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Why Our Grass Fed Beef is Awesome

When I convinced Beth to move to Iowa with me, she insisted on one thing for our cattle - that they would be grass finished from the get go. She didn't want to sell cattle into feedlots, or grow GMO corn to feed our own. Luckily, I had already planned to move into grass finishing (even if not quite so immediately). As a butcher and chef, properly grass finished beef has always had a richer flavor, texture and color than grain finished beef, not to mention some pretty great health benefits.

When I took over farming from my dad, I also bought his cows and bulls, a herd he had managed since his father retired in the late 1950's. Beyond that, my grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather had herds on the farm. As far as I can tell, the farm has had cattle on it as long as there have been Hogelands here. It's possible that some of the cows we now own are descendants of my great-great-grandfather's herd from the 1860s, though there is no way to know for sure.

Big Boi, my best steer, a stocky guy who prefers not to miss a meal.

What I can be sure of, though, is that along the way each of us worked to improve the genetics of the herd, each to suit his own needs.

The oldest stories we have are of my great-grandfather, an entrepreneurial man, would buy extra bull calves from local dairies, adding enough of these dairy calves to his own beef calves to fill a rail car to send to Chicago. The added bonus of this was that if you filled a rail car, you received a free ride to and from Chicago in the caboose of the train. It was a trip he made yearly and would pick up items like pocket knives and watches for neighbors who asked.

My grandpa, on the other hand, farmed through the depression and raised "unpolled" (horned) Herefords. He never had enough cattle to get a free ride in the caboose, but he liked the look and solidity of the breed. He did well with them too, often topping the market at the sale barn with what he called his "pretty red and white calves".

When my dad took over, he bought Black Angus bulls to cross with the Herefords for the commodity beef market. He used "polled" (hornless) Angus bulls that produced calves without horns because de-horning the calves was traumatic for everyone and often set the animals back. Later he experimented with "exotic" breeds like Limousine and Polled Salers, French breeds that tend to be big, but have slim, long calves (for easier birthing). He always crossed them with standard Angus-Hereford cross cows though because commodity cattle buyers paid more for black calves than they would for any other color or type (and still do today).

My dad's last additions before turning the herd over to me were actually chosen by a young neighbor who had a penchant for tall, big framed Angus cows. He was helping dad with the farming (in exchange for half the calf herd each year) and bought replacement cows at the sale barn where he worked part time.

Boss cow, easily my tallest. I almost had to get the bull a step ladder.

And you'd think that big cows would be what everyone wants, right? But the truth is, big cows are really inefficient grass eaters. You see, grass really doesn't have that very many available calories, and a big cow requires a lot of calories just to maintain its weight. That means that big cows are best fattened up at the feedlot, where they can stand around being fed a steady diet of grain to pack on the fat and muscle.

But, like I said, Beth and I are not interested in sending our cattle to a feedlot. That is a system that may quickly fatten our animals, but will also require feeding them antibiotics as they stand in pens among piles of their own manure. I can't think of a less appealing source for my next steak or hamburger.

So, what we are looking for are shorter, smaller cows that can grow more efficiently on grass, and are still tasty. Small cows put on weight much more easily than a big cow and with less food. Looking at it in pure numbers, you can actually support more pounds of small cows per acre than you can big cows - and the smaller animals will gain much faster and fatten better.

Enter the Red Devon. Red Devons are, like Herefords and Angus, a British breed, bred originally for their excellent flavor and mild manner. But unlike the other two, they have not been aggressively bred for size. Devons are small to medium in build and excel at turning grass into muscle, finishing more quickly than many other breeds. Our new Devons have yet to fatten, but so far the cattle we have added to the herd are great mothers. As a bonus, they are also excellent foragers, often making the Angus cows look like spoiled brats who don't like what's for dinner.

One of my two-year old Red Devons, due to calve in the fall. Notice her size compared to the cows around her.

Still, even with smaller, more efficient cattle, it takes almost 2 full years to raise them, so you can imagine how excited we are that our first cattle are ready. Beth and I sold three to a friend who direct markets grass fed beef and got a few steaks back as samples. The meat is delicious - flavorful, lean and tender - we couldn't be happier.

So while we can't yet ship out of state (still working on that) we are pleased to be offering them here for those of you in Iowa. The rest of you will just need to come to visit and enjoy it with us here on the farm.

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1 Comment

Jan 12, 2021

Thanks for sharing this Jon. Interesting topic and good writing. I am sharing these with a colleague who teaches environmental science. I love to see you putting stuff I've read about to the test and really are doing sustainable ag. All of the things that'd never occur to someone not really doing it. Thanks again-

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