A growing number of consumers are “hungry to know where their food comes from,” says Rod Ofte. More than that, they want to know that it comes from animals fed healthily and treated humanely. The trend has led him – and many others – to go for Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) certification.

Ofte, of Willow Creek Ranch, Coon Valley, WI, has found consumers will pay higher premiums for his organic grass-fed beef if his operation is labeled as AWA-certified.

Tom Martin, Mountain Lane Farms, Wauzeka, WI, recently had his grass-fed beef operation AWA-certified for that same reason and more. “It’s good for the cows, it’s good for the land and it’s good for my family,” he says.

A non-profit organizationfounded in 2006, AWA annually audits and certifies that family farms put animal comfort and well-being first.

It requires stringent animal-care standards, including that animals always have access to shade, water and pasture; calves are reared by their mothers; antibiotics are used only therapeutically and no hormones are used. Slaughterhouses must pass AWA reviews before animals can be sent to them, and farms must keep accurate, detailed records.

Of the 1,500 AWA-certified farms in the U.S., about 25% produce beef.

“AWA is all about transparency. Consumers know that the AWA audit guarantees that the animals are treated well from conception to slaughter,” Martin explains. The organization certifies farms producing dairy products, meat and eggs that range in size from two to 13,000 acres.

To become certified, Ofte only changed when calves were castrated – from six to eight months to the first week after birth. Certification was “painless,” adds Martin, who mainly increased the amount of records kept.

Both producers carry the AWA logo and mention the certification on their Web sites. “In order to provide the most humane experience, Mountain Lane Farm worked with Animal Welfare Approved,” reads Martin’s Web site. “We are an Animal Welfare Approved ranch, providing a Pasture Pure, Grass Fed environment for our animals, and the greatest nutritional value for you and your family,” according to Ofte’s site.

Savvy consumersare looking for third-party confirmation of production claims, says Andrew Gunther, AWA program director. “It’s safe to say most of the farms we work with do report benefits from the (AWA) seal from increased sales to customer loyalty.”

“Locally sustainable trends are here to stay and more of the industry will continue to move in that direction,” Ofte adds.

A fourth-generation farmer who has direct-marketed cattle for nearly 20 years, Ofte bought the Coon Valley farm in 2007. It was AWA-certified in 2011 and certified organic in 2012. He started to make the switch to grass-fed-only steers about five years ago based on consumer demand.

Ofte’s paddocks all have fresh water sources, thanks to seven springs on his property. The pastures consist of red and white clover, tall fescue and alfalfa. Only 18-23 steers are finished out each year. On average, it takes about 22-26 months to feed out grass-fed steers vs. the 16-18 months usually required for grain-fed cattle.

He also produces poultry and free-range pork and offers “eco-vacations” in which participants can gather eggs, herd cattle and even muck out pens.

Martin raises 40 steers annually on paddocks mixing alfalfa, red and white clover, fescue, orchardgrass, perennial ryegrass and Italian ryegrass. His strategy is to offer a mix of plants that grow at different times during the grazing season. He invites customers to visit his farm or meet him at a local farmers market.

For more information, visit the Willow Creek Ranch Web site at www.willowcreekfoods.com and the Mountain Lane Farm site at www.mountainlanebeef.com.