Fifth-generation cattle farmer Liz Martin grew up on her family’s Ironstone Spring Farm in Lancaster County, PA, and learned about livestock as she helped on the farm. Martin’s father was in the poultry business and raised Angus cattle, many of which were sold to 4-H’ers. Martin recalled building the oak fence that’s still on the farm and helping to count baby chicks as they hatched from incubators. “I did a lot with horses and the cattle,” she said. “And we always made a lot of hay.”
In 2005, Martin saw a strong movement toward farm-to-table direct sales of grass-fed beef. She decided to add to the existing Angus herd of 10 animals, seeking cows that would thrive on grass. Martin had an opportunity to purchase additional Angus cattle, including a bull, from a grass-based operation in North Carolina.
“I have a closed herd and we don’t vaccinate or use any antibiotics so I have to be very careful about what I bring here,” said Martin. “I don’t normally buy outside cattle, but they were grass-fed.” She isolated them for two weeks before adding them to her herd.
Today, Martin maintains the herd at around 35 head and keeps several heifers each year as replacements. When she first started selling beef, she went to farmers markets where she grilled burgers to entice customers. “Once I got going, it took off,” she said. “But now the demand is more than I can handle. I’m working on getting more processed, and if that works, I can keep more cows.”
Because some of her cattle are from North Carolina, Martin can retain bulls from her own herd. She will occasionally purchase an outside bull to diversify bloodlines. “We try to mix it up a bit,” she said. The herd is handled once a year, usually in April, for pregnancy checks, fly management and to monitor animals’ overall physical condition. In June, two bulls are added to the cowherd. Calving begins in late February and continues through the end of August.
Younger cattle that don’t conceive and calve with the herd schedule are usually given another chance to be productive. “We track them,” said Martin. “If they don’t breed two years in a row, we don’t keep them. But I’ll give the younger animals a second shot.”
The rolling hills of Ironstone Spring Farm are divided into seven large pastures for grazing. The pastures are primarily orchardgrass and clover with some fescue. Martin said the pastures were originally established for Standardbred race horses, and her father took great care of the fields. “The pastures are about 45, 50 years old,” she said. “My dad took great care in planting these pastures with the right grasses. Once in a while I’ll overseed but not too often.”
Cattle are rotated every few weeks according to grass growth. In late May, hay is cut and wrapped in plastic for winter feeding. Cattle remain on pasture year-round, with access to shelter and plenty of hay when pasture is no longer productive. Martin said opening baled hay and feeding it in a bunker keeps the hay clean and reduces waste. Cattle also have access to a molasses-based protein supplement and a mineral mix that’s balanced for pasture.
Martin is currently sending finished animals for processing at about 1,200 pounds. “I use a small local facility to help reduce stress,” she said. “We like to take them there the evening before and they stay overnight in a pen with access to water. That gives them a chance to calm down, which has a lot to do with the quality of the beef.”
The processor for the farm reserves 30 spots each year for Martin’s finished cattle. However, Martin said he’s so busy he can’t promise additional slots for processing until he’s finished scheduling at the end of the fourth quarter of 2023.
Although Martin would like to increase the size of her cow herd, available processing capacity is the limiting factor. “An enterprising person with some capital could start a USDA inspected plant and they’d fill it right up,” she said. “The worst problem would be capital and getting good help.”
When Martin first started selling beef directly from the farm, local restaurants were among her biggest customers. “At first, I sold more to restaurants, then the demand from consumers got so high,” she said. “Now most is sold directly to consumers, and excess ground beef is sold to area restaurants.”
Since starting direct sales to customers, Martin has learned a lot about what people want. “Many want to know how the cattle are raised, whether they’re grass-fed and if they’ve had antibiotics or hormones,” she said. “Customers are happy to learn they’re raised exclusively on pasture during the growing season and grass hay through winter.” She also emphasizes the importance of using a USDA inspected facility to customers and uses that as a selling point.
Martin has come up with a plan that works well for direct sales. In January, she sends an email to all current customers to notify them about availability during the upcoming year. “About 80% of beef is sold that way,” she said. “About 20% are new customers, mostly all referrals.”
As the owner of an insurance company, Martin knows the value of a strong marketing program and said it’s been worth investing in a good website. Although some customers are in the Lancaster area, Martin has quite a few customers who travel from the Philadelphia area to purchase beef and tries to keep products as affordable to as many people as possible. Martin advertises beef on EatWild and suggests producers should continue to market even when their products are selling well. “You have to stay in front of people or they forget about you,” she said.
She noted one problem with the “grass-fed” label is there’s no regulated definition of the term. “People can say beef is grass-fed even if it isn’t,” she said. “That’s unfortunate for the people who do it right. When I first started there weren’t nearly as many people in the grass-fed beef business, but now people see they can get a little bit better margin with it, and the demand is still there.”
Visit Ironstone Spring Farm online at ironstonespringfarm.com.
by Sally Colby