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SF Adapt: Grass-Fed Revolution
Black and bronze cattle slowly graze the lush green Minnesota hillsides under puffy clouds, their heavy hooves working the fabric of the prairie. In every direction, there is a postcard view, but Mike Stine is looking down.
He spreads apart a swath of lush plant life with his worn hands, revealing a green tangle so thick that finding the roots takes effort.
“Look at these pastures of ours. They’re full of goodness, full of nutrition,” says Stine. “We call ’em salad bars.”
He beams, showing off a double fistful of thick salad bar greenery. “This is an incredible variety of grasses. With the help of cattle and rotational grazing, we’re in the business of building great soils,” he says.
Stine turned corn and soybean fields into pasture when he started StoneBridge Beef in 2004 near Long Prairie. The pasture mix he seeded back then has expanded to about 50 varietals.
“I didn’t plant all of them,” says Stine. “We got a lot of volunteers. I think that’s absolutely critical in solid soil building and necessary for sustainable agriculture.”
The local food movement is a revolution, he says, “and I’m kind of a pioneer in Minnesota. What’s really cool is, I remember growing up on a farm where neighbors shared local stuff. Now, many years later, I’m seeing the trend coming back. People want to know where their beef is coming from.”
Stine grew up as a farm kid but had a career as a physicist, engineer, and a developer of medical devices.
“I worked on devices to help remedy heart disease,” says Stine. “I thought about how our food has changed over the last 50 years, from a traditional farm-raised diet to a diet composed of packaged semifood-like products. That change has produced a lot of inflammatory responses in our bodies, and that is what I believe is a factor in current issues of heart disease, cancer, obesity, and more.”
Forage Corn and Cowpeas
Stine has built a grass-fed beef business that supports two families. His partner, Lester Good, “is young and energetic, and he has good new ideas. Boy, can he ever work!” says Stine.
“Lester has figured out a way to feed the herd way into the later months without buying feed,” Stine says.
On some acres, Good plants a MasterGraze sterile 80-day forage corn that gets harvested by grazing beef before it can ear out. At that point, he plants cowpeas in a cross-wise manner, which grow up and around the multistalked corn plants.
“Once those peas wrap around the cornstalks, that wall of green gets so thick and shoulder high that by fall, we can hardly walk in it,” says Stine. “It’s a great idea, and a massive amount of forage. So we turn cattle out into that all the way into December and save on hay.”
The next spring, Good will rotate that well-trampled field back into no-till pasture ground, breaking most insect pest cycles.
Most of Stine’s cows are Devonshire, a breed developed in Great Britain. The cows are either solid red or solid black.
“Lots of folks confuse them with Black Angus, but they aren’t,” he says. “I like them for their disposition and rapid growth. They’re very easy to handle, they behave well in the corral, and they are not very stressy. As a group, the quality of the meat is reflected in their disposition.”
All pastures are divided into paddocks using temporary fence. Cattle are moved almost every day.
“They’re used to being moved around. They line up like milk cows when it’s time to head into a new beautiful pasture,” says Stine.
During winter months, Stine and Good feed baleage, which is silage made from round bales that are baled green with high-moisture content. Bales are put end to end and then wrapped like a sausage in white plastic. Due to fermentation, baleage doesn’t freeze, says Stine, and is easy to feed. The cows just eat their way into the bales. Stine calls baleage “kimchi for cattle.”
Breeding, calving, and feeding needs are coordinated closely. “We have to ensure we end up with enough beef on a continuous basis to fill our need,” says Stine. “We don’t overproduce, but we increase sales 30% each year. That means other pastures get rented, and we have to purchase some additional cattle for use as ground beef.”
With 500 acres under pasture, StoneBridge Beef is one of the largest farms supplying grass-fed beef to high-end restaurants in the Twin Cities.
“We never miss a week,” says Stine. “We slaughter every single week; our freezer truck is constantly moving.”
Chefs and their staffs come for farm tours. “I’m very much involved in working with chefs,” Stine says. “I like to think of them as partners in this venture. The chefs want their wait staff to be able to answer consumers’ questions about where and how their food was raised.”
StoneBridge Beef also has 400 families who order beef direct in quarters, halves, and more. The farm works with St. Joseph Meats in St. Joseph, Minnesota, to do all the custom butchering.
“Those are some incredibly talented people,” says Stine. “As a result, we fill the beef needs of some 400 families and all those restaurants.”
Ag diversification adds profit today (ADAPT). Here are a few farmers who take advantage of consumer trends. Steal an idea or two: