Ahead of the curveby Sally Colby

On an overcast day, the cattle grazing the fields of Chapel Ridge Farms in Gettysburg, PA, look almost black. But their true color is deep cherry red, characteristic of the Santa Gertrudis breed. Chapel Ridge Farms is owned by Gene and Linda Moose and operated with the help of their daughter Sue, her husband Doug White and their daughter Rhianna.

“When my mom and dad sold their dairy cows, they bought a mixed beef herd with a Charolais bull,” said Linda, adding that calving didn’t go well. “The year after that, Sue was at a fair and saw Santa Gertrudis, and learned they were known for calving ease. We got a Santa Gertrudis bull in the fall of 1977.”

The Santa Gertrudis breed originates from a crossbreeding program developed on the King Ranch in Texas. Although the original crosses were the result of a half-Brahman, half-Shorthorn bull jumping the fence to breed a group of Shorthorn heifers, ranch owners were impressed with the results and decided to continue the cross more purposefully. A Brahman bull was bred to a deep red Shorthorn cow that was 1/16th Brahman. The resulting calf was “Monkey,” who became the father of the Santa Gertrudis breed.

To build their herd, the Mooses purchased additional cattle of other breeds, including Simmental, Angus, Charolais and other crossbreds as they worked toward making the Santa Gertrudis the foundation of their herd. They had an opportunity to purchase a group of purebred Santa Gertrudis in Georgia, which had originally come from the King Ranch, and those animals became the base for their purebred herd. Gene said Santa Gertrudis are easy keepers, calve easily and are gentle, which is what they were looking for.

Since about 1990, the Mooses have maintained a closed herd and have brought in only two bulls to diversify the genetic base. Today, Chapel Ridge Farms is home to about 125 animals, including cows, young stock and cattle being finished.

As they were building their herd, the Mooses quickly realized that selling beef cattle at auction or to other cattlemen for finishing wasn’t profitable, so in 1996 they opened an on-farm store. “We started out by cutting out the middleman and selling our own product,” said Sue. “Ironically, the day our store opened is the day I was diagnosed with cancer. We researched our food supply, which we had already started doing to get labels for our meat, and realized how precarious our food supply is. The more we learned about healing my cancer, we realized how important it was to eat good food.”

While selling cuts of meat is more profitable than selling live animals at market, the challenge is finding a USDA processor. The Mooses were fortunate to find a USDA-inspected processor fairly close to the farm, and typically take four to six animals for processing each month. “The ideal time for them to go [to processing] is 1,150 to 1,250 pounds,” said Gene. “They’re about 12 to 14 months old.”

In addition to selling frozen cuts from their store, the Mooses developed a line of canned beef. “When we opened the store in 1996, we started with canned burger and canned gourmet beef chunks,” said Sue. “The processor takes out the choice cuts and the rest is cut into one-inch cubes, frozen, put in 50-pound bags with the processor’s USDA stamp, and it goes to a cannery.” The Mooses take their beef to Ohio for canning. Each trip to the cannery is a three-day venture, during which they deliver four freezers full of 1,200 pounds of cubed meat.

Linda said getting USDA-approved labels for the canned beef was a process. Since canned products are required to have nutritional information on the label, meat was analyzed for nutritional content at a certified laboratory. After two years and several label designs, the family settled on a label that appealed to customers.

The Mooses realize their location within a reasonable distance of several major cities helps sell meat. Linda said many of their loyal customers come once a year and buy cases of canned beef and hundreds of pounds of burger.

Much like other on-farm retailers have experienced since COVID, the Mooses found they were quickly selling out of beef. “We went from nothing to six to eight months behind in orders,” said Gene. “Every time there’s a scare, our beef business jumps.” In addition to their regular customers, the Mooses sell beef to a local grocery chain, a butcher shop and a gym.

Since Santa Gertrudis cattle were developed to be hardy and with almost no health issues, the Mooses have taken a mostly natural approach to raising their herd. Since the herd is closed, calves remain healthy with no vaccinations. Sue said she used to think it was important to wean calves at a certain age, but has found that calves learn a lot from their mothers. Fence line weaning reduces stress on both cows and their calves, which contributes to overall health and well-being. Heifer and bull calves are separated; bull calves are raised intact.

Gene strives to farm with minimal chemical inputs. He composts manure and has found that composted manure adds significant organic matter to the clay-based soil on the farms. Small grains are used to refurbish pastures as necessary. In addition to making dry hay, Gene processes the first cutting as wrapped bales to allow more cuttings throughout the growing season.

Sue, Doug and Rhianna will play a more critical role on the farm as Gene and Linda approach retirement. Since black-hided cattle have become highly desirable, Gene is considering using a black bull in order to compete in today’s beef market. Another option would be to obtain Santa Gertrudis bull semen to breed their own bull replacements, which would allow the Mooses to maintain a closed herd.

As Gene and Linda reflect on how they began selling beef cuts from the farm before that outlet became popular, they also realize the next generation may have to diversify the operation. “The country has caught up with us,” said Linda. “But we did this when nobody else did – we were way ahead of the curve.”