Does it taste good?

Does it taste good?  Last Saturday at the Columbia Farmers Market, I asked a new customer that had just purchased 4 of our sirloin steaks what they’d like to know about the meat they’re buying, such as how we raise our beef cattle?  The customer said, “No, but does it taste good?”  This is a completely different kind of customer interaction than we used to have several years ago.  When we first started participating in the Columbia Farmers’ Market, we were asked a lot of questions about how we raised and handled our cattle.  There seemed to be a lot of decision-making regarding our herd management practices before a purchase was made.  Over the years this has changed–now purchases are made more on the appearance of the meat cuts, the perceived taste experience (for new customers–repeat customers know our meat tastes great) and the cost.  I’m undecided if this is a good thing?  Do farmers market customers just assume products sold at the market are produced with high standards?  Have customers become numb to all the marketing lingo they’ve been bombarded with and they just want great taste for a great price?  Have farmers markets turned into a fruit, vegetable and meat products flea market?  I don’t know.

I answered this customer’s questions by telling him that it is because of our herd management practices that our meat not only tastes great, but is very healthy to eat. It is our forage-based feeding system, our antibiotic, beta agonist and medicated ionophore free practices and humane handling methods that produce happy and healthy steers, heifers, and ram and ewe lambs.  Stress-free, healthy animals taste better.  But, I’m not sure if this customer was listening–he was admiring the 8 oz. 3/4″ thick sirloin steaks with just the right marbling that he was getting ready to take home and grill.  Oh well, we’ll still keep on doing things the way we do and always striving to do better the next breeding, calving/lambing and finishing seasons!  Happy grilling!

Freezing Agriculture’s Footprint

The May issue of the National Geographic magazine has an article titled, “A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World,” by Jonathan Foley.  This article begins an eight month series on the future of food–thoughts, ideas, concerns and facts about how the world’s agriculture industry is going to feed nine billion people by 2050.  This series of articles is supported by The Rockefeller Foundation and members of the National Geographic Society.  You can follow the series and join the conversation at www.natgeofood.com.  The next few blogs I’ll do will be comments on the five steps they suggest in this first article.

Step 1:  Freeze agriculture’s footprint

To grow more crops to produce more grains used for human consumption the article states worldwide we’ve cleared an area roughly the size of South America.  This doesn’t include the area of land cleared for grain production to feed livestock–an area roughly the size of Africa.  The amount of land cleared for biofuel production wasn’t included in these land masses.  This means tropical rainforests are being cleared at increasingly alarming rates.  Trading rainforests for farmland is destructive and will have an inreversible negative outcome.  We have to better use the land we’re already farming.

Farmland in our neck of the woods is expensive.  Our farm in Millersburg, just 11 miles east of Columbia, MO, verges on being in a rustic suburb.  This challenges us to better use the land we have.  So we use our cattle and sheep to reduce what we call invasive plants that aren’t edible, reduce the amount of water available for pasture and change the pH level of the soil, making forage harder to grow.  Cattle and sheep managed in our intensive grazing program trample these unwanted plants, discouraging re-seeding and continued growth.  We are also actively eliminating these plants by cutting them down or mowing them off before they seed.

38% of the earth’s ice-free land is used for livestock and crops.  Isn’t this enough?  As you get to know the local producers that provide you with the food you enjoy, be sure to ask them how they’re reducing agriculture’s footprint.  As the article states at the end, “As we steer our grocery carts down the aisles of our supermarkets, the choices we make wil help decide the future.”  Let your choice on how to spend your food dollars support responsible sustainable producers, big and small.  Research the food brands you buy!

Orphan lambs meet Grandma Goose

Lambing at Harrison Valley Farms is over.  We have 110 beautiful lambs in two weeks!  15 lambs are orphans for a variety of reasons, such as mom had triplets and should only feed two!  These orphan lambs have spent the first couple of weeks of their life in a special stall in our barn, learning how to suck a milk bottle eagerly and to get along with their buddys.  Earlier this week, they moved out to my re-purposed grain bin that will serve as a night shelter for them after they learn how to stay in a fenced pasture.  Today, they met Grandma Goose.

