The most important thing we spend time on at West Side Beef is finding great farmers. We have worked for years now with Allan and Janice Wallace whose farm is located near Guelph, ON. They’re farming practice is exactly what we like to see, and the beef tastes exactly the way we want it to taste.
But even farmers retire. The Wallace family have reached the normal age of retirement, and thankfully their land is valuable enough that they can plan to enjoy their twilight years. My grandfather farmed cattle until the very day he couldn’t manage the field and the animals by himself. Often, farm life can mean choosing between two bad options. For the Wallace’s, thankfully the story is different.
With the news that the Wallace’s will soon stop raising cattle, West Side Beef is looking to new pastures. Carl, Matt, Hayden and Ryan will be spending most of the spring, summer and fall travelling around Ontario trying to find a few small-scale, closed loop, cow/ calf beef farms that are raising cattle the way we like.
In early May we drove to Dutton, Norfolk and Elora to visit farms that raise food the way we like. When it comes to beef, we’re looking for slowly raised animals that live their summers and autumns on a healthy pasture. In winter months the fresh food is gone, and we want a farmer that will feed the cattle haylage and silage that is grown and harvest on the same farm. We call this closed loop farming. For a farm to be sustainable, the main priority needs to be the health of the pasture. Healthy soil will produce healthy grass and crops that feed the cattle throughout the year.
Another critical component of what we’re looking for in a herd of cattle is breed or genetics. We’ve been buying great beef for almost a decade, and we’ve learned a lot about which breeds we prefer. Black Angus is the breed we prefer most. Farmers tend to like Red Angus because the breed “mother’s well” or “calves well.” For the farmer, this is paramount. Red Angus cows have predictably easy labours, giving birth to healthy calves in problem-free deliveries. Red Angus cows also produce ample milk and show good instincts for nurturing their calves. Often, then, we’ll find a heard that is a mix of Black Angus and Red Angus. Pictured above you can see Black Angus, Red Angus and a traditional French breed common in Ontario called Charolais. Charolais have white hair, they pasture well and convert healthy grass into lean meat at a predictable rate (another trait that farmers quite like).
Beef in Ontario needs a few different sources of nutrients to be healthy year round. Unfortunately, in our climate, a diet of pure fresh grass is not possible year round. Nonetheless, a good healthy pasture is essential and any good farmer, cattle or otherwise, will admit they are truly farming the soil. Pictured above (centre) is a patch of healthy pasture at a farm we visited in Dutton. A healthy pasture is a mix of natural grasses: Timothy, alfalfa, fescue. Also pictured above (left) are a few cattle gathered around a “mineral lick.” The black tub has a mix of minerals that keep the cattle healthy. When combined with ample water, fresh air and exercise, the minerals will help the herd ward off disease and infection. Ultimately, we’re hoping the farmers need to intervene very little in the course of the animal’s life. Keeping herds healthy means the farmer will not need to intervene with antibiotics, nor will they need to segregate animals from the herd to cope with illness. Pictured above (right) are a Red Angus and Charolais taking in a dried corn and soy mix called silage. Silage is a mix of healthy grains that help sustain the cattle during the winter and spring months when fresh grass is not available. Below is a picture of dried grass, haylage.
Farmers will allow a few of their grass pastures to grow longer each year, and in the fall the long grass will be cut and bailed. When I was young, I was always on my grandparent’s farm for the late summer months to help bail hay. The fresh cut grass is left to dry in the field for a few days and is then bailed. These days, the grass is often wrapped in plastic so it can ferment. The fermented grass will be full of healthy nutrients and probiotics, giving the cattle a healthy food source that is easily digested.
Check back to this post again, and I’ll update you on our progress to find farmers that are raising beef the way we like. In future posts, we’ll discuss genetics, seasonality and the ageing process too!