Two weeks ago, I took a little trip out to the farm that provides me with AMAZING grass-fed beef.
Little Creek Ranch is about an hour from my house, and I actually order it to be shipped most of the time. This was my first trip out to the ranch, and I thoroughly enjoyed it! The drive out of “the city” and into the more rural areas of North Carolina was refreshing in itself. I grew up in “the country,” so it was nice to be back in surroundings that resemble my childhood.
When I arrived at the farm, I was greeted by Ronnie Teague, who owns the place.
His house is actually on the land as well, so he spends a lot of time near his cows! I pulled up to the big red barn, and walked inside to look around. There was only one cow in the barn… a tiny new baby named Lucky. Lucky’s mother wasn’t feeding him as expected, so he was hanging out inside, waiting for a bottle. What a CUTIE!
Where were all the other cows?
Out in the pastures, eating grass, of course! Ronnie invited me to take a ride on the Gator with him for a tour of the farm. What a wonderful place! The farm is quiet, well-maintained, and very peaceful. It used to be a dairy farm (owned by Ronnie’s grandfather), so there is a long history of happy cows here.
We rode through the lush green pastures and I heard all about the cows… their days on the farm, their personalities, their names, etc. What fun! I was so impressed by how content the cows seemed. They didn’t care that we were riding through their pastures on a loud vehicle. They just munched on their grass, took naps, and played around in the fields. They weren’t skittish at all… just care-free!
As I looked around at all the GREEN, almost as far as the eye can see, I kept thinking “this is how it should be!” In comparison to the feed lot situations you’ve seen in documentaries like “Food Inc.” and “Fresh,” these cows are living the high life! It was almost like stepping back in time… back to a place that existed before humans decided that meat should be mass-produced for ease and convenience, with no regard for the health of humans OR cows. It was nice to see that things can still go on traditionally, even in today’s fast-paced, unhealthy world.
After my little tour, I got to meet Ronnie’s wife, Pam, and I had the privilege of asking a few questions. These questions are a compilation of things I have wondered myself, and things I have been asked on the subject of grass-fed beef.
Tell us about the life of a cow at Little Creek Ranch. What does the timeline look like for most of your cows?
Almost all our cows are born here on the farm, and they grow up playing in the fields and eating grass to their heart’s content. We usually wean the babies when they are around 6-8 months old to give the mothers adequate time to recover before her next calf is born. We want the babies to be nursing from their mothers as long as possible because it makes them stronger and healthier. We typically breed females for the first time when they are around 18 months old so that they are 2 years old when they deliver their first calf. The Animal Welfare Association actually recommends that cows be at least two years old when they have their first calf, so that’s important to us. The steers are usually around two years old when they go to slaughter.
There’s no real time frame or time limit for our cows. We watch them to determine the best time for slaughter, and we’re not in a rush.
As far as daily life, we have very contented cows. Our cows are spoiled, and they get a lot of attention. They aren’t afraid of us… in fact, when we go out to move the fencing around, they’ll stand nearby and wait because they know that fresh grass is coming.
How does stress affect a cow’s meat?
When cows are stressed, their muscles are chronically tense, and that shows through even after slaughter. A stressed cow’s meat is nowhere near as tender as a contented cow’s meat.
What happens on the farm during winter when the grass isn’t as plentiful?
We do what’s called stock-piling. During the summer, we rotate the cows on the pastures to keep the land fertilized, and to give each pasture time to re-grow. We also try to save parts of the pasture as long as we can before winter arrives. This year we had enough grass that we were able to wait until December before we started feeding hay. But once we start feeding them hay, the cows are happy with that until fresh grass starts to shoot up during spring.
That’s a lot of grass! How many acres to you have?
The pasture is about 140 acres.
Why is grass-finishing so important?
You can tell a huge difference in flavor between a grass-fed cow and a grain-fed cow. What a cow eats during their last few weeks of life highly influences the way they will taste. Some people actually put their cows on the sweetest grass right before they go to slaughter. The flavors really come through.
But if you finish a cow with grain, you basically have all the effects of a cow that was grain-fed its whole life. So you really defeat all the benefits of having a grass-fed cow if you fatten them up with grain at the end. It won’t be as healthy, it won’t be as lean, and it definitely won’t taste as good.
And besides that, your meat will have traces of gluten in it. And for some people (for example, folks with Celiac disease, etc.), even trace amounts of gluten can cause significant health problems.
When you stop to think about it, unless cows are on a feed lot, they are all “grass-fed” to an extent, and thats how some farmers get away with calling their meat “grass-fed beef.” But cows are ruminants… they were not made to eat grain for any amount of time. Grain-finished cows’ meat is really no more nutritious than cows who have been on a feed lot their entire lives.
Why is grass-feeding a more humane way to raise cows?