First Lamb of Spring

Meet Twinkles!  She and her brothers were born last night about 11:30 PM and are my first spring lambs!  Twinkles will be a bottle-baby because she is only 3 lbs and can’t reach mom’s milk!  Normally, my new-born lambs weigh between 7 and 10 lbs.  Plus, there are only 2 teats on mom’s udder and her brothers are pretty agressive eaters.  When I went out to do my late evening check on my soon-to-be-mom ewes, I heard a faint crying. Thinking it was a stray cat or maybe my first lambs, I walked through the ewe night pen and found Twinkles crying and trying to stand up.  Her mom, Honey, was busy cleaning all three lambs off.  I knew Twinkles was too tiny to nurse and when every lamb is born, I test their “suck” strength by rubbing a clean finger along the inside roof of their month.  If they don’t have a good suck, ewes know immediately and often times don’t give them enough time to nurse–sort of nature’s harsh way of culling the weaker ones out.  Twinkles had a very weak suck reflex.

So Twinkles spent the night in a cushy portable dog kennel in my laundry room.  Before saying good night, I tried to give her some colstrum from a bottle.  I have all different kinds of bottle nipples so I have lots of options to test which one a weaker lamb will use.  Twinkles didn’t like any of them.  Not good.  And, she was falling asleep as I was trying to feed her.  So very carefully, trying not to aspirate her lungs, I gave her the colstrum using a small syringe–trying to ease it down her throat with little squirts from the syringe.  She drank a very little.  I lay her on the cushion in the kennel and hoped for the best.  That was a 1 AM this morning.  At 3 AM, I heard a welcome sound–Twinkles was crying again!  So, I offered her the bottle of colstrum and she sucked really well.  Just a little, but with lots of vigor.  A good sign!  And, she kept crying, missing her mom.  To get some sleep, I turned the washing machine on.  Also hoping the low noise would put her to sleep.  It did until 4 AM.  She drank more and I turned on the dryer–we both got to sleep until 5 AM.  Hungry again and crying–good.

Today I put her in a small pen in the barn next to her mom and brothers.  She can see and hear her mom and see her brothers bouncing around like lambs do.  This will keep her happy.  I can’t put back her with mom because Honey has decided Twinkles can’t nurse and will butt her until she falls down.  As other ewes have triplets, I’ll probably add the weaker lambs to Twinkles pen to bottle feed them too.  These bottle-babies will learn to play and eat together and will come to see me as their foster mom!  Here is her real mom, Honey, letting Twinkles know she is okay.

Delicious Shepherd’s Pie

A slow cooked and home cooked favorite dinner of mine is Shepherd’s Pie!  It is at its best of course when you use Harrison Valley Farm’s ground lamb.  A very close second is from a local pub in Ireland!  Shepherd’s Pie or Casserole of Mutton originated over 150 years ago in medieval  England where meat was often cooked with dried fruit spices and put into a pastry dough “coffin” to preserve it because there was no refrigeration.  Adding a layer of mashed potatoes on top came later after potatoes were brought to England from the “new world.” Lamb or veal were the meat choice, and raisins, currents and candied citrus fruit peel were added too.  Mace, nutmeg and cloves were the seasonings used.  My favorite Shepherd’s Pie recipe comes from the Joy of Cooking 75th Anniversary Edition Cookbook–I’ve adjusted it slightly. It takes me about 40 minutes to make and 30 minutes to cook:

For 8 servings:

Peel and cook about 2 1/2 pounds of organic potatoes–about 8 mediums size potatoes.  Drain, add a little butter and mash.  Save some of the boiled water to add back in so the mashed potatoes are moist and easy to spread. Cover and set aside until the pie is ready to put together.

In a large skillet, cook the following over medium heat until the vegetables are tender:  4 tablespoons of butter, 1 diced medium organic onion and 10 shredded baby carrots.  Add 2 pounds of thawed ground Harrison Valley Farms lamb to the skillet.  Cook until the pink has just disappeared.  Spoon off the excess fat (should hardly been any if you use our lamb). Add 2 tablespoons of flour and mix in.  Add 1 1/2 cups of beef broth–I like Rachel Rays, 1 teaspoon dried thyme, 1 teaspoon of dried rosemary and 1/8 teaspoon of nutmeg.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Cook for 15 minutes on stove top.

Remove skillet from the tove top.  Spoon the meat mixture into a buttered 9″ X 13″ glass cooking pan and spread evenly.  Spoon and spread the mashed potatoes evenly on top.  Cut 1/3 stick of butter into thin slices and place on top of the mashed potatoes.

