Eel River delta said to be California’s Napa Valley of grassland agriculture
By Allan Nation
FERNDALE, Calif: Over the millennia, the Eel River has formed a flat, fertile delta where it flows into the cold Pacific Ocean in northwestern California.
This proximity to the sea has produced a micro-climate of cool summers and relatively warm winters that are ideal for the growth of perennial ryegrass and white clover.
Often characterized as America’s New Zealand or Ireland, Fairfield, California, artisanal meat marketer, Mark Keller, prefers a West Coast context and calls the Eel River Delta “The Napa Valley of Grass.”
A major grass-based dairying area since the 1880s, dairying still dominates with 50 grass-based dairies in operation, most of whom are currently Certified Organic or are in transition to become so.
These dairies range from New Zealand-designed, multiple-paddock systems to set-stocked ones supplemented heavily with grass silage and grain. The typical stocking rate is one Jersey cow per acre.
Recently the Eel River delta has also become a hotbed of grassfed beef production.
Leland “Lee” Moore, operator of the Humboldt Auction Yard in Fortuna, said that prior to 1960 grass-finished beef was a major product of the area to feed miners in the adjacent mountains.
Grass-finishing dry-range lambs replaced beef in the 1960s and then grazing (often on a custom basis) commercial stocker cattle largely replaced sheep in the next decade.
“Luckily, we were able to keep a local USDA abattoir going through those transitions.”
(This abattoir is Certified Organic as well.)
Moore said he uses it to supply area grocery stores with 45 grass-finished carcasses a month.
He said his background was in grass finishing lambs but when the area’s primary grassfed beef producer died seven years earlier, the North Coast Co-op Grocery chain asked him to supply them with grassfed beef as well.
From this initial customer, he expanded his Humboldt Grassfed Beef Company and now supplies 15 grocery stores who still have butchers with whole and half carcasses for $2.00 a pound. (This is a liveweight price of around $1.05 per pound.)
His average carcass weight is 580 pounds.
STOCKERS ARE PRIMARY ENTERPRISE
Moore said his primary enterprise is commercial stocker cattle and he grazes about 1500 of these a year.
From this large group of beeves, he selects out early-maturing heifers and steers that can be grass-finished in 65 days or less.
“Grass-finishing was a natural extension of my stocker business. I didn’t try to re-invent the wheel,” he said.
Another stocker grazier who has diversified into grass-finishing is Jay Russ of Ferndale.
His family were pioneers into the area immediately after the Civil War and at one time owned 250,000 acres in the area.
Today, the Russ family owns 10,000 acres of mountain range and 600 highly developed grassland acres in the Delta.
These 600 acres are planted to perennial ryegrass and white clover, subdivided into 4 acre paddocks and are Certified Organic.
The Russ’ run 300 Hereford cows in the adjacent mountains and grass-finish the calves on perennial ryegrass and white clover for Bay Area beef marketers.
The cows are bred to Tehama Ranch Angus bulls, calve in April and May and wean in November.
Most of the calves are harvested in the subsequent May to August period.
In addition to their home-raised calves, Russ custom grass-finishes cattle for inland ranchers and also brings in “load-up” stocker cattle for the spring lush.
These load-up calves are used to increase the stocking rate to 2.5 beeves per acre.
“We can put 200 to 300 pounds of gain on a stocker calf in 60 days during the spring lush,” he said.
These stocker cattle typically go out weighing around 900 pounds to Midwestern feedlots.
However, the Midwesterners say beef cattle from the cool coastal regions suffer mightily when they hit the heat of the interior of the country and are typically heavily discounted.
Also, due to twisting mountain highways that restrict the use of 53-foot-long trucks, transportation costs are very high.
Both of these factors are driving coastal graziers toward more intra-region grass-finishing.
“I think we will increase to 1500 to 2000 head of grass-finished animals a year with just our current graziers (in Ferndale).” Russ said.
