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Farm families growing cattle 'close to nature'

Two cattle farm families in Mississippi have taken a different path, a “new old” idea. Leasa and Eddie Leggett of Purvis and Tatia and Robert McCaskill of Hickory (located 20 miles west of Meridian) are the owners of Amber Grassfed Beef.

“Interest in our product is increasing, especially after the announcement of mad cow disease being discovered in a Canadian animal that was shipped to the U.S.,” says Eddie Leggett. “Our grassfed beef is about raising cattle close to nature, on their natural diet of forages without any antibiotics, chemicals or synthetic hormones.”

There are concerns about mad cow disease being spread through cattle feed that contains rendered remains of animal products. At Amber Grassfed Beef, cattle are only fed pasture forage and hay.

“This is a new old idea,” Leggett said. “Back before World War II, basically all livestock was raised on grass. After World War II, that changed with the industrialization of agriculture. Now research is indicating that grassfed is a healthier way of raising livestock, and some farmers are going back to it. We just think it is a good idea for the future.”

Leggett said Amber Grassfed Beef is a birth-to-market, family enterprise that works with nature as a partner rather than a force to overcome. Their animals are born and live their entire lives in their pastures eating their natural diet of grass and legumes. They are never confined.

“We are members of the American Grassfed Association, and we are following their standards in raising our animals,” Leggett said.

Research has shown that grassfed beef is leaner and contains more beneficial Omega 3, beta carotene and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). CLA is a fatty acid found in beef and dairy fats which has been shown to have potent cancer-fighting effects. Studies have shown that pasture-grazed cows have significantly higher percentages of CLA in their meat and milk than those on other diets.

CLA can also help fight fat, according to a double-blind study published in the Journal of Nutrition in December 2000 that found CLA reduces fat and preserves muscle tissue.

One of the primary outlets for Amber Grassfed Beef is the Belhaven Market in Jackson.

“It has been a good forum for us to talk one-on-one to the consumer,” said Leggett, who also works as an insurance agent in Hattiesburg. “We talk to them about how the animals are raised, and how that affects their meat. We find the more educated the customer is, the more concerned they are with the nutritional quality of their food supply. We feel it is a healthier product because our animals are healthier due to our management practices and the type of animals we are raising.”

The farms are managed using rotational grazing, which means animals are moved around from one small pasture to another every few days. That has a beneficial effect on the grass and soil retaining more organic manner. Every year testing has shown the fertility of their soils has been increasing.

“We use different varieties of grasses and legumes and try to maintain green growing grass throughout the year,” Leggett said. “Cows are very selective in what they eat. They like certain grasses at certain times. Their nutritional requirements are met by them having a variety of grasses to choose from.”

The farmers changed over to grassfed beef in 1998. At that time, only about 200 farmers across the country were raising grassfed beef. The numbers have increased dramatically since then.

“We were doing things the traditional way until 1998,” Leggett said. “After reading `the Lasater Philosophy of Cattle Raising,’ and talking to Dale Lasater of Lasater Grasslands Beef, we decided to develop our operation modeled after the Lasater`s. We also were reading `the Stockman Grass Farmer’ and attending their conferences to meet other people doing the same thing. We think grassfeeding has potential in Mississippi due to a wonderful climate for growing grass. Mississippi was at one time a major producer of grass-finished beef.”

Leggett believes it is important to promote local production of food.

“We think it is a win-win situation,” he said. “The consumer is getting a healthier product. It is better for the environment. And it is healthier for the cattle, too.”

The farmers have just started to market the product in the past two years.

McCaskill said consumers that understand the health aspect of the product are very supportive.

Amber Grassfed Beef in the past has cost a little more than labeled beef. But with beef prices on the rise, the gap has narrowed. A major reason for switching over to the grassfed beef operation was the potential to make more profit on a small amount of land.

“The bottom line is money,” McCaskill said. “We’re trying to get more profit out of a small farming operation. One thing that is important for the small producer having access to the market is having small processors available to process our cattle and turn it into a sellable product. Without the small processor, we would be out of business. Larger processors don`t want to process just a few head of cattle. Small USDA-inspected processors are getting harder to find.”

Another thing that would be helpful is better market access. McCaskill said it isn`t possible to get into chain supermarkets because they want a constant supply of product. Grassfed is going to be a seasonal product by its very nature.

“About the only real access we have to the consumer other than word-of-mouth advertising is the farmer`s market,” McCaskill said. “Consumers will always compare prices. When you compare our prices to Wal-Mart prices, they aren`t as attractive. But beef prices are up in the supermarket and, in some cases, comparable or even above what some of our prices are.”

“Consumers who are looking at the health benefits of grassfed beef are willing to pay the price. The trend seems to be more accepted in the metropolitan area. And we do better on the Coast than we do in Jackson.”

Amber Grassfed Beef sells at the Greater Belhaven Market in Jackson on the first Saturday of each month from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Every other month orders are delivered to the Ocean Springs area. For more information on grassfed beef, see the Web site http://www.americangrassfed.org/.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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