What motivates you to want to improve our environment?
(i.e.… to recycle, compost, and use resources responsibly?)
For us, our children do.
Almost daily you can find an article or news story about climate change, and the misuse of natural resources and energy. A lot is blamed on agriculture pollution, and understandably so. 95% of agriculture in the US is conventional- using GMO seeds, herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, tillage, and heavy machinery. Many are factory farms, forcing the small farmer to make tough decisions to make a living. Farming income is the lowest it has been in 12 years. Small farmers have always been stewards of the land, but today, many are going from being practical to panic mode- cutting corners that make the land suffer. It’s the age-old fight between ecology and economy. I won’t keep writing about this because it can get quite depressing and I do believe ecology and economy can go hand in hand. There is an optimistic view!
Regenerative agriculture is a “new type” of farming that has been gaining ground. It has soil health as the foundation for healthy land, ecosystem, and environment, while producing the healthiest and best quality food system. It consists of soils being covered with plants at all times during the year and building organic matter (adding carbon into our soils) as paramount to a healthy ecosystem.
We began learning and practicing RE when we bought our farm in 2012. At our farm, we have a diverse amount of plant types populating our fields. The perennial plants capture water from rain to prevent runoff. These plants capture the sun's rays and turn this energy into food through photosynthesis. The plant takes in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. The land provides a wonderful habitat for pollinators. There is wildlife below the ground too, as millions of microbes, earthworms, and insects breakdown and recycle minerals and dead growth. Let the animals above and below the soils contribute to the interworking of our natural ecosystem! Our cattle are integral to this ecosystem process. They harvest these perennial plants and turn the plants into meat and milk. By plant harvesting, carbon gets deposited into the ground through root system death and regrowth. Without the cows harvesting the plant life, this ecosystem would become out of balance, and certain species would dominate. The cows also deposit fertilizer for the ecosystem to take in and recycle. All this is the ecology part.
However, without the economy part, the ecology suffers. For small farmers to be able to make a living in our “big business-factory farming world”, we as consumers need to provide support to this movement. We can encourage this type of production and environmental protection with the spending of our food dollars. Grocery stores, restaurants, chefs, school cafeterias, and people cooking at home are what drive the food economy. We can make a difference to our health, our environment, and our children’s future with how we spend our food money.
I once read “don’t ask why food is expensive, ask why food is so cheap” and it is so true. Keep in mind “cheap food” has a tremendous cost to our environment and our health. We might not consider this when spending our money on food but you are paying for it through your health care costs and your taxes.
With economy and ecology working together you have the power to better our environment, provide stability to farmers and rural communities, and improve your health!
Earth day has come and gone… But don’t we owe it to ourselves to think about this more than one day a year? What if every day we look at the way we use resources, the food we eat, the energy we use, the waste we produce that goes into landfills... a little bit can make a HUGE difference!
Our daughter is currently preparing for her class play on “mistakes and failures- and how we learn from them”. Pretty clever and insightful for 3rd grade, right? It got me thinking about mistakes I’ve made at the farm. While this blog post is nowhere long enough to list them all, I figured I shared the latest one in the spirit of Cecilia’s class play!
As you may remember from a previous post, we have been narrowing our calving season to springtime only. We are shooting for our momma cows to deliver between April and June. At this point, the harsh winter has passed and the green has come back to our pastures- an ideal time and place to have a newborn calf! To make this happen, our fertile bulls have to be introduced into our cow heard by July, and be taken out by October. Cows have a 9-month gestation period, which gets us to the April- June calving window. All good so far…
When our cows give birth they have a 50/50 chance of a male or female calf. Once the calf is born our only intervention for a female calf is dabbing her umbilical cord with some iodine to prevent infection. We do the same for the males, but we do one more thing for these guys- they need to be castrated. Our male readers may be wincing now, but the way we do this is the most humane. It’s a no snip procedure. We stretch a thick rubber band, the size of a toothpaste cap and insert the bull calves’ testicles and sack into the opening. The important part is to make sure BOTH testicles are below the rubber band when it closes. This method cuts off the blood flow below the rubber band and within a couple of weeks the area below the rubber band falls off. These (castrated) steers are where most of the cut beef comes from. With less testosterone than a bull, the steers are more docile, they can’t impregnate the cows out of season so they can stay with the herd, and their meat is more tender.
