Joel Huesby, owner and manager of Thundering Hooves Pasture-Finished Meats, sees himself as a conductor of a great orchestra, directing a harmonious symphony of life that includes soil, plants, animals, and people. Through his unique approach to farming, he has earned tremendous peace of mind and a few dollars to put in his pocket to boot.

But it wasn’t always this way for the Walla Walla, Washington, rancher. Huesby (’86 agriculture) grew up as a fourth-generation wheat farmer and spent years plowing fields and growing crops that barely earned him enough to support his family.

Several years ago, he got tired of living on a treadmill that always seemed to require “bigger, faster, more” with regard to equipment, chemicals, fertilizers, and yields.

“The crops required so many expensive inputs and yet provided so little return for my effort and risk,” he says. “It seemed that everyone was making a living from my land but me.” Feeling that his business was a failure, Huesby considered getting out of farming. After a lot of soul-searching, he decided to stay in, but to change the way he farmed altogether.

Huesby replaced his tractor, fertilizers, and pesticides with livestock. Instead of wheat, he now raises pasture-fed cattle, pigs, goats, chickens, and sheep.

While not certified as organic, “Our farm now operates under the principle that nature knows best,” he says. “We seek to follow natural laws governing the relationships between grazing animals and the grassland.”

The result is a method of farming that produces healthy, flavorful meat that also has a positive impact on the environment, animal well-being, consumers, rural communities, and farmers’ pocketbooks, says Don Nelson, a Washington State University beef extension specialist.

Nelson recently developed a holistic beef management program called “Creating a Sustainable Future for Cow-Calf Producers.” The program is much like Huesby’s, in that it entails local production, processing, and marketing of beef raised on a grass-fed system. It also utilizes a decision making process that considers the impact of a given action on each area of a farm, and that requires meeting immediate needs without sacrificing long-term goals.

Nelson believes this method of raising beef has much to offer to both producers and consumers.

Born to graze

Nelson and Huesby say that cattle finished on grass experience greater well-being. Huesby “pasture-finishes” his animals, keeping them on pasture until they reach finishing weight or are ready for slaughter. This differs from the conventional method of raising beef, in which cattle are raised on grass until they are sent off to be finished on grain in a feedlot.

In addition, because cattle are born to graze, grass is more compatible with their digestive tracts than grain, Nelson says, and thus grass-fed cows need fewer antibiotics. So, instead of spending months in a confined feedlot, the cattle continue to feed and roam freely on grass in a pasture, which provides less stress and a more natural environment. Huesby’s herd is so docile that when he rotates them across his pastures on a high-intensity, short-duration grazing schedule, he never has to use electric prods or dogs to get them to move. “I just call my cows and they come in. I think they are happy animals.”

Cheryl (’85 Agriculture) and Robert Cosner (x’74 Agriculture) say that while it takes longer to raise beef this way, it also reduces the cost of feed, supplements, and other supplies.

“We have kept in the black for the past 12 years because of our ability to keep our expenses to the bare bones,” says Cheryl, who co-manages a holistic pasture-fed beef operation with her husband in Centerville, Washington.

The Cosners have also benefited in other ways. “We calve in the spring when green feed is available for lactating mothers and when the weather risks are almost non-existent,” she says. “Because of this, we lose no calves to hypothermia . . . and have not had a case of scours in 12 years.”

Under conventional ranching methods, calves are usually born during late winter. The Cosners say their cows, which calve in May, experience greater fertility due to better grazing.

Maurice Robinette, a third-generation rancher from Cheney, Washington, has also experienced great success with the 10 percent of his herd that is finished on grass and calves in June.

“My calves are marketed at 14 months instead of six or seven,” he says, “but I can cut the cost to $20 per calf from about $230 under conventional methods . . . and make a $400 profit.”

This could be great news to U.S. cattle producers who, in light of current economic conditions, face more risk and lower returns than ever before. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), cow-calf producers earned on average about $2 less in 1999 than they did 20 year ago. Between 1992 and 2001, the USDA estimated their average return after expenses to be negative $30.40 per bred cow.

