As guests of ranchers Ken and Bette McKibben, LifeSource staff enjoyed a tour of the ranch and an opportunity to understand the process of growing grass-fed beef in the Willamette Valley. Using intensive management and rotation, The McKibbons and ranch manager Ben Brooks, raise a total of 350 head of cattle on 115 acres. In Brooks’ words, “We are specialists at raising grass to feed our cattle.”
The Willamette Valley is rich in the three primary resources—soil, water and sunlight—necessary for intensive grass production. McK Ranch grows common forage grass varieties including alfalfa, clovers, rye , fescue and orchardgrass. Most of these grasses are perennials, which grow back quickly after they are grazed. As the cattle grow, the herds are rotated through several pasture areas so they are constantly eating the top, nutrient-rich shoots of grass. The rotation is managed so the optimum amount of grass remains to grow again. Cattle naturally prefer the tender green blades leaving a couple inches of grass close to the soil which quickly forms new growth after grazing. Ken McKibben says this is the key to allowing the grass to regenerate quickly.
McK Ranch wastes no acreage, the herd is used to control the grass along the driveway and around the farm buildings. Using the cattle as natural grass managers shows the thought that goes into optimizing the ranch operation.
Cattle naturally leave behind waste as they graze. This partially digested material must be reintegrated with the soil so it doesn’t smother the grass. Fortunately it attracts insects that lay eggs that hatch as larvae, and chickens love to eat the larvae. Soon after insect larvae hatch, chickens scratch around looking for a juicy meal. This process redistributes the cow waste evenly, controls insect pests and integrates digested nutrients from both the cows and the chickens, naturally fertilizing the soil. Soon the grass is reinvigorated and springs into new growth, completing the cycle.
Herd management plays an important role in the sustainability of the operation. Of the 350 head of cattle, there are around 110 cows, 110 yearlings, 100 calves and 30 head ready for harvest. The McK herd is self regenerating, meaning cows are birthed on the ranch. No animals are introduced from outside so disease concerns like mad cow are non existent. Each cow’s first calf is sired by a Wagu bull. Naturally smaller, the Wagu is an ideal first calf as it places less stress on the new mother. After that, calves are sired by Angus bulls, resulting in larger animals.
After the cattle reach the optimum age for harvest, they are transported to the USDA certified plant in Rickreall. Slaughtered according to USDA humane specifications, the beef is then dry aged for 21 days to develop rich flavor and tenderness. The beef is then butchered to specifications and packaged for retail sale. Butchering specifications include fat content of the ground beef. The lean grind, with a fat content of 10 to 12 percent, is ideal for chile, tacos, and other dishes where a crumbly consistency is desired. The higher fat content ground beef holds moisture, sticks together well and is used for creating juicy burgers and meatloaf.
McK Ranch uses natural agricultural practices, but still faces some challenges from neighboring farms. Surrounded by vineyards, one major problem McK Ranch faces is airborne weeds. The vineyards use herbicide treatments that encourage the growth and spread of weeds to surrounding grasslands. McK Ranch has developed a natural technique of intensive weed control. This method involves grazing up to 80 head of cattle per acre in problem areas. The cattle feed on the weeds before they can produce seed, allowing the grass to outgrow and eliminate the weeds.
Another challenge McK faces is the economy of selling their chickens. Despite a strong demand for naturally raised chickens, McK Ranch has not been able to find a USDA processing facility suitable for small-scale chicken production. Inconsistent application of regulations and the cost of required inspections have forced local poultry processors out of the market. Unless a farmer has a sufficient volume of birds available, the costs for processing have made small scale chicken ranching economically difficult. Even if they choose to bring chickens to market, the retail price would be too high to compete with large-scale chicken farms. Perhaps this might change in the future because some revisions to USDA poultry regulations are currently under consideration. Though still seeking a solution, McK Ranch does not currently process their chickens at a USDA certified facility.
Considering the abundant water, fertile soil, temperate climate and few pests in the Willamette Valley, beef is an excellent way to extract concentrated humanready nutrition from the environment. Instead of taxing resources, as it does elsewhere, beef in the Willamette Valley can be a model for sustainable, intensive food production. I am glad to offer this example of a local business whose owners see the value of the natural agricultural resources of this bioregion.