Ok, now for the mistake… Rewind to late spring of 2017, and we noticed one of our steers getting “frisky” with the cows. I thought it was strange but, he doesn’t have any testicles so “no harm, no foul”. I was sure of this- I did the procedure myself! In the fall, when we moved the bulls out and prepared the herd for winter, we asked the Vet to check all the steers. Well much to my chagrin, this guy still had his “family jewels”! BUT… they were tucked way up high into his body. Having seen a fertility specialist myself, the doctors encourage human males to wear boxers as it keeps the boys away from the heat of our body… (heat reduces sperm count). So when the vet told me that I didn’t band him properly, my male memory jogged to the human doctor and boxer shorts and I told myself that “the bull/steer’s boys are too warm and his sperm wont work.” Man plans, nature laughs… It turns out that his sperm DID work and we had a couple of new calves just a few days ago in early March!
I am a proud, happy grandpa, but with this mistake, I have just increased the layers of management on the farm. For the next month, we have to be extra vigilant watching for newborn calves. These calves have to be moved to a "maternity ward" or manger in the barnyard with their moms so they can stay warm, as the nights still dip into the teens and we have snow and ice.
My daughter always called this particular bull “the Beer” (combo of bull and steer) because we thought it was funny he was mounting the cows. Well, “The Beer” will keep me from making that mistake again. Lesson learned!
Posted by Paul.
As a mother and a health coach, one of the things you hear and read over and over is about how important breastfeeding your baby is to offer them the best nutrition possible to grow. The more I studied the subject, I learned “not all mother’s milk is created equal”. If you are eating a lot of "junk" or pesticide-filled foods, this will pass on to your child, as the quality of your milk won’t be as good. I remember when nursing our two babies, trying to eat my best for my babes!
Well, the same goes for our cows. Obviously we believe grass-fed is best for cows. It is their natural diet, and it contains the healthiest fats. When it comes to milk, organic is best as well since you don’t want the toxins from chemicals and pesticides stored in its fats.
We get really excited to see how grass fed, organic milk affects our herd. It really becomes apparent in the wintertime, shown in the health of our calves. These little guys and gals are chubby, growing well, active and playful, even with the cold weather we have. The milk supplies their mothers produce give them optimal health. While at some farms calves are weaned much earlier, at our farm, the calves happily nurse off their mothers for as long as nine months. This is a healthy win/win for the calf, the cow, and the consumer.
We always say in our farming…. it all starts with the soil. And the best milk comes from the best grasses, which come from healthy soil. Each year we get better and better at making hay for winter-feeding from our high quality summer grasses. This quality shows up in the mother's’ milk, and on our meat.
Just like in human life milk- this humble drink- is the foundation of our health, so it is for cows. It’s the most important food we receive to begin life, and we are proud of our momma cows’ milk and our very healthy calves!
This blog post was a collaboration from Marisa, the health coach and mama, and Paul the farmer.
While it has felt rather “springlike” lately , we sure had a rough cold stretch here in the Midwest, starting our (official) winter season with sub zero temperatures. Many were asking me…
What is winter like at the farm?
Well, cold. But as far as our work and the cattle, this is what happens.
In preparation for the winter, we cut and bale all our excess grasses in the summer in the form of hay for winter-feed. Also before winter hits, we give “pedicures” to all our older girls and donkeys, as we want them to have sure footing moving around in winter. We also pull out the bulls to tighten our calving season and have the cows give birth in spring/early summer on our green pastures, just as nature does it.
During these months, while the cattle are still outside, once a week we set out bales of hay for a whole week out in the fields in different rows. Every day we open a fence with 4 to 5 big bales of hay in one row, cut them open and the cows move in to eat. We have “rows” like this and we move them with the electric fence. The cattle fertilizes the field with their droppings plus the wasted hay that falls out of their mouths feeds our soil life. They have access to water, salt, vitamins, minerals, sea kelp and if they so choose, shelter in the barnyard.