And though the average herd size is increasing, the numbers of producers who raise those herds are not., The USDA reports that since 1994 approximately 95,000 cow-calf producers, or about one out of nine, have left the industry–most with small herds of 50 head or less. Prices have been rising since 2000, but the number of cow-calf operations still declined from approximately 830,670 to 814,400 in 2001.

Despite these trends, Nelson, who has been involved in the cattle industry since 1964, is determined to find ways for small family ranchers to survive.

He believes holistic management and product differentiation may be the tools to do this, and Huesby, Robinette, and the Cosners, all of whom have worked with Nelson on these issues, are sterling examples of how these types of operations can work.

Wholesome, functional food

In several studies, including one conducted by Jan R. Busboom, a WSU professor and extension meat specialist, and his colleagues from the University of Wyoming, grass-fed beef has been found to contain fewer calories and have lower fat content than grain-fed beef.

According to Busboom’s research, when the two varieties were compared as three-ounce trimmed, uncooked samples of lean meat, the grass-fed beef was shown to contain 112 calories and 2.4 grams of fat as opposed to136 calories and 5.0 grams of fat in the grain-fed sample.

Despite these differences, the report noted that grass- and grain-fed beef contain similar levels of cholesterol, and are both good sources of high-quality protein. Also, grain-fed beef was shown to contain nearly three times as much mono-saturated fat, which has been found to help decrease the risk of heart disease by lowering levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol in the body.

However, Nelson says grass-fed beef also has “functional food” properties.

“These are foods that contain compounds in them that have health benefits over and above what their nutritional aspects are, such as omega-3 fats,” Nelson says.

Omega-3 is a poly-unsaturated fat that has been found to reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and depression, according to the American Medical Association.

In Busboom’s meat analysis study, grass-fed beef contained more than three times as much Omega-3 fat than grain-fed.

Other comparative studies found grass-fed beef to contain higher levels of antioxidants such as beta-carotene and Vitamin E, as well as another beneficial fatty acid called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).

Since its discovery in 1987, scientists have conducted a flurry of research to determine CLA’s role in nutrition. Following a number of studies on lab animals, it was determined to be a powerful anti-carcinogen particularly effective in fighting breast and prostate cancer, according to Terry Shultz, a food science and human nutrition professor at WSU. He says it has also been found to be effective against skin, colon, and stomach cancer.

Other studies credit CLA with having a positive effect on heart disease and Type II diabetes, because it appears to reduce body fat in animals and humans. Busboom says that while scientists do not yet know how much is needed to benefit humans, it is believed that the amounts found in grass-fed beef may be sufficient.

A declaration of independence

One of the main goals of Nelson’s “Sustainable Future” program is for producers to implement a profitable grassland production system that not only enhances animal well-being, but also improves the environment.

“You can use grazing animals in a way that can help the environment and minimize input costs,” he says.

Huesby began to do this in fall 1994, when he wrote a declaration of independence from excessive machinery, technology, fertilizers, and pesticides. Though 2002 was his first year of raising only pasture-fed meat, he began making changes immediately after writing his declaration. One of the first of these was to use draft horses for plowing instead of tractors. “Which is more high tech–a tractor or horses?” he says. “My horses will go straight down the row, and I don’t even have to steer.”

Another cost-saving change Nelson recommends is to control weeds not with pesticides, but with a variety of animals such as sheep, goats, and cattle, all grazing at different times. Several years ago, he helped implement a sustainable agriculture research program called “Noxious Weed Control through Multi-Species Grazing,” which called for cattle to eat grass, sheep to eat other forage, and goats to eat brush and weeds.

“Nature’s strength comes through diversity,” says Huesby, who uses the technique on his farm. “Multiple-species grazing allows each animal to fill a unique niche.”

