Sunday, April 13, 2014

Buying direct from farmers - Consumer Training Modules - Talking about Grassfed

Over the last few years of dealing directly with clients, I realized how much the majority of consumers have been disconnected from where their food comes from.  Discussions about cuts and other meat buying terms are met with blank stares.  So I have decided to write a series of training modules that eventually will be used for a consumer training seminar that I will be giving in Ottawa later this summer. The seminar will be "How to buy meat directly from farmers" and cover topics such as sourcing from farmers, defining confusing terminology, cut charts, ordering and pricing, what questions to ask and how to make the transaction "win win" for everyone. The time and date will be announced later this spring.

I have decided to start with a term that is often bandied about and equally often misinterpreted not only by the consumer but also by the farming newbies. That term is grassfed.  

Most think of grassfed in the literal translation, that is fed on grass ...which is true.  However raising grassfed livestock is both an art and a science that goes WELL beyond throwing livestock out on pasture and expecting to have marketable meat of any quality at the end.

First lets start with a discussion of cattle and sheep.  Consider their wild origins and how the original animals would have fed.  Wild species would travel in groups, constantly moving and eating a range of plants from grasses, legumes, broad leafed plants and tree and bush browse.  They would rarely stay in the same place for long nor return to the same place in a year.  The area they would cover would be huge and the relative animal density would be low.

Now consider contemporary pasture management especially in eastern North Amerca.  Western rangeland is a bit different.  The relative animal density is high, the plant variety in their diet is quite limited and the grazing area is relatively small.  Unless well managed, animals could be subject to dietary imbalances, parasites overload and poor gains.  So dear consumer recognize that the term grassfed is not a guarantee of a healthy, well-raised animal.

 At its best meat from grassfed animals is rich, tender and flavourful.  At its worst, meat from grassfed animals is dry, coarse and tastes metallic.  One of the major differences to quality is finish, the balance of fat to muscle which blended leads to moist, tastely meat.  

Yes, I know that many of you want lean but I am here to tell you that you need fat for a number of reasons most of which is flavour.  When push comes to shove, the flavour is in the fat.  We have had clients demand lean ground.  We complied and then got complaints about how dry it was, how it fell apart and how bland it was.  Now I nod and give people what I know they will like.  If you are worried about calories, just cut down the amount you eat.

The other reason you need fat is to protect the meat and keep it moist.  A complete layer of fat is needed to protect the meat during the aging process.  If that fat is not present, the meat oxidizes, goes black and takes on a metallic flavour.    

You also need some marbling, the fat that is delicately threaded through the muscle to keep it moist during cooking and enhance the flavour.  The reason why KobĂ© beef is so prized is the level of marbling through the meat. Meat without any internal fat is dry and flavourless.

Now what has this got to do with grassfed?  It is extremely difficult to finish meat on grass alone at a young age.  Most cattle do not start to naturally develop marbling until they are over 2 years of age.  Most beef is processed before that time.  

The other issue is it is very difficult to finish meat on both spring and fall pastures.  It has to do with dry matter intake and other technical topics which are a whole lot more information that the average consumer needs  or is interested in.  Think of it this way.  If you had a diet of exclusively iceberg lettuce, how balanced would your diet be?  You could not eat enough iceberg lettuce to meet your nutritional needs because of the water content.  That is the same problem with high water level spring and fall pastures.OK this is a bit too simplified but you get the picture.

The final note about grassfed that strangely Canadian consumers forget about is winter.  No the animals will not be on pasture year round.  They do need to be fed during the winter.  Yes they can be fed grass during the winter in either hay or haylage.  They are still grass fed.

While our animals are predominately grass fed, we do supplement with grains during the periods of fast growth and heavy demand on the ewes and the lambs to avoid energy inbalance. We are working towards exclusively grassfed but not before we can manage our pastures in a way to meet all the nutrional needs of our animals without compromising their health.  

Now quickly I will touch on grassfed or pastured chickens.  First and foremost chickens are not exclusively herbivores.  They are omnivores.  They do need a balance of greens, grains, and critters to balance their diet.  Chickens out on pasture should still be predominately grain fed with pasture supplement.  So do not think that chickens get all their nutrition from pasture.  They do not.  And I would steer away from producers that claim their chickens are raised exclusively on pasture.  The resulting product will probably be thin and dry.  Talk to a butcher that has had to slaughter exclusively pastured chickens.  Our laying hens range free during the days from spring to fall.  I feed them nearly as much grain during that time as I do in the winter. Do their eggs taste different between winter and summer?  Absolutely.  The dietary additions during the ranging period change the flavour and quality of the eggs but it is not sufficient to maintain all the nutritional needs of the chickens.

Are their health reasons for buying grassfed meats?  Yes, there is data that shows the omega 3 fatty acid levels are higher in meats from animals raised on grass than those that are exclusively grain fed.  

I hope that this series will help the consumer that wants to buy direct from farmers.  An informed consumer will inprove the transaction for both parties.  

Let me know if there are topics you would like me to cover.  My next topic will be "that confusing cut chart".


