Standing in a pasture with cows roaming around behind him, fourth-generation farm owner Jamie Ager, of Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Asheville, NC, pointed down to the abundance of wild grass that reached half way up his calves.
“When grass gets this thick, roots go down that much more. Our soil is full of nutrients and minerals,” he says. “We’re all about grazing management. By that I mean we move our cattle every day so they have fresh grass to feed on and so the grass can restore itself quickly. When you graze a plant off like that, the roots stay healthy and the plant comes roaring back.”
It all works by fencing off the creeks and then piping water to each grazing area so the cows can easily be moved from one section of the farm to another and the grass can restore itself, without the aid of commercial fertilizers. The farm hasn’t put an ounce of the stuff on the land in 10 – 12 years and the grass appears far healthier than pasture land we’ve seen out west.
Milling around us are 45 cows that actually look really healthy too.
“From an environmental and agricultural standpoint, most beef ranches have a lot of problems,” Ager says. “One is the run-off coming out of feed lots. It often contains traces of the antibiotics and hormones that are given to the cattle. These pharmaceuticals are showing up in people’s wells.”
The other issue, he describes, is “human health.” In a feed lot, cattle are fed highly processed corn. That’s then part of the beef we eat.
“But when beef are allowed to graze openly on grass this thick,” he continues, “it’s the equivalent of their eating their salad, kale and collards. They’re eating healthier and therefore are healthier.“
Plus, at this “hands-off” management-style farm, Ager allows his cows to do what they would do naturally, such as self medicate. To combat worms, the cattle will eat bitter buttercup plants that spring up within the grass. “I haven’t had to worm our cattle in ten years,” he says.
Standing there in the field, there seems to be a lot of movement around as the cows go about their daily routine. Who knew they had a routine?
“It’s always funny being around cows,” Ager says. “You think of them in terms of cowboys. You know, rough and masculine. But really, it’s more like a bunch of ladies out here. They’re nursing and having babies.”
Indeed, just 90 minutes before we arrived, a 60-lb calf was born. With no help from the farmer, who believes the cows know far better how to survive out here than people do.
While it’s evident that Ager loves these animals and this farm life, make no mistake. This is a business. The farm’s 45 cows are bred once a year by one bull. It’s all timed to produce a calf every spring.
“It is a business. And we have to treat it as such” says Ager. “If any one of these cows doesn’t produce a calf each year that will eventually reach 500-lb, well, she’s hamburger.”
But you can be sure, it’s good hamburger.
To learn more about Hickory Nut Gap Farm, visit www.hickorynutgapfarm.com.
– Judi Janofsky