By Roger Blobaum
When you see Steve Groeteke pulling his mixer wagon slowly past cattle falling into line at the bunks at one end of a big hillside feedlot, it looks like any of hundreds of similar cattle setups in Northeast Nebraska.
But a closer look shows this operation near North Bend is in a class by itself. Groeteke, a university business major who returned to the farm, is one of a growing number of young cattle feeders producing organically-grown beef.
In developing his “Nature Brand Farms” beef, Groeteke is building a market for choice farm-to-freezer beef. It is sold to steady customers, many from Lincoln and Omaha, who order it on a regular basis and pick it up after it is processed at a small plant in Dodge, Nebraska.
“We are selling about 50 organic cattle a year now even though we haven’t spent much time advertising or pushing it, ”he explains. “With the large number of cattle we feed every year, we aren’t able yet to move them all into organic channels.”
Groeteke has no difficulty getting along without chemicals on a commercial-size farm that produces enough hay, pasture, grain and silage for a herd of registered Red Poll cattle, plus up to 200 head of cattle in the feedlot. All of the feed is organic.
“The main motivation for switching was a lot of sickness in livestock that the veterinarian couldn’t seem to find an answer for,” he recalls. “Our soil also seemed to be getting so much harder and more lifeless and we decided that what the organic people were saying made sene.”
We changed to organic methods in 1971 and adopted a program using products sold by Hy-Brid Sales Co. of Council Bluffs, Iowa. Included are organic fertilizers and soil building materials and a grain balancer product that is fed to livestock.
Cattle in the feedlot now were started on a high roughage ration due to high feed costs, he said, and are getting good gains on a ration that includes corn silage, a grain balancer, and a little salt.
“We feed about one-third of a pound a day of the grain balancer, which is weighed out and put in a mixer wagon so it gets blended in with the silage as it is augered out,” he reports. “I also put it out free choice with a block of salt in a mineral feeder to allow the cattle to adjust their own intake.”
Groeteke also includes the grain balancer in the ration in the winter months for his Red Poll cows, bull calves, and heifers. These cattle remain on the grain balancer when they are on grass and it is provided free choice.
He has adopted a program to build the carrying capacity of his pasture land. It includes adding a few pounds of alfalfa and sweet clover to the pasture seeding plus applying blended Al-Aska, a Hy-Brid Sales Co. Product, the first year.
“Then, according to the soil test, we will apply Calphos or granite dust or whatever is required to keep the soil balanced,” he said. “Of course cattle on pasture spread manure and we’ll also apply some composted manure as needed.
Composing of the large volume of manure produced in the feedlot is a relatively new undertaking. Groeteke mechanically piles it in windrows with a power-takeoff spreader, adds a starter bacteria in water, and turns the windrows at regular intervals over a period of about a month.
It produces a compost that resembles potting soil and that can be applied easily with a heavy duty fertilizer spreader. This past year, the crops looked greener with 1 ½ tons of compost, he reports, than they had the previous year with a heavy covering of manure.
Groeteke is convinced that organic farming, including the production of the kind of naturally-grown beef that more and more people are looking for, is the agriculture of the future. Even if the high-priced energy-intensive inputs used for chemical farming weren’t going to become scarce, he emphasizes, kicking the chemical habit still would make sense.
“What we’ve concentrated on with our agriculture technology the last 10 to 15 years is a very short run type of farming,” he concludes. “Organic farming is self-renewing and is the only kind of agriculture that can endure indefinitely.”