Melissa and Aaron Miller have been dedicated to raising grass-fed and pastured livestock for nearly two decades. They currently raise a combination of grass-fed beef and lamb, pastured pork and poultry on 150 acres of land in Kinsman, Ohio. Melissa joined me to touch on how they first transitioned from a conventional farm in the late 90’s, and some of the challenges and complexities uncovered along the way. You can find Miller’s every Saturday at the Howland Farmer’s Market, or purchase their products from the Online Market each week.
I’m not sure of the exact timeline, but I know you’ve been raising cattle in Kinsman for a long while now. What fueled the decision to make the switch from a conventional to grass-fed system on your farm?
Aaron raised 4H cattle throughout his growing up years and we’ve been farming at our home farm our entire married lives–nearly 35 years! We owned a hardware store in Kinsman and farmed part-time, raising cattle for freezer beef (selling by the quarter and half to homeowners), with a cow-calf operation raising 4H cattle for show, grazing dairy heifers for sale then as a custom operation for a local farmer–we have the most experience with cattle.
In the late 1990s we had the opportunity to sell the hardware store and become full-time farmers. We did LOTS of research and went to conferences, pasture walks, seminars–everything we could find! Knowing our farm and ourselves and the lifestyle we wanted for our family really informed our decisions; our farm is about 95 acres with heavy clay soil, Aaron does NOT like to ride around in the tractor and we had three kids to support and educate so we knew our place had to generate an adequate income.
Our decision to pursue a grass-based system for raising cattle was based on the health benefits-more heart-healthy Omega 3s, more conjugated linoleic acid, a type of fat that’s believed to reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers, higher vitamin E. Aaron has a family history of heart disease and he was looking to be pro-active. Environmental and sustainability issues were also front of mind for us.
From our dairy grazing experience, Aaron knew he was able to put fat on a dairy heifer with grass–quite a challenge on tall Holstein cattle–so we decided to give it a try with our first two cattle purchased to start our new business. One died from bloat so we weren’t off to a very good start! We kept at it, learning more about managing pastures here in northeast Ohio, adding cattle slowly, remediating our soil and finding ways to sell our product. We haven’t fed grain to cattle on our farm since 1999–in the late 90s there were only about 100 producers raising cattle on grass in the whole country so we’ve had to figure out a lot of it as we went along.
I noticed that nowadays there are plenty of grass-fed networks online that help farms to transition into a more sustainable operation, but that certainly didn’t help you in the late 90’s! I’m sure each farm has it’s own challenge based off it’s location in the US, as well. What have you found to be most challenging for raising cattle on grass in Northeast Ohio and how did you find solutions along the way?
There is a lot more information available now but farmers still need to look at their own specific farm site, weather, soil, how much time they have to manage livestock and lots more and make decisions based on that. I’d have to say we’ve learned the most by trial and error. LOTS of error!
Some of our biggest challenges have been figuring out the right mixture of forages for our cattle and our property. Most of what we’ve read and learned at conferences is to feed alfalfa to cattle. But we struggled to grow alfalfa–it just wouldn’t do well in our heavy wet clay soil. Additionally we had trouble with cattle bloating on it–despite trying to get them full before we turned them out, making sure the dew had dried off, waiting until the frost burned off–all those things. Aaron went (and I sometimes joined him, time and family commitments permitting) to dairy grazing conferences all over the Midwest and beyond–Wisconsin, Ohio, Pa, Kentucky, West Virginia. He’s sat in on countless webinars, read every book and trade magazine that comes along, attended pasture walks, day-long meetings, demonstrations of fencing, pasture management–just everything he could think of to learn more.
What he’s come away with is–what grows in the ditches in your area is what you learn to work with. For us that’s orchard grass and clover. We pay a tremendous amount of attention to soil health and micro-nutrients; it’s made such a difference in the health of our animals. Our veterinary bills dropped dramatically as we made progress with what’s beneath the ground-zinc, boron, calcium.
A big challenge for us–and most farmers in our area-is weather. North of I-80 we have so many cloudy days that it limits the energy content of the grass making it harder to put on the proper amount of “finish” to enhance the flavor of grassfed beef. Lots of snow (we’re in the snowbelt in Kinsman) makes another challenge for us.
What works for the farmer who has a multi-species farm in Virginia or grass farmers out West who graze thousands of acres doesn’t really inform what we can do in Northeast Ohio. We work hard to adapt and learn to manage what we have and do the best we can with that.
So a long process of refining, observing, and refining some more–with occasional insights from others and most obviously, a labor of love! What a huge investment and leap of faith to take all those years ago! And what an accomplishment to accumulate all that knowledge.
It is a lot of work but we really love what we do, both the farming and the marketing. It’s a pleasure to be outside so much, Aaron loves the challenge as he works with his livestock to build soil health and fertility on our farm and, in recent years we’ve enjoyed mentoring some younger farmers to build their own businesses–we really need more folks raising food in our community and we’re inspired and reinvigorated by the enthusiasm of people getting into or growing their farms.
And here is a great opportunity to meet Melissa and Aaron for a Pasture Walk on their farm! Come out to discuss the art of finishing beef on grass with Aaron and learn more about pasture management for efficient grazing with co-presenter, Rory Lewandowski, of OSU Extension. A full learning experience for those interested in understanding the thought involved in a first class grass-fed operation in Northeast Ohio.