Spring Woods

Just some pics from a Saturday morning hike in the woods. 

   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
 

Blizzard

Well, here’s the official tally after the snowfall:

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15″ of snow today.

15″ of snow is great for snowmen, snowball fights, sledding, and getting days off of teaching school.  It is not so nice for keeping animals fed and watered.  Just walking through 15″ of snow to check on the animals is a serious workout.  I’ve decided I need snowshoes.  Shoe size is 10.5, if anyone would like to make a snowshoe donation.

Here’s things you can’t do in 15″ of snow on top of 1/4″ of ice:

  • Haul more water to the back pasture.
  • Carry round bales with the tractor.
  • Run the tractor, period – 2-wheel drive is no good.
  • Find all of the eggs.

Still, you’ve got to get hay to the animals somehow.  So Lindsey, her brother, and I made hay sleds by bundling 60-150 lbs of hay (depending on the person) up in tarps and pulling them along behind us for the 1/2 mile back to the cattle.  2 trips for me and 1 for each of them did the trick.  Not going to lie, that is a workout.  Got to do it again tomorrow.

I vow to have the hay shed for the animals built before next winter.  That way the hay and the animals are both in the same spot.

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You can have lambs born in a blizzard.  We had twin rams yesterday.  They are fine.  After they were born we forced the sheep into their shelter and locked them in.  They had been riding the blizzard out under some trees.  Sillies.

The worst news is that I think Fitbit has it out for me.  According to mine I took 14,000 steps, walked 6.5 miles in 15″ of snow pulling heavy sleds of hay and/or herding animals for portions of it, climbed 11 flights of stairs, and had almost 2.5 hours of high activity and yet I still did not hit my calorie burn for the day.

I may drop the Fitbit in the snow.  Accidently.

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Make Your Property a Paradise!

At Good Life Ranch we farm using ecological principles rather than chemicals.  We utilize nature’s time-tested methods to maintain healthy animals, create and maintain a healthy environment, generate energy, produce food, and recycle waste productively into other systems.  Every component on our farm has multiple outputs, provides inputs into other systems, and serves an ecological purpose.  A few years later I ran across the term permaculture, and that concept fits our farm pretty well.  Permaculture is shorthand for permanent agriculture and is based on the utilization of perennial plants and renewable energy sources.  You can read more about it below.  It’s way more involved than that brief definition I provided.

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Our house and a portion of our gardens.  Perennial plants generate food and beauty year after year.

My training is in science.  I earned my B.S. in Biology and a minor Environmental Studies from Trinity University, studying as much as I could under David Ribble in ecology and conservation biology.  I have taught biology for almost 15 years in public schools in Texas and Kentucky.  Although we run our farm in a permaculture manner, I decided that I’d also like to use my knowledge of ecology and my skills as a teacher to help other people transform their properties as well.  To that end in 2015 I earned my Permaculture Design Certificate from Geoff Lawton in Australia.  More information about him and his farm can be found at the links below.

Geoff Lawton
Permaculture Research Institute
Zaytuna Farm

I would love to put my training and expertise to work for you!

Your property, no matter how large or how small, can produce food.  It can generate renewable energy, it can harvest water, it can recycle wastes, and it can create habitat for wildlife.  At larger sizes your property can produce timber, use livestock and plants to rehabilitate a landscape, clean the environment, and generate income for your family.

Here are some of the things I can do for you with a site design, no matter the size of your property:

  • generate renewable energy on your property
  • increase the energy efficiency of your house
  • lower your household’s output of waste
  • increase your property’s fertility
  • produce quality food on your property at almost any scale
  • create wildlife sanctuaries

Site designs I have created in the past include:

  • 1/4 acre suburban lots that produce enough food for families of 4-6 to achieve self-sufficiency
  • 2-10 acre sites that produce enough food for families plus generate all the energy needs of the owners as well as provide water retention and supply, hiking trails, wildlife corridors, food forests, and more.
  • 15 -200 acre properties that accomplish all of the things the above sizes do as well as provide commercial opportunities to live on your land and work there too.
  • “Bug out” locations that can be set up, left with minimal maintenance, and used as needed in emergency situations to support a family.  This is a surprisingly popular option.