Though Huesby has not used fertilizers or pesticides on his land since 1995, he has seen a tremendous improvement in his soil. Through his grazing methods, he has also seen a reduction in soil erosion and a reversal of encroaching weeds and brush that can accompany non-rotational grazing methods.

The Cosner’s Centerville farm has mimicked these results. “We have had a patch of Canada thistle in one corner of our place that is virtually non-existent now because the sheep and goats keep them pruned down,” Cheryl Cosner said.

Grazing animals have also increased their soil’s fertility. “One area in particular was once like a concrete slab in the summer and is now as soft as peat despite the dry year,” she said. “The regrowth on the grazed areas was also significantly greater than that of the swathed area. We see this in other areas too, and attribute it to how plants are physiologically stimulated by a grazing animal.”

On Huesby’s farm, the soil appears to love the changes as well. “Because we no longer use tractors to plow the ground, a healthy community of microorganisms has re-emerged in what is truly living soil.”

Sustainable future

“The average item on the supermarket shelf has traveled about 1,200 miles,” Nelson says of the international boutique of food available in most grocery stores. “Some people desire a greater connection to the food they buy.”

Through buying grass-fed beef, he says, consumers can learn exactly where their beef comes from, the importance of family farms and local food systems, and even their own connection to nature’s systems.

And if consumers see producers as intelligent, dependable, and dedicated stewards of the land, Nelson thinks they will keep coming back for more and make it tough for conventional competition to steal them away.

Loyalty has been a big part of Maurice Robinette’s business. Several of his customers have come to him for more than 20 years for their beef.

Loyalty is a big part of Huesby’s operation as well, but in a generational sense.

“Ours is truly a family farm,” he says. “My children are fifth-generation here.”

Instead of spending long hours alone on the tractor farming wheat, Huesby is now able to include his wife, Cynthia, and their four children in the family business.

“We . . .  all have talents and abilities that fit well with the jobs we give each other,” he says. “What my kids are learning they never would under a commercial operation.”

The Cosners also include their three children, Chantell (13), Pate (10), and Juniper (5), in their holistic cycle of farming.

“We include them in the farm planning process as much as possible,” Cheryl says. “They help us in a myriad of ways . . . pushing sheep and goats to different pastures, helping us with any birthing assists we might do, riding with us when we haul cows,” she says.

Robinette also teaches his two daughters how to holistically ranch, as well as others who are interested in learning about it. Having been involved in the Holistic Management Project sponsored by WSU and the Kellogg Foundation from 1995 to 1998, he was selected to be one of five educators to teach at sustainable agriculture workshops. Now he is able to train others about holistic management consensus building, leadership, goal setting, biological planning, monitoring, and policy analysis.

Currently he, Nelson, the Huesbys, and Cosners all belong to the Pacific Northwest Graziers Network created in 2001 to link ranchers to each other and to collaborate and coordinate efforts in education, research, and marketing related to grazing.

“It is time to look beyond organic toward the production of locally produced, value-added products that have multiple positive attributes that appeal to a broader spectrum of consumers,” Nelson says.

But while producers are great at raising beef, the hurdles of processing, marketing, and retailing grass-fed beef remain.

“It would be very hard to do on a large scale big enough to supply Safeway,” Nelson said. “You would need over a million cows a year . . . that is too many to raise on grass.”

But holistic ranchers can tap into markets not supplied through large corporations. Many set their sights on selling directly to restaurant owners or consumers through farmers markets or filling orders for their beef.

“There is a lot of groundwork involved . . . doing research, making up brochures, regulations, logistics of getting where you need to be,” says Huesby, who travels as far as Seattle to sell his meat.

But, he says, “I feel very optimistic about my future. I am a price maker, not a price taker.”


For more information on pasture-finished meats:


Cosner:  e-mail; phone 509-773-5596

Robinette:  e-mail; phone 509-299-4942 


Emmy Sunleaf graduated from Washington State University in 2002 with a degree in agricultural economics.