PASA Field Day: Grass-fed beef and multi-species grazing
A family affair
Dave and Joy Stutzman—and their children—fine-tune their growing business raising meats naturally.

By Dan Sulivan

Photos courtesy of Mu Yeong Park

Posted September 14, 2006: It’s a balmy mid-August evening, and the mercury has finally dipped enough to offer some relief from a solid month of all heat and no rain. We’re gathered—about 50 farmers and “foodies” from across the state and even as far away as Cusco, Peru—around a picnic table under the shade of a welcoming maple tree listening to Dave Stutzman introduce his family and offer a brief history of his home place.

Andrew, 19, is raising chickens in an adaptation of Joel Salatin’s moveable hutch system. Jenna, soon to be 17, is raising lambs to bolster her college fund. And 13-year-old Trevor is in charge of the heritage turkey flock.

“That’s our workforce, basically,” Dave Stutzman says after also introducing his wife, Joy. “We really appreciate it. We couldn’t do it without them.”

The gathering is part of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s ( field day series, one of 19 such farm visits that have taken place during the 2006 summer season.

Genes that fit the farm

The Stutzmans’ primary grass enterprise is its beef herd, which includes Red Devon and Devon/Angus cows. The cattle are being bred with the goal of selecting genetics better adapted for finishing on the types of grasses this farm’s southeastern Pennsylvania ecosystem will support. The Stutzman’s are also looking to develop higher carcass yields that will exhibit the meat qualities that their customers value.

Dave Stutzman moved back home—their farm is just outside of Virginville, about 15 miles east of Reading (Berks County)—in the early ’90s and purchased the 110-acre farm from his parents. He now has 90 acres converted to pasture, rents another 20 acres of pasture from his mother about a mile down the road, and takes hay off another 50 acres leased nearby.

Stutzman acknowledges a divine hand in all that he and his family have been able to accomplish over the past decade, converting to sustainable farming practices.

“In 1997 I started doing some reading and research on organic agriculture,” says Stutzman, who up until then was growing conventional commodity grains and hay. “I’d become disenchanted with the economics of it, the droughts and the low prices, and I didn’t like the chemical part of it,” he says, revealing that he lost both his father and a brother to cancer.

Stutzman began running the numbers on several possible scenarios, all the while considering what type of operation might best suit his farm and family. He settled on grazing animals on pasture as the quickest way to organic production, “rather than going through all the chemical withdrawal,” and started with 20 feeder cattle in rotating paddocks on about 7 acres of meadow. By 1999, a third of the farm was in, and by 2001 the whole farm had been converted to a pasture-based system.

Converting to grass

In those early days, the Stutzmans were simply buying in feeder cattle and selling heavier feeder cattle. “It was still commodity trafficking,” Dave Stutzman says. “We had no control over setting price or the quality of the product.” Eventually, though, they figured out their niche market: grass-finished beef.

With researchers and consumers alike discovering the many health benefits of grass-fed beef—including the presence of cancer-fighting conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and Omega-3 fatty acids—business is booming. (As this reporter can attest, the end product tastes pretty darn good, too.)

Pasture’s Pride Natural Meats is not certified organic, but no chemicals are used in the grass and forage production, and antibiotics are only used as a last life-saving resort, with the treated animal then taken out of the natural product line. (Click here for more on Pasture's Pride Natural Meats.)

About 20 hogs once raised on pasture have now been brought into the barnyard after “some real interesting family experiences” trying to catch the 250- to 280-pound animals. They’re fed a natural diet and given plenty of straw bedding. The pigs partially compost the manure and straw, which then gets applied to the pasture as fertilizer.

Before heading out to pasture, the field day participants take turns peaking at the naturally raised turkeys in the shed turned brooder (about 100 poults are brought in each July and processed for Thanksgiving; they’ll be turned out to pasture at about 9 weeks).

Trial by fire

Probably the biggest learning curve, Stutzman says, has been the Katahdin ewes and lambs brought in to pave the way to college for the Stutzman’s daughter, Jenna. Experience is the best teacher, of course, and sometimes the harshest. A bit of bad advice and an overdose of vitamin E cost the Stutzmans a lot of the first year’s flock. A refortified flock now roams the back pasture through summer and winter, sharing a natural stream with the beef herd.

The Stutzmans now buy in 400- to 700-pound feeder cattle in the fall and finish them off to around 1,000 to 1,200 pounds, holding them over a second winter and processing them the following May through December. Three finishing cycles include:

  • May through mid-July with cool season grasses and legumes.
  • Mid-July through September with sorghum-Sudangrass, turnips and green leaf corn.
  • Fall/early winter (into early January) with turnips, forage oats and some stockpiled cool-season grasses.

