Establishing On-farm Management Systems for Grass-fed Beef

Final Report for FNC98-223

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1998: $4,980.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2000
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


Bob and Clara Steffen own two farms. The cow/calf operation and they also produce small grains and vegetables on an 80 acre farm located just west of Omaha. This farm has been Demeter Certified sine 1985. Vegetables are sold to white tablecloth restaurants in Omaha. Oatmeal is shipped directly to consumers through a national sales network managed by the Biodynamic Farm and Gardening Association of Kimberton, Pennsylvania. Oatmeal and oat products are also sold locally through specialty food stores and cooperatives.

Bob Steffen is a founding member of the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society and one of the original board members of the nationally recognized Center for Rural Affairs of Walthill, Nebraska. He was a leader in developing and implementing organic food production and processing standards in the central United States. He had conducted farm and processor certifications under contracts with OCIA, FVO and others. He has since moved on to developing markets for Biodynamic foods in the Omaha area.

As part of this effort, the Steffens are establishing a market for grass fed beef in the Omaha area. In the past year, a total of four carcasses (cut, wrapped, and frozen) were sold under the Massena Farms label. We are also planning a consumer farmer marketing cooperative that will link individual producers with consumers. This structure will help small producers maintain their individual identities and labels while reducing marketing costs.

This project focused on pasture management, insect and parasite control and enterprise budgeting. The objectives were to:
- Install additional fencing to support more intensive grazing
- Install a low cost weighing system to monitor rates of gain
- Select and install indicators of forage quality
- Improve insect and parasite control by introducing dung beetles.
- Begin installation of an enterprise budgeting system.

There are approximately 120 cows in the herd, which is located on 320 acres near Massena in Cass County, Iowa. Heifers are bred to Angus bulls and retained.

The land is owned by Bob and Clara Steffen of Bennington, Nebraska and is managed by brothers Steve and Doug Erickson. Each family owns half of the cattle.

Grass fed and corn fed yearlings are sold as natural beef to specialty packers, retail stores and individuals. The Massena Farms Natural Beef label is registered with the USDA.

The combination of intensive grazing and well timed rotation of the herd to fresh grass reduces weeds and undesirable grasses. Chemical herbicides are not used.

The herd diet consists largely of seasonal grasses with free choice on salt, sea kelp and diatomaceous earth. The sea kelp is harvested from the North Sea and processed to retain maximum feed value. Kelp is an ideal source of essential trace minerals including iodine because the minerals in kelp are readily available to animals and humans. Soils are iodine deficient in the Massena area. Diatomaceous earth is a natural mineral from fresh water diatoms that help control parasites.

At fall weaning, the cows go on corn stalks or harvested bean fields and the calves are confined to dry lot on a diet of high quality hay and a limited ration of grain, usually corn. Calves receive approximately one half pound of corn per hundred pounds of body weight. Once the cows have gleaned the corn or bean field, they are confined to dry lot on hay. Protein supplements are offered only when the hay is of poor quality. Supplements have not been necessary in recent years.

Insect and parasite control:
Rotating the herd to fresh pastures helps reduce exposure to parasites and flies that reproduce in accumulated manure. Chemical pesticides (pour-on, ear tags and sprays) are not used because of customer’s health concerns and because the residue kills beneficial bacteria and insects that help break down accumulated manure. When the cattle are worked in the spring and fall, diatomaceous earth is applied to help control lice and curbs.

Prior to weaning (late October or early November) spring calves are given a standard “7-way” vaccination against common respiratory diseases. On rare occasions, antibiotics have been used to treat sick calves. Treated calves are ear tagged. The meat from treated calves is not sold as natural beef.

This section addresses new fencing, the weighing system, forage quality, parasite control and enterprise budgeting as described in our SARE proposal.

Fencing and Scales:
In the two years prior to this project the Steffens invested more than $12,000 in new handling and sorting pens. Another $3,330 was committed to fencing for this project with an additional $1,650 from SARE funds. Actual costs for fencing materials and installation was $8,239. The Steffens also budgeted $1,170 for a load cell scale to be installed in the existing squeeze chute. SARE committed $780. The installed cost was $1,984.

The project time line was extended one year after 1999 spring floods in the Massena area delayed installation of the new fence. The fencing installation as completed in late July of 1999 and scales were installed the following summer. There are now seven main pastures on the farm with access to water by alleyways for paddocks that do not have one of three man-made ponds.

Forage Quality Indicators:
The ISU “Sward Stick” described in the grant application was found to be impractical in actual day to day use. Although it may be well suited to a research setting, its size and light design made it difficult to handle on a four wheeler or pickup truck. As constructed, materials costs were $40.00.

A warm dry winter and extremely dry conditions in the spring of 2000 forced us to put the yearlings on feed. However without the new fencing, it is doubtful that we would have had enough grass for the remaining 120 cows and new calves. The herd remained in good condition throughout the dry period.

Due to the drought, we delayed plans to evaluate plant types and densities until the spring and summer of 2001.

Insect and Parasite Control:
We were unable to introduce dung beetles as planned. Our supplier, Mr. Walt Davis of Bennington, Oklahoma did not harvest extra beetles this spring. A warm, dry winter and an extremely dry spring hurt the population. We intend to try again in the spring of 2001. as indicated in our proposal, “dung beetles become an effective soil (and manure) management tool when stock density increases to the level that provides sufficient fresh dung to attract (by odor plume) and support (by quantity and concentration) adequate dung beetle populations.” If a sufficient population can be achieved, dung beetles will help incorporate nitrogen into soil to improve pasture re-growth while reducing the breeding media for flies, lice, and internal parasites.

Enterprise Budgeting:
Added costs for pens and fencing, management and cattle will have to be justified at the bottom line for the Steffens’ and Erickson’s. As required by our proposal, we have developed data collection tools for the enterprise budget offered the University of Missouri Forage Systems Research Center.

Accounting outputs will include: 1) hourly income for labor, 2) hourly income for management, 3) returns to cash, and 4) the estimated value of the land and facilities. This information will help both families track returns to time and capital and compare the cow calf operation with other enterprises.

Jim Steffen will write a formal project report and offer a summary of this report for publication in newsletters that specialize in sustainable agriculture. These include publications from the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Nebraska and the Holistic Management Quarterly of Albuquerque, New Mexico. We will also prepare a slide show detailing project progress and outcomes. If requested Bob and/or Jim Steffen will resent the slide program at any location in SARE North Central Region. The project summary and slides will also be used in our Omaha direct marketing program.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.