A newer cooperative has emerged and provides a special option for grass-fed beef products, adding to the variety of quality fresh meats available at Willy Street Co-op. Wisconsin Meadows is a brand produced by the 80 member/farmers of Wisconsin Grass-fed Beef Cooperative (WGBC). The cooperative was borne from a larger effort to reduce the impact of agriculture on water quality in the Mississippi River Watershed through well-managed pastures, minimal use of fossil fuels, and habitat preservation.
In keeping with the sixth cooperative principle—Cooperation Among Cooperatives—we, at Willy Street Co-op have always put special emphasis on partnering with other cooperatives to supply the store(s). In this, the United Nations’ International Year of the Co-op, it is a special pleasure to welcome WGBC into our product selection. Because cooperatives share a commitment to equality and transparency, this becomes a crucial factor for building trusting relationships with these vendors.
Working with the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, a core group of beef growers applied for and received a grant from the Wisconsin Buy Local program for the co-op’s start-up expenses in 2008. WGBC recorded their first sale of lean, tasty beef in 2009.
Today, prospective member/farmers pay a one-time $200 equity payment and commit to the growing practices prescribed by the cooperative. They’re then given access to seasoned advisors who provide knowledge and resources to help them improve their farming operations. Members can also participate in their cooperative to buy and sell cattle, feed and equipment through the co-op’s member forum, and to network with other Wisconsin beef graziers.
Although the growers are not certified organic, the cooperative requires members to use no antibiotics, no growth hormones, no animal-based feeds, no GMOs, no herbicides or pesticides. The animals are 100% forage- or hay-fed and finished, and grain-feeding is also prohibited.
From all around Wisconsin, with a variety of backgrounds and experiences, their members meet twice yearly and govern their cooperative with open, consensus-based decision making. Currently, the co-op employs a production manager, Pete Prochnow, who coordinates new members; and an operations/meat sales manager, Rod Ofte.
Russ Endres, WGBC Board Vice President operates a 230-acre farm in Mazomanie where his animals enjoy a rotating habitat of fresh, open meadows and wooded groves. A member for over three years, Russ, who came from a conventional dairy and corn-fed beef background, says he got involved because, “It was interesting to me. And in getting on board with the grass-fed co-op I’ve been able to learn more and it hasn’t disappointed me. I like the animals, and to me what I’m doing here is agreeable to me and it’s agreeable to the animals. I wasn’t out to prove anything, I was just wanting to enjoy what I was doing.”
Referring to the struggle for any start-up business to generate enough production until the inevitable overhead expenses can be adequately covered, Russ said, “It’s been really good; it’s been hard, but we’ve made it over the hill and good days are ahead. The co-op has had a real struggle, and we’re turning the corner now where we’re able to pay our producers with a quick turn-around, and we’ve been profitable. We make enough to cover our expenses and pay down our debt. Knock on wood, and it’s a big relief because a lot of people have worked really hard. The Board meetings were a lot longer when we weren’t profitable, but there was really no acrimony. [As a cooperative], I can’t recall ever making a decision that wasn’t unanimous, because if someone expresses a concern, we work through it.” WGBC is now actively seeking more growers/members throughout the state, and Russ reported that the co-op is successfully paying their members very competitive prices for their beef, and in a timely manner.
Driving from Mt. Horeb, where Russ and his wife Jean own and live on another farm, he tends to the animals in Mazomanie a minimum of two times a day, while maintaining his professional career in Madison. Russ tells me his wife, Jean, also enjoys spending time on the farm and in the beautifully wooded hills where they take pleasure in giving tours of the land to friends. Russ affectionately explained how he names all of the cattle after his wife, as in Jeannie Sue, Jeannie Bob. This year he named the calves Amanda Jean, Bobby Jean, etc., but all of the bulls are named Eugene. In all, the herd averages in size at 18 cows and around the same number of calves each year.
Some of WGBC’s members prefer to raise old-world British breeds such as Devon, Galloway, and White Park. Russ prefers Angus, saying, “I think they’re a little tougher; they don’t seem to get sick as much. Healthwise I’ve had really good luck.” When the heifers are between 18 and 19 months, they’re bred to calve in late spring. A typical breeder plans for March deliveries, however Russ feels this timing is easier on him and healthier for the calves. Calves are then left on pasture with their mothers, whose milk is high in butterfat, which helps to effectively put weight on the calves while they are learning to graze from her. In accordance with WGBC’s requirements, calves are to be weaned by 120 days after birth. Russ uses fence-line weaning, where the calves are separated from the cows by a portable fence. But, he admits, fencing with animals this large is merely a suggestion. Meaning, if they want to get through it, they will, and sometimes do.
During this summer’s record high temperatures and dry conditions, Russ had been keeping his herd cool by setting them up with plenty of water and forage in the wooded areas of the farm. Although the farm is sprawling, Russ used a water wagon and hoses to run water far back into the land so the animals didn’t have to walk too far for it.
During winter, Russ feeds the animals haylage (moist, sweet smelling hay that’s wrapped tightly in plastic after cutting, and has more nutrition than dry hay), harvested from his land. In contrast to the hot days of summer, while wintering the animals, he purposely feeds them a good distance away from their water to be sure they walk every day to encourage better health for the animals.
Each WGBC member is responsible for getting his or her cattle to Black Earth Meats for processing. Loading the animals for transport is a no-stress activity where the animals are gradually funneled into a loading chute where they eventually make their way onto the trailer. Russ added that this is always done very quietly and the animals are allowed to go their own way.
After inquiring about the final processing of the animals, Russ shared a recent experience where he asked to witness the animals through the end of their life, “Because I thought I should see that,” he said. “I was pleasantly surprised. [The animals] truly don’t feel a thing. On the farm, we’ve had to put a cow down for health reasons and to do that, well, their process was better,” he concluded.
For those who choose to eat meat, the benefits of eating grass-fed beef over grain-fed include less total fat per serving, a higher level of omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants (Vitamin E) and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), thought of as a “good fat,” and to lower cholesterol. The benefits of growing grass-fed animals are perhaps the most important factors over grain-fed and/or confinement growing methods. Animals that are free to graze on pasture contribute to an overall healthier distribution of nitrogen, and on Russ’s land, preserving and promoting healthy woodlands. These animals recycle solar energy by eating on pasture, which prevents the loss of topsoil from erosion and reduces the use of fossil fuels used to harvest and haul their feed.
If you’re new to preparing grass-fed meats, we suggest cooking these meats at lower temperatures and longer, or more slowly, because there is typically less fat. There are several excellent resources for preparing grass-fed meats; among them are our own Meat department staff members, but also the work of Jo Robinson (eatwild.com).
More information about Wisconsin Grass-fed Beef Cooperative can be had online at www.wisconsingrassfed.coop.