Humane Treatment

February 23, 2008

Reading reports this week of a beef recall after disturbing images of sick cattle were shown from a California slaughterhouse. When I see these incidents, I understand completely why people become vegetarians. I hope most people realize that those images are an aberration. All of the people we work with who handle animals would never dream of mistreating them. Most ranchers have a deep respect for animals. We live with them, we depend upon them for our livelihoods, and we spend our days taking care of them. We are in the fast grass growing season now and Joe and Everett are moving the cows daily in order to to ensure fresh grass for them.  Our cattle live on open spaces and never see a feedlot; they relax on pastoral hills and enjoy clean water, fresh air and green grass.

Ironically, we’ve been in discussions lately with the American Humane Association (AHA), the third-party humane treatment certification label we’ve had for the past four years. We follow strict guidelines of humane treatment, developed over five generations of ranching heritage. The value of a third-party label is mainly for those customers who we do not know, and who do not know us. It’s a nice way to verify our practices for those who do not have a chance to come and see our ranches and cattle for themselves. Most of our customers trust that we would never mistreat an animal and actually seek out our beef because of the healthy nature of the animals, land and product. We have decided to not renew our certification with AHA. Following is Joe’s response to one of our customers explaining our decision. As always, we welcome comments and feedback.

  Hi Kimberly,

Thank you for your inquiry and your concern about the recent recall.  I found it repulsive, frankly, and am dismayed that a few people in the dairy business have made such a black mark on the beef industry–as well as the dairy industry.  I just returned from a meeting of our local cattlemen’s association, and there is general agreement that the behavior in question was completely reprehensible and avoidable.
As far as our practices are concerned, our animals live pretty much as their wild ancestors lived, that is to say filling their niche in the life of the rangeland community–which includes you and me, by the way, who benefit and affect the rangelands around us.  In the interest of full disclosure, we are no longer certified humane.  We worked with the American certified humane group, of the “Free Farmed” label, for four years. 
Our practices were certified by them for that time.  This year they had changed one of their criteria, that male calves had to be castrated before they were one month old, and if they were castrated beyond that date anesthesia was required.  For a number of reasons, we have chosen not to comply with this norm.  The reasons include the fact that being with the animals every day during the calving season to make sure we castrated each calf within the requisite time frame is impractical from the standpoint of labor.  In addition the topography of our ranches would make it very difficult to catch and castrate each baby calf.  There are many things to attend to in order to enhance the life of the rangelands and the health of our animals, and the time required to babysit essentially wild animals would not help us toward that goal.  It would be a case of caring for the trees but losing the forest.  We choose to brand, vaccinate and castrate our calves when they are around four months of age, all at the same time: it takes about a minute per calf, after which they are immediately allowed back with their mothers and onto clean pasture.  They are up and eating within a couple of hours, sometimes faster.  While the procedure is clearly painful, we believe that it would add additional stress to hold onto the calves for the time it would take for the anesthesia to take effect. 
Cattle, by themselves, can deal with each other very roughly and deal each other blows that would cripple us, but they do not keep the stress up for almost any time at all.  It is hit and they’re done, with the exception of bulls fighting each other for dominance.  They way we brand attempts to mimic this form of stress and immediate release.  
The “humane” standards were developed by people who do not understand animals very well, and seem to reflect an anthropomorphism of the animals, which we believe is not only unnecessary but very problematic.  I am an animal lover as well and have cared for animals since I was a child–lots of them, but I try to understand what it is the animal needs according to its nature not according to my own.  I have spoken with vets as well as with Dr. Temple Grandin, the animal behaviorist from Colorado State University, and they have all agreed that there are more important stresses to avoid for the well-being of our animals. 
Therefore, we will continue with our practice while always seeking to improve them. If there is a better way, a way to administer an analgesic, for example, to speed recovery, we are looking for it, and we will find it.
I apologize for the long response, but I want to be up front with all of our customers–or potential customers.  If we do not agree, the world is big enough to accommodate us both and better off with a diversity of ideas.
Hope that is helpful.  Please let me know, if you have further questions.
Joe Morris

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Gearing up for 2008

February 9, 2008

It has always amazed me how easy it is to sell grassfed beef. Many – if not all – of our customers found us before we found them. It is rare that we have to tell them about the benefits of grassfed beef, because they’re already informed eaters who understand terms like “linoleic acid” and “Omega-3s.” The only advertising we do is in our local church bulletin, a small business-card sized ad that we took out as much to support the parish as to advertise our beef. We’re considering buying an ad in the 2008 “Buy Fresh Buy Local” guide, published by the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, but that would be a first.

