Raising top quality beef requires the selection and careful rearing of excellent beef animals, or as they are sometimes called, beeves. And raising and finishing them exclusively on grass requires something more. Full-size North American beef cattle have been bred for large frame size, to maximize the dollar return at harvest. Finishing is accomplished in this conventional method by feeding protein-rich feeds such as corn, soy, barley and other grains. Using this method, beeves can be fattened or finished at almost any age.
In grass-fed/finishing, animals put on fat (marbling in the muscle) best after the carcus is full grown. Given that on grass in our temperate climate the beeves put on an average of about 1.5 to 2 pounds per day, it takes about 18 to 22 months to grow a moderate-sized animal, ready for finishing (finishing takes an additional 2.5 to 4 months). Given this and our desire to deliver a top quality beef product, one of our breeding and selection goals is for moderate-sized animals.
Our beeves are allowed to fully mature in size (2+ years). This full growth cycle ensures that their high-energy finishing diet goes into marbling. Harvesting mature animals has also been shown to improve the delicious, beefy taste of the meat.
Grass-fed and Your Health
Grass is the natural, healthy food of cattle and other ruminants. Studies have shown that grass-fed beef has less total fat and less saturated fat than beef from grain-fed/finished animals. This all-grass diet creates meat that is higher in Omega 3, lower in Omega 6, and higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLAs), a fatty acid shown to help with weight loss and to help prevent cancer. And this makes Windhorse beef not only great tasting, but very good for your health as well (for more details on the health benefits of grass-fed beef, see Michael Pollan’s highly praised book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Penguin, 2006, and the article our winter 2012 newsletter from customer and nutritionist (retired) Jeanne Keith-Ferris).
Grass-fed and the Cattle
Cattle thrive on grass! Cattle are specially designed to eat grass, not grains. Their rumen allows them to make the most of this grass diet. Grain feeding/finishing may make the process easier for the farmer (and better for business), allowing them to finish an animal at almost any time, young or old, spring, summer, autumn or winter. But the down sides affect the animals in negative ways, and you the consumer as well.
Cattle are not well suited to eating grain and it leads to greater stress on their internal systems resulting in a higher incidence of disorders requiring medical intervention. Also, ruminants with partial or full grain diets have a higher probability of creating harmful E. Coli. A grain diet degrades the health benefits of the beef, lowering or eliminating the beneficial Omega 3 and cancer-fighting CLAs found in grass-fed/finished animals, while increasing the ratio of Omega 6 (the fatty acid you don’t want too much of).
Managed Intensive Grazing
At Windhorse, we use a grazing technique call managed intensive grazing (MiG) to create an optimal environment for the cattle, and in the process, enhance soil biology and soil health. It’s one of nature’s sweet win-wins, both for the cattle and the farm environment, and for the farm business.
In applying MiG techniques on the farm, our cattle are encouraged to eat the best and trample the rest! They get one chance at it, and then it’s time to move on to the next swarth of grass. In this way, we try to mimic nature and the large herds of grazing mammals that roamed the grasslands of the world for millenia. They were constantly moving, eating a good portion and trampling the rest, while also leaving behind a healthy covering of fresh manure. This process increases soil carbon, eventually forming humus, and promoting the growth of a rich mix of nutrient-fixing soil organisms and an ever-thickening top soil.
Managed intensive grazing ultimately provides great feed, protection against soil erosion, increased soil moisture holding capacity for dry seasons, and enhanced carbon sequestration.
Managing Soil Biology
In addition to MiG, we compost the manure collected and stored from the winter bedding areas. This compost is created using a hot compost method, where the piles (approximately 6 to 8 tonnes each) are built and allowed to heat to 55 – 60 degrees C. The piles are matured, fixing nutrients and increasing the beneficial soil organisms before being spread onto the grazed fields.
In addition, we take some of the best compost and make compost tea. In this case, we want to create a tea with a broad range of aerobic micro organisms, including nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Starting with great compost, we innoculate this with additional foods and leave it for about 36 hours. It is then put into the tea brewer.
The tea is made in a special brewer, called a ‘microbulator’, which strips the fungi, protozoa, bacteria and other organisms off the compost and into the oxygenated water. Once brewed, (this takes between 18 to 24 hours), the tea is immediately applied to the fields as a foliar spray.
One batch of about 200 litres of tea is sufficient to spray about 0.8 hectares (2 acres) of pasture. We, with the help of innovative neighbours, created a nifty spray wagon that is pulled (and the sprayer powered) by a quad. This allows us to get the spray on quickly while minimizing soil compaction. This rich compost tea is applied to the grass early or late in the day to prevent it from being dried out too quickly.