I have not yet designed a small urban space, like a rooftop garden or balcony garden design, but I would love to do that.  Small spaces can be incredibly productive if well-designed and well-tended.

Here’s our brochure: Good Life Ranch Permaculture Site Design  All of the photos in that brochure are of our property, so you can see that functional designs are not just utilitarian; they can be beautiful as well.

Here’s a sample of a design I created for a 2-acre property: South Carolina property

Of course, all property designs are unique because they reflect the goals and desires of the property owners.  All designs I create are individual and made especially for you!

Please give me a call at (606) 787-4217 or shoot me an  and let us design your property to reliably and sustainably produce food, reduce your ecological footprint, generate energy, and create a better environment for your family.

It’s an investment in your property.  It’s one of the best decisions we have ever made.

 

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Having a Swale Holiday

Please pardon the permaculture pun.  And the alliteration.

I finally decided to break ground on the first true swale at Good Life Ranch. Most of our new pastures are devoid of trees, which is how most livestock farmers want them.  But trees are great!  Trees are windbreaks, food sources, shade sources, nutrient accumulators, solar-powered water pumps, mulch producers, and so many other things!  The trick is growing them in the open pasture and keeping the animals away from them until the trees are large enough to handle the impact and then keeping the period of impact short in duration.

swale is a tree-growing system.  It’s basically a trench with an uncompacted mound of soil on the downhill side.  The swale is constructed on contour, which means that it is all at the same level in the landscape.  This makes the water slow down and spread out rather than keeping going downhill.  The idea is that rainfall runoff fills the trench, soaks into the mound of soil, and then is utilized by the trees before they pump it back up to the atmosphere again.  The water is retained and used rather than running off so quickly.

I decided to put the swale in now due to the weather.  It’s been real warm so my tree seedlings have just now lost their leaves and gone dormant.  A few still have leaves on them, but they should be alright.  We’re also scheduled for about a week of rain and mild temperatures coming, so I thought that might ease any shock the trees experience.

We have a line of existing pine trees in our front pasture that serve as some shade when the livestock are in that paddock as well as a windbreak and noise barrier for the house from the road.  The existing trees don’t extend all the way across the field, so there’s a 200-yard gap.  In that 200-yard gap is a strong breeze, noise from the highway, and an eyesore in the deserted mobile homes across the road.  So that’s where my first attempt at a swale will go.

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They’re hard to see, but the pink flags mark the level line across the field.

The first step in a swale after you decide generally where you want it to go is to find level.  I used a simple A-frame level I made from some PVC pipes.  Basically take 2 PVC pipes of exactly equal length, join them with a right-angle joint, and attach a 4-foot level to make the A.  If you attach the level with the PVC resting on a known level floor so that the level is level to start with, then you’re all set. By the way, I just won the contest I was having with myself to see how many times I could use the word  level in 1 sentence.  Now anything you set the legs of your A-frame on, you can find level.  So now you just move across the landscape marking each new level point with a flag.

Usually permaculturists hire big machinery to come in and create their swales.  Excavators, bulldozers, etc.  But this land isn’t steep – it’s almost level to start with – so I won’t need a very large trench or mound to contain the amount of water coming through.  I decided to try it with my tractor and a plow.

This is what I got:

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Freshly-dug small swale.  Now it’s easier to see.

It’s not bad.  I think it will do the job.  Not perfect by any means, and I learned that plows don’t turn well.  For the record, this was my first time plowing anything.  For anything with more slope, I don’t think a tractor plow would work at all.  An excavator would definitely be the way to go there.

In the picture above, you can see some of the pots of the tree seedlings I’ve been growing ready to go.  What you can’t see, in the spaces in between, are lots of bare root seedlings that weren’t in pots.  I laid them out pretty equally spaced but in mixed formation.  The trees planted in this swale were: white spruce, white oak, red oak, apples, and thornless honey locust.  I will add willow staves from the trees lining the creek in the spring.  All of these trees have a purpose:

  • Spruce is an evergreen and as such will be photosynthesizing throughout the year.  It also provides a year-round windbreak and noise barrier.  It’s great bird habitat as well, and birds in the pasture help keep flies down.
  • Both oaks provide shade, acorns for the animals, mulch from fall leaf drop, and quality timber at the end of their lifespan.
  • The apples are just seedlings from the seeds I’ve saved from apples I’ve eaten, so they will most likely just be crabapples.  Doesn’t matter to the livestock, though.  All of the animals love to munch on apples.  The apple trees also provide leaf mulch and wood for smoking fish and bacon.
  • The honey locust provides sweet pods that the animals adore, high-quality leaf much, and dappled shade in which grass grows well.  As an added bonus, honey locust is a nitrogen-fixer that adds fertility to the soil.
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Trees planted, cover crop ready to be spread.