Cook uncovered in an oven pre-heated to 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes or until the potatoes are slightly browned.  Remove from the oven and let the casserole cool slightly for 5 – 10 minutes.  Cut, serve and enjoy.  I also recommend Westphalia Vineyards’ dry red wine, “The Prodigal Son” with this dinner. It is a Missouri dry red made with no sulphates. Smooth and full of flavor.   Happy cooking!

If Lady Gaga Can Wear Food, So Can Ewe

If Lady Gaga can wear a meat dress, then a ewe can wear her food too!  This ewe, Baby Ruth, really enjoyed her mineral supplement this morning!  She liked it so much that she rolled her face all over the top of the mineral tub.  Maybe it moisturizes too….We feed our sheep a special mineral supplement that has all natural ingredients in it, including a naturally-occurring ionophore.  What is an ionophore?  In layperson’s terms it is an organism that encourages the breakdown of fiber (grass and hay) in a sheep or cattle’s rumen or stomach.  Livestock break fiber down most effectively from the inside out of the fiber structure.  The ionophore starts the process, making the job the sheep or cattle’s rumen does much easier.  So, they get more nutrients from the winter grass and hay.  More nutrients means a healthier and happier animal.  Last week I blogged on our safe meat, well ionophores play a part in this process too.  Healthy happy animals ward of sickness and parasites much better.  Baby Ruth is a pregnant 4-year-old purebred Katahdin Hair Sheep ewe.  Each year, I name my ewes and the rams I keep based on a theme.  She was from the year of candy.  She is due to lamb in April and usually gives us two beautiful lambs.  Her twin sister is a part of the flock too.  Care to guess what her name is….okay, Mounds.  After I took this picture, several ewes came over to lick Baby Ruth’s face clean.  Maybe she’ll be back to her solid white look this evening…but then again, maybe not.

Safe Meat–A 24/7 job that gets no bad weather break

Preparing dinner using meat that is safe to eat, like our lamb chops, starts with us and ends with you!  First, we need to have sheep flock and beef herd management practices in place that keep our animals as healthy as possible, minimizing the need for medication.  This is a 24/7 all year round effort.  We don’t take breaks for extreme weather conditions.  In fact, when it is super cold or extremely hot, we have to really plan for our animals well being.  These are some of the things we plan for in the winter months:

  • Do our cattle and sheep have access to clean water that is a temperature they’re willing to drink?  If it is too cold, they can drink less and become dehyrdated.  Also cold water discourages their digestive system from working efficiently, reducing the benefits of eating high quality forage.
  • Is there adequate shelter from the wind, snow or ice?  Wind, wet snow or an icy rain are the hardest on our livestock. Our animals’ winter coats adequately protect them from most of the elements, but cold piercing wind and heavy wet snow can comprise this ability.  Shelter can be found in a grove of cedar trees, a protected valley in the field or a man-made shed or barn.  Large round hay bales are excellent protection left standing as a wind block and unrolled so that livestock can burrow into the hay and preserve body heat.
  • Is high quality forage available and accessible for our cattle and sheep to graze on?  We have a forage-based feeding system in place, so we’re constantly monitoring accessibility to grass–is the ice on the grass melting off or can our sheep and cattle push the snow aside with their noses and get to the grass below?
  • Will the ice or snow affect the charge on the electric fence?  We don’t want our sheep or cattle wandering where they’re not supposed to be or a predator gaining access to the sheep flock because the fence is down.  Below are two pictures of our winter sheep pasture.  First, is the ice on the electric fence that had to be beat off with a plastic pipe so that the electric charge was maintained.  Then the second picture is of our sheep flock grazing through the ice-covered pasture.  After the initial icing in December, we had to feed the sheep hay for a day.  After the temperature starting rising and the sun came out, the ice softened and the sheep wanted to graze again.