The beauty of a local food system is that it is sustainable. We are not dependent on far flung customers who have no attachment to our “brand.” They know where we are and who we are. Many have visited the ranch and joined us on annual field days. We can adjust our business model quickly, if we need to. For example, four years ago when the USDA ruled that all animals over the age of three needed to be processed in a USDA-inspected plant, we had to move quickly to find an alternative butcher (our original butcher, Freedom Meat Lockers, is state-inspected and we still use them for younger animals.) We immediately reached out and made contact with Johansen’s, a family-owned, USDA-inspected butcher in Orland, which we have been using ever since. The distance (about 250 miles north of us) proved to be a hurdle at first, but we adjusted our model to make deliveries from Sacramento to San Jose on our way home – increasing sales and adding convenience for our Bay Area customers.

As the orders start coming in for 2008, I admit that I get a little anxious thinking of the work ahead. There’s a lot of paperwork involved in assigning portions, invoicing, scheduling deliveries, and tending to individual customers. The logistics can be overwhelming if you don’t tackle each task at a time. I am grateful for our loyal customers. They understand the nature of buying not just from from a “family farm” but from a “family run farm.”  They’re okay with a day or two before we’re back in the office returning phone calls and they are more than willing to meet us half way with pick-ups and deliveries. We are excited about 2008: it’s turned out to be a perfect grass year with well-timed rain and sunshine. We’ve also teamed up with several, enthusiastic local food distributors who will hopefully help us with the logistics and increase sales. It’s an exciting time for the local food movement. It feels like we’re at the beginning of something big, as Californians become more aware of how their food is produced and where it comes from. If you haven’t placed your 2008 order yet, you can download an order form from our website: www.morrisgrassfed.com. Hurry up, we’re going to sell out!

We’ve been fighting an uphill battle lately at T.O. Cattle Company. I use the word “fighting” carefully because I dislike the image so much. We teach our children not to fight. We think of it as a last resort when civil discourse has failed and we are left to defend others – or ourselves – from harm.  Unfortunately it’s the word that best describes where we are with one of our landlords.

We lease the majority of the land we run cattle on: a private, family-owned ranch in Watsonville, Calif., two state parks near Hollister, Calif., and a private foundation’s wildlife reserve, also near Watsonville, Calif.  Essentially, our “landlord” on two of the ranches is the State of California, meaning all of its residents.  Our fight, however, is with misinformed bureaucrats who have a bias against cattle grazing and are working their hardest to eliminate it (us) from state parks. (See previous blog entry “Cattle and Carbon.”)

We have been managing the land on this ranch for the past six years and have seen amazing results: increased wildflower populations, new growth of native, perennial grasses, an abundance of wildlife and healthy soil that nurtures and promotes the very landscapes state biologists have asked for. We have invited our customers to join us on an annual Spring Wildflower Walk on this ranch to share its beauty and teach them how their purchases of Morris Grassfed Beef support healthy watersheds and grasslands. The park is open to the public and provides miles of trails for walkers, horseback riders and others who want to experience nature. We are proud to be stewards of this land and have taken seriously our responsibility to manage it well. We have monitored our management and have five years worth of data to support the argument (there’s that fight thing again) that cattle can indeed be beneficial for the land. Managed properly, grazing is a valuable tool in a holistic management plan.

So why the fight? Under state law, the lease must go out to bid. We understand, and agree, that state property should be managed by the people who will best take care of it and fulfill the goals of the park. There is also the issue of “Animal Unit Months” or AUMs, this is the payment ranchers make to a landlord and is based on how many animals are on the ranch. T.O. Cattle Company pays the State of California to run our cattle there. It’s a win-win: California residents make money, while we are able to improve the land and make a living by producing healthy, grassfed beef for the community. 

 The State notified us that the lease would go up for bid three months ago. We turned in our proposal on the due date in early January and have not heard back from them. We’re told there are several other bidders and they are “reviewing each proposal.” Fair enough. What’s not fair is their timeline. We were not told the lease would be up for bid again until December. Nor were we informed that state park biologists would essentially ignore six years worth of positive results right before their eyes and threaten to remove cattle altogether.  

Meanwhile, we have not been able to put any cattle on the ranch. The grazing season runs from about November through May: a crucial detail state park biologist seems to have missed. It is February, meaning state residents have lost three months of income (from our rent) and we have been unable to ship “stocker” cattle from Nevada, another part of T.O. Cattle Company’s operations.  These stockers are a valuable source of income for T.O. Cattle Company and enable us to continue our work of producing local food. By the time we hear back from the state, the grazing season may well be over, as will the state’s opportunity to earn rent money while improving the land. The most frustrating aspect is that we are put in a position to defend our work. The uphill battle I refer to at the beginning of this entry is the constant ambivalence – or outright hostility – toward good land managers. Instead of being celebrated and compensated, they are questioned, criticized and – perhaps worst of all – ignored by the very people whose job it is to protect California’s public parks.  

Maybe “fight” is too strong a word. It’s exhausting to constantly have to defend responsible land management. It is hard to understand why society does not appreciate the work of individuals on the land who are protecting our communal natural resources. It only becomes a fight after civil discourse fails. Our civil discourse was not only six years of communicating our program to the parks but the results our management produced. Usually, flowers help end a fight. In this case, not even acres of rare wildflowers have won over the state parks. 

  

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