The cattle prefer lower winter temperatures better than the real hot summer, but wind and cold rain are not a good combination, so while they are in pasture all year round, they do have access to the barns during the winter for shelter. Surprisingly to many, we rarely see them in!
Our animals’ health is a concern during the winter, but our herd has been doing well as they get all the nutrition and energy they need during these cold months. The breeds of cattle we have (the English breeds) do well in our cold Midwest environment. The cattle grow a thick coat of hair that gets shed during the summer months. The calves have put on a fair amount of fat from the good milk their mothers produce, and the cows are doing well from the high quality hay they get over the winter. This layer of fat is great insulation, and is testament to our rich pastures.
All our grasses and plants go into hibernation. Each year we pick a different field to feed the cattle on over the winter. The field that the cattle stay on looks pretty beat up at the end of winter, but it comes back strong in the spring with all the fertility the cattle deposit during the winter months. It also gives our pastures more plant diversity as dormant seed get a chance to germinate with the open space made by the cattle’s foot activity.
Every season there are repairs. Luckily, we only have had a few mishaps, one of the 2 water systems tripped a GFI breaker and we didn’t notice it soon enough and the system froze into a very large ice cube. The other 300-gallon tank that has a heater has performed well in this weather.
Everything has been working quite smoothly this year, but we sure are looking forward to greener grasses and sunnier days!
The long, cold days of wintertime are here, and our natural cravings are for warm stews, soups, teas, etc... This time of year I stock up on broth because I know I will be using it at least once weekly.
Sooo easy to make, broth is pretty much an "add stuff to the pot and leave it there for hours"... kind of cooking (my favorite!). The great thing is, when it is done, you have stock for weeks! as one batch can make a LOT of broth.
Have you heard the newest hype about bone broth being so good for you? There are even "pop up shops" in NYC where you can get a bone broth cup to go (a la Starbucks)! But this is not just a "fad", bone broth has been known to have health benefits for years and generations (chicken soup for the common cold?).
We were wise once... everybody ate broth, soups, and stews in the winter, and that's not only because they are warming, but because of its impact on how our body digests the other parts of our meals. Modern American diets tend to have an imbalanced amino acid intake. The reliance on "muscle meats" almost exclusively, instead of engaging in “nose-to-tail” eating of the animals like we should, results in an overabundance of some amino acids and very little of others. This imbalance appears to have significant consequences for our health.
The amino acid structure and high gelatin content of bone broth makes it soothing and healing for the gut and enhances the absorption of nutrients from other foods as well.The amino acids present in bone broth, namely collagen, glycine, and proline, are said to be good for heart health, joints, skin, hair and nails, as well as gut and immune health.
Here is my favorite recipe for bone broth that I've used over and over again... and yes, this recipe works for either chicken or beef broth.
Starry Nights Bone Broth Elixir
If you are using raw bones, especially beef bones, it improves flavor to roast them in the oven first. I place them in a roasting pan and roast for 40 minutes at 400 (this is certainly not necessary).
Then, place the bones in a large stock pot. Pour (filtered) water over the bones and add the vinegar. Let sit for 20-30 minutes in the cool water. The acid helps make the nutrients in the bones more available.
Rough chop and add the vegetables (except the garlic, if using) to the pot. Add any salt, pepper, spices, or herbs, if using.
Now, bring the broth to a boil. Once it has reached a vigorous boil, skim off any scum, a frothy/foamy layer that rises to the surface, and throw it away. Reduce to a simmer, and simmer until done. For beef broth/stock: 48 hours; Chicken or poultry broth/stock: 24 hours.
During the last 30 minutes, add garlic and fresh parsley, if using.
Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Strain using a fine metal strainer to remove all the bits of bone and vegetable. When cool enough, store in a gallon size glass jar in the fridge for up to 5 days, or freeze for later use.
* Collect ends of onions, celery, carrots, leeks, even broccoli stems when cooking your other meals. Freeze these in a ziploc bag and keep adding these veggie spares. In a couple of weeks you may have enough vegetables for your next bone broth recipe!
