Story by Maddy Baroli
The evening of the Misty Acres Pasture Walk was as gorgeous as autumn gets. As I pulled up to a rolling pasture dotted with stoic cattle and lined with glowing trees in all shades of yellow and red, I was impressed by the size of the crowd that had come to learn about this operation. The Misty Acres Farm is not your average cattle ranch; it is located just outside of Benzonia, Michigan on a nature preserve owned and managed by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy which operates it as an experiment in raising high-quality grass-fed beef.
Vic Lane, Senior Conservation Project Manager for the Conservancy, led us around the property as he described just how their land and practices support approximately 55 head of cattle, including calves, on a rotational grazing regimen. The cattle are shifted daily with mobile fencing by the Conservancy’s VISTA member. Some benefits of grass-fed rotational grazing include cattle that are nourished well by the diversity of fresh grasses present, and the additional carbon sequestering capacity of the pasture from nitrogen-fixing plants and well-distributed cow dung.
Because attendees to the event included many local cattle farmers, there was a lot of fascinating feedback and fruitful dialogue throughout the evening. One topic of great interest was the concept of winter bale grazing. On most cattle ranches, livestock herds spend their winters indoors feeding on stock cereal grain. Sickness within the herd is common in this situation because of the lack of fresh air, quality-food, and exercise. Jerry Lindquist of MSU Extension explained how at Misty Acres, the team does things differently by laying out large rolls of previously baled forage in the winter time and allowing the cattle to continue grazing outdoors. They stay warm and healthy by sleeping along tree windbreaks, and their manure continues to build health in the soil as opposed to filth on the barn floor.
The Conservancy is not the only organization experimenting with these kinds of systems. MSU Extension’s Kable Thurlow provided some impressive statistics from their Lake City and Chatham research farms being funded through the MSU Sustainable Agriculture and Research Education (SARE) program.
“They have analyzed the many aspects of grass feeding and finishing beef without grains including: production systems, cattle nutrition, cattle genetics, grazing methods, carcass and meat qualities, economics, and consumer preferences to name just a few.” (Michigan grass-fed beef production update, MSU Extension, 2016)
Over 250 cattle have been finished on these farms, and their impressive quality has caused them to sell for, on average, 25% above general market price. Despite high yields and continued success, the aim here is not to compete with local producers of cattle, but rather to provide more environmentally friendly models for creating even healthier beef.
This work is an impressive endeavor at the intersection of agriculture and environmental conservation. Vic Lane was very excited to share some upcoming projects, including incorporating solar panels that will double as shade for the grazing animals and providing silvopasture (the practice of diversifying forage options for cattle by planting perennial shrubs that also provide secondary benefits such as shade, fruit, and carbon sequestration). Between Misty Acres and the seventeen other grass-fed cattle farms in NWMI working with MSU’s SARE program, the future of local meat is looking bright!
For more info on the MSU programs mentioned, check out this article: http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/michigan_grass_fed_beef_production_update