"Holism" literally refers to an emphasis on the management of the whole and the interdepedence of its parts. It is a strategy that compels a land owner to consider the impact of farm management decisions in their entirety - how they affect soil, water, animal, human, and community resources. It is a simultaneously simple concept and yet maddeningly complex. Holistic management was started by Allan Savory, an African wildlife management specialist who spent a great deal of time trying, and initially failing, to enhance wildlife preserves. It wasn't until he observed that the lands where animals were allowed to roam and graze in their natural herds were remarkably more fertile and full of life than those where domestic and wild animals were being managed by humans in an effort to preserve soils, plants and water resources. That observation led to a lifetime of understanding how to improve water, mineral, and energy cycles on farms and ranches by using herds of animals to mimic what nature has been doing for millions of years. On farms with cattle such as ours, this means concentrating the animals in tight herds that move frequently similar to what the large buffalo, deer and elk herds did in our area for centuries.
Keeping the cattle close together in a high density or "mob" grazing environment is achieved with portable electric fencing. By cordoning off very small portions of pasture with spools of metal impregnated nylon rope the cattle stay together in a tight herd until the fence is moved to the next portion of ungrazed pasture. This has several beneficial effects on the land. First it compels the cattle to bite off nearly all the grass plants in that area which allows sunlight to reach down low into the grass canopy and encourage the growth of new plants. It also concentrates the manure and urine in that area which naturally fertilizes that portion of the pasture. Another effect that is important to the long term sustainability of the pasture is to provide it plenty of rest in between grazing periods. At ONB our cattle are typically moved once or twice per day onto one acre or less depending on the time of year and length of the grass. Once the cattle are moved to the next portion of ungrazed pasture they will not return to the grazed area for 5-6 months. This gives that portion of the pasture time to absorb the droppings from the cattle and regenerate the diversity of plant life necessary for a sustainable ecosystem. Not surprisingly this is the same high impact, long rest period that this land has seen for thousands of years as a result of the native buffalo herds natural migratory path through the Ozarks.
According to research conducted at the University of Missouri, in this part of the U.S., cattle will typically walk around 1000 ft to water before they begin to congregate around the water source and neglect the outer portions of the pasture. This can cause a loss of plant life around the water source and erosion of the topsoil in that area. At ONB our naturally filtered well water is pumped via underground water lines to stock tanks located strategically around the pasture so that the cattle are never more than 1000 ft from a water source. This encourages the cattle to graze the entire fenced in area and not just around the stock tank. In addition the soil in the immediate 25 ft around the stock tank is lined with geotextile and rock to prevent erosion of topsoil in that area.
ONB uses a "cafeteria" style mineral system. This means that each animal may choose the combination of minerals to satisfy their needs.
This brings up an interesting point about cattle. Many cattlemen believe that a cow's nose is the most highly evolved senory organ of any domesticated animal. Remarkably a cow is able to sense what she is lacking nutritionally and seek out the feeds and minerals that will fill that specific void. Thus it is common to see one cow eat a portion of grass in a pasture only to have a cow right behind her avoid that portion entirely and instead prefer an area with a slightly different mix of grasses just a few feet away. The same is true for the 16 stall mineral box where different animals choose different minerals from the "cafeteria syle" choices depending on their need at that moment. The net effect is that the cattle not only satisfy their nutritional needs but they also balance the soil with the right comination of minerals since the minerals in the grass can only come from the soils they are grown on. Thus when the minerals the cattle consume pass through the rumen and become part of the animal's droppings, the soil receives an indirect mineral input that balances it and makes it more productive.
Stockmanship is the manner in which animals are handled by their owners. There is an advantage to keep the stress level of livestock as low as possible when handling them since any added stress will increase their levels of the stress hormone cortisol. High cortisol levelswill limit their performance in the pasture (eating or breeding for example) and will taint the meat of the animal with off flavors and colors if it is on its way to slaughter. At ONB we use Bud Williams and Steve Cote inspired low stress stockmanship. The cattle are moved without whips, hot shots, shouting, whistling or other unnecessary noise. Because the cattle are moved each day (sometimes more than once per day) they become accustomed to having humans around them and are usually eager to have us near them since our presence is usually followed by movement to fresh grass.