DRY SUMMERS AND WET WINTERS
While boasting of 40 inches of rain a year, the Eel River Delta has a June until October dry period that requires irrigation.
However, unlike much of inland California, the Delta’s summers are cool and perennial ryegrass grows well in the summer with irrigation.
(Cool-season grass growth largely stops at 87 degrees F.)
Also, there is no significant drop in performance due to heat lignification of the grass.
“On most days here you can add the daily high and the daily low together and they will roughly equal 100 degrees,” Russ said.
(For example, a high of 60 and a low of 40 would equal 100 degrees F.)
This high level of summer performance is the Eel River Delta’s greatest “unfair advantage.”
The Russ ranch recently began installing K-line Irrigation to replace their high-labor side roll units.
They have 80 acres of K-line currently in operation and are plumbing in another 70 acres this winter.
“We can irrigate 40 acres in 20 minutes. That’s half the time of our old units,” he said.
Some of his paddocks are naturally sub-irrigated as the water table is only two feet below the surface and rises and falls in concert with the daily ocean tide.
Of course, no place is perfect and the Delta’s excellent summer is offset by a rainy winter than can turn the region’s heavy clay soils into a major pug-fest.
“We can graze calves all winter but not the heavier cattle,” Russ said.
“January to March we have to keep the heavy cattle on sacrifice areas and feed them to protect our pastures.”
The typical Delta combination of energy-containing, spring-cut ryegrass haylage and high protein alfalfa hay (Moore uses alfalfa pellets) can produce finishing level gains (1.7 lbs per day) throughout the winter.
“The Eel River Delta is the easiest place to finish cattle year around (on an all perennial system) in California,” Russ said.
HAYLAGE AND HAY
Clint Victorine of Eel River Organic Beef in Hydesville agreed with Russ about the potential of the Delta to finish cattle year-around but said the winter feeding period wasn’t cheap for Certified Organic producers like himself.
“I figure it costs us 84 cents to put on a pound of gain with haylage (and imported alfalfa hay) from December to March.”
As a result, his company only harvests five to 10 beeves a week in winter versus 20 to 30 during the late spring and summer.
“I started out with one cow in High School and built everything up from there.”
He said all of his cattle are weighed periodically and he has a year-around average of two pounds of gain.
However, this goes up to four pounds a day on his home-raised cattle in the May to July period.
“We did not have a single animal harvested from May until August that did not grade USDA Choice,” he said.
He said his grass-finished steers average 1100 pounds, yield 58% and all grade a minimum of High Select, regardless of time of year.
All of his grass-finished animals are currently from home-raised Angus cattle but he also brings in “load-up” stocker cattle in the spring but these all stay in commodity channels.
Interestingly, these put-together sale barn cattle gained 2.5 pounds per day versus the four pounds for the home-raised cattle.
“An animal that is stressed at weaning never gains as well as one that isn’t,” he said.
FEAR OF INTERNAL PARASITES
Victorine said his shift to Certified Organic began when a local brew-pub/restaurant started making an organic beer and wanted him to use the stillage to produce organic beef for their restaurant.
He said he was afraid of organic production at first because he didn’t know if he could organically handle the internal parasites endemic in the wet climate.
However, by using a high pasture residual (minimum of two inches) he has not had any problems.
“(High residual grazing) is doing all that was advertised, and we have had no problems,” he said.
Today, Eel River is Certified Organic and its branded beef is 100% grassfed.
He had sold many of his beeves to Panorama Beef in the Bay Area (formerly Western Grasslands) but has now taken over the marketing of all of his beef.
To differentiate himself from Panorama he advertises that his beeves have “never been in a feedlot.”
(Panorama typically puts their cattle in a forage feedlot for 30 to 90 days.)
He said he is now ready to expand his operation and is looking for Certified Organic cow-calf producers with calves for sale. He said he is willing to pay 20 to 30 percent above commodity prices.
© by The Stockman Grass Farmer
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