Polyface Part III – Salad Bar Beef

One of the cornerstones of Polyface is their “salad bar beef” operation.  Joel coined the term due to the rich variety of grasses, herbs, legumes, and forage consumed on their pastures.  But he is quick to tell you that it’s not just grass-fed or pastured beef; the operation is managed to closely resemble the mobbing, mowing, and moving attributes of herbivores found around the world. Polyface Farms From the wildebeest and cape buffalo of Africa to the bison and antelope of the American West, bovines around the world exhibit these behaviors.  They mob together for protection from predators, feed (mow) vast areas of savanna or prairie, and they move regularly, never remaining in the same spot for long.  Traditional grass fed operations may use a single pasture or rotational grazing through paddocks.  Polyface takes it a step further utilizing the technology of electric fencing to mob the cattle together in a confined paddock, then moving them to a new, fresh paddock every day.  In each paddock, the cattle mow down the pasture from waist high grass down to 6 or 8 inches (more on grass growth below).  And, like their African, Asian, and American relatives, these bovines are followed by complementary avian species (swallows, meadowlarks, buntings, and poultry).  The birds serve to control the insect populations by consuming bugs that are stirred up by the cattle (aerial) or by scratching and spreading manure around the pasture and consuming fly larvae (poultry).  Joel noted that cow “pies” actually contain the 7 enzymes necessary for poultry health, giving another reason for multi-speciation on the farm and the importance of symbiotic relationships.

Water is provided via gravity fed pipes which flow downhill from retention ponds creatively constructed on the mountainside of the property.  Polyface keeps cattle on the family’s 550 acre farm and leases additional pasture/farmland in the surrounding area for the balance of their herd. Polyface beef is sold through it’s buyers club, the farm store, multiple white-tablecloth restaurants in the Shenandoah Valley, and through it’s T&E abbatoir in Staunton, VA (abbatoir is French for slaughterhouse, or your neighborhood butcher as it may be).  During our visit, we missed out on some “salad bar” burgers that were being sold to many of our Lunatic Tour colleagues.  But boy, did they smell and look good!

Joel SalatinNow, back to the grass.  Joel educated us on the growth stage of grass, why and when you graze it, and how efficient it is.  Very simply put, grass is only 5% soil/organic matter and 95% solar energy.  It has three basic growth stages that happen along a sigmoid curve: diaper, teenager, and nursing home.  In the diaper stage, the grass is fragile and susceptible to being killed off if grazed at this stage.  During the teenage stage, the grass is growing (hence the phrase “growing like a weed”), accumulating biomass each and every day.  This is the stage at which the grass should be aggressively grazed down to, so it spends the majority of it’s season in this stage.  The final stage is the nursing home, whereby plant energy is devoted towards seed head development and overall biomass accumulation slows to a crawl.  If grass at this stage is allowed to go on for too long, it becomes less succulent and more woody, thereby losing it’s palatability as a forage.  By carefully managing your herds and pastures, utilizing a combination of grazing and haying, you can achieve lush pastures capable of being cut for hay and grazed several times over the course of a season.

If interested in learning more and acquiring a better insight into this type of careful, yet aggressive management, I would recommend the Stockman Grass Farmer and Salatin’s book “Salad Bar Beef“.

Thanks for Reading!

Ben