Cattle are animals of prey and thus rely heavily on their sense of sight, sound and smell to avoid predators. Cattle have eyes that are positioned on opposite sides of their head which denies them the overlapping visual fields that humans enjoy. As a result cattle have a tremendous field of vision in excess of a 300 degree field of view, but very poor depth perception. The consequence of this is that cattle have a difficult time sensing a right angle turn at the end of a runway. They prefer to move in circles. One of the first animal scientists to understand how cattle's unique vision affected their behavior was Dr. Temple Grandin. Dr. Grandin is an animal scientist at Colorado State University who is well known in the cattle community for her design of low stress livestock handling facilities. At ONB our corrals are based on Dr. Grandin's designs that keep the cattle in circular motion when they are being handled. This also means keeping visual or audio distractions such as preventing rays of sunlight from shining into the calf's eyes when they are in the corral and muffling the sounds of metal against metal such as when gates are opened and closed.
The 120 acre farm that comprises ONB received its U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic certification in March 2010. This means is that our farm is compliant with all USDA regulations to be organic certified per the audit of our organic certifier, OneCert Inc. of Lincoln, Nebraska. Although the USDA writes the regulations for organic certification, it leaves the auditing, certification (and recertification), and compliance to private or public organizations. Thus there are a number of private companies (such as OneCert, Inc.) as well as some state government agencies (such as the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture).
To obtain organic certification, ONB was required to have a three year period in which no synthetic fertilizers (e.g. ammonia fertilizer) was applied, organic certified grass seed was used, no synthetic herbicides or pesticides were used, and careful records were kept of all inputs and outputs to and from the farm. Organic certification of the land does not mean that all of the animals at ONB are certified however. In order for a calf to be organic certified they must spend the last trimester (approximately 3 months) of their fetal life in the uterus of a female that is on organic certified pasture or feed. At ONB this year's calf crop will be entirely organic certified. Provided that they continue to stay on organic certified pasture or feed for the remainder of their lives, the meat from those calves which will be sold in 2011 will be organic certified. Until then ONB can only market our cattle as "natural". This term has been so overused that is retains little real meaning however the USDA defines "natural" meat as that which has minimal processing and no preservatives. At ONB "natural" means no grain, no hormones, no antibioitics, no herbicides, no pesticides, and no synthetic ferilizers. More importantly it means raising our cattle with the same inputs, fresh grass, water and sunshine, as animals in this part of the country have been enjoying for thousands of years.
American Grassfed Association
The American Grassfed Association (AGA) has exacting standards for the production and sale of grassfed meats. A new three tiered system for classifying grassfed meats has recently been added to their criteria. Tier 1 livestock have never been given any grain. Tier 2 have been given grain during emergencies, and Tier 3 livestock has been raised on pasture but may have been finished on grain. ONB is an AGA member and produces only Tier 1 livestock.
All of ONB's cows and heifers not born at our farm come from the herd of Kent Miller of Gage, OK. Kent has a stockmanship and animal husbandry philosophy that is very much in line with ours. Kent uses bulls from the Ohlde Cattle Company and Pharo Cattle Company. Both of these herds are known for smaller framed cattle. This is important to grassfed producers like us because of their lower energy requirements. Larger framed cattle that may have an adult weight of 1300 lbs or more for females and 2000 lbs or more for males will produce a carcass with greater volumes of meat but will also require more inputs to put on that weight. This means that at some point they will need a grain ration that will provide them with the carbohydrates and protein to put on and maintain that body weight. In contrast smaller framed cattle (900 to 1100 lbs for females and less than 2000 lbs for males) will produce a smaller volume of meat but will put on sufficient amounts of muscle and fat (i.e. marbling) to satisfy the most discriminating palate. In addition, smaller framed cattle will have lower maintenance requirements and will enable us to run a higher concentration of cattle on the same amount of land.
Another holistic management principle is that "form follows function." This means that whatever environment that a producer establishes for his or her livestock will dictate the qualities that are necessary for those livestock to thrive. For example at ONB we do not provide any feed supplements to our cows. In order for a cow to be retained in the ONB herd she must be able to wean a live calf each and every year and maintain her body condition on grass, mineral and in emergent situations such as an ice storm, a small amount of hay. If she fails either of those tests, she is sold from the herd and replaced by a heifer that will have an equal chance to be successful under those conditions. As a result, ONB is constantly searching for and retaining the genetics that thrive under the environmental conditions that we have established - in other words, form follows function.
All of the cattle at ONB have been ultrasound tested by Clay Nash of Tallgrass Beef Company to ensure they have a requisite amount of muscle, fat, marbling, and tenderness. Those that do not meet those criteria are not sold to our customers. This is an insurance policy that we purchase on behalf of our customers to make sure that each bite of ONB beef is just as tender, juicy and flavorful as the lasts one.