Lima explains grass-fed beef process
NEW BRUNSWICK — John Lima of Lima Family Farms on Amwell Road in Hillsborough offered up some tips on how he manages the grass-fed beef production process at his farm.
Aside from 60-some head of beef cattle, Lima, his family and staffers also raise chickens, pigs and vegetables.
Lima spoke on Jan. 26 at the NOFA-NJ winter conference in a panel called “Breeding and Finishing 100 Percent Grass-Fed Beef.”
Lima was a successful construction contractor before launching Lima Family Farms on 150 acres in 2007, when he was growing straw for his construction company.
He built a barn in 2008 and an on-site house for himself and his family in 2009 before taking the plunge and buying 17 cattle in 2010.
His intent from the beginning was to raise grass-fed beef and use no pesticides in growing his foraging pastures. He’s not Certified Organic, he pointed out, but his vegetable and poultry operations are run in the same fashion.
Of his purchase of the cows in 2010, he noted, “honestly, up until then, I never had anything other than a goldfish. In 2009 we bought our first chickens and started from there. I knew absolutely nothing about the heifers and I started from nothing. I tried things and made mistakes. I learned.”
He took his small audience in a conference room through a slide presentation that showed his beef cattle operation through an entire year, starting with the spring. Because his neighbor decided to sell his farm to him last year, “now we’re blessed to have 360 contiguous acres because we added another 210 acres.”
“Because of that, we now have 60 calves in addition to the 60 feeders and we’re now doing some custom grazing [for another farmer,] so we’ll be close to 250 head of cattle on the farm by April of this year.”
Lima moves his cows over grass pastures at least once a day, preferably twice a day in spring and summer, he said.
During summer, when many females are in latter stages of pregnancy, they have the option to go into nearby woods to get relief from the heat and then often will come back out to graze in as the long summer days cool down around 6 or 7 p.m.
“We want them to go into a paddock and eat about half and leave half. We don’t want them to graze below 4 or five inches, so if the field does have a lot of weeds in it, we will clip it in advance,” he said.
“The first time they graze a field in spring, you can clip the pasture before they go in, cut the field to five inches high and they will eat the hay that was cut,” Lima noted, and added his own observations have shown that “they have a tendency not to eat down any further beyond five inches or so, the hay is too stubbly.” Lima and his staff also learned that cows will eat about 2.5 to 3 percent of their body weight in dry matter per day. So “if you have 100,000 pounds of animal, that’s maybe 60 or 70 cows that weigh 1,500 pounds each, and they need 2,500 to 3,000 pounds of grass, so we planted a lot of tall fescue and clover.”
Lima has about 100 acres reserved for his steers for grazing this coming spring, “so that means if we start on April 15 it takes about 100 days for them to eat through it all and get back to day one.” For rotational grazing, he and his staff went to Home Depot and bought reels that can be used for electrical wire “and we just put a little lead post on the end of that and make our paddocks. You go out there and they’re waiting for you, they’re ready. If you’re not ready, they’re ready.”
“We make three or four paddocks at a time, they’re hungry and they’re waiting for you, and when you open up they’re coming in,” he observed.
Because he and his workers have so many other things to do on his relatively new farm, “we’ll probably go out and get one of these geared up wheels so you can crank up the wire and get everything done a lot faster.” For watering, Lima and his workers tie a 3/4-inch high density polyethylene pipe and connect that in to the fire hydrant, “with a t-line every 300 feet or so with a garden hose that we put into our water tubs there.”
To help manage pink-eye caused by annoying biting horse flies, Lima uses a product called the “fly killing kover” from a small company in Nebraska. The cows simply nudge the covers off the feed and mineral bins and the felt on the inside of the covers coats their faces with the harmless insecticide.
“It flushes their eyes out so they water a bit and it keeps any bacteria from getting in there, preventing pink eye,” he noted, adding in the summer time, a harmless chemical is added to the mineral bins that goes into their systems and is excreted in their manure. This kills the larvae from the horse flies, preventing many of those annoying, often bloody bites on the cows’ legs, neck, sides and back.
“The felt on the inside cover rubs their face sand irritates their eyes to keep pink eye down,” he explained with color slides.
“In the summer time there are no flies around their faces, but they may still have a bunch of flies on their back, so if they’re really bad, we’ll just knock out the flies with a spray.”
Since he was already growing his own hay and straw from his former earth moving business, it was an easier matter for him to continue this process to feed his cattle than it might be for other farmers. Leafy grasses are used to optimize weight gain in his cattle and ensure their own spryness and health, he argued, but he faces the same challenges in growing hay that other farmers face.
“We make our own hay at our farm. If we have dry weather, I have dry hay,” he said, “hay costs me five dollars less a bale because I make my own. In our area, if you want to start cutting hay in May, it’s really hard to have it dry.”
He wraps his hay bales in white plastic and then uses the bales as needed throughout the season while stowing some away in a nearby barn for winter months, even though he said his cows enjoy being outdoors through much of December.
Lima explained how he figured out how much hay is needed to keep his cows fed during the winter months and if they haven’t eaten the usual five bales, they’ll check the cows to make sure all is okay.
“This year, because we’re custom grazing somebody else’s cows, we need to make 2,000 bales of hay. For me to go buy that, costs me $100,000. I’d rather make it myself; I can do it at a fraction of the cost.”
“If we have a dry June and there’s no rain anywhere, I’ll make a dry hay and have enough storage in the barn,” he said.
“If you leave a dry hay outside, every time it rains, you’re losing the quality,” he argued.
“I’ll go out the night before or morning of the day we’re going to make hay and I’ll cut the field, maybe 50 acres of ground and then we’ll go in mid-morning and fluff it up and rake it and bale it and wrap it,” he said, “so when we go in for dinner, the bales are all wrapped.”
The white plastic bales, when opened a few months later are only slightly fermented, he said, and he and his crew take care not to allow rips or tears in the plastic.
The cows graze on cool season fescue and rye grass and legumes like clover and alfalfa in Lima Farms pastures, and he stressed, “we’re grass-fed people, so if I want to renovate a pasture, I’m lucky, I was a successful contractor, I have ‘toys’ I can use [a 170 HP tractor with vertical tillage machine,] to bring new fertility to a heavily grazed pasture. Not everybody can do what I do, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find somebody who has this who can do it for you, you can pay them. We don’t spray any herbicides, and we’re not certified but we’re pretty much organic in our approach.”
“If I have a field that needs to be renovated, what I’ll do in the fall is I’ll cut the field real low and break everything up a couple of times, it opens up a path for moisture to get through, then I’ll plant a winter crop, I’ll plant oats and then I’ll plant a winter rye or an annual rye, crimson clover,” he said.
As for the inevitable trip to the slaughter house, Lima said he takes animals for processing when they weigh between 1,000 and 1,100 pounds. His grass-fed meats sell really fast at his retail farm stand and he also supplies a number of area restaurants with beef, so “when you’re grass-fed, your cows should have a different look, you don’t want them to have that Holstein look.”
He’ll pick and choose bull semen from a catalog and uses a combination of AI and an on-site bull to keep his herd productive.
“If somebody doesn’t get pregnant, they’re gone, there’s no second chance, you can’t afford to feed them all year long and then not have a baby,” he explained.
“The one bull we have now, he weighed 1,100 pounds when he was 13 months old,” Lima said, “that’s what I’m looking for, if he can do that, he can breed a couple of other cows who can do the same thing. That’s kind of what we’re trying to do.”
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