The final step for now is planting a cover crop that will hopefully sprout first in the spring and provide competition for the grass seeds already in the soil as well as a nurse crop for the trees.  The mix I sowed consisted of 4 kinds of nitrogen-fixing clovers, turnips, kales, rape, and daikon radishes.  Those plants should cover the soil nicely.  If they don’t, then I’ll do some heavy weeding in the spring and replant then with something more vigorous like cowpeas.

Let’s see how this works!

***Postscript***

It rained all last night, and the Swales did their job!

Swales fill up for the first time.

Swales fill up for the first time.

Saving a Cow

Yesterday we had to assist with a heifer for the first time.  It was a learning experience all around, which I guess is what people say when things don’t go as well as they should.

Like all emergencies, this one actually began its course long before.

This heifer was not supposed to have been bred when she was.  I bought her as a 13-month old last winter and didn’t get back home with her until the middle of the night.  I unloaded her into the pasture with the other females and a loan 6-month old bull calf that was still nursing.  I figured that I would separate that calf the next morning.  I have since figured out that the weaning was about 12 hours too late.

In that small window of time, a number of things had to go perfectly (or perfectly awry, from my perspective).  The bull had to be old enough and physiologically mature enough to do the job.  I thought, obviously incorrectly, that he was too young.  The heifer had to be in heat as well.  She was showing some signs of heat, but it’s really hard to tell on an animal that has just traveled across the country and I attributed what I was seeing to travel stress.  Again, I was wrong.

The next morning I removed the bull calf for weaning and the new heifer settled in nicely with the rest of the girls.

Fast forward 8 months…

The heifer was obviously heavy-bred, meaning that she was due soon.  It was now October.  My thoughts were basically, “Dammit.”

There were a couple of problems I could foresee coming.  First, the heifer was bred 6 months before I intended her to be and although she has good size for a heifer she was not as big or mature as she would have been with another 6 months of growth on her.  Second, the bull calf that impregnated her is not a low-birth weight bull like our other bull, the one I had intended to use on her and that I ran her with over the summer for a spring 2016 calf.  Above-average calf size and young heifers are not a good combination.

So I backtracked to the date of the cow crime, circled the due date on the calendar, and began to watch the heifer carefully.

The due date came and went.

Two more weeks passed.

I began to think, “Maybe she’s not really due until spring and she’s just showing a lot of udder development.”

‘Twas not to be. 

I came home from work to a heifer in the middle of a prolonged birth experience.

The calf was stuck.

First I inspected the calf.  It was oriented correctly, at least the front end.  The front feet were pointed in the right way and the nose and mouth were out of the birth canal.  Sadly, it looked like the calf was dead.  The tongue was still and the calf was not breathing.  The heifer was cooperative, possibly due to sheer exhaustion.

I tried hand-pulling the calf, in rhythm with the heifer’s contractions.  It would not budge.  At all.

Luckily Lindsey and Tyler, a student from our high school, were both around.  I grabbed them for help and brought a set of calf pulling chains, a rope and come-along, and the tractor, just in case.

I tried the calf pulling chains first, sliding them around the front feet of the calf.  I placed my feet on the heifer’s rump to brace myself and pulled on the chains, again in rhythm with the heifer’s contractions.  Still the calf would not move an inch.  The head, neck, shoulders, and entire rear portion of the calf’s body were stubbornly stuck inside the heifer.

At this point, the calf had still shown no signs of life.  My focus now began to solely be about getting the calf our and saving the heifer.

I ditched my gloves, rolled my sleeves up, and stuck my hand in the birth canal feeling around and searching for the source of the problem.  I couldn’t make it to the back legs; I couldn’t get my hand past the calf’s shoulders.  It was too tight.

