There’s grass-fed beef and then there’s Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed 100% grass fed beef. Founded in 2003 on his ancestral homeland, farmer Matt Maier returned to his roots and his love of the land and animals. Set in the fertile hills of central Minnesota, Thousand Hills Farm grew from a modest 120 acres to encompassing over 1,000 acres across 13 different small farms, all with a commitment to regenerative agriculture, a practice that gives back nutrients to a heavily depleted soil by the use of animal grazing and a diverse array of crops. Maier, along with these “Regenerative Renegades,” are moving the needle forward on improving our food supply system to ensure its future.
Follow along for part two of our interview with farmer Matt Maier, owner of Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed 100% grass fed beef.
BKF: What do you grow as cover crops?
Maier: Cover crops get talked about a lot in regenerative agriculture, but in the grazing world, what we do is build this cocktail of plants mimicking nature. Nowhere in nature do you find a monoculture crop. Everything is diverse. So, what we want to do is create a diverse grassland because we’ve learned that plants develop a symbiotic relationship with each other. We’ll put together a mix of 15-20 different plants that we will plant once we’ve reclaimed the soil to help reestablished quickly a diverse grassland. Because within that grassland, we’re extending the growing season. We have grasses that will grow through the hot period of the summer and then we have in the fall, the same cool season grasses will extend their green right up until December until they’re finally covered with snow. I’ve noticed that deer are digging through the snow and getting to the green plants that still exist there.
So, as soon you have green, you have photosynthesis happening and that carbon and energy is being taken in and put into the soil. To have activity [in the soil] is huge. We never come in and graze if the plant is any shorter than a foot, it’s always taller than that, and we always leave at least 4 inches but almost always 6 inches. The reason why is when that animal takes a bit of the top of the plant, the plant is injured, and it goes into “fix mode” and starts to kind of turbo charge in what it’s doing in its process of capturing energy and building roots and building microbiological activity in the soil. We can do that four times in a growing season. We like to have about 45 days rest in our area, and so you go through the cycles. That whole process of managing that grazing where you allow enough rest but not too much rest, you don’t graze it down so the whole root system dies. It’s a real art and science in this whole grazing world, and it’s lost. Very few farms and ranches are grazing animals on their land.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) did a study a few years back and they found that globally we have 60 years left to the point of where we would use up our soil and not be able to produce the food that we need for the human population.
I believe it when I look at the denigration of the land. Either we, as a society, decide to put our values into regenerative agriculture to save our food system or it’s going to be decided for us. It’s going to happen one way or another, because just like a bank account, you can’t just take withdraws. You have to put something in. If you put something in, same with regenerative, it does gain momentum the longer you do it.
We’ve been at it on our farm since probably ’05, so we’re 15+ years in, and those first years are tough. You know, you can’t turn on a switch and expect nature to fix everything overnight that’s been degraded for sixty years. The good news is it can happen pretty fast. We’re making an inch of topsoil probably in seven years, with these practices. The good news is, it provides a lifestyle and a livelihood for people that are closer to the land and that are actually stewarding the land instead of just using it as a tool to earn a living.
BKF: Can you talk about grass-fed labeling and what that entails?
Maier:So, in grass-fed beef, there’s a lot of marking going on. I’ll start with the USDA. They have some labeling requirements to be able to label your product as 100% grass fed beef. You have to show that their diet is forage, not grain, but the practices that go into that are highly variable. On one extreme, you could run a fed lot with a lot of animals in a pen, that don’t actually graze, but are fed forage and be 100% grass fed beef according to the USDA.
That’s where there is confusion among consumers because 100% grass feed beef means that it’s been fed forage. The rule is that you’re supposed to be able to write how much of the lifetime diet of the animal was forage. Our cattle are generally somewhere between 24 to 30 months when they’re harvested. Cattle that go into feed lots are somewhere around 18 months. We’ll call those conventional cattle. So, for conventional cattle, the first 6 months they spend on grass, then the second 6 months, they maybe graze, or they may be supplemented with grain, and then the final 6 months or so, they’re in a feed lot fed grain. Now the reason why they can harvest at 18 months is that they’re also fed subtherapeutic antibiotics which help keep them healthy in a fed lot environment, but also, it increases their average daily gain. So, a little side benefit of the antibiotics is it helps the gain.
