When Mother Nature invented ruminant animals like cows and sheep, she designed them so they could thrive on grass. And, boy, do they ever eat a lot. Here at Coombe Farm Organic, our herds of beef and dairy cattle and our flocks of sheep munch through grass year round. While the sheep live outside all the time, when winter descends, our cattle retreat indoors. But even then, they still eat grass – preserved either as dried hay or gut-friendly fermented silage.
Our farming team works hard to keep our fields as productive as possible, all the while faithfully following organic practices. This is a challenging task which they achieve using a combination of crop rotation and fertilization with natural products, including the slurry from our milking parlours. But even then, the annual cycle of grass growth means sometimes it’s brimming with goodness and at other times it’s not so nutritious.
By cutting our excess grass in the summer, we can store it to be used as a vital resource for the colder months. So when the cattle come into the deep-bedded barns over winter, they can tuck into silage while the sheep eat the grass that’s left in the fields. But cattle – both dairy and beef – and sheep (especially growing lambs and pregnant ewes) demand a lot of nutrition. And at some times of the year, they simply can’t eat enough grass-based forage to get everything they need.
That’s when we turn to Plan B. While we never give our cattle imported grain or concentrated feeds made with GM ingredients, we do supplement their diets when grass alone isn’t up to doing the job. As part of our regular crop rotation, we plant some cereals, such as barley, alongside nutritious legumes like peas. These can be grown together in the same field and harvested as a ‘whole crop’. That means the stalk and seed are cut and stored together, so there’s no by-product and no waste. It also means the cattle get a balanced meal with plenty of roughage.
Out in the fields, when the grass gets low in the cold months, we offer our sheep root crops, such as turnips, to make sure they have the energy they need.
But why isn’t grass enough? It’s all a matter of steady growth and maintenance of condition on our livestock. If we didn’t supplement our cattle’s diet, they’d lose a considerable amount of condition over the winter, which they’d have to regain in the spring. It would be like yo-yo dieting – really not good for the body. Loss of condition ‘checks’ growth – meaning the animals may never reach their full potential. We believe that slow-grown livestock has a better life and produces better meat. Keeping condition and growth consistent puts less stress on the animal and ultimately results in a better carcass.
Because our sheep and cattle eat a diet that’s 85% (or more) grass, we’re still able to call them ‘grass fed’. In fact, regulations permit the label to be applied to animals that are fed 65% grass. As we’re well above this threshold and any additional feed we give is home-produced and fully organic, we’re comfortable describing our meat as grass fed. Most of the nutrition the animals take in during their lives comes from the grass they’re so well adapted to digest. And the goodness they absorb is reflected in the quality of their meat. So you can be assured that you’re eating a product that’s as pure as it can be.