Shelley Proffitt Eagan wasn’t a farmer when her parents moved to Kings Mountain, NC, and purchased land with a plan to raise cattle, but the move was the start of her new career.
Shelley’s dad Steve and a local farmer agreed to go into business together. “They bought calves, put weight on them and sold them,” she said. “After doing that for a couple years, my dad was tired of medicating sick calves from sale barns. He also realized the calves were all going to end up in feedlots.”
Steve read about alternative cattle enterprises and started raising some cow/calf pairs. “Based on what he was reading, grass-fed beef was the best alternative,” said Shelley. Her father purchased additional acreage when it was available. “I came to the farm in 2008, and at the time, Dad had about 40 steers and heifers that had never eaten anything but grass and were of slaughter age.”
Shelley admits she didn’t know much about livestock other than what she learned in the short time she had been home. “I found a one-day conference in Asheville, and the people made it seem simple,” she said. “They said all I needed was a meat handling license and a relationship with a processor, then I could sell meat at farmers markets.”
After meeting with a processor, Shelley learned about packaging, what cuts to sell and how to cook them. “Having meat that looks nice in the package is everything,” she said. “You can spend 18 months or two years raising an animal, and if it looks bad in the package, you have to explain that to the customer. Having a helpful processor who wants to do a good job is important.”
Her first farmers market experience was in spring 2009. She was assigned a table and sold all the beef she took. “The first four weeks, a lot of people who came to our table had bought from me before and I had lines waiting for beef,” she said. “People were raving about what they had purchased – said it was the best grass-fed beef they had ever had.”
When a major grocery chain came to town, the family raised cattle on 1,000 acres over four properties to provide beef for that company. The farm became USDA certified organic in 2009 – the first beef operation in the state to obtain certification. Proffitt Family Cattle Company also obtained Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) American Grass-fed certifications.
As the paperwork for organic certification became more complex and time-consuming, the family decided to drop that certification in 2018. However, they still use the same organic management practices.
When Shelley first came home, the cow herd was good quality, but she relied on others’ advice to reduce the frame size for better grass efficiency. “We want an efficient momma cow that can stay fat on grass and isn’t waiting for feed,” she said. “We culled about 25% of the herd and started keeping heifers and bought grass-fed bulls.”
Some of the high-dollar bred cows they purchased to increase herd size didn’t work in their system. “They’re bred for docility, which is fantastic, but we need a cowherd that will take care of themselves,” she said. “We move them around a lot and they might be 100 acres away.”
Today, the Proffitt herd is primarily Angus, bred by registered Angus bulls, including genetics from Wye and Biltmore. “Our herd now is small-framed cows,” said Shelley. “They’re not tall but they’re fat and are more efficient.” During the growing season, cattle are moved daily or every other day.
Some of the pastures used for finishing cattle have been in use for 60 years, with strong root systems that result in high productivity. “Fescue is the predominant grass here,” said Shelley. “Even if we don’t plant it, it will eventually take over the pastures.” Fescue can be problematic for grass-fed producers, but cattle can graze fescue and other species as long as plants are young and healthy.
“In spring and summer when we’ve had heavy rain, animals put on three pounds a day,” said Shelley. “During drought, we feed hay on top of fescue to the finishers. In spring, when grass is washy, cattle are fed hay for dry matter. We’ve also planted millet. This year, we planted a rye and red clover mix on bare ground to revitalize poor pasture. They can graze that well into summer.”
In winter, cattle are kept in a field that has natural shelter. “It’s close to the hay barn so we can get hay to them easily,” said Shelley. “It’s also near a run-in we can load up with hay if a storm is coming.” Cattle have access to water in all pastures.
At one point, cows were bred year-round to supply finished animals throughout the year. However, that system was time-consuming and required constant weaning and moving animals. “Now we calve April through September,” said Shelley. “It works out fine.”
In addition to finishing her own calves, Shelley purchases weaned calves from two local cattle producers who raise them like she does. “I buy them based them on birthdate,” she said. “I need fall- and winter-born calves to cover the gap.”
The finishing herd is worked every month to ensure they’re accustomed to the handling area. “They have to go through the chute for weighing, so they need practice,” said Shelley. “They’re young enough and still easy to handle.”
Shelley sells beef cuts at the Matthews Community Farmers Market, a year-round market, and many customers will later purchase bulk beef. The concept of filling out a cut sheet for beef can be overwhelming for customers, but Shelley has made it easy.
“I’ve established a quarter based on cuts that people can successfully cook with a little bit of instruction,” said Shelley. “It’s a combination of steaks, roasts, ground beef and miscellaneous like short ribs, stew meat, cube steak and shanks.” With this plan, customers aren’t overwhelmed with too much of one cut and aren’t stuck with something they don’t like or don’t know how to cook.
“Our mission has always been to raise the best grass-fed beef money can buy,” said Shelley. “It isn’t cheap but it’s really good. I want every experience to be positive, and we’ve figured out how to make that happen.”
Visit Proffitt Family Cattle Company at proffittfarms.com.
by Sally Colby