By Brian Sweeney
When Halcottsville residents Jenny and Dick Liddle started their family farm in the late 1980s, there was limited information available about the benefits of raising grass-fed beef. The number of farmers feeding their livestock in this manner was just as rare. Those facts did not deter them, and they proceeded to become among the earliest adapters of this philosophy. Today, nearly every beef farm in the region adheres to the grass-fed method of raising beef.
Having grown up on a dairy farm, Dick subscribed to the opinion that livestock consuming grass was a healthier alternative than a diet dominated by grains. Convinced that grass-fed beef was the preferred option, Dick began a multi-year project of improving the way cows were raised on the Liddle Farm, without resorting to feeding them grain. He admits the grass-fed model involved considerable experimentation in the early years.
“I went all grass at a time when most people were skeptical about feeding livestock in this manner,” Dick recalled.
Lots of research
Eager to learn about the benefits of an all-grass diet for livestock, Dick became a student of the process. He attended many seminars on the topic and followed the advice of early gurus, including Alan Nation and Joel Salatin, regarding farming sustainability.
For the Liddles, the result in the early years were a mixed bag. “From OK to terrible,” is how Dick recalled their initial efforts. Despite some frustrations, they persisted with their vision. Gradually, over the course of several years, their commitment to raising livestock in a healthier manner began to yield the results they envisioned. Today, a growing number of farmers have shifted to the grass-fed model of raising beef, now widely viewed as the best alternative. It’s widely acknowledged that grass-fed animals are leaner, with less fat, are healthier and the meat is more flavorful.
Just as the choice of raising grass-fed beef was unconventional at the time, so was the start of the farm. Because Dick had grown up in a farm setting, one of his brothers thought an appropriate wedding gift for the couple would be a heifer that was a cross between Holstein and Angus breeds. Naturally, such a present selection was made knowing that the recipients had ample acreage for the cow to roam.
“It was a novel gift,” Jenny laughed.
The gesture was appreciated by the couple, who soon realized you can’t just raise a solitary cow – they need companions. When Jenny’s father offered some financial assistance to get started, they began to build up a small herd.
In the beginning, they butchered just one animal a year, so there was enough meat for their family, Jenny recalled. Over time, they learned that several friends and neighbors were interested in moving away from traditionally raised meat into a healthier option and they started supplying them with beef.
“It was a gradual progression. We just let the flow of the farm dictate where it went. We were both working full-time (Jenny in graphic design and Dick as a contractor) and the farm was not even a business,” she recalled.
Growing the farm
Through a steady transition, they now maintain a herd between 50-70 cows most of the time. After making purchases of some neighboring properties, the farm has grown to about 100 acres, and they lease an additional 60 acres. The Liddles now raise the maximum number of animals that this amount of land can sustain. The herd consists of Black Angus with some Hereford in the mix. As the number of cows increased, the proprietors have employed an assistant to help keep the operation running smoothly.
Dick explained that they have been enrolled for a number of years in the Watershed Agricultural Council’s (WAC) large farm program and the collaboration has been very beneficial.
“WAC has helped us modernize our water system. It’s been a really good partnership. They assist us with soil assessments and forage plans,” he pointed out.
Dick noted they don’t use any chemical fertilizer on the farm, only lime. In another nod to minimizing the farm’s environmental footprint, a solar array helps offset the need for utilizing fossil fuels.
In addition to feeding their livestock a healthier diet, the Liddles place a strong emphasis on raising their cows humanely. Jenny explained that, typically, an animal is ready for market in 1-1.5 years. The Liddles raise them for two-to-three years and the cows spend most of their time in pastures and fields during nice weather. During inclement periods, the livestock have access to shelter. The only time antibiotics are utilized is if an animal is sick, and then they are taken out of herd while being treated. None of the animals are administered hormones.
For people who enjoy consuming meat products, the principles followed at Liddle Farm bring results that are readily apparent. The owners produce a variety of standard and specialty cuts – with some of most popular being burger, ribeye Delmonico, and New York Strip steaks. Roasts, briskets, and filets are also in high demand. Jenny said Tomahawk steaks can be special ordered. At nearly two inches thick, the ribs are left on the bone and one cut feeds 4-6 people.
“They are fabulous on the grill or under the broiler,” she enthusiastically stated.
One drawback of a small farming operation in recent years is getting these products to the table, which can be a challenge. Dick said the loss of processing facilities is a huge problem in the industry. He noted that when many of the large plants had to shut down during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, it really affected the supply chain and that’s one of the reasons food prices have increased so much.
“The idea of decentralizing the food system is vital to protecting the food supply. We need smaller processing facilities; that’s really important,” he commented.
Dick added, “People are going to have to get used to paying more for food. Processed foods are very poor value. Agri-business is huge. If people prepared more of their own food they would achieve better nutritional values, support their communities and save money.”
In particular, he pointed to the “abysmal quality” of the food commonly served to school children. Dick feels much more attention needs to be paid to how we raise our food and how it’s processed.
Local food is key
Jenny pointed out that purchasing food from regional farms is beneficial in multiple respects. In addition to supporting smaller farms and helping the local economy, consuming locally raised foods significantly reduces the environmental impact of importing food from across the United States or from other countries.
In their quest to remain as self-sufficient as possible, the Liddles grow most of their own vegetables and often barter with other farmers for locally produced goods. Any extra vegetables and beef are donated to area food pantries.
Selling extra hay is also part of the operation. If someone wants to buy a cow and raise it themselves, that’s also an option. They have raised meat birds and laying hens, but stopped when the flock was devastated by a predator. Jenny said they are considering having meat birds again, however, she noted they must be fed grain and the process gets expensive.
For Dick and Jenny Liddle, the direction of their farm will continue to evolve naturally, the same way it has since they received the wedding gift that started it all.
The Liddles sell their beef through word of mouth and at two local retail outlets — Sweet Peas in Halcottsville and Home Goods of Margaretville.