Part II: The land, sustainability, and Serengeti model of Georgia grass-fed beef farm, White Oak Pastures
A few months ago, when my boyfriend Zack turned 30, I gave him the gift of planning – 30 things to do in his 30th year. One of those goals was to visit a farm with grass-fed animals (the edible kind) and since White Oak Pastures has been our main source for local, Georgia grass-fed beef (and we had met the fourth generation owner, Will Harris, in person last year at the Sandy Springs Festival), we elected that as our destination. This blog post is part two of a three part series – you can read part I here that covers the processing plant (Will calls this his abattoir) and each step that a cow goes through on its journey from Will’s farm to your grill / table.
Part II: White Oak Pastures’ land and sustainability
White Oak Pastures is a zero waste farm that operates under the Serengeti model. If you’ve ever read Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, you were introduced to the Serengeti model via farmer Joel Salatin and Polyface Farms in Virginia (and Will Harris has read every book Pollan has written). The Serengeti method is inspired by the simplicity, yet depth and richness, of African grasslands and the way animals interact with the land. Larger ruminants (mammals that partially digest vegetation, regurgitate cud, and rechew it for maximum nutrition) graze the land first. When they move on, they’re followed by smaller ruminants who may graze upon different types of grasses in the same field. Next come the birds, that feed on the bugs and insects in the grass.
Will cycles the cattle, sheep, turkeys, and chickens through different fields and spreads out mixtures of compost and organically-produced fertilizer to enrich the soil, native grasses, and hay. Which brings me back to the tour we started in part I of this series. After our tour of the abattoir, we knew what happened to the edible parts of the cow, but what about everything else?
Will loaded us up in his truck (Zack, me, and two more guests who were in the right place at the right time) to show us around the farm. In a large pavilion adjacent to the abattoir, we stopped for a moment to talk to a man operating a large machine. Will explained that this aerobic / anaerobic digester turned the blood and viscera of the cattle into a liquid, organic fertilizer for use on the fields. Once the cattle are rotated to the next field, gallons of the blood fertilizer are spread over the ground, adding richness to the south Georgia soil. I asked Will how long would he wait before letting the animals back on those fields? He said he believes everything is absorbed within a week, but he waits 45 days just to be safe.
We pulled up to a series of whitish mounds, to which Will said, “Here’s a part of the process that’s a little unpleasant to look at.” Curiosity piqued, I looked out the window and saw scattered shapes in the grass leading up to the pile. As I realized what we were looking at, Will explained that these were bone piles, where the bones from his abattoir scraps were brought out to the farm to dry. As part of the zero waste model, everything is disposed of in an environmentally sound way and, in this case, the bones are ground and then applied to the pastures’ soil to provide calcium and phosphorous.
We passed compost piles, hay bales from Will’s fields that help feed the cattle (no corn or soy here like you would find in industrial farms – the ruminants’ stomach isn’t biologically designed to handle anything but grasses and vegetation), and the barn where the hides are stored. Every cow’s hide is stacked with wet side facing up and salted for preservation. Every 600 hides, they’re shipped out to Louisville, Kentucky, where they are transformed into leather.
So how many heads of cattle does it take to enable White Oak Pastures to slaughter 25 cows a day (equaling ~9,500 pounds of boned out beef)? How does the birth to death cycle progress? Here are a few numbers:
- 34 – the number of bulls on the farm for procreation purposes
- 678 – the number of cows on the farm to birth the calves
- ~1,400 – the number of cattle being raised at any given time for slaughter
- 283 – the number of days in the gestation cycle of a cow
- 18 – the very high end number of calves a cow could give birth to in her life (gotta have good birthing hips)
- 8 – the number of months after a calf is born that he is weaned from his mother (the calves born around the same time move together away from their mothers and stay together as a herd until slaughter)
- 30 – the number of months that the USDA regulates cattle must be slaughtered within (the young age helps drastically lessen the chance of mad cow disease)
- 26 – the number of months that Whole Foods requires their suppliers to slaughter cattle within
- 24 – the number of months at which White Oak Pastures slaughters their cattle
- 1 – the number of Great Pyrenees dogs that grow up with, guard, and protect each herd of cattle
Throughout their lives, the cows remain completely free range and grassfed. Will grows hay on the farm, too, to harvest and feed the animals. Open air, sunshine, and food that is rooted in the ground shouldn’t be such unattainable goals, yet they seem incredibly inconvenient for much of the nation’s beef producers. White Oak Pastures used to feed the industrial meat industry, a natural transgression from its beginnings feeding local residents from the farm in 1866 into the age of mass consumption, but in 1995, Will began to reverse the process. While he says it’s still a work in progress, I’d say it’s a pretty amazing accomplishment.
“All of our cattle are born, raised, and harvested to meet our USDA Approved Grassfed Protocol. [This protocol prevents the use of artificial hormones, confinement feeding, animal by-products, antibiotics, etc.]“
- White Oak Pastures brochure
Will acknowledges that grass-fed beef will never dominate the market, that people will still buy the super-cheap meat on sale in a big box store, but they might never be his audience either (although I wish they were). However, demand is increasing and White Oak Pastures is certainly garnering attention (in fact, the morning I put up part I, the AJC ran an article about White Oak Pastures). They own the only on-farm, USDA-inspected, grassfed beef processing plant in the nation and have won taste-testing contests, so it’s no surprise why. Zack is slowly getting our friends and family hooked on White Oak Pastures’ beef, whether for moral, ecological, economical, or flavor reasons – and it’s working. His friend Jason tackled a two-pound steak a few weeks ago:
At the end of the day, Zack and I pulled our cooler out of the car and started picking out meat that Will had ready to go in a cooler at the front of his store. The other couple who joined us made their selections as well to take up to their 40 family members up the road. As she got out her card to pay, Will said:
“Why don’t you mail me a check? I don’t know how to work the credit card machine.” That’s good ol’ Southern faith in people.
Next up in part III: Will’s other projects. That’s right, it doesn’t end with beef. So stay tuned for chickens, solar voltaic sheds, white oaks, and veggie patches. You’ll also get to meet the farm dogs and who doesn’t like farm dogs?