** Also keep the carcass from a roasted chicken and freeze it in a large ziploc for when you are ready to make broth. I usually use about 2 pounds of bones per gallon of water I’m using to make broth. This usually works out to 2-3 full chicken carcasses.
*** You don't have to have exactly these ingredients or herbs. Get creative and add what you like in flavor. ANY spices or herbs are acceptable, as well as any vegetables.
Last week a friend of ours reached out to us for beef. He has been very supportive of our farm business, but had never bought any of our meats. He had a “mild” heart attack and open-heart surgery some years ago and decided then to “go off beef” as much as possible . Whenever we get together with him we are always super sensitive to his disciplined eating routine of “no fat” and “no cholesterol”.
As you can imagine, it came as quite a surprise when he said he needed to buy some of our beef. His doctor told him he has too low cholesterol (yes, it's a thing!) and some anemia, and he recommended he started eating more beef. The good news was the doctor was clear in specifying - not just ANY beef, but GRASS FED beef!
As we grow our farm business, we are encouraged to see the health benefits of pasture-raised animals become more mainstream.
Mayo clinic says, Grass-fed beef may have some heart-health benefits that other types of beef don't have. When compared with other types of beef, grass-fed beef may have:
One of the first proponents of pasture base meats, Dr. Mercola, says,
Conventionally raised beef can’t begin to compare with lifetime grazed 100% grass fed beef for health benefits. Here are just some of the ways grass fed beef is superior:
CLA has been shown in studies to provide important support for weight management, immune function, normal cell growth and normal blood sugar levels. Animals that graze on pasture have 300 to 400 percent more CLA than those fattened on grain in a feedlot.
Once a cow begins to eat grains, it loses its ability to produce this valuable fat. Just one more compelling reason to choose grass fed!
It really makes us feel good at Starry Nights Farm when we promote better health, it is part of our mission to deliver a delicious, healthy, and nutritious product to our customers.
So have your cake and eat it too!
We have seen “knockoffs” in handbags, clothing, watches, and jewelry, but BEEF and PORK? The USDA (US Department of Agriculture) reversed a “Country Of Origin Labeling” law that permits beef raised in other countries to be “commingled” with US beef and be sold to consumers with a “Made in the USA” label.
But don’t worry, you still have the peace of mind that your lamb, goat, and macadamia nuts will comply with the County Of Origin Labeling Law, or “COOL”.
Why would the USDA, that is supposed to protect the US food consumer and give transparency to what we are eating, change this labeling law and carve out beef and pork from the regulation?
Follow the Money
To get to the heart of the matter, I am going to quote the movie All the President’s Men, “Follow The Money”. The beef and pork industry is controlled by 4 companies, which have 85% of the beef market (JBS, Tyson, Cargill, and National Beef), and 74% of the pork market (JBS, Tyson, Hormel, and Smithfield).
The USDA states the cost savings of not having to label the origin of the meat to consumer supply chain to be 196 million dollars per year. While this savings beef processors reap from not having to label where the beef comes from is not inconsequential, think about the “cheap” beef from other countries that gets mixed into the US beef supply chain. Now we are talking real money!!! This means the supplier of our food can mix beef and pork from Brazil (the USDA just suspended all imports from Brazil because of rotten beef entering the world supply chain), Australia, Mexico, India, Canada, and Paraguay and still say “Made in the USA”. Get a brand name handbag or watch made cheaply in China rather than with quality and craftsmanship from Italy or Switzerland, then charge the price that the true brand does- that’s a huge markup and its criminal!!
The USDA says that this is not a food safety issue, but I believe we are setting ourselves up for the next type of “mad cow crisis” in the US. By losing this transparency, our food chain has no traceable audit at the grocery store and producers have no responsibility to the consumer. I care what goes into my body! What’s next? mix other “proteins” into the beef and pork supply chain and say “real beef”? Just because these big meat companies have lobbying clout, doesn’t give them the right to increase their profits by delivering calories the cheapest way possible through “tricking” the buyer with questionable products!
