastures we lease. I will also offer lick tubs of flaxseed and molasses for protein and energy a couple of times per year as needed if nutritional demands are high and forage quality is low. Our cattle are not offered corn or soy in any form.