Raising Grass-fed Livestock – Should We Be Farmers or Ranchers?

Newbie farmers like us have a wild assortment of farming models and philosophies to investigate.  I’ll explain here why we like farming more than ranching for our future grass-fed meats business…

Within the wide assortment of grass-fed livestock farmers, you have on one side of the spectrum the Greg Judy “strict rancher” types that don’t even own a bush hog!  They keep all of their fields in permanent pasture and intensively manage their animals’ grazing.  They make a profit by keeping costs extremely low.  It’s a positive choice on their part to have their dollars in appreciating assets (animals), not depreciating ones like tractor implements.  On the other hand, you have the type that likes to farm more than ranch.  This type has farm machinery to grow annual crops on smaller plots so they’ll have green growing food for their animals to graze year-round.  In my estimation, this type likes to take a more direct, hands-in-the-dirt approach to improving soil and forage quality for their animals.  They probably like farming more too – planting and growing different crops, amending soil, etc.

We’ve decided to adopt more of the farming model.  We gradually came to this decision after about 2 ½ years of visiting different farms, reading, and studying our soil and climate.  Specifically, we’re getting into biological farming, made somewhat famous by dairy farmer Gary Zimmer.  It’s a method that involves amending soil with fertilizers that are friendly to soil life, incorporating cover crops to feed soil biology and to improve organic matter in the soil, spreading compost, etc, etc.  The focus is on the soil, the foundation of every farm.  This choice fits with our farm values, our concern for our sub-par soil, our region’s history, and our personal preferences.

Our farm values are taste and health, and our goal is to produce a very tasty 100% grass fed steak that came from a healthy, happy animal.  Producing gourmet steaks on grass alone is not an easy task whatsoever.  In order to accomplish this goal, we need to make sure the forage going into our animals is top quality, high energy feed.  Our soil has quite a long way to go before it’s able to grow forages like this.  That’s why all our current efforts are focused on improving the soil by carefully fertilizing, growing cover crops, etc.  We could, in addition to using some fertilizers, just use animals to improve the soil.  However, our soil needs so much improvement that I’m a fearful of expecting animals to thrive on our fields.  We’re not willing to deal with animal disease and mortality if we know better and can do something about it.  We’d rather spend money upfront on inputs like quality fertilizers and have fewer animal problems down the road. 

Another factor that went into our choice was our region’s farming history.  Southern Maryland is not known for grazing!  It’s been a farm crop region, primarily tobacco, for hundreds of years.  This should give us a clue.  With some skill and care for the soil, annual crops like corn do quite okay here.  We believe our soil is well-suited to growing annual forages like sorghum-sudan and winter wheat for grazing.  We want to do this any way to keep the highest quality forages possible in front of the animals all year long (e.g, for the winter, winter wheat plants are more energy dense than hay) to make those gourmet steaks.  This desire pretty much necessitates using a tractor and farm equipment – farming, not ranching. 

We really have no way of knowing if our sandy, worn out soil has the potential to help us meet our juicy steak vision, but this is the path that most excites us.  We have a keen desire to see our soil dramatically improve.  We believe that a farm’s true wealth is in its soil quality.  We’re intent on improving the soil as much as possible before we get animals so they can thrive right off the bat.  For our soil, this involves cover cropping, amending the soil, and in addition to having excellent pastures, growing high quality forages for our animals to graze all year.


5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jenny on July 13, 2011 at 11:23 pm

    There is a symbiosis between cow and grass that you are missing. The grass grows better because the cow is eating it. Farming (winter forages, mangels, etc) has it’s place, but it can not replace the cow on grass.

    I recommend reading Andre Voison “Grass Productivity”


    • Jenny, thanks for commenting! Totally agree with you and I have read Grass Productivity. I didn’t mean to give the impression that we’d go crazy with annuals. Perennial pasture will be the majority of our farm. With our very sandy soil, I’m just not sure how great our grass will be. We’ll see!


  2. Excellent read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing some research on that. And he actually bought me lunch because I found it for him smile Thus let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch! “We strain to renew our capacity for wonder, to shock ourselves into astonishment once again.” by Shana Alexander.


  3. Posted by Cheyenne on September 4, 2011 at 11:27 am

    I would encourage you to add some livestock to your farm for all the benefits they provide. If you are concerned about not having enough quality, start with beef. They don’t require near the energy that a dairy cow does, and with good grazing rotation, maybe some annuals, and supplemental kelp, they should thrive, even if your soils aren’t perfect yet. I do agree that a healthy system will give superior results. Our Holstein milk has a richer, fuller taste that other higher butter fat milk I have tasted. We have fed no grain on our farm for the past 12 years.

    We have had great results with a combination of the two systems you describe on far less than ideal soil tests. I’ve always found some tillage to be beneficial in growing high quality annuals and reseeding fields, while using tall grazing and mob grazing for improving soil life, tilth, etc..

    Thinking on the large scale – feeding the world with organic and grazing systems, when we are finally rid of the chemical scourge that has highjacked agriculture. It is not possible to till everywhere, yet those soils need improvement too, so I see mob grazing as the best option in that situation. Maybe they will need some added amendments at times to improve overall quality, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that problem corrects itself over time as the soil life improves and is able to release/capture needed nutrients. We are just scratching the surface with mob grazing. What will the results be after 20 years?

    I get hung up on having to dig a hole in the ground somewhere and truck fertilizers thousands of miles after much processing, fuel, and energy. I have applied rock phosphate, trace minerals, and high cacium lime to address deficiencies, so I’m not being critical at all, but I keep observing and wondering if there is a better way. I have had increases in soil fertility way beyond the little we have applied, and I believe that has come from the animal factor cycling nutrients and feeding soil biology with their manure.

    Keep up the great work, it’s a joy to see others doing it right.


    • Thanks, Cheyenne! We plan to do exactly as you describe in your first paragraph as soon as we can leave our full-time jobs. We’re hoping the work we’re doing now will pay off in terms of producing decent products from the get-go. Then as the animals help bring back the soil, the meat products will only get better and better. I’ve thought a lot as you have about fertilizer. We started veggie gardening here before anything else, and we were shocked at how bad the yields, insect damage, etc were, even with soil testing, compost and natural fertilizers. Things are getting better, but it’s going to take a while. There’s so much we still don’t know about soil, but so far it’s clear that getting the soil’s pH and mineral balance right really helps soil life to thrive. As long as fertilizers don’t harm soil life, i personally think it makes sense to use them.

      To me, the decision whether to fertilize or not to fertilize is a function of time and money. People can take the Joel Salatin and Greg Judy route with few inputs, but doing that on very poor soil like ours will mean some very hard years in the beginning, and i don’t feel comfortable subjecting animals to that. Right now we have money to help our fields get started, and we don’t have a lot of time (we’re not spring chickens 🙂 ) to bring the land up once we get going producing products for sale. The money/time dynamic is probably the biggest influence on our farm decisions.


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