So we attached the calf pulling chains to the rope and come-along, attached that to the loader on the tractor, and tried to pull the calf out using the come-along.  No movement.

We reset the equipment and tried again.

Nothing.

At this point I’m trying not to panic.  It’s getting really dark.  The calf is obviously dead and not moving out of the birth canal.  The heifer is exhausted.  We’ve got to get this calf out.

So I hop on the tractor and ever so slowly start reversing it away from the heifer.  The heifer starts to slide along the ground towards the tractor.  Tyler and Lindsey basically hop behind the animal and throw all of their strength and weight against the heifer to stop the sliding and provide more resistance.

Finally the shoulders come free.

I stop the tractor and run up to the heifer to feel around inside for the calf’s back feet again.  I don’t want to pull any more without them being in the right position.  If they were pointed down we could really hurt the heifer.  Thankfully the back feet were perfectly positioned.  The calf was in position all along.  It was just a very big calf in a young heifer.

Satisfied everything was in the right spot, I jumped back on the tractor and Lindsey and Tyler took up their positions at the back of the heifer.  This time, the calf finally came free.  I gave Tyler and Lindsey big thanks and let them go.

I inspected it by checking for breath and pupil response, but it was dead and had been for some time.  I quickly turned my attention to the exhausted heifer.

She had me worried.  She didn’t seem to be able to even sit up on her own.  For 15 minutes she would lay still and periodically try to sit up.

I realized that we had her back pointing downhill.  I’ve heard/read/something that cows can’t always. Get up if their backs are pointed downhill, so I grabbed her front hooves and spun her around.  That’s a little harder than that sentence made it sound, but it solved the problem.  The heifer was able to sit up.

I brought her a 5-gallon bucket with water and a kelp/vitamin B/electrolyte concoction we use when an animal is stressed.  She was very thirsty and downed the whole bucket in a moment.  So I brought her another, of plain water this time.  She downed that, too.  So the individual bucket brigade continued.  The third bucket she didn’t finish, so I sat down and waited with her for a while to see if she would or could get up.

After about an hour, she made an attempt.   She almost acted like her back leg was asleep, which would have been understandable.  She laid back down.

Satisfied that she was looking better and was at least fighting, I left her be for an hour as I finished chores in the dark and got a bite of supper.  After eating, I came back to check on her and she had gotten up and moved to the trough we here she was downing more water.

The next morning I found her at the hay. Ring with the rest of the herd, munching contentedly although with a slight limp when she walked.  I thought that the limp was to be expected.

Two days later, no limp.

It appears we have saved the life of the cow, which may have been the best outcome we could have hoped for that day.  The saga will continue for another 18 months, though.  We will attempt to rebreed her this summer and see if she can deliver a calf in the spring of 2017.

Fingers crossed.

***PSA: Don’t put heifers that you don’t want in with bull calves, even if you think the calves are too young and even if it’s only overnight.  If you forget, read the above story again.  /PSA***

Pasture Progress

Well, fall is falling and winter is coming.

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The pear trees are usually the last to change color and lose their leaves.

We have officially made it into December without feeding any hay this year.  Last year we only got to early October and most years we’ve had to start feeding hay in late October or early November.

We’ve been able to do this for 2 main reasons.  First, we’ve fenced in more pasture so that we have more grazing area available to rotate our ruminants onto.  Second, rotational grazing has really begun to positively impact the grass sward in our pastures.

The first reason is obvious.  More land available to graze equals more grass to rotate the animals onto and longer rest periods between grazing cycles.  Both factors extend the grazing season for the animals.

The second reason is more subtle.  Grasses and clovers respond much better to grazing than other plants, so their growth is favored over that of other plants during rotational grazing.

Non-rotational grazing, practiced by most producers, has a negative impact on the health of the soil and the pasture.  The animals are never or seldom moved so they keep coming back to their favored plants, eventually killing them and leaving in the pasture only the plants that they do not prefer.

In management-intensive rotational grazing like we practice, the cattle are tightly grazed and moved before damage to plants can occur.  They eat what they like, trample the rest, and then they are moved so that they area can recover.  Since grasses and clovers have evolved to be grazed, they respond faster than “weedy” plants.  The grasses and clover thicken vegetatively, sending up new growth and runners to improve the pasture sward.  This means that there is a constantly increasing volume of grass available, as long as the new growth is not grazed too soon.