All of this effort reduces the stress on our livestock.  Livestock that isn’t stressed is less likely to get sick and need care or medication.  One of the main concerns customers have is the use of antibiotics.  The misuse of antibiotics was highlighted in the current February issue of Consumer Reports in the cover article, “The High Cost of Cheap Chicken”.  The article states that “80% of all the antibiotics sold in the U.S. each year are used in animal production.” We believe that there is a way to raise livestock with minimal use of antibiotics.  At Harrison Valley Farms we work really hard all year round to keep our animals healthy. Proper pasture and livestock management reduces all kinds of stress that can lead to a sick animal.  Do our animals get sick?  Yes, occassionally they do.  Do we comprise their health and not medicate them?  No.  But, we consult a veterinarian AND we take this animal out of the food chain.  We are dedicated not to contribute to the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  We take the same approach to parasite management–we travel many miles, attending many conferences listening to a lot of experts sharing their ideas on holistic herd management.  We incorporate the best practices we can to provide you with the safest meat possible to eat.

Preparing meat that is safe for your family to eat is your responsibility.  After you purchase our meat online, at the farmers’ market or from one of the stores that stocks our meat, keep it frozen until you are ready to use it within 24 hours.  Thaw the meat in the refrigerature completedly before you cook with it.  Please do not thaw it in the microwave (that makes the meat tough) or on the counter (that is plain unsafe!). Wash your hands and the utensils you use to handle the meat.  Do not use a sponge to clean the meat handling utensils or counter–sponges harbor bacteria very easily.  Cook the meat thoroughly to your desired doneness, keeping in mind the less done (rare) your meat is the greater the chance for not killing bacteria that the meat may have picked up during processing and preparing to cook.  Then enjoy that perfect lamb chop, beef pot roast or rib eye steak!

Predator

Nice kitty….Sheep predators are alive and well in Missouri.  When you buy beef and lamb meat products from Harrison Valley Farms, we hope you’re buying from us for three reasons.  First and foremost, we hope you buy our meat because it is the best beef and lamb you’ve ever tasted.  Second, you have read our blogs, the information on our web site and educated yourself about our effort to make our meat products healthy and safe to eat, supporting your healthy lifestyles.  Third, you think our sustainable farming practices are important and critical to the future of agriculture.  And, guess what?!  Sustainable farming means working with nature, not against it.  That includes lions, tigers and bears, oh my!

We cannot prevent predation on our sheep and cattle, especially the young guys.  But, as sustainable farmers, we sure can discourage attacks on easy prey–lambs and calves, and encourage these hunters to seek prey that is more native to their kinfolk like white-tailed deer and rabbits.  So, who are we watching for in our area?  Coyotes, bobcats, bald eagles, fox and cougars.  No bears or wolves as of yet.

Our farm is nestled in the Cedar Creek Valley that separates the Missouri counties of Boone and Callaway.  In the summer, toward evening, we can sit on our porch and hear bobcats crying on the nearby bluffs.

Coyotes run in packs along Cedar Creek and frequent our woods for evening running and hunting.  Hardly a night goes by when we don’t hear the eerie cries of coyotes calling to each other.  Our border collies and Jackobees go crazy barking and howling back.  It is quite the barking chain.

We have a pair of resident bald eagles that fly every morning and evening over our farm going to and from their nest and hunting for game.  They usually come in late October and stay until late March.  This is one of the main reasons we lamb in April–after they leave.  I have only lost two lambs to predators and am pretty sure it was to these eagles.  One morning, I had 27 lambs and later that day I had 25.  They were just gone…..plucked out of the lambing lot.  No sign of struggle, no sign of anything dragging them out of the pen.  These lambs were too big for a fox, like the red fox below,  to carry off.  So, most likely the disappearance was due to an attack from the sky.

So, how do we co-exist with these predators and keep them from enjoying our beef and lamb too?  For our cattle, we make sure the perimeter fencing is good and we use electrified high tensil wire on as much of our property as we can.  Grazing the cows in tighter groups and moving them frequently as we do with our intensive grazing discourages predator activity.

For our sheep, we use several different tactics.  First, most of these hunters, except for the eagles hunt at dawn, dusk or night.  So, my sheep all come into a night holding pen that has an electric wire around the top.  This is a good way to count my sheep and do daily health checks also.  My border collies, Balou and Bella, each take turns helping me take the ewes and lambs out to pasture in the morning and bringing them home at night.  Second, we use a 5 strand electrified perimeter fence around our farm to discourage predators from crossing through our property.  This fence is hot! I can testify to that because when I brush up against it accidentally, it is like having an electric chiropratic adjustment.  Then we use mesh electronic fencing to divide the grazing sections.  So, a predator would have to breach two electrified fencing areas to snatch a lamb or attack a ewe.  Lastly, up until this year, I also used a guardian animal, a llama named Dancer.  Dancer died this past summer due to cancer.  He had served as the ultra protector for a good number of years and we even have evidence of bobcat tracks in the snow coming up to the outside of the night lot fence and Dancer’s tracks facing the cat from the inside.  We lost no lambs that night.  Most likely, I will begin looking for another guardian animal this spring and am leaning toward an Akbash dog.  They’re beautiful animals and highly effective sheep protectors.  Here is a photo of one.

