The pastoral landscape leading into the village of Coon Valley from the southeast is that way for a reason.
Jon Lee, and his wife Bretta, have turned their five-generation family farm into a grass-fed beef operation. They rotationally-graze a herd of about a dozen black and red angus cattle in pre-fenced paddocks. In the spring they expect seven calves to join their herd, which they hope to grow over time to include 20 cows.
Lee’s plan for the farm is to continue developing its riparian habitat, which will keep it green and lush well into the future.
Lee is on the board of directors of the Wisconsin Grass-Fed Beef Cooperative (WGBC), which started five years ago and has quickly grown to 103 members with annual sales near $1 million. Lee said the cooperative was formed by producers with like-minded opinions about how beef should be raised and is aimed toward consumers concerned about the food they eat.
“People want alternatives when it comes to their food,” Lee said. “We have so many situations where people don’t know what’s in their food. The new movement is people are becoming more conscious of their diet… We have a wave of people who want something that is going to be healthier for them.”
A Colorado State University study showed that grass-fed beef has higher levels of Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids than conventional beef. Grass-fed beef also has higher levels of conjugated linoleic acids (CLA's), which are known for fighting cancer and fat.
Grass-fed beef are allowed to graze in paddocks — specifically fenced areas of land. As they browse down the vegetation, they are moved to another paddock and the vegetation in the paddock they were previously in is allowed to grow. The cattle are constantly on the move.
Lee says it is a picture in stark contrast to large conventional beef operations, where cattle may never go outdoors or are raised in a small pen and fed a diet of corn.
“It’s really only been over the last 75 years that we’ve had beef operations like that,” Lee said. “We spent thousands of years raising grass-fed beef, but in the last 75 years most of the beef industry has completely shifted, and it hasn’t been for the better.”
Lee said beef can be raised and finished faster in a controlled setting on a diet of corn, but the end product is beef that is fatty and less healthy to eat. The environment in which the cattle are raised is such, “that if most people saw it, they wouldn’t want to eat it,” Lee said.
In 2008, a group of grass-fed beef farmers joined ranks and won a “Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin” grant, which led to the formation of the WGBC. Mandy McGee of Rockton is a farmer-owner of the WGBC. She said the grant allowed the cooperative to hire a part-time sales manager and a part-time cattle production manager. The cooperative sold its first steer in January of 2009.
About 14 of the cooperative’s members are located in Vernon County with another eight in La Crosse, Monroe, Richland and Crawford counties. Also, three Vernon County Amish families belong to the cooperative.
“All our cattle are born, raised and processed in Wisconsin, and grass-fed and finished on an all-forage diet,” McGee said. “We sell to food co-ops, grocery stores, and restaurants mostly across the southern part of the state. Locally Viroqua, Pine River and Peoples food co-ops carry our Wisconsin Meadows brand.”
Lee said that selling his finished cattle through the cooperative helps him ensure a better price. Grass-fed beef is more expensive, because more labor goes into its production. Lee’s 150-acre farm includes 40 tillable acres. He raises a hay crop which feeds the beef during the winter, but supplemental hay is sold to help pay the bills. He makes money on the side as a substitute teacher and a photographer. His grass-fed beef operation isn’t large enough yet to provide all of the income needed on the farm.
While grass-fed beef accounts for just 3 percent of the nation’s beef sold, it is growing in the United States at a rate of 20 percent per year, according information in an April 2013 USDA study.
Lee said that a cut of grass-fed beef is best served medium-rare to medium.
“Once in a while you’ll run into someone who says they had a grass-fed beef steak and it was tough,” Lee said. “That has more to do with how the meat was prepared or finished. A properly prepared grass-fed steak is a great cut of beef.”
Lee said that grass-fed beef hamburger is outstanding. A number of years ago he had some Highland cattle and after selling the cattle to be slaughtered, he bought back the hamburger.
“It was the best hamburger we’ve ever had,” Lee said. “My wife is a picky eater and even she agreed that it was the best.”
Lee said the cooperative has a short-term goal of adding another 20 producers and continuing to increase sales.
“Our long-term outlook is that the sky is the limit,” Lee said. “How big the co-op will grow, I don’t know, but the potential is unlimited.”
Wisconsin Grass-Fed Beef Cooperative
More information on the WGBC can be found at www. wisconsingrassfed.coop
Information on the WGBC's products under the Wisconsin Meadows label can be found at www.wisconsinmeadows.com