In addition, almost all of the US cattle that are conventionally marketed have hormone implants that help them grow faster basically. Unless it’s natural, which a percentage of the cattle are natural that don’t have hormones, but conventionally, they do, and then they’re fed a steroid about 20 days before they’re harvested to help turn some of the fat on their body into muscle. Muscle is heavier than fat and the producer will get paid more for more pounds. So, if you just think about consuming all that in the meat.
Then, [consider] the number of vaccines that those animals receive that we end up eating. There are seven different vaccines that these cattle are given because they’re grouped together from various herds into these large feed lots, so they have to be vaccination against spreading diseases. We haven’t always had that and now we’re eating that.
BKF: Can you compare conventional cattle to grass fed beef?
Maier: I don’t vaccinate our cattle. We keep a relatively close heard so they’re not expose to other diseases. We don’t inject them with anything, we don’t give them antibiotics [unless their sick]. If they get pneumonia, they get a special ear tag that says that marks that they’ve been given an antibiotic. And then they get sold in the traditional sales barn, the traditional supply stream, so they can get out of our supply stream. But what we do is that we try to treat them before they get sick. We give them apple cider vinegar on their silage that we chop for them in the summer and we put apple cider vinegar on it in the winter. We have our own custom blend of very high-quality vitamins and minerals that they get free choice on a sled that follows them around everywhere they go when they’re grazing. They get all that they can consume of high-quality salt. And they also get a clay, we call it “detox clay” that they naturally consume as well, on the sled.
All of that is to say that we do everything we can to make sure that that animal is healthy. If that animal is healthy, they’ll withstand all of that and their body will naturally take care of it. We share that [knowledge] with all of our 50 producers across the country. We share that this mineral works, please use this mineral. We share our practices across the group so that we can learn together and that we can keep all of these animals very healthy.
It’s no different than when we take this land over and what we have to supplement the animals because if we just let them graze on this land with the degraded soil, they wouldn’t be healthy. We have to know how to supplement them until we can get enough land. And even then, we would continue giving them their vitamins and minerals, because cattle are smart enough to know what they need so they only take it when they need it.
The rule of 100% grass fed beef was intended to tell a consumer how much percentage of that animal’s lifetime diet was forage. So, what you’ll see is “grass fed” without a number in front of it, which means nothing. All cattle have been on grass at some point in their life, so it probably means that they’ve been fed grain, too. Pasture raised means nothing, grass fed without a number, free range, open grazing – all the terms that people come up with, there’s no regulation behind it, they’re just words. It’s marketing. It has to say 100% then. But then as a consumer, unfortunately, it’s left to you to decide the practices that went into that 100% grass fed beef.
The biggest loophole in grass fed beef – it’s to label it 100% grass fed beef but to have the cattle never graze in their adult life, be in a feed lot, and fed the hulls of GMO corn. Technically, the hull of the corn kernel is fiber. The starch is taken out and leaves the hull, and that hull is technically forage. How we get a lot of those hulls is from our ethanol plants. They make ethanol with that starch in the alcohol process, and it leaves this cheap feed that’s the hulls of the GMO corn. You can feed that in the fed lot and call it 100% grass fed beef. I don’t think that that’s what people envision when they buy grass fed beef, they envision cattle grazing.
It does require digging a little deeper to find the practices of the brand that you’re buying. Are the cattle grazing? Are they free of GMOs? Are they able to express their natural behavior? Are they managed holistically, in a regenerative fashion? If we’re going to get the benefits that I talked about earlier, that’s what has to happen.
What I always tell consumers is, find a retailer that you trust, because they will do the vetting. They will talk about the brands that they choose. I still encourage people to do their own research. Look for certifications. Our brand is certified by the American Grassfed Association. They had so much within our protocol and their protocol matching: non-GMO, no antibiotics, expressing natural behavior, managed grazing, holistic. This is a perfect marriage because it’s the most strict, broad, third-party certification. It’s not a consumer brand, but it was created by farmers and ranchers that really believed in what I’m talking about and they created their own system that was stricter than any corporation would have come up with it.
Then the other third-party certification we’ve been very proud to be a part of is the Savory Institute. If you want to learn about regenerative agriculture, Allan Savory has a TED Talk that’s very good. My farm is one of 13 North American Savory hubs. It’s a whole education network to get these practices that I’m talking about in regenerative implemented across more acreage.
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