Oxbow farm tour and management intensive grazing

Back in January, I had the opportunity to spend part of a morning with Bart Morris at Oxbow Cattle Company while he rolled out round bales of hay for feed. It was one of those cold winter mornings that warms up with enough sun to make you feel like you have too many layers on by lunchtime.

 The hay serves as feed for the cows and nutrients for the soil

The hay serves as feed for the cows and nutrients for the soil

As Bart will quickly tell you, his first priority with the Oxbow Cattle Company operation is the health of the soil. From that, comes the productivity of the forage, then the volume and nutrients available for the cows which brings us delicious healthy beef!

Bart and Wendy practice what is often called management intensive grazing, or MIG. There are a few other names for this type of grazing practice, but the intent is to mimic how larger herds of animals used to move across grasslands for millennia before we domesticated them and built fences to contatin them. As Bart says, he prefer this term because it emphasizes the management involved in this method of grazing.

 On this day, Oxbow cattle will get their hay topped with apple cider vinegar 

On this day, Oxbow cattle will get their hay topped with apple cider vinegar 

Although today we can only imagine what it was like to see thousands of bison living in our country—coast to coast—we know what impact they had on the land. They grazed in mass, thousands of pounds of animals covering miles each day. Their hooves disrupted the soil, allowing their dung to fertilize the ground with nutrients and they grazed the tops of forage, then moved on.

The general theory of MIG, although there is really so much more to it, is that a rancher will stock a large number of animals (could be pigs, cows, chickens etc) on a small piece of pasture, and then move those animals daily, every few days, even every few hours, depending on the circumstances. By employing strands of electric fencing, MIG keeps cows in small paddocks, rotated throughout the larger available area. This allows the animals to graze the tastiest, most nutrient-dense tops of grasses, while trampling some forage as cover for the soil as a type of mulch. The animals quickly and thoroughly cover an area with manure and urine, assuring that the entire space is fertilized. Then, the animals are removed and the pasture receives significant recovery time to re-grow and rebuild. The difference from a layperson’s perspective is a pasture grazed down to dirt versus a pasture with lots of forage left. During my tour last summer, the NRCS folks talked about measuring soil temperature. Obviously, Montana is a hot and dry place in the middle of summer. Allowing grasses to remain and stand tall gives shade to the root systems and the soil, retaining moisture and allowing more growth during the longer, cooler times of day. The shaded ground is often protected from the wind, further allowing it to stay moist longer. It provides cover for other small wildlife – birds, rodents and bugs. Bart is always watching the ground, examining poop. All of us farm folks do… watch poop that is. It is the way we can evaluate the health of our animals. Bart looks for dung beetle activity to measure the health of the biome. More bugs means healthier soil.

Allowing more  of the leaves to remain on the grasses, rather than grazing them down to the earth, allows them to act as “solar panels” to the plant—a term I learned (and loved) on my first tour of Oxbow. These solar panels bring more of the sun’s energy into the plant, allowing it to continue to grow and regenerate.

This approach to ranching means the cows are always getting the very best feed, for the most days of the year. But not all cows will thrive on this method. To grow well on grass-only (and some hay in the winter), they need to have a bone and muscle structure that is efficient. These cows are typically smaller in frame and shorter. In comparison, feedlot or commodity cattle – how most of the beef is raised in our country—grow fast on grain. They need big bones to hold up to all of that fast-growing muscle, and are slaughtered at a young age.

During my time with Bart in January, he talked about his selection of the breeding stock that thrives under this method of grazing. Properly grass-fed stock are at least two years old, and sometimes older, before they have met their ideal butcher weight. Bart selects genetics from other ranches that employ the same practices as Oxbow does so as to increase the quality of the cattle that will succeed in this environment. He carefully chooses the cows that will become part of Mountain Meat Shares monthly shares. I receive the each cow’s tag number, and can know its life history right until it makes it into our freezers.

 Photo credit Oxbow Cattle Company

Photo credit Oxbow Cattle Company

Another notable difference in the management of this herd is that the calving takes place much later in spring (April and May) than at traditional ranches. This allows the baby calves to be born during warmer weather, when the grass is rich and plentiful for mom and native deer and elk are birthing as well.

While traditional ranches might fret over wasted hay in the winter month, Bart views any “inputs” of nutrients from off the ranch (all of the hay Oxbow uses is purchased) as investment in the soil. Any excess hay spread about that the cows don’t eat is not considered “waste” in this system.

 By caring for the land first, Oxbow is increasing the carrying capacity of the acreage and restoring nutrients and plant diversity, while repairing neglected or overgrazed areas. While doing their part in managing the land, Oxbow cattle receive the best forage, our river is protected, our wildlife flourish and our open space and view shed are preserved. That is why the Oxbow location, on the edge of our growing city, is so special.

Oxbow cattle receive no medications and no insecticides “poured on,” as is common practice. They receive free choice mineral supplements and apple cider vinegar too. Bart and Wendy are managing for the long term-- long term soil health, long term herd quality, long term customer relationships. We are proud to offer our Mountain Meat Shares members grass-fed, Oxbow beef!

BeefJennifer Knoetgen