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Sunset comes early in the winter.

It would be nice to be able to graze all the way through winter at some point.  Hay is the single largest expense to raising the cattle and sheep.

However, feeding hay does have some definite advantages.

First, it gets dark early in the winter.  Since we work at school as teachers, we often get home around 4 pm.  In the winter this does not leave very much daylight to move the cattle around in the winter.  It is a definite time-saver to put hay out instead of moving the cattle to new pasture.

Second, since we buy hay rather than cut it ourselves, we are basically importing fertility to our farm in the form of winter hay.  The hay is grown by our neighbors and eaten by our cattle.  Their manure from processing the hay is then deposited on our fields, increasing our fertility.  This is a great substitute for purchasing chemical fertilizer from a bag.  Yes, the hay costs money.  But it is scarcely more than it would take to make it ourselves in terms of fuel, time, equipment, and maintenance and has the added benefit of subtracting our need to purchase manure for fertilizing our fields.

Progress is being made.

Count the Hogs Game

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A farmer has to be able to count quickly and accurately to make sure that all of the animals under his care are present.  The first sign of any issue – predator, illness, injury, birth – is an animal that is not keeping up with the herd.  Once all the animals have been accounted for, the farmer can then visually assess each animal for health and vigor.  Also, sometimes a particular farmer has a 2-year-old who must count everything all the time.  Either way, you’ve got to count your livestock once a day.

It sounds easy, but it definitely takes practice.  Want to try?

See how many hogs you can count in the photo above.

Remember, you’ve got a number of advantages in the photo that aren’t normal for farmers in real-life.  First, the photograph makes all the animals still.  Second, you don’t have to consider how many animals might be in the woods or elsewhere, just how many are in the photograph.

Give it a shot, come up with your number, and then scroll down for the correct answer.

Leave us a comment about whether you were right or not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Voilà!

pigs on a hill #

 

The Ponds Work, and Now They Work for Us

A big hole where a pond will be

Good Life Ranch is hilly, to say the least.  We are in the “Knobs” country west of the Appalachians and most of our property consists of the western and southern sides of a ridge and the hollows running up into it from the valley floor.

Gravity does a number on water coming off of a ridge.  Erosion city.  Or country.  Or whatever.  Most of the time nature will figure out a way to slow the water down with deposition, meandering, or vegetation.  Leave it to mankind to create straight lines that allows water to build up speed.  Water coming downhill at speed will take away your topsoil and subsoil really quick.

We have such an eroded spot underneath a powerline cut that runs straight down the ridge and is kept free of vegetation by the utility company.  It needed to be fixed because it has created a 10-foot deep gully that kept getting deeper and straighter with every major rain event. 

In permaculture, often the problem is the solution.

Why not fight water with water?

Our solution was to build a pond and swale system to slow the water down, spread it out, retain it in a couple of ponds, and allow it to slowly infiltrate into the soil.   Much better than having it all running directly into the stream below and taking more and more soil with it.  Eventually it would have taken the fence too.

So I took out the trees that would have interfered with the digging or were near the dam wall for the ponds.  I hate taking out trees, but it had to be done and rest assured, more will be planted elsewhere.  Trees in or near the dam wall would eventually undermine the integrity of the structure as their roots invaded the ponds seeking the water.  My neighbor has a skidsteer and rents himself out for $25/hour so I hired him to actually do the digging.  It only took him a few hours to dig the ponds out and build the dam walls.

Then we put in swales on the downhill side of the ponds.   That is where the water goes when the ponds are full.   A swale is a level ditch, dug on contour, with a mound of uncompacted soil on the downhill side.  That mound of uncompacted soil serves to wick water up to trees and shrubs planted in it and creates a nice place for their roots to to stabilize the system. 

The idea is that the ponds and swales act as a “surge protector.”  They slow the water down, spread it out, and allow it to soak into the ground rather than carrying off all of the soil as it rushes unchecked into the stream below.  The ponds can each hold 10,000 – 15,000 gallons of water each when full, and the swales can hold several thousand more so there is quite a bit of water retention there.

