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Growing the Grass-fed Herd

Grass Run Farms

On a recent fall morning, we visited Ryan and Kristine Jepsen of Grass Run Farms, near Dorchester, Iowa. The Jepsens have been suppliers of People’s Food Co-op since 2010. The Jepsens like their coffee strong, and we had a couple of fast-talking hours at their kitchen table learning about their growth and odyssey as grass-fed cattle ranchers. They aren’t your typical Iowa farmers in that they have lots of talk—which makes for an easy interview.

They’re also atypically young. According to the 2012 U.S. Census, the average cattle producer is now about 58 years old. Ryan and Kristine are in their mid-30s. They started out in 2000. “We had pigs, chickens, milk cows, hay, and forage crops,” Ryan says. “We did the whole deal, but over the years we’ve cut back. I found out I was a better manager and entrepreneur than farmer. I had to have it pounded into my head that you don’t have to farm to have self-worth.”

“Well, it’s been a stepping process,” Kristine says. “We’ve gone from raising and processing one animal at a time at Quillin’s, to several at a time...” and gradually, the business outgrew the local processing facilities.

In the early years they found that they were handling calf-raising, finishing, distribution, and trucking. “I was driving 1,500 miles a week,” Ryan recalls. “The cattle business is too big to be vertically integrated.”

The Jepsens found that they were better at organizing the production and distribution than being in the field herding cows. They closed out their herd last year and now manage only the production of the ranchers they deal with.

Currently, the Jepsens see themselves more as organizers of the supply system of grass-fed cattle than as ranchers. They see their model as similar to what Organic Valley has done in the dairy industry. Grass Run Farms supplies the infrastructure and technical information for their suppliers to make the transition to grass-fed production.

The cattle business is different from farming kale, lettuce, and tomatoes. Calves are born in the spring and autumn months and take years to mature. Every animal is a 700-pound gamble that the market will be ready when the animal is—otherwise the rancher is left holding the bag on an animal ready to eat up the farm’s profits. To lessen the impact of market volatility, Grass Run Farms work with 20 or so family farmers throughout the Midwest from Missouri to northern Minnesota and west to the Dakotas to ensure they can meet market demand. With this system, they currently harvest about 100 animals a week.

Grass Run Farms certifies that the farms they work with provide grazing-based cattle, with access to pasture year-round for the animals. “We check that the animals have a grass-fed diet, that they go without sub-therapeutic antibiotics, that they’re well cared for. We track food, profitability, yardage, management—”

The Jepsens have also discovered that they’ve had to become expert in animal nutrition. “Organic, progressive dairy has a ton of nutritionists around here,” Ryan notes. But most cattle nutritional information is geared for feedlot grain-fed production. “You go to the feedlot nutritionists and ask them about grass-fed and they look at you crosseyed, like you’re some kind of hippy. We’ve had to do our own research. We want to meet the nutritional needs of the animal—if the animal is healthy the meat is healthy.”

What does “grass-fed” mean?
All cattle are grass-fed for the first year of their lives. Grass is what cows have evolved to eat. In the U.S., beginning in the 1950s, new grains and improved irrigation technology led to huge increases in grain production. The American ag industry went looking for uses for the extra food. They couldn’t sell enough of it to foreigners, so a good deal of it went into school kids’ sodas as high fructose corn syrup—and it was found that cattle will eat grain. So the American farming industry started crowding the two-year old animals into feedlots where they were fed tons of grain that they really couldn’t digest properly, and loaded with antibiotics to keep them from from developing disease.

The Grass Run Farms’ model is actually a return to traditional nutritional models. The cows eat grass throughout their lives. By extension, grass-fed grazing is ecologically more sound because it avoids the water-intensive grains that the feedlot system requires. 

With changes in the planet’s climate, droughts are becoming more of an issue. The long summer drought of 2012 led many commodity stock (grain-fed) ranchers to dump the animals they couldn’t afford to feed and water. Two years later, this resulted in increased meat prices at the grocery. “The drought in Texas is still affecting us now,” Ryan says, although he also notes that “the rise in the commodity cattle prices was good for our [grass-fed] business, because it reduced the gap between our prices and commodity beef.”

Kristine points out that consumers are also beginning to demand better quality in their food purchases. They’re more concerned about food safety and the quality of the animal’s life than previously.

“Grass-fed beef will get better and better,” Ryan says. “Just as organic dairy has done.”