Are you certified organic?
Were we to grow vegetables instead of raising animals, we would be on board with the certified organic concept. Chemical fertilizers can throw the soil out of balance, and when the soil is out of balance, plants' immune systems don't function as well. Then comes the pesticides to keep the insects from eating the weakened plants. With each application costs rise, necessitating the next input. Instead, organic vegetable farmers feed the soil, which nourishes the plants, and instead rely on the plants' own naturally occuring phytochemicals to keep the pests at bay.
This is the same approach we take to growing our grass and legumes. We believe that healthy pastures lead to healthy animals. Beyond nutrition, we design our husbandry practices to prevent the outbreak of disease, be it by rotating our herds from pasture to pasture, breaking the parasite life-cycle and preventing reinfection, to varying our herd density from season to season, curbing the direct transfer of microbes like pinkeye, to releasing parasitic wasp larva near our working corrals to prevent summer fly outbreaks before they start.
In the rare instances where an animal does become ill, however, we believe that it is our moral responsibility to care for that animal to the best of our ability. In some cases this might mean securing a cloth patch over a young heifer's eye to prevent irritation from dust and sunlight, allowing her natural immune system to overcome a burgeoning pinkeye infection. In other cases, we might choose to use an animal-use-only antibiotic to help treat a worsening infection, saving her from blindness. In such cases, we wait twice the federally mandated withdrawal period before slaughter. Since, just as in nature, it is usually the young animals that become compromised, we usually end up waiting more than ten times the scientifically proven withdrawal.
An organic vegetable farmer can choose to eschew modern tools and lose an occasional crop of carrots to flea beetles.
A cow is not a carrot.
What is the difference between grass-fed and grass finished?
Regardless of where you buy your beef or lamb, you can feel secure that the animal spent a significant part of its life eating grass or other forages. What separates grass finished beef and lamb is that these animals spend their entire lives eating grass and legumes. "Finished" also means that the animal has reached physical maturity, that it has finished building its skeleton and has begun to store up intramuscular fat.
At Magruder Ranch, we finish our animals using an intensive rotational grazing system in which the oldest “next to market” animals form their own small herd and are moved daily, ahead of the main herd.
Imagine that you were served a cob salad. If you are like me, you would start by picking out some bites of bacon and avocado. Now imagine that the waiter swoops by, shuffles your hardly eaten salad over to your neighbors' table, and puts a fresh salad beneath your awaiting fork. Once again, bacon and avocado. For the steers and heifers and lambs that make up our “next to market” herds, bacon and avocado means white, crimson, and landino clover, rye grass, and perhaps the occasional dandelion. The neighbors, or the main herd, clean up the rest of the salad, including the fescue, dalis grass, and maybe some curly dock, resetting the growth for the next growth period and cycling nutrients back into the soil.
WHY DOES YOUR MEAT SOMETIMES DISAPPEAR FROM THE GROCERY STORE DURING THE WINTER?
Last winter, while shopping at our local co-op, I noticed a woman staring at the empty cases where our meat is usually displayed. “We don’t sell our beef in the winter,” I told her. She looked at me, confused at the intrusion of a stranger, then looked up at my cowboy hat and seemed to understand. “With the short, cold days, the grass grows slow, if at all,” I continued. “When the grass grows slow, so do our animals.”
In order to make it through the winter without damaging our flooded lower pastures and causing erosion in our hills, we feed quality grass and legume hay from two barns and rotate our herds between “sacrifice paddocks” (These trampled paddocks are reseeded with annual grasses in the spring, returning lush from the tillage, but the perennial grasses that thrive on the rest of our ranch don’t do well in such places, thus the name “sacrifice paddock”). It is counterintuitive, but in many ways a 40 degree rain is harder on an animal than a 15 degree snow. In colder climates than ours, the ground freezes solid and the standing grass is refrigerated, meaning that it can be grazed through the snow until the snow becomes too deep. Instead, where we live, the ground turns to mud under hoof and the standing grass rots in warm rain. The animals' physiology plays a role as well. On a cold snowy night in Montana, a thick wool sweater or fur coat will keep you warm, the wind dusting the powdery flakes from your shoulder. Wear that same warm sweater through a 33 degree, rainy Northern California night, and you’ll be soaked to the bone, longing for the snowy negative teens.
These are just a few reasons why we have chosen to follow the seasons and take the winters off. We are incredibly grateful to all of our customers for working with us on the logistics of this choice. We know that it isn’t easy.
Can I buy just one steak?
We are lucky to have some amazing retail partners where you can purchase individual cuts of our meat. By limiting our direct sales to wholes, halves, and quarters, we simplify our logistics. We don’t manage inventory in extensive freezers and we don’t maintain a fleet of refrigerated delivery trucks. Instead our family team is able to focus on what we do best: growing healthy pastures and harvesting them with healthy animals.
Do you become emotionally attached to your animals?
While ranchers do develop relationships with many of our animals, especially the breeding stock, who can sometimes share our lives for decades, I don’t think I’m being too presumptuous on the part of other ranchers when I say that most of us have a deeper, more emotional relationship with the ranch itself, the whole place, the whole ecosystem, the whole herd, the whole history. If you look at a ranch as a whole, and what you can do to treat it with love, the most important thing to do is not to overrun it with animals. So imagine for a second that you are a rancher, except you don’t need to make a living from the land, and you don’t care about feeding your fellow humans. All you care about, in this experiment, is providing a healthy place for cows and sheep to live. Pretty soon you are going to run into a problem. Your ranch has a “carrying capacity”. The ecosystem produces a limited amount of forage, beyond which your animals will starve. When you realize the inevitability of this simple truth, your relationship to the death of individuals in the herd changes. Each death opens up a spot in the ranch ecosystem for a new life to move in. Mature steers go to market, new calves are born, the grass renews, old cows become infertile, young ones take their place. The goal is not immortality but dignity and balance.