So we got all of that done during late August and early September, the driest period of the year.  Then we had to wait to see if it would work.

Ponds dug and ready for rain

And we waited…

Then we got a couple days of nice rain!

Ponds holding water

And the ponds worked!  They held water.  It may sound silly, but it’s always touch and go until a pond actually fills up.  Some leak, some blow, some never fill.  These did, as you can see.

Now not only do we have surge protection spreading water through the landscape and preventing erosion, we also have water retention.  That allows for all sorts of other possibilities.  The ponds can water livestock, hold fish, provide wildlife habitat, and all manner of other ideas.

Using water to buffer water.

The problem is the solution.

Thanks, permaculture.

From Farm to Table

Full disclosure… some parts of this post may be difficult to read.  Discretion is advised. This post is an effort to educate and inform about how our meat is raised and processed and how that differs from industrial practices.

Processing day is the hardest on the farmer.  It’s a great day in that it’s the day you get to provide your customers with the naturally-grown meat that they have been patiently waiting on for months.  It’s a great day in that we get paid for our hard work and effort producing all the wonderful food.  But it’s a terrible day in that the farmer has to load up the animals he has carefully tended for their entire lives and take them to be killed.

That’s a very hard thing to do.  These animals are food animals.  That’s the only reason they exist.  Without farmers, there would not be enough food to furnish all people on earth with food.  Farmers actually produce a surplus of food in relation to the caloric needs of the 7+ billion people on the planet.  The reason starvation exists in some areas is a function of distribution, equity, and social justice, not a shortage in the food supply.  Moreover, at Good Life Ranch we raise heritage livestock breeds.  These breeds were the ones bred to survive in the time before antibiotics, wormers, and grain feeding regimens.  As such, they perform better under natural management conditions than the modern breeds that have been developed with these modern crutches to help prop them up.  But in a twist that is hard for some people to understand, to preserve these breeds we have to create a demand for their products.  We have to create a market for the healthier meats our great-grandparents used to eat.  If there is no market for their meat, these heritage breeds will disappear forever.

The disappearance of heritage livestock breeds would be an unmitigated disaster.  Their genomes are a repository for traits that are diluted or entirely absent in the industry-standard modern breeds.  These new breeds are so specialized that their narrowed gene pools may offer little in the way of genetic diversity to withstand new epidemics, the failure of antibiotics, or the shift in climate now occurring worldwide.  Heritage breeds, taken in total, offer a far wider range of genetic variation to withstand our changing world.

As an example, we raised the modern Cornish x White Rock broiler chickens for a time – the same birds that are the only ones available if you buy your meat from a grocery store, a restaurant, or even the vast majority of small organic farms.  They grow fast, they’re ready for processing in 6 weeks, they are efficient in terms of feed, and they are resistant to the crowding and filth found in industrial poultry houses.  So what’s the problem with them?  They don’t do well outside when they have to act like chickens.  This hybrid breed has lost its ability to thrive under natural conditions.  They die in the cold.  They die in the rain.  They die in the heat.  They can’t walk well.  They aren’t fast enough to catch bugs, and the ones they can catch aren’t sufficient to sustain their rapid growth rates.  In short, if a farmer wants to rotate birds around pasture outdoors without using small pens crowded with 100 birds this is NOT the breed for you.

We now raise slower-growing, more flavorful, hardier heritage breeds.  But it is hard to sell them, even though customers say that they want them.  They don’t look like grocery store birds.  They have a narrower breast, larger legs and thighs, and yellow fat from the grasses, seeds, and insects that they have foraged.  They are more expensive to produce, since they live more than twice as long, and therefore they have to be more expensive.  Also, we have found that most customers have never acquired the cooking skills to make use of them.  Many customers do not know how to break down a whole chicken to cook it or how to cook leaner meats more slowly to render the unsaturated fats and release the superior flavor.  Education is needed.  We must relearn the skills of the older generations.

We just dropped a pair of steers off at the processor’s last week, so let me walk you through what happens during all steps of the process.  I’ll use beef as our example, since that is what we are helping customers with right now.