What You Can Do
I am all for competition, but at least make the playing field equal! Without this law, multinational companies have an unfair advantage over smaller, domestic farmers and ranchers that will suffer from the cheaper pricing of beef and pork. Even more importantly, each country has different standards and protocols in their meat production; consumers deserve protection and to know what they are buying and where it comes from.
Let’s be “COOL” and bring back labeling that affects us all through something as basic as the food we eat!
Calving season is here, and we’ve had some beautiful calves born- so far 20+, and counting! This is actually our first season having an actual “calving season”. When we bought our first cows 2 years ago, some were pregnant already, and some we put with the bull as soon as we got them, and so the calving was happening whenever. This is difficult. Some were calving in the deep, brutal winter and it is just too hard for both mamas and babies. We now introduce the bull in the summer/early fall so they calve in the spring (takes them 9 months just like humans!).
It really is amazing to watch how nature works in the circle of life. The cows at our farm get pregnant “the old-fashioned way”. We introduce a bull and he goes at it for three to four months- (I know, lucky guy!) When a bull gets the cows pregnant they call it "the bull has settled" the cows.
In a farm that raises beef like ours, there are important, but different traits you look and hope for in the cows and in the bull. What is important in the cow (female) is that they have a good disposition, are good with calving, have good teats for milking, produce enough milk, are protective mothers, and can wean the calves at the right age. The bull is very important for us, as he is the one that can improve the herd through his genetics. For him, we look for an easy disposition, able to do well in the Wisconsin climate, a solid wide frame, and medium height. If he is wider and has a medium build he will grow well on the grass pastures and will likely pass on these genetics.
The birthing process is interesting (and beautiful) too. At our farm, the cows give birth out in the pasture- just like in nature. We watch them carefully while they are pregnant and in those final days, making sure they have plenty of water and that they don’t seem uncomfortable or sick. The seasoned mothers usually drop them with little assistance and no intervention. These are the ones where we just wake up, check on them, and there’s a new calf sucking on them! First time mothers can be a bit trickier. Some may need a little intervention since it is their first, and those we watch more closely. We had one this season that gave birth to a stillborn calf and was weak after the birth, but still alive. We tended to her, but she didn’t make it. I must admit, this is the saddest and the hardest part of farming.
Believe it or not, some cows are NOT good mothers, while others are extremely maternal. We had a cow that would not let her calf suck; she wouldn’t even look at it! She had NO maternal instincts. And that’s when you decide- she has to go! On the other hand, there was a relentless mama of twins that was pregnant again so we needed to separate the twins from her to wean them (they were already “teenagers”) so that her body can prepare for the new calf to be born. This lady jumped over fences, knocked over gates and finally got to the calves we were trying to wean. Wow! We’re keeping her…but watching her. And we still have to wean those twins a different way. We’ll take them to one of our far pastures for two weeks stretch.
And sometimes we are just in awe with nature and animals will to survive. A calf was recently born and no cow took ownership of her, usually this is the end of the calf, as it can’t get milk. We call this particular calf the “milk bandit”! She works her way around the herd and sucks milk from whichever mama shares some of its milk. Now that’s a street-smart calf!!!!
It’s been a great season so far with only 1 sad loss and many beautiful beginnings. Now on to growing the herd on our great, green pastures!
Springtime at the farm is a busy time. We get ready to transition the cows from eating hay (that we harvested last year) to the new fresh grass that is growing in our pastures.
One of the “dirty” jobs at the moment is to spread manure that built up during the winter over the fields (manure: a nice way of saying cow shit mixed with straw and hay). Coming from my previous career in finance, where I was a sales person, I feel right at home spreading the manure. In sales I could “shoot the shit”, “spread the shit”, and “bull shit” with the best of them, so how appropriate that I get to lay it on thick in our fields now!
Some of you may be thinking it is disgusting, or ask why the heck do we do that?!?….. Well, I will try to answer those questions.
Cow "caca", to organic/sustainable farmers, is brown gold! This dookie is what makes our sustainable business work. The dung increases the fertility on our land. It adds organic material (humus) to the soil, which helps buffer the drying effects on soil during a drought by holding more water, essentially becoming a sponge.
