WABASHA, Minn. – Starting on a conventional Illinois farm followed by 20 years in the food industry led Mike Hunter of southeastern Minnesota to return to the farm in a very different way. He now has an organic grass-fed-beef operation that supplies quarters of Shorthorn beef to upscale Metro restaurants.
“I’ve been away from farming long enough to forget some bad habits,” he said. “I keep it simple and practical so I can do it myself. I want to keep fit. I don’t want to repair (equipment) because I know how to repair.”
Hunter’s goal is to manage for production without outside fertilizers. To achieve that he carefully mapped out his farm and planned his fences before he started grazing cattle on the farm. With high-tensile fence along the perimeter and polywire for the paddocks, he can make any size area the cattle need. He also laid 1.25-inch plastic line for water, with quick connects every 150 feet for moving his water tank. After opening the bottom valve and letting water out, he can easily pull the poly tank to the next area and re-hook to the line. He puts a bag of hardwood ashes in the bottom of his water tank to reduce slimy buildup.
That system allows for lots of flexibility, especially in spring when he sometimes moves the cows twice each day. One of the difficult things for Hunter to learn was leaving plenty of growth behind.
“It’s all about rest periods and not grazing it too short,” he said. “The more you leave behind, the more you’ll have.”
Rest periods for the paddocks range from three weeks to 40 days, depending on the season.
He regrets he doesn’t have much shade in the pasture, he said. During heat waves he can build a temporary fence into his woods. An ongoing project is clearing some of his woods to plant bur oaks in rocky areas for shade, to recreate a native oak savannah.
Hunter’s weed challenges are thistle and burdock, which he clips when needed.
He thinks allowing fall dormancy in his hay fields and pastures is important to have good production, he said. About Sept. 1 he quits grazing for six weeks. He chooses an area that needs renovating and uses that for a sacrifice field to feed the animals. It’s there where he bale-grazes through the winter. In the spring he seeds new pasture mix into the nutrient-rich area. Using that method he can renew his pastures every 10 years.
His purebred red-and-white Shorthorns are 75 percent polled; they have big rib cages to hold their pasture-fed rumens. Hunter uses some artificial insemination to raise his bulls. Calves are allowed to wean themselves, which they do at about nine to 10 months.
The animals are sold by the quarter to upscale chefs in the Metro area who want to cut their own meat. Those types of restaurants frequently change their menus to accommodate what foods are available on that particular day. Hunter has been able to sell animals as old as seven years and as young as seven months. He said all of it is tender and well-marbled.
Hunter has rejected the idea of farmers markets and direct-marketing to consumers because it’s more work than he cares to put into the sales end of the business.
“I need to be flexible and go where I see opportunities,” he said about his marketing.
He usually has about two minutes with restaurant servers to pitch his meat’s virtues. It’s servers who interact with the end consumer. By recommending the beef when meals are ordered, they can increase his sales.
Hunter put a lot of thought into his marketing and his pasture system, he said. Keeping labor costs low and production high keeps his farm productive.
“I want to be able to continue to do this as long as I’m able and want to,” he said.