Demand for grass-fed beef grows, says Minnesotan
Todd Churchill needs more producers to finish cattle on organic grass pastures so he can meet the burgeoning demand for his premium-priced beef.
“Sales have been growing between 30% and 50% annually for the last five years,” says Churchill. “Our beef's available at over 60 grocery stores and 20 restaurants in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.”
Churchill founded Thousand Hills Cattle Co., Cannon Falls, MN, in 2003 after working as an accountant for 10 years. He finishes 100 stockers per year on his own farm and buys another 900 head of finished cattle from Upper Midwestern producers who follow his protocol.
That protocol prohibits the use of antibiotics, ionophores, growth hormones and implants. A long list of forages can be fed if they're grown without insecticides or herbicides. Grains, genetically modified plants and animal and fish byproducts are not allowed. Certified organic molasses and flax seed are the only allowable supplements.
Feeding in confinement lots is prohibited. During winter or times of very wet weather, cattle can be fed on concrete, but must have access to pasture.
To ensure that his protocols are met, Churchill visits the producers he buys cattle from at least once a year. During those visits, he inspects the cattle and reviews the records his producers are required to keep.
He spends considerable time looking for cattle that meet his criteria and will flourish under management-intensive rotational grazing. “Less than 5% of the beef herds in the U.S. work for what I'm doing,” says the Minnesotan, who favors moderate-framed, British breeds that are efficient grazers.
Typically, the calves for Thousand Hills are kept on their mothers for at least six months, and often up to 10 months, prior to weaning.
“This allows a calf's rumen to develop the ability to fully digest forages,” explains Churchill. “This requires highly efficient cows that can nurse calves for 10 months without losing their own body conditions and get pregnant again — all without any grain supplementation.”
He travels to many farms and ranches to find calves suited for his program. After locating them, he contracts to buy them when they're about a year old. If needed, he also locates young stock for the cattle finishers he works with, but doesn't take possession or pay for those animals until they're delivered to Cannon Falls for processing at 1,050-1,200 lbs. At press time, he was paying $1.75/lb of hot carcass weight.
To finish his own cattle, Churchill runs 90 acres of pasture and 30 acres of hay. They're graze d from May 1 to Dec. 1. During winter they're fed sorghum-sudangrass baleage and dry hay comprised of 25% alfalfa and 75% grass.
His cattle eat mixtures of improved varieties of tall and meadow fescue, plus red and white clover during May, June and the fall. In July and August, they graze summer annuals, including immature corn, and warm-season grasses such as big and little bluestem and Indiangrass. Custom-mixed foliar fertilizer, which costs around $10/acre, is applied to the pastures at least three times a year.
He favors forages with sugar levels between 10% and 13%, NDF digestibility levels over 60% and crude protein less than 16%.
“If you can produce forage like that, you can fatten cattle without feeding grain.”
He achieves average daily gains of 2 lbs/head/day. The cattle are moved to fresh paddocks, which are an acre or two in size, once or twice a day. Paddocks are rested 25-60 days before they're grazed again.
“Our goal is to graze at a stock density of at least 50,000 lbs/acre and even up to 70,000 lbs/acre. The more pounds per acre we graze at and the longer the rest periods we give the pastures, the higher the tonnage and quality get.”
For more information, visit www.thousandhillscattleco.com.