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Consultant Dr. Allen WIlliams is shown leading a pasture tour.

Grassfed animal production can be a way to save the family farm

By BECKY GILLETTE

Many grassfed animal producers turned to that production method because of evidence that it is healthier for the environment, the animals and people. But another big factor is cost. It can be less costly than purchasing or even growing the grains.

Dr. Allen Williams, who is a partner in one of the largest grassfed animal production companies in the country, Joyce Farms Inc., said Mississippi and other states have a distinct advantage when it comes to year-around grass finishing because of the warmer weather and longer growing seasons.

In a cattle operation, 70-80 percent of annual cost is what they eat. If you reduce that cost, you have substantial savings.

“The best way to do that is to build soil health first,” Williams said. “Build diversity—no monoculture or near monocultures—and reduce reliance on chemicals and commercial fertilizer. Then learn how to properly graze using adaptive stewardship grazing. If you learn how to properly graze, you continue to build productivity and soil health while reducing input costs.”

Williams consults with grassfed animal production farms around the world. When he compares his clients in the Midwest and New England to those farther south, he sees distinct advantages in the South.

“Joyce Farms is a model that it can be done and it can be done on a large scale, but also on a small scale,” he said. “A number of people already in the state of Alabama are doing that. In Mississippi, Johnny Wray north of Starkville has a good operation and Ben Simmons in Petal does multi-protein production throughout the year.  The markets are nowhere near saturated. There are significant market opportunities for a host of people to be doing this.”

Williams said to be a profitable grassfed protein producer, you first must concentrate on the foundation:  You have to build soil health and plant species diversity, and learn how to be a good regenerative producer.

“That is very, very important,” he said. “If you have not gained that skill set and try to transition to pasture protein production, nine times out of ten you will fail. You have to learn. This is a business and that is what people have to understand first and foremost. It is not a hobby. In any business, you have to first learn that business. First invest in education. Education is multi-fold, going to workshops and conferences, and attending things like our Soil Health Academy that provides you with in-depth, hands-on education.”

He also highly recommends purposefully visiting farms already doing grassfed production so you can see first-hand what they did to be successful, plus the issues and challenges they had to work through. Find out how they made that transition and how they developed their markets.

“If you do that, you can be highly successful and absolutely much more profitable than trying to produce and sell on the commodity market,” Williams said.

Joyce Farms operates out of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina producing multiple pastured proteins. Joyce Farms has a USDA processing plant in North Carolina that produces a federally-graded product. A high percentage of the beef is graded USDA Choice and Prime.

“The reason I clarify that is a lot of people who eat grassfed beef get a house grade from the processor which is not an official grade,” he said. “It is a guestimate grade for the producer’s benefit. But 100 percent of our beef is federally graded. We harvest 100 percent grassfed beef every week of the year in loads of 42 head.

“These animals are always out on pasture, and never confined to a feedlot or dry lot. They graze on a combination of warm and cool season perennials and annuals. We don’t harvest animals raised on monoculture and that is very purposeful. When we finish cattle on highly-diverse mixes of foliage, we have outstanding flavor profiles and we never have any off flavors.”

Finishing on monocultures or near monocultures can produce off flavors. Many times, monocultures such as rye grass, wheat and fescue end up producing a very metallic flavor in the meat that is very off-putting to the consumer.

“If that is their first taste of grassfed beef, many consumers immediately develop a negative impression,” he said.

Some recommend cooking grassfed beef differently. With the proper degree of finishing Williams said you don’t have to cook it differently. But any lean beef, grassfed or grain fed, tastes better not cooking much beyond medium rare.

Joyce Farms predominantly markets to fine dining restaurants, including James Beard award winning restaurants and chefs.

“So, they are going to be very discerning and critical, and therefore you have to deliver week-after-week a very consistent, high-quality product,” Williams said. “In terms of breeds, we focus on Aberdeen angus genetics, black and red angus, what a lot of people would call old-style genetics. We have found those cattle perform optimally on grass and will grade very consistently in USDA choice and prime category.”

They also produce and market pastured pork. They raise Gloucestershire Old Spot, a very old breed from the British Isles. The restaurants they sell to want fully marbled and richly flavored pork.

“Chefs love it,” Williams said. “We harvest them at 300 pounds. We also have a two-year aged ham that is very similar to the Iberico ham from Spain.”

They also produce pastured lamb, pastured poultry, pastured eggs, heritage Spanish black turkeys, white pheasant, guinea and duck.

Williams has been featured in the Carbon Nation films: Soil Carbon Cowboys, Soil Carbon Curious, and Givers & Takers. He has also appeared on the Dr. Oz Show and on ABC Food Forecast. His 2014 released book, Before You Have A Cow, was co-authored with Teddy Gentry. He is the author of more than 400 articles, and serves on the board of directors of the Grassfed Exchange and the Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network.

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About Becky Gillette