7/13/2013 7:00 AM
By Laura Zoeller Southwestern Pa. Correspondent
PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Touting grass-fed beef as having benefits over grain-finished beef can be a loaded topic, but Oliver Griswold of North Woods Ranch in northern Allegheny County believes it has better flavor and nutritional value, creates stronger biodiversity, and provides for better animal health and happiness.
Griswold has made it his life’s work to raise his Scottish Highland cattle and Berkshire hogs in as natural a way as possible to achieve those ends.
“I was working as an IT person but becoming more and more curious about where my food was coming from,” Griswold said.
“It occurred to me during my research on that topic that what I am eating has been eating something too, and that information is important,” he said. “I came to understand that if my food had better nutrition going into raising it, then it would have better nutrition coming out of it and into me. So I began looking for an opportunity to secure some land and to raise my own animals.”
Griswold’s opportunity came in 2009 when he was able to work with a partner to raise more than 500 chickens, turkeys, lambs and cows entirely on pasture. It gave him a taste of what he may encounter in a day-to-day farming operation.
“I loved it,” Griswold said. “The following year, I was able to start my own operation, North Woods Ranch, with my wife, Jodi. We rent 180 acres of ground from an entrepreneur who saved the piece of land from development in the mid-1990s.
“The ground is about a mile from our home in Marshall Township,” he said, “and we have gone from running a few cows to having a blossoming cow/calf and farrowing operation with over 40 head of cattle and more than 40 hogs.”
Griswold believes pasture is the ultimate food for his cows because of their natural propensity to eat it.
“Cattle are true ruminants, and therefore are crafted beautifully to consume grasses, legumes and forbs,” he said. “In a perennial pasture, they might eat some vetch and some weeds as well, but they can tolerate a wide variety of consumables because of it.
When they are shipped to a feed lot and pumped full of grain, it creates an imbalance and an acidity in the body of the animal, often resulting in the need for daily antibiotics to keep the animal alive long enough to slaughter,” Griswold said.
“Pasture-raised animals rarely need antibiotics — and don’t get them at all at North Woods Ranch — because their diet of grass and forages naturally maintain their body’s balance and pH,” he said.
Griswold added that the flavor of an animal raised naturally is much better.
“The slower growth rate and balanced digestion creates more marbling and better flavor,” he said, “as does allowing the animal to reach an age closer to maturity before slaughter.
“The average age of a feedlot animal is only 14 months,” he said, “which makes it very tender, but not very flavorful. Even an old cow — 14 or 15 years old — can be eaten if it is cooked low and slow. If nothing else, it makes fantastic hamburger, though our average slaughter age is 30 months.”
Griswold selected Scottish Highland cattle for their specific traits that fit well with his methods.
“These animals are robust and very little changed by man,” he said. “They are small to midsize animals that thrive on pasture. We select for smaller animals that excel on our pasture and cull those who don’t. This allows our herd to be strong naturally, and not through medical treatment.”
North Woods Ranch implements intensive rotational grazing for optimum pasture management.
“I move the cows daily, allowing them to eat and trample 80 percent of the paddock they are in,” Griswold said.
“The close cropping and trampling creates a high level of microbe and insect activity underground that helps to create a soft, loamy soil,” he said. “The litter left on the ground helps hold water on the land when it rains, and the spongy soil can suck it up better.
“Perennial pasture has another benefit here over monocrop conditions: The variations of plants and plant root systems means there are networks of shallow and deep roots that work together to keep all plants alive during dry weather,” he said. “The deeper rooted plants can pull water back up nearer to the surface during drought, for example.”
Griswold offers free-choice minerals to his animals to encourage both their health and the health of the pasture.
“The grains harvested in this country now are up to 70 percent less nutritious than the ones we gathered 50 years ago,” he said. “That is due in part to the fact that we haven’t replaced the manganese, cobalt, selenium, etc., that we have removed from the soil.
“We are taking things off but not putting it back — and animals are not dying on the land like the buffalo did — so there are just less of those minerals in the ground,” he said. “Offering them free-choice minerals allows the cows to self-select what they need, and they disperse it through their manure across the pasture. Over time, they are repairing the land.”
Griswold has big plans for the future of North Woods Ranch.
“Scottish Highlands are perfect for this area because they prefer to be outside all year round,” Griswold said. “Ultimately, I would like to see them graze all year as well. This breed is known for their ability to do that, which cuts down on the need to feed them hay.
“The pastures aren’t there yet,” he said, “but eventually we hope to see that. We also plan to inoculate our woods with beets and turnips that the cows can graze the tops off of before the pigs are run through the same ground, allowing them to dig 50 to 70 percent of the roots for food.
“Our ultimate goal is achieve a very high level of biomimicry — adhering to nature as closely as possible within our modern world’s constraints,” he said. “We want to provide a good life for our animals, acknowledging that at the end, they will have one bad day just like the rest of us.
“I haven’t invented anything here,” he said. “I just recognized that this is an awesome way of doing things. There is simplicity and a beauty to raising these animals in a natural way that brings them happiness during their lives.”