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US Grassfed Beef

30 November 2009

Of the millions of tonnes of beef marketed in the US this year, the majority will be intensively produced, grain-fed beef. Charlotte Johnston, TheCattleSite junior editor, speaks with one farmer in Georgia who prides himself on organically grown grassfed beef.


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"Grassfed beef is safer, healthier, better for animal welfare, is environmentally sustainable, and definitely tastes better"
Will Harris, White Oak Pasture

Will Harris, has been farming all his life, his family have been running cattle at White Oak Pastures for 143 years. However, it wasn't until 1995 that Mr Harris started questioning his methods of farming. Watching calves he had raised been shipped away, travelling for long hours without rest, food or water, was not what he felt he "ought to be doing". Deciding this was not the way he wanted to make his living, Mr Harris started reading about consumers who wanted to eat meat that had been raised differently.

Previously he had used hormone implants, generous doses of antibiotics and fed a high carb diet, as many beef producers still do. Further more, eight years ago, Mr Harris made the conscious effort to stop using fertilisers - a big decision for a producer who relies solely on grass growth.

Management

Mr Harris calls himself a grass farmer. Effective management of grass is one of the essential keys to his success. The farm runs a breeding herd of 650 Angus based cows on 2000 acres (1000 acres which is leased). Around 3000 tonnes of hay/ haylage is produced yearly to feed the cattle when grass growth does not meet the feed requirements of the herd. With 56 inches of rain a year - a shortage of grass is rare!

The farm is managed on a rotation, warm season perennial grasses such as bermudagrass, bahiagrass and johnsongrass are grown. The advantage of these grasses are that they withstand the heat - and do not wilt or die, which provides year round cover. During winter these pastures are overseeded with cool season annuals to extend the productive season.

Mr Harris is the beef director of the American Grassfed Association, and follows their standards. With a closed maternal herd, all calves are born and raised at White Oak Pasture for their entire life. Animals are fed a diet of mothers milk (until weaned) and forage. None of Mr Harris's animals are treated with hormones or antibiotics. Click here to view the full set of the AGA standards.

Angus bulls are brought onto the property, and calving takes place from September though to April. Before adopting a grassfed system, calving occurred over 90-days. Extending the calving to between six to seven months, allows for a continuous supply of beef all year around. Calves are weaned at around eight months of age. Most females will be retained for breeding, males will be fattened to a target weight of 1000 - 1100lbs ( 450 - 500kg), which they reach at around 22 months old.

Mr Harris said it is important for his animals to gain weight everyday and constantly aims to keep the weight creeping up - he believes this is key to quality beef. Animals hanging will yield around 55 per cent of deadweight. Animals from a commercial feedlot may hang at 65 per cent of deadweight.

Mr Harris employs three full time herdsmen to manage the 650 head herd. On a commercial feedlot, Mr Harris reckons three herdsmen could manage a 50,000 head feedlot.

Grassfed beef requires a lot more land, says Mr Harris. Feedlots could run up to 100,000 head of cattle on 500 acres. Owning 1000 acres, Mr Harris has had to lease a further 1000 acres to run 650 grassfed cows.


On-farm abattoir and processing plant

Previously relying on local abattoirs to process his cattle, Mr Harris felt that he had to do something different to stay in the market. Therefore in 2008, Mr Harris built a $2.2 million US Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved plant at White Oak Pastures. It is one of two certified, USDA family run plants in the US, the other is located in California.

The production facility allows the Harris family to control the processing sector of the market. The plant operates five days of week, killing 18 beasts per day. To keep up with demand, nine other farms in the area raise cattle for Mr Harris, applying his standards of production. To put the size of his operation into perspective, an industrial abattoir will process 400 head of cattle per hour, for 16 hours a day, 365 days of the year. The facility that Mr Harris runs is very much in line with his concept of raising cattle. Animals are slaughtered and prepared traditionally by a skilled butcher. The plant employs 25 members of staff.

Initially, Mr Harris marketed his beef to individuals which he found difficult, but as his products became more and more recognised, it became easier for the family to establish themselves in the market. Not only is White Oak Pastures beef supplied at over 220 Publix store, the grassfed beef is also available at a number of Whole Food Markets. As well as this, consumers can purchase quality grassfed beef online.

The plant has no waste. With beef the primary product, hides are sold, and bones and other offal are dried and ground up. Through the use of anaerobic and aerobic digestion systems, this by-product is turned into fertiliser for the land.

Mr Harris hopes this vertically intergrated system will provide future opportunities for his children, the sixth generation of Harris's managing cattle at White Oak Pastures.

Environment

White Oak Pasture is the largest certified organic farm in Georgia. Mr Harris, is Director of Georgia Organics. This year, the farm was the regional winner of the Governor's Environmental Stewardship Award.

Every acre of all 2000 managed, is grass or woodland. Buffers and fences are in place to protect water courses and prevent pollution. Organic fertiliser is used, a by-product from the processing plant. Sheep and poultry provide weed control.

Further environmental commitment includes thermal solar panels on the roof of the processing plant. This systems heats water to be used by the plant, minimising the need for non-renewable energy.

It is apparent that Mr Harris and his family are committed to producing sustainable and quality beef from pasture to plate. Grassfed beef can be a successful business, so long as resources are available and above all, a passion for your animals, your land and making a difference.

December 2009

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