Friday, February 28, 2014

Co-existing with Coyotes

I often wonder when people move in beside an airport and then complain about the noise from the planes.  Usually the next step is for them to petition to prevent expansion or even have the airport shut down. 

The same could be said when we put a farm with livestock into coyote territory and claim to have a coyote problem.  In truth the coyotes have human problem but laying blame doesn't get us anywhere.

Coyotes and humans both want the use of the same piece of property.  It is up to us to figure out a way to co-exist.  It is possible and more importantly it is desirable because despite what many think, coyotes serve a very valuable role in the ecosystem by cleaning up carrion and controlling rodents and other nuisance wildlife.

When we first started farming we were raising horses and never really felt threatened by coyotes.  Oh sure they were there but they didn't bother the horses.  Nothing like half a ton of annoyed mare to teach a wayward coyote youngster some respect.  I actually liked watching the coyotes pouncing on mice when I was raking hay. They didn't bother us and we didn't bother them.

Several years ago we started to raise sheep and my heart raced every time I heard a coyote sing.  I heard many shepherds talk about their problems with coyotes, the kills and efforts to eradicate them.  It sounded like an ever escalating arms war with no end in sight. 

Maybe it is my background as a biologist that make me think that there has to be a better way.  We have coyotes in this area.  There is no doubt about that.  We also wanted to raise sheep.  Therefore it was up to us to protect our sheep. 

All the evidence pointed to the use of guardian animals with guardian dogs being the most effective in protecting your flock.  So we got a Maremma pup.  As our flock expanded we got more dogs to the point now we run three Maremmas.  While I feel the dogs are effective they are not without their problems but that goes beyond this blog post and I have discussed some of the problems in a previous post.  All that being said, I would not have sheep without guardian dogs.

Next is fencing.  That is an ongoing battle with us as we convert out fencing from being horse proof to being sheep and coyote proof.  There are many manuals and articles out there on building proper coyote proof fencing.  The one recommendation that I have from experience is do it right the first time.  We have wasted more money doing a poor job two and three times rather than doing a good job once.  We do like the electric net fencing but like the permanent fencing you get what you pay for.

We started by bringing the sheep into an enclosure close to the barn every night.  Maybe that works for protecting the sheep from coyotes but it exposed them to high concentrations of parasites.  Shepherds talk about the two "Ps" as problems with sheep: parasites and predators.  While a sheep killed by a predator is dramatic and distressing, I truly believe that parasites have the greater economic impact on a flock.  We took a deep breath and left the sheep out in the pastures at night.  And no dead sheep!   We rotate our pastures on a regular basis and the pasture size is small enough that the dogs can easily patrol the area.  

There are other things we do that are just common sense though unfortunately not necessarily common practice.  We are very careful about how we handle our dead stock.  Dead lambs or chickens are buried deep and far from the main farming area.  Larger dead stock are removed from the property and taken to the dead stock dealer.  Placentas are removed from birth pens and either buried or permanently disposed of.  If required they are sealed and frozen until they can be removed permanently.   We never feed dead stock to our guardian dogs.  They are given large beef bones but never are given lamb or mutton bones.  We actually avoid any dog food that contains sheep.  That may be extreme but it doesn't make sense to avoid baiting coyotes and not do the same with our dogs.  Plus there are some major parasite reasons to avoid feeding sheep to our dogs.

We have used strobe lights.  I don't know if they are effective.  They are expensive, the sheep hang out around them like they are disco lights and the dogs usually eat them  At $90 a pop they are pretty expensive dog treats.

It also pays to get to know your neighbor (I am not convinced they are our enemy).  For example right now you might be hearing a lot of coyotes because it is breeding season.  Over the years we believe that the pack that uses the territory that includes our farm really are not interested in our sheep.  We have never had a kill and we are very careful to leave the existing pack alone.  First I do not want to fix something that is not broken.  Second I do not want to invite another pack into the area that may not be as live and let live with our flock.  Finally I do not want to trigger a reproduction boom to respond to diminished coyote population in an area with plentiful prey. A good place to start your research is CoyoteWatchCanada.

And that comes down to our final strategy.  We have intentionally left a lot of wild areas on our farm and wild corridors throughout the farm for wildlife to move.  This provides for habitat for natural prey species for coyotes.  If there are sufficient rodents, raccoons, skunks, berries etc for coyotes to eat they have no reason to go after our flock.  In general we wanted to make it easy for them to do the right thing and difficult to do the wrong thing.  Coyotes are not stupid.  They will not risk their life to get something to eat if there is something available that does not pose a risk.

In my opinion the biggest problems are found in areas where the only thing to eat is livestock.  All natural habitat and natural prey species have been been removed from an area.  I liken it to going into suburbia wastelands where the only place to eat is a burger joint.  If  only one restaurant is available, that is where you are going to eat.  Coyotes are the same.

If I go out and find a dead sheep am I going to change my tune.  Maybe, but our first reaction will be what did we do wrong and fix it.  I still think that we can co-exist with coyotes.