First, at Good Life Ranch purebred Red Poll cattle are raised on grass alone for 30 months.  The herd gets a fresh allotment of pasture every day to move away from manure and to allow the recovery of the grass sward.  They have water and free-choice access to mineral salt.  They quickly learn that their farmer coming means a shift to fresh grass and become very calm very quickly.  Cows are very easy to teach a routine.  The older cattle teach the younger ones, and our entire herd knows the drill now.  They know what area I am taking them to next and wait patiently for me to open it up to them.  They live together as a herd and are never alone.  Even our bulls are never kept alone.  They have a bull herd during the non-breeding season and then rotate with the cows during the summer and fall.

Our beef animals are born on pasture during the warmth of late spring and grow up alongside their mothers, older siblings, and even grandmothers and great-grandmothers living a cow’s dream life for 2.5 years.  This is in contrast to most beef animals, which are processed much earlier.  The reason for this is simple physiology.  If a farmer (or, usually, a feedlot) puts a beef animal on a diet full of grain, that animal can be force-fattened while it is young.  Fat and marbling can be gained simply by overfeeding the animal.  This leads to all sorts of health problems for the beef animal, and it must be processed while it is very young before its rumen and liver fail from processing such an unnaturally high-calorie grain diet.  With a grass-only beef like ours, the farmer must allow time for the animal to complete the growth of its skeletal and muscular systems.  In other words, once the animal has reached its adult frame size fat will be added naturally.  But not sooner.  Part of the reputation grass-fed beef has for being “too lean” or for having “off-flavors” comes from farmers who are still slaughtering their beef at an age that is too young for the animal to be ready to eat.  It hasn’t marbled, it hasn’t fattened, it hasn’t developed flavor yet.

Before we take a large animal to the processor, we have to walk through the butchering instructions with our customers.  We have make sure that the customers understand where all the cuts of meat come from.  It’s really enlightening for some people when they learn how few quality steaks actually come from a single beef, for instance.  They quickly gain an appreciation for why steaks are so much more expensive than ground meat.  The customers also have to understand that the more meat they get back as steaks and roasts, the less ground beef there will be.  We also try to convince our customers to learn how to cook the offerings that most people do not want, in order to make better use of the whole animal.  These are useful, healthy, but underutilized items like soup bones, heart, liver, oxtail, shanks, and head.

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A sample cut sheet from one of the processors we use

Once we have the processing instructions, we load the steer into the trailer.  This is done as calmly as possible because stress hormones actually toughen the meat and impart off-flavors.  We create a chute with corral panels, put some nice hay into the trailer to tempt the steers to enter on their own, and then shut the door once they are busy munching.  Then we take them on the short drive to the processor’s.  Both processors we use are 10-20 minutes away, so it’s a short drive.  Usually the steers are still eating the hay when we arrive.

At the processor’s the cattle are walked off of the trailer.  They are kept calm and where they can see each other.  They are herd animals; they have grown up together all of their lives; they don’t like to be separated.  We deliberately work with processors that treat our animals as humanely as possible.  This is a bad day, to be sure.  But we want the kill to be swift, painless, and humane.  We won’t use a processor who bungles this part.  We know of some who use cattle prods, crowding, yell, scream, and basically terrify the animals into position.  We refuse to work with them.  Our cattle have never had a bad day up until now, and we make sure our processors understand that and eliminate the suffering.  I watch.  It happens very fast and, while I cannot say for certain, there does not seem to be any pain involved.  It is as different from what happens in the videos of industrial slaughterhouses as I can make it.  Watch videos from slaughterhouses released by whistle-blowers, PETA, and others and you will immediately see the difference.

Afterwards, the beef is skinned and the innards are removed.  The hide goes to become leather and the innards are composted or incinerated.  We prefer the processor who composts the innards because then that material can be reused to add fertility to the land.

The beef is then halved lengthwise and the 2 halves are hung in a cooling room for around 2 weeks.  The timeframe can be longer or shorter, depending upon the fat covering on the animal, but 2 weeks is about standard.  This hanging processes ages the meat and adds flavor and tenderness.  It is at this point that the carcass can be graded as well.  Grades are assigned based on the fat content and marbling of the meat.

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Good Life Ranch grass-only beef in the cooling room

The photo above shows one half of one of the steers we took in hanging in the cooling room.  I apologize for not being able to fit the entire length of the animal in one shot, but the room was small and iPhone cameras are what they are.