Unlike conventional farmers, we don’t have to use chemicals to fertilize our farm. The manure provides the food for our plants, animals, and the other micro organisms (fungi, bacteria, earth worms, insects and many other invertebrates) that work in our circle of life environment. It’s a cycle of birth, growth, plateau, decline, death, decomposition/decay, and rebirth. Nature rules! She uses everything by recycling it, making our soil rich and full of life. The cows give our farm an advantage, we are able to close our farm to any outside inputs. We create a closed circle where the soil, plants, and animals work together and continue to build soil health. Through this interaction we have a diverse set of nutrients and micronutrients in our soils, and by that in the food we produce. Soil scientist J.I. Rodale said it best, “ Healthy soil, healthy food, healthy people.”
Farming is a humbling endeavor. We have no control over Mother Nature, she has the final say. It is humbling working with cow pies, but it is so important to being sustainable. And think about how many different words we have for crap… when a word has that many synonyms, it has to be important! Changing my kids diapers and now having cows, I am over my poop phobia!
With my new perspective as an organic/sustainable farmer, I like it when someone says, “have a shitty day!“
One day not long after we bought the farm in 2012, I was alone in the farmstead, looking out over the empty fields, and said to myself “What the hell did you get yourself into? THIS IS GOING TO KILL YOU!!!”
Well, I’m still alive and kicking, and I will tell you the story of how I became a farmer.
For 30 years I had a successful career in the commodity markets in Chicago. I worked, traded, and brokered on the floors of the Chicago Board of Trade and Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Later, I managed a very active futures trading desk, working with clients all over the world. This satisfied my wanderlust and opened my eyes to people and cultures globally; a long way from home for a kid from Kenosha, Wisconsin.
During my 30 years in the commodity markets, I traded, among other things, all the agriculture products. Many of these were conventional commodity markets like GMO corn and soybeans, wheat, cattle, hogs, among others. I was a “paper farmer” then! I understood the “Big AG” way of producing food: produce calories the cheapest way possible.
After the financial crisis of 2008, I floated the “investment idea” of buying a farm to my wife. This was with the intention of renting out the land to a farmer. Once we bought the farm in 2012 and were ready to rent it, my wife, who is a certified health coach, expressed she did not want to farm the land conventionally (even as a rental!) and that it had to be organic. Her foresight gave me the appreciation of farming with a conscience of the land, the animals, and our health, but made it tough to find a farmer to work it. That’s when we decided to do it ourselves. With lots of reading and studying, and a great mentor (thanks to the wonderful mentorship program from MOSES) we were ready! The more I read and learned, the more dreams I had for our farm.
The first couple of years were spent improving the land and soil itself, and getting the nutrients back from the depletion of planting and harvesting conventional crops year after year.
In 2015, when we started buying cattle, I came to a crossroad in my life. The company I helped grow into one of the largest futures brokerage firms, was bought out and going through corporate changes. After 24 years working there, I was let go. At that time, I did a lot of soul searching about what was important to me and what I wanted to do the second half of my life. My wife in her wisdom said, “I will support you if you want to go back into the financial industry or work the farm, but you just can’t do both.” At this point in my life, I didn’t want to have regrets about not starting the farm business and letting this dream die. The easy choice was to go back into the world that was safe for me (finance) but I made the hard choice!
In my previous work, the bottom line was always about profit, many times disregarding other consequences by the making of money (like harming the environment, our health, our communities). My work as an organic farmer has changed the way I view business. I may still be a capitalist in some ways, but I have a different perspective. Success is not about “making more money” by exploiting resources. To me, success is being healthy. Having my family, friends, and clients healthy. Success is having a clean environment for my children. Success is deepening our connections to our community..
Our farm philosophy is that we improve people’s health with the nutritious food we grow, improve our soil health and our environment by our sustainable farming practices, and deepen our connection to our communities, then the bottom line will take care of itself, and I will consider myself TRULY successful!
Marisa usually writes about nutrition, grass fed beef, organic agriculture, as well as sharing delicious recipes; Paul writes about farm work- sharing his stories and experiences, and sometimes... we both collaborate on a story!