Beef that tastes good: Todd Churchill raises, teaches about healthy cattle

By Karen Weldon

On Oct. 22, approximately 20 Macalester students had the opportunity to visit Thousand Hills Cattle Company, a consortium of small grass-fed family farms in Minnesota and Iowa that provide pot roasts and briskets to Café Mac. During the trip, Todd Churchill, the owner of the company, told his story about how he started the business and showed students the herd of cows that he personally looks after. Churchill, sporting a cowboy hat, jeans and a striped collared shirt, began by asking students why they had come to visit. Some were taking the course People, Agriculture and the Environment, some were vegetarians and wanted to learn about “the other side,” and some simply wanted to connect to the food they eat. After hearing everyone’s reasons, Churchill tied them together with a favorite motto: “Food matters,” he said. The end of World War II ushered in an era of escalating reliance upon an industrial, petroleum-based food industry. Since 2000, however, a movement has been growing that is concerned with how and where food is produced, its flavor, and the ethical implications of production. Having grown up on a conventional corn and soybean farm and received a degree in accounting, Churchill told students how he first came to realize that food mattered. While in his twenties, Churchill came across Michael Pollan’s New York Times’ article “This Steer’s Life,” which documents the many environmental problems caused by conventional corn-fed beef, raised in feedlots, and compares this system to the sustainable beef that comes from grass-fed cows. After reading the article, Churchill realized that he had stopped eating beef over the past few years because it was failing to taste good; wondering if the production methods were the reason why he’d stopped enjoying it, Churchill set out to try grass-fed beef. Finding two producers in Minnesota, Churchill bought a box from each producer for him and his family to try. The first producer’s beef was delicious, motivating Churchill to develop a business plan to sell grass-fed beef in the Twin Cities area. Because grass-fed beef has a great proportion of healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, fewer calories, less cholesterol and less fat than corn-fed beef, he planned to market the beef as health food. The second set of meat, however, changed his mind. “It was so bad we had to feed it to our dog. And even he didn’t like it very much,” Churchill said, describing the beef as tough, chewy and lacking flavor. This box of beef made him realize that the selling point of the first had not been its healthiness but rather the quality of its flavor. Churchill set out to find what made the first producer’s beef taste so good. What he discovered was that healthy cows made delicious beef, an idea that was novel among most cattle farmers. “[In the conventional beef in industry], farmers don’t know what a healthy cow looks like,” Churchill said, explaining that as long as cows don’t appear sick, conventional farmers don’t worry about them, even though the heavily drugged animals are fed a diet that they can’t digest and are far from healthy. The key to a healthy cow, he found, was a relatively stress-free life, and balanced diet that cows can naturally digest. By allowing calves to live with their mothers in their natural habitat and eliminating transportation to feedlots, Churchill tries to minimize the stress. Churchill also completely eliminated corn from his cattle’s diet, because as ruminants, cows have stomachs that can only digest grains. “[For cows, eating corn] is like eating donuts everyday and at every meal. Eventually you’d just get sick,” Churchill explained. To provide a varied diet with enough forage to last his cattle for an entire year, every few days he rotates the cows from pasture to pasture—each containing a variety of grasses, which in the process, enriches the soil through manure, and allows him to farm six time the number of cattle that a single open-range of equal size could sustain. Moreover, feeding the cattle grass eliminates the use of the petroleum needed to fertilize and transport corn to cows. However, perhaps his most ingenious method for making sure the cows are healthy is his system of feeding the cattle minerals. Conventional farmers make a mineral mix to feed to cattle daily based on recommendations by nutritionists, which, because the minerals need to vary due to factors like pregnancy and age, does not necessarily mean the cattle are receiving the appropriate nutrition. To solve this problem Churchill allows the cows to decide what minerals they are lacking. “I simply put out a cafeteria style mineral buffet, so the cows can eat whatever they need,” Churchill said, pointing to a little cover wagon like hut. While most many farmers don’t use this method because they’re afraid their cows will overdose on a mineral, Churchill has confidence in his cows and said he hasn’t had any trouble with the system. While Churchill’s goal may be delicious meat, in the process he creates a farm that is not only sustainable, but promotes the wellbeing of the cattle as well. Knowledge of these facts simply makes each bite of his pot roasts and brisket all the more delicious.