A few weeks ago, we reached a milestone on our farm that I’d like to share: we harvested our first beef and lambs.
Ryan butchered our two ram lambs on the farm, along with help from his dad. This was his first time slaughtering and butchering anything larger than a chicken, and he was grateful for the help, as the task felt overwhelming. The lambs met a quick, painless end with a bullet to the head, then were bled out via a cut to the neck. They were then gutted, skinned, and allowed to age for two days while hanging in the cold garage, before being cut up and wrapped in freezer paper.
Our steer was taken to a local meat shop for processing. Ryan unloaded him at the butcher shop, and two weeks later we picked up hundreds of pounds of meat. Our Dexter steer hanging weight was 350 pounds. We got over a hundred pounds of ground beef, and the remainder in steaks, roasts and stew meat.
Meat is neither a fast food, nor a cheap, easy meal. (If the meat you are buying is cheap and easy, beware the hidden costs!) It has taken a year of planning, preparation, financial investment and lots of hard work to get us to this point. We’ve learned a wealth of skills and information along the way. We set out to see if we could produce not just healthy, but tasty and tender, red meat on our farm using pasture and hay alone, without the addition of grain. We were rewarded with satisfying, wholesome, delicious and healthy food.
The belief is prevalent that meat must be finished on grain for “marbling” or adding fat into the meat to produce a tender, juicy product. After our experience, we can confidently say this is not always true. You can raise beef and lamb on grass alone, without sacrifice during the dining experience. I feel we experienced success because of two key factors.
1. We purchased livestock well-suited for a pasture-based farm. I feel we would be disappointed with our meat had we tried to bring in a breed of animal that has been developed around the grain industry. Many of the modern cattle and sheep breeds reach an astonishing amount of production compared to breeds of old, due to selective breeding on a grain program with health interventions. Had we stocked our farm with these, expecting success on a grass-fed, minimal intervention program, we likely would not have experienced such positive results. Upon examining the carcasses of our lambs, we noticed a very reassuring amount of fat which tells us they were getting plenty of nutrition on pasture grasses alone. Our lambs were born on our farm, stayed with their mamas their whole life (we never forced weaning) and never fed grain. I’ve prepared lamb tenderloin, lamb stew and lamb roast. It is mild and tender, and the kids cheer when it’s on the dinner menu.
We decided to purchase Dexter cattle for our farm, due to their reputation for thriving on pasture alone, and producing tender, flavorful meat without grain. We watched our steer grow big and meaty on our pasture and he remained in good health for the entire time he was at our farm. While we did not get to see the carcass of our steer (in the future that is something we’d like to ensure) after tasting some steaks and ground beef, we can see the meat is well-marbled, tender and flavorful, and easily the best beef we’ve tasted, grass-fed or otherwise!
2. We graze our animals in a high-density pasture rotation. This means our animals are not spread out. They graze together in a group, and only have access to the amount of pasture they can eat in a day, sometimes two. This forces the animals to not pick and choose too much. The choice leaves and blades of grass get eaten along with the weeds. The animals get moved to a fresh, clean, rested piece of pasture daily (or every other day) where the plants are healthy, strong and optimal for consumption having been allowed time to grow back from the last grazing. This keeps the animal eating nutrient-rich, leafy plants all throughout the growing season, adding fat to the animal and producing a tender product, which mimics the movement of herds and flocks in nature. Because we move the animals so often, over time, the pasture should improve. The manure fertilizes the soil and is evenly distributed over the entire pasture instead of being concentrated in the animals’ favorite hangouts. The animals do not obliterate the good plants while allowing the weeds to grow uncontrollably and spread seeds (another good reason to mix species, as they each have their own flavor palates and will graze the pasture more evenly). As the pasture improves, we can stock a higher number of animals in each paddock, increasing our production and efficiency.
The best thing about raising your own meat or buying it from someone you know who is producing it as carefully as possible, is not having to wonder how healthy the dinner actually is when placed on the table. We don’t have to worry about the kids ingesting chemicals or traces of drugs, whether the animal was fed GMOs and what effects that may have on our health, or even whether the animal was healthy, treated well, or lived in misery. This is why we don’t feel guilty or sad about butchering our animals. We enjoy observing the animals run, kick and play or when they come over to us for a scratch on the head. We know we are giving them a healthy, stress-free and happy life, full of green grass and fresh air, along with a humane, quick end. They are taking part in improving the soil and plants on a small piece of earth and garden, as well as allowing us independence from the conventional food system and the fossil fuels it necessitates. We feel confident we are being good stewards of creation while enjoying the nourishing and healthy food that our family worked and prayed for together.