ELKHART - The grass isn't always greener on the other side of the fence, but it's helping Tom and Mary Cory diversify their farm, thanks to their grass-fed beef operation.
"Grass-fed beef fits with our philosophy of stewardship and providing nutrient-dense food from our land," said Mary Cory, who farms with her husband, Tom Cory, and their five children near Elkhart. "Grass-fed beef is also a healthy product that consumers want."
She saw this first-hand at the Gluten and Allergen Free Expo 2013 in Des Moines, in early April, where consumers snapped up the family's all-natural, gluten-free smoked beef snack sticks made from grass-fed beef.
-Messenger photo by Darcy Dougherty Maulsby
Tom Cory's cattle herd includes White Park cattle, an ancient breed from the British Isles that was bred for pasture grazing.
The beef sticks are creating new marketing opportunities for Cory Family Farm, which incorporates managed grazing for beef, sheep and goat production.
While Tom Cory, a former ag instructor, has raised sheep since the early1960s, he and his family decided to add beef cattle six years ago. Their small herd consists mainly of White Park cattle, an ancient breed from the British Isles that was bred for pasture grazing.
The cattle also provide high-quality beef that the Corys distribute through the Des Moines Farmers Market, which is located 20 minutes from their farm, the Ames farmers market, the Iowa Food Cooperative and direct sales off the farm.
"We wanted to get beyond just corn and soybean production," said Tom Cory, "and this requires a different mindset about agriculture and food production. His family farms 250 acres. "Mr. and Mrs. Smith down on 86th Street affect my family's farm much more than what goes on at the Chicago Board of Trade."
Starts with the soil
To integrate grass-fed beef into their farming operation, the Corys converted 85 acres of row-crop land into pasture, where they use a series of 165-foot-square paddocks for rotational grazing.
"The paddocks have worked really well, even in last year's drought," Cory said. "The key is to rotate the cattle to a new paddock daily during a 60-day period before returning the cattle to the first paddock."
The Corys' pasture has an 11-seed mix of grasses and legumes, including meadow fescue, ryegrass, ladino clover, alfalfa, birdsfoot trefoil, red clover, endophyte-free fescue, timothy, chicory, orchard grass and brome grass.
"Last year we were able to graze until Nov. 1," Cory said, who uses a Brix test to measure the nutrient levels of the grasses and legumes. "This year we're going to try stockpile-grazing to extend the grazing season."
Learning from experienced producers like the Wilson family, from Paullina, and Tom German, from Holstein, is invaluable, Cory said, who retired in 2007 from a 35-year teaching career to devote more time to the farm.
"I have a renewed vigor for agriculture. My family and I love new ideas and want to keep learning from these mentors."
This knowledge helps the Corys supply high-quality beef for local consumers. The family prefers to market their animals when the cattle reach a live weight of 1,150 to 1,200 pounds. "That's when you can start to see some marbling," said Tom Cory, who starts harvesting the cattle at 18 months of age.
The cattle are processed at Amend Packing Co., in Des Moines. The Corys sell individual cuts of beef, as well as 30- and 50-pound bundles that include steaks, ground beef and more.
This spring they expanded their product line with their new smoked beef snack sticks, which are processed in Missouri with the family's grass-fed beef. Cory said the snack has no monosodium glutamate or sodium nitrate, but is made from simple ingredients, including beef, salt, citric acid, celery juice, black pepper, red pepper, water, coriander and garlic powder.
"We don't want to make any apologies for the ingredients in our products, and our beef sticks are something we're proud to offer," Mary Cory said.
While grass-based beef production is labor-intensive, Tom Cory believes the results are worth the effort. "You get healthy animals and healthy food from healthy soil. It's all interconnected."
Above all, the grass-fed beef operation offers one more way for the Corys to diversify their farm and build a business that can be passed on. "Our kids are the sixth generation of the family to live on this farm," Tom Cory said, whose children range 4 to 17. "We take a long-term focus, because our ultimate goal is that our children will be able to farm someday."
The Corys will be hosting a Practical Farmers of Iowa field day on their farm on July 15. They also offer a variety of information about their farm through their website.