Cows were made to eat grass and roam free. When cows are raised at feed lots, they are all crowded together, they are unable to move around, and they are forced to reside in their own waste. That’s now how cows were meant to live, and it is tough on them.
Cows are fun to watch; they have quirks, they have things they like and things they don’t like, etc. The happier they are, the better… and that is obviously much more humane.
And finally, grass-fed cows are eating what God designed them to eat. They would probably love to eat some grain… they would really enjoy the taste of it. But they would not be as healthy, and their digestion would not be nearly as good.
What is the process of processing a cow?
When our cows are ready, we take them to a processor who will slaughter the cow, split it in half, and hang it out in a cooler. Some people age their beef for 3 weeks, but we like to hang ours for just 2 weeks. The theory is that the longer you hang it, the more tender it is, but we have found that aging for two weeks produces much better flavor, and is still just as tender. After that, the cuts are made, and the packaging is done.
Why does grass-fed beef cost more than regular grocery-store beef?
For one thing, we have to keep our cows a lot longer. If you are fattening up young cows with grain, you can push more cows to processing more quickly. Our cows are raised here for longer periods of time than typical grocery-store cows are raised at feed lots.
For another thing, we have to have a lot more space to keep grass-fed cows, and a lot of work has to be done to maintain the land, the fencing, etc. It’s a full-time job.
Comparing grass-fed cows and grain-fed cows is like comparing diamonds and cubic zirconium… it takes a lot longer for a diamond to appear, but that diamond is the real thing. You can go out and manufacture something that looks similar, and it may be cheaper, but it is not the same quality.
And really, it’s not that much more expensive than what we’re seeing in grocery stores these days. We went out and purchased grocery-store meat once recently, and we almost couldn’t even stand to cook it… the look and smell of it just doesn’t compare to real, grass-fed beef, and the taste and quality was substantially lower.
What’s the most challenging part of being a grass-fed farmer/rancher?
There’s nothing really challenging about the grass-fed aspect of farming. It’s hard work, and maintaining any business (marketing, accounting, etc.) is challenging. The toughest part about this “job” is getting attached to your cows and then seeing them go to slaughter. We are there when these cows have their babies, and every baby has a name. It’s very rewarding and fulfilling. I (Pam) wish that I could do this full-time. I work a day job, but I don’t mind coming home and helping Ronnie chase the cows… I really enjoy that, actually!
Tell us a few of the names you’ve given your cows.
Oh, we’ve had Patches, Thor, Peanut, Bashful, PJ, Berry, Holly, Chestnut, Elf, Peekaboo, Jester, Lucky, Joker, Trouble, and lots of others!
Peanut is a family pet… she was mother to many of the babies we just mentioned, and she’ll die here.
What got you into cattle farming?
I (Ronnie) was in the construction business most of my life. This was my grandfather’s dairy farm, and he bought a few Charolais cows to keep himself busy. When he died, my parents moved here to take care of the farm, and I moved here a few years later. Since I was a kid, I’ve always been around cows. When my dad owned the farm, he just let them roam free. In 2009, Pam and I sat down and talked, and we decided to ask my Dad if he was ready to retire, and we made a deal to buy his herd. After talking with a lot of people, we decided that grass-feeding was the way to go. So we’ve really only been selling beef for the last couple of years, and it has been a very rewarding experience.
Our business is booming, and we could do more if we had the cows. But we’re not here to be competition. In fact, we encourage folks to find a local farmer in their area. We are okay with growing our business slowly because we want to keep our beef top-notch and high-quality. We don’t want to bring just any cows in here just so we can have a bigger herd. In a perfect world, we’d like to raise everything we sell.
There is a lot of management that must be done as cattle farmers… we have to be patient and plan years in advance. In fact, to keep up with the demand, we’ve temporarily stopped selling half-cows because so many people enjoy the smaller, individual-cuts orders.
Who is the farthest customer to whom you currently ship?
Probably our customer in Ohio. We’ve also shipped to Florida and Texas, but again, we really recommend that you find a local farmer so you can pick up fresh meat and support your local economy. If you cannot find a local farmer, or if you have not been satisfied with your local farmer, we do ship! We pack our meat in coolers and dry ice, and your meat will arrive in 1-3 days (depending on the destination).
What are your personal favorite cuts of beef?
Pam – I really enjoy the sirloin steaks because I like to be able to eat the whole piece of meat without much fat. I also enjoy filets, and a good chuck roast.
Ronnie – I eat a lot of filets, but I also enjoy a big ribeye steak.
What a fun day at the farm! Huge thanks to Ronnie and Pam for taking some time to show me around and educate me, and even bigger thanks for all the amazing grass-fed beef they provide my family!
Also, check out this local news story about the farm!