Brought-in, barely weaned calves come from either one specific farm that knows what type of animals the Stutzmans are looking for—including that the animals are grass fed and hormone and antibiotic free—or a specific broker who tracks down specimens with those same characteristics. Dave Stutzman characterizes his product as a “well-marbled, high-quality gourmet-type of beef.” (On-farm offspring represent the Stutzman’s ongoing breeding program to improve genetics and the goal of a more closed-loop farming system.)

The animals are rotated in pastures that include a mixture of cool-season grasses and legumes as well as some experimental forage crops. Forage and pasture types include:

  • Alfalfa
  • Fescue
  • Broom grass
  • White and red clover
  • Orchard grass and perennial rye grass
  • Corn (young leaves and tender stalks grazed long before ears form)
  • Turnips
  • Oats
  • Field peas
  • Sorghum-Sudangrass

“Probably 75 to 80 percent of the pasture is a cool-season legume mix,” Stutzman says.

“Forty percent of our beef still finishes on spring grass...The hot weather will lignify it, and it doesn’t have as much energy.” So, mid-June to mid-July, the corn seed comes out. “They went in and grazed it during August and September before the cobs developed. They’re not getting any grain, they’re getting green leaf.” Stutzman says the young corn plants have similar energy as spring grass.

In the final finishing cycle—November and December—the animals are turned out on turnips and oats, where they will graze until mid-January. “We rotate daily,” Stutzman says.

Stutzman has also been trying out interplantings of soybean and corn, turnips and corn, and sorghum-Sudan grass and turnips. Particularly in these mixed-crop areas, a dry late summer period has made weeds a challenge.

While Stuzman is not a big-time record keeper—he eschewed organic certification as a paperwork headache as much as the fact that word-of-mouth marketing gives him all the business he needs—he reckons that his beef herd is finishing out in excess of 2 pounds weight gain per day (somewhat less with the younger animals).

“They can really gain a lot on turnips,” he says, adding that diets are supplemented with alfalfa/grass baleage when there’s a need for it. The herd is additionally supplemented with a free-choice salt/mineral mix. (Stutzman says, based on the work of Gearld Fry, that he plans to add selenium to that mix.)

Grazing regime

The animals are strip grazed, with the finishing group getting first turn in a given pasture. Depending on the crop and the time of year, the brood cows may follow the finished crop or the pasture may be left to recover. In late summer, the herd might be grazing on waist-high sorghum-Sudangrass. Winter forage might include the sugary turnip roots that get pushed up as the ground freezes. Stutzman says the herd will go for weeds in spring when they are tender, but not in fall when the weeds are tough and full of lignin.

The Stutzmans started out advertising their product in the local shopper but now do most of their business through word of mouth and through listings on websites such as AgMap, PASA and Local Harvest. About 60 percent of their business is done in halves and quarters and the remaining as individual cuts. All sales are on-farm. While they used to do one farmer’s market a week, they now find that they have no time—and no need—customers are happy to come to them.

While Dave Stutzman finds the Red Devon breed to be the right phenotype and frame size for his experiments with cool-season forages and for the quality of meat he’s after, the genetics are hard to come by. The breed used to be common in this country, until grain feeding of animals became prominent about 50 years ago (though Red Devons do well on grass, he says, they get too fat on a grain-based diet). Now Stutzman pays a pretty penny for embryos produced in the U.S. from Red Devon stock originally purchased in New Zealand. But artificially placing embryos has only about a 50-percent success rate.

Weather wrinkles

Stuztman walks us to a 4-acre field where he’s interplanted corn and turnips, and where dry weather has been more hospitable to redroot pigweed than to the cultivated crops. Here, he explains, is where he had hoped to finish off his fall animals, with an adjacent interplanting of corn and soybeans to accommodate the beef that will be processed in December-January. “It was looking really beautiful; then it got hot and the weeds took over,” he says. “It was also a little too wet when we worked this area.”

The ultimate goal here is to create animal genetics and permanent cool-season pastures that match. Then, Stutzman says, he can give up “farming” as he calls the daily struggle to provide adequate pasture and forage through creative cropping that tries to stay one step ahead of Mother Nature.

“It’s difficult to get good-quality cattle that finish well on grass,” Stutzman says. “I really don’t want to be doing this—farming and plowing and planting annual crops. I really think it can be done without that if you have the right genetics."