You know that Spray Creek Ranch is doing all kinds of things: raising chickens, collecting eggs, teaching pig slaughter workshops, selling fencing equipment, reading through regulations, monitoring soil carbon sequestration, ropin’ miniature turkeys…
But historically, and at heart, we’re a cattle ranch.
Thusforemostly, our friends and neighbours have been inquiring as to the availability of our beef since we arrived here in 2014. And, reluctantly, we’ve explained that they would have to wait.
It turns out that there’s a lot to a cattle ranching operation, and the learning curve is steep. Get into finishing cattle for slaughter, and there’s some alchemy involved. Decide that you’re going to do it all on grass and other forages, now you’re looking at an art form. If you want to slaughter on the farm, then you’re getting the government involved and things really start to get complicated.
To finish cattle well on grass takes time. It takes us 6 to 12 months longer to raise a steer or heifer to slaughter weight than it would in a feedlot, where they are fed protein supplements, antibiotics, growth-enhancing hormones and grain. It is also much more challenging to produce a consistently premium quality beef on forages alone — there are many variables to consider and tweak in building a good pastured beef enterprise.
In fact, the genetics of our herd plays a huge role in whether they can finish on grass at all. Over the past 50 years, the frame size and weights of cattle increased dramatically due to selection for what one grass farmer calls ‘diesel genetics’. We are working to move our herd back toward ‘solar genetics’ – cattle that can grow, thrive and breed on our pastures with no additional inputs. Another axiom: good grass-finished animals are bred, not fed. Our experience with calves from the large framed, heavy cows we purchased along with the ranch has shown that to be true. They seem to keep on growing a larger, taller skeleton, but never fill it out with meat and fat!
In addition to selecting for the right genetics, we needed to adjust our management practices in other ways. One way we give the calves we keep for slaughter a head-start toward grass-finishing is to keep them nursing with their dam through their first winter. The supplementation of their grazing with milk gives them a nutritional boost through those lean times and has been shown to influence rumen development and digestive capability throughout the animal’s life. This also postpones the stress of weaning until the calf is older, and many of the cows have begun to naturally wean the calf themselves by this point. After a multi-stage process and just a few weeks apart, these weaned yearlings are reunited with the herd to continue growing.
In order to ensure the cow can carry her calf through the winter without compromising her ability to support her new calf in the spring, we have moved our calving season later to match the timing of the deer and other wild ruminants in our area. Grazing species are well-adapted to weathering the lean times of winter and then rapidly gaining back their condition on the lush spring grasses before giving birth. However, calving in May and June is not typical in the industry. Because ranchers want to have the largest calf possible at the fall auction, and because they need to spend those early summer months putting up hay or silage while the cows are out on range, most operations calve in February and March. We made the shift gradually and cautiously, and our herd performance has proven to us that this is a good strategy.
To produce a quality eating experience, with the incredible flavour, sufficient fat for dry aging and the tenderness that a customer expects from premium beef, we need to ensure our solar cattle are gaining weight well throughout their lives. That involves developing a ‘grazier’s eye’ and an effective rotational grazing strategy, keeping the herd on the move to fresh, high-quality paddocks and keeping the forages growing in a vegetative state. When the forage is overmature, the quality declines and our ability to keep the cattle gaining is lost. If weight gains slow, stop or reverse into weight loss, the eating quality of the beef declines. Learning how to graze a herd properly through the entire growing season, and how to stockpile high-quality forage for winter grazing, takes trials, mistakes, and lots of experience.
When all the pieces come together in our operation, we’re looking at a 20- to 24-month-old ‘long yearling’ heifer that has grown from her birthweight of about 80 lbs to a finished weight of around 1100 lbs on nothing but forages, organic hay, Coast Mountain water, salt with supplemental minerals and a little kelp. She will have a broad, rounded rump and flat back. Her tail head and brisket will be filling out with fat deposits. To my predatory eye, she will be looking quite plump and tasty!
Next comes the challenge of translating the complex work of raising a finished animal into a ready-to-cook product and getting it to your plate.
We have been working hard to create our own abattoir and butchery right here on the farm, and as you can imagine, the applications, licences, plans and requirements are many. We’ve been sourcing used equipment from around the province and redesigning the systems to meet modern health requirements. Now the licence is hanging on the wall, the safety plans are in, the water is treated and tested, our cooler is running and the tables and cutlery are sanitized and gleaming.
Getting the facility prepared is only half the challenge — of course, it takes skilled, capable and dedicated human beings to do the work! We have been very lucky to find several amazing people in the community to help us. Our capable young ranch hands, teenage brothers Sage and Cedar, helped us humanely slaughter and proficiently prepare the beeves for the aging cooler, making good use of their homesteading background, passion for backcountry hunting and years of poultry slaughter experience. We also had the assistance of Coral and Pablo, a dedicated pair of visitors from Spain who took each new experience in stride.
We hung the quarters for three weeks of dry-aging, which balances the improved flavour and texture against the trim losses that come from even longer hanging times. Our lovely and talented butcher Megan, already accomplished in the trade just a year out of the Retail Meat program with TRU Culinary Arts, used her brains over braun to do a thrifty and talented job of cutting and wrapping the beef. A life spent growing up on her family’s cattle ranch makes her a great fit for the job. We kept the short loins whole and aged them for an additional three weeks — the 40-day dry-aged porterhouse steaks we cut are going to be absolutely incredible.
Aubyn and I, along with everyone who helped us get to this point, are so very proud to present you with our first beef that was born, raised, slaughtered and butchered right here at Spray Creek Ranch. This is a dream we have been working toward every day for four years. Watching our cattle turn sunshine and water into fertile soil and healthy, delicious beef is inspiring and fulfilling. It has been an amazing experience developing this system, and we are excited to refine and improve each season. Enjoy your first sample of this very special beef, and join us in anticipating more to come.