For many fruit and vegetable farmers in Oregon, February is a noticeably slower time of the year. Daylight hours are naturally reduced, and climatic conditions put a hold on plant development.
Some living things, on the other hand, proceed about their business, as if nothing much has changed. Aside from being guided toward shelter, they continue to eat, drink, socialize, and grow.
In this case, I am referring to the living, breathing, extensively raised animals that roam the grassy farm-scape of the Willamette Valley. Cattle, alpacas, pigs, goats, rabbits, llamas, sheep, emus, chickens and various other birds are all raised here, either for meat, fiber, eggs, fat, or milk.
A total statewide head count of cattle and calves was estimated at 1,340,000 in January 2007, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture. The bovine population greatly outweighs that of any other livestock in Oregon. In fact, cattle are raised in each of Oregon’s 36 counties.
Yet despite these numbers, it’s strangely common to hear someone ask “Where can I find good local beef?”
The first step is to define the word “good,” as it pertains to the quality of red meat. For many carnivores, “good” beef is fresh, dry-aged, and contains ample intramuscular fat.
For others, “good” beef is obtained from pasture-fed cattle, raised and processed in an extensive, sustainable, and humane manner.
The reality is that most consumers really want the best of both worlds. Not only do we want that juicy, 16-ounce Rib Eye, we’d also like some assurance that the animal was healthy and treated respectfully.
Can we have our steak and eat it too? Can we get it fresh from a local source?
Located in the vibrant green hills, two miles southeast of Dallas, is McK Ranch, a 400-acre, 287-head cattle farm. Owners David & Bette McKibben have been producing strictly grass-fed, dry-aged, natural beef (with ample marbling and deeply satisfying flavor, by the way) for nearly nine years.
In February, the demand for meat is much lower, according to Bette. However, one slaughter per week, which produces several hundred pounds of meat, is enough to keep up with the needs of the McKibbens’ customers, as opposed to seven kills per week in the summer.
Even with the seasonal drop in sales, Bette continues to make deliveries and routine trips to their meat processor. On the ranch, rainy conditions and concerns of soil erosion, actually make this one of the busiest times of the year.
All of the animals must be removed from the grass and kept under shelter during the winter, thus increasing the length of the McKibbens’ to-do list. David lays down bedding, cleans the barns, and provides grass feed every day. Meanwhile, the development of the steers and heifers is closely monitored, as they fatten on alfalfa and await slaughter in the coming months.
As springtime approaches, the animals will return to the pasture.