You’ll notice that the beef is lean, but still has a nice covering of fat.  The fat coverage was nicer than the other beeves in the cooling room, none of which were grass-finished.  It is also yellowish.  That yellow color comes from the carotenes in the plants that the animal has been eating its entire life and is the source of the grass-fed flavor and healthier fat profile (omega-3 to omega-6 ratio) of a grass-only animal.  All the other beeves in the room other than our 2 had solid white fat, which means it is more saturated and heavier in omega-6’s.  Those animals had eaten more grain than grass.  There wasn’t a lot of difference in the amounts of fat between the different animals, only in the color and texture.  The difference in texture was unbelievable to me.  I apologize for not taking a picture of a grain-finished beef for comparison.  I just didn’t think about it at the time.

After the hanging process has tenderized and added flavor to the meat, the butcher makes the cuts of meat that the customer has ordered.  He (or she) quarters the animal, trims and cuts the steaks and roasts, and then grinds the burger.  The photo below shows the portions of the animal from which the various cuts of beef come, or the options the customer and processor have for each area of the animal, depending upon which perspective you are coming.  The processing sheet above reflects these options, although each processor is likely to have created their own sheet and have their own options.

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Beef Made Easy – image from America’s Beef Producers

The meat is then packaged in vacuum bags (some processors use paper if the customer prefers, but the vacuum bags keep freezer burn at bay better) and flash frozen.  It is then ready for the customers to pick up.  They then pay the processor his fees, which for both the processors we use are very reasonable.  The beef will be labeled “Not for Sale” if it was processed under custom inspection, meaning that the customer cannot resell the meat to someone else.  Meat processed by Good Life Ranch for resale at farmers’ markets and The Market on Main in Somerset, KY will have undergone USDA inspection and will be marked as such.

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Packaged beef ready for use. This is ground beef and a chuck roast.

We have found the Red Poll beef to live up to its billing as flavorful and tender.  The first steaks we tried were New York strips, and they were so tender I barely had to use the knife.  It is simply phenomenal.

As you can see, it takes a lot to get beef, or any other meat, from the farm to your plate.  It is our hope at Good Life Ranch to serve customers who want to understand the whole process; who want to eat better quality food; who want to support local farmers; who want to ensure the survival of heritage breeds of livestock and food plants; and who want to make sure that the meat they eat is raised with the upmost in care and compassion.

New Pastures are Nice

Over the past 5 years we have been slowly fencing in pastures to keep our livestock safe and secure and to help protect our erosion prone areas like steep hillsides, ponds, and streambanks.  We started off with nothing fenced in, just a half mile of decorative white vinyl fencing that the previous owners installed.  The livestock laugh at that fence as a barrier.  They go right through it.  

Our first grazing animals were the goats, and we made do with electric netting with them for a year while we fenced in our first pasture that fronts the road.  The electric netting works really well for rotational grazing, but it’s not good for the sole barrier between the animals and danger.  Sometimes it shorts out and it’s no barrier at all when it’s not electrified.  Sometimes it blows down in heavy winds.  It’s just not good to have only electric fence.

We finished that first pasture in mid-2011 before we got our first few cattle, and then we fenced in another smaller pasture the next year.

Those were the easy ones.  The final 2 pastures were much more difficult to complete because we had to go over the ridge, through the woods, to grandma’s house we go.  Those 2 pastures were finally finished in very late 2014, so this has been our first full year with 4 pastures that we can rotate our animals around on.  It’s still less than 40 acres, but it’s the only grazeable land we have right now.

The final pasture, all the way on the north side of the property, was utilized by our Amish neighbor for the last few years as cropland so there was no pasture there.  This spring I seeded it with a mixture of grass and clover.  Those are the only  seeds we’ve put in any pasture.  The other pastures have been rejuvenated through grazing alone.

But seeding that pasture was definitely worth it.  All year it has been lush and green and growing faster than any other pasture we’ve got.  The cattle and sheep race me to get into that field every time we rotate them back to it.  It makes me think about drilling some seeds through the sod in our other pastures next year. 

Sheep and cattle enjoying lush November pasture