So, I hope you can see a little more into our livestock operation and the steps we take to care for our animals, while respecting the environment.  And, predators are an important part of the environment.  They keep deer, rabbit and other natural prey animal populations in check.  We encourage the predators to hunt what they are naturally meant to eat.  Buying our beef and lamb supports this effort and we appreciate your belief in what we do!

Mirror, mirror on the wall, when will there be food for us all?

Three articles regarding world food needs appeared in the recent 12/14/13 issue of the Missouri Farmer Today publication.  These articles were respectively, “U.N. food agency lauds Mandela,” World needs 70% more food by 2050:  UN and partners, ” and “What does the future hold for ag?”.  In the Mandela focused article, it quotes The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Director, General Jose Graziano da Silva, “Mandela understood that a hungry man, woman or child could not be truly free.  He understood that eliminating hunger was not so much a question of producing more food as it was a matter of making the political commitment to ensure that people had the access to the resources and services they needed to buy or produce enough safe and nutritious food.”  The article on the world needing 70% more food by 2050, states the importance of sustainable agriculture methods that include climate-smart agriculture and increased productivity on existing land used for agriculture to limit deforestation and reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint.  Then, lastly the article on the future of U.S. agriculture offers some good news, I think….It states that currently the top 15 percent of today’s farmers produce 85% of U.S. food, fiber and other consumable agriculture products and that the trend moving forward at an increasing rate is fewer and fewer farmers producing more agriculture goods.  These farmers will continue to rely more on technology to gain efficiences, such as GPS and satellite communications to record and help manage crop yields and determine needed soil nutrient additives and drones to fly over pastures to assess livestock herd locations and health.  The disturbing portion of this last article though is its note that while small farms with operators that farm as a lifesytle connection to the land is increasing, the production from these small farms is declining.  Why is this so? And, this should concern all of us because typically it is these smaller farmers that incorporate more sustainable approaches to agriculture.  Is it government regulations that stifle production?  Is it time available to farm because these families work two jobs due to either not being able to reach the markets that need and want their products or does the price they’re able to charge not adequate to provide a sustainable income?

To feed the world in 2050 and close the prospective gap of 70% more food needed in 2050 to feed an estimated 9.6 billion people it will take a combination of governments giving the rural poor more opportunities to access the resources needed to obtain and/or produce food and farmers from the large corporate farms to the smaller local producers addressing issues that include soil health, water pollution, food safety and security, the diversion of agriculture products for energy, GMO usage, value-added pricing and food distribution systems.

We at Harrison Valley Farms try to stay current on all these issues through our membership in industry associations, reading industry publications, participating in listserves, and attending conferences.  And, we’re doing our part by increasing our production capacity using sustainable farming practices. We are passionate about this!

What do DiGiorno and dairy cows have in common?

DiGiorno, top-selling pizza-maker owned by Nestle, USA, knows how it wants the dairy cows treated that make the cheese for their pizzas!  Hooray for them for telling their cheese supplier Foremost Farms, not to purchase milk from the Wisconsin dairy farm, Wiese Brothers Farm, due to a disturbing video taken of two employees mistreating weakened cows.  The Wiese Brothers Farm owns 5,000 dairy cows and that is a lot to keep track of, but humane procedures should be in place to handle cows that need special handling care due to sickness or injury.  Dairy and other livestock producers that treat their animals humanely should take every occassion to tell their story to the public and big businesses like Nestle, USA.  Yes, working with livestock is physically demanding and can sometimes be frustrating, but that is no reason to mistreat an animal.  Handling equipment, care treatment areas, farm staff and veterinarian contact procedures should all be in place and ready to use and contact when special needs arise.  These plans should be written down, discussed and even practiced.  The dairy and livestock industries do not need this kind of negative publicity.  It hurts everyone in the food industry.  Thanks to DiGiorno for being firm on their action.