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Got Beef?

One farming family steaks out the other side of dairy


Published May 14, 2003 at 4:00 a.m.

Black-and-white Holsteins in a Vermont pasture, grazing peacefully... must be dairy cows, right? Don't bet on it. If you're driving by Snug Valley Farm in Hardwick, what's hanging below ain't no udders. Owners Helm and Nancy Nottermann spend 18 months to two years lovingly caring for these male offspring of dairy cows. On other farms, bull calves tend to go one of two ways: Some survive only a few days before becoming "food service" products like hot dogs. Others live a couple of milk-fed months to be sold as veal. At Snug Valley, the result isn't just longer, better lives for the bovines, but also a "natural beef" product that caters to the appetite of a lean-seeking public.

Using Holsteins for beef is common practice on dairy farms. Random males are often raised for family consumption. Non-productive "cull animals" are the "beef animals of choice for the American fast-food industry," according to Ron Fisher, a marketing specialist for the Vermont Department of Agriculture.

But some industry insiders are skeptical about using Holsteins on commercial beef farms. Dan Connor of the Vermont Beef Industry Council says what the Notter-manns are doing is the "exception to the norm.

"No question about it. There have been a number of people who have looked at dairy beef, or Holstein beef, as just one more way of trying to diversify, to meet the bottom line, to stay in business. But it's like anything. You've got to do it on a large enough scale so that economically it's going to make sense."

The Nottermanns, former dairy farmers, say that part of their motivation to raise Holsteins for beef was to add value to a byproduct of the dairy industry, and in turn to support local dairy farmers by paying a premium for their calves. They also wanted to keep their land open -- and their view dotted with "nice black-and-white animals." Furthermore, the Nottermanns believe that what they eat is important, so they prefer not to subject themselves to "what is available in regular supermarkets."

They purchase calves just days old from six local dairy farmers and hand-rear them for 40 days. The calves live in little hutches resembling large dog kennels. Twice-daily bottle feedings give way to pails of milk and then to cornmeal and hay.

After weaning, the young calves are moved to a three-sided barn with a nearby field where they can graze. When they are eight-months-old, the bull calves join the older steers in the larger pasture and, if so inclined, can enjoy a view of the rolling hills surrounding nearby Caspian Lake.

Cornmeal supplements their fermented hay, or "haylage," so that the cattle continue to gain weight in the winter. The resulting beef is not organic, as the Nottermanns occasionally apply commercial fertilizer on their fields, use antibiotics sparingly and resort to non-organic cornmeal in the coldest months. However, the Notter-manns do not use growth hormones, and they do allow the cattle to graze for their full lives.

This is in sharp contrast to how beef cattle are raised in most of the country. Normally calves are fed corn and grain in "factory farms," and growth hormones and antibiotics are used freely. The animals do not graze on open land, and are "finished" by being fed large amounts of grain the last few months of their lives. Their existence is about captivity in crowded stalls and growing fat.

Snug Valley is not the only beef producer in Vermont to go the grass-fed route. The traditional beef cattle that wind up representing LaPlatte River Angus and Vermont Fields are de facto free-range. But Helm suggests even "natural" beef producers tend to give their animals grain in the end, to prepare them for slaughter. Holsteins tend to produce beef that's leaner, according to Connor, without losing flavor or juiciness.

Snug Valley Beef is the only beef they sell at Roo's Natural Foods Store in Johnson. Proprietor Roo Slagle likes the product because she knows where it is grown and because it does not contain hormones and antibiotics.

It was the first meat ever carried by the Buffalo Mountain Coop in Hardwick, where buyer Heather Church confirms it has a "solid following." Of the three types of beef she orders -- Holstein, beefalo and organic -- Snug Valley is also the least expensive: $4.20 as compared to $5 and $5.20 per pound. Apparently that wasn't cheap enough for one carnivore in the Northeast Kingdom: Someone lifted an entire freezer-full of Snug Valley beef at the Hazendale Farm Stand last fall.

The Nottermanns' bovine odyssey began in 1974 when they began milking in Bradford. After moving to 160 acres in Hardwick, they first milked their own and then bred heifers for other farmers. This required a rigorous scientific process of researching their 100 animals, keeping records and artificially inseminating cows to produce favored traits. After federal government buyouts ended in the late 1980s, breeding competition became too fierce for them to continue.

Switching strategies 11 years ago --from labor-intensive dairy to low-maintenance lean-beef -- turned out to be fortuitous. It coincided with increasing health consciousness among consumers and allowed the Nottermans to keep their land in agriculture without being tied down to the farm. Helm directs both the Vermont Farm Youth Corps and the Migrant Education Program for UVM Extension Services. Appropriately, Nancy is currently the education coordinator of the Vermont Association of Recyclers. The couple hires seasonal workers to harvest the hay and pumpkins, but still cares for the cattle every day.

The farm's altered economics -- beef production generates between a third and a half of their combined annual income -- allow the Nottermans time to advocate for environmental sustainability through creative farming. Their agricultural model is essentially a closed loop. Using a cast-off product from one industry as the raw material for another keeps local land open and adds value to the product. Marketing the meat in state saves on logistical costs -- such as transportation to out-of-state slaughter facilities. An outspoken supporter of Vermont's agricultural heritage, Helm has been vocal in the school-funding and land-use taxation debates. He sits on the board of the Vermont Ag in the Classroom project and has testified before the Joint Agriculture Committee on the lack of agriculture-focused education.

There is no way to know who else in Vermont, besides the Nottermanns, is producing beef from dairy breeds. The state doesn't maintain statistics on beef production, U.S. Department of Agriculture numbers are not divided by breed and the statewide beef association only tracks its members. Regardless of breed, however, natural beef currently accounts for about 10 percent of total beef production in the U.S. and is a rapidly growing segment of the meat market, according to Fisher.

"As more people are concerned about food safety, more and more are looking for an alternative," he says. At the Notter-manns' Holstein operation, another option is right there in black and white.

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