Penn Cove may be known for its mussels, but just across the Whidbey Island bay from Coupeville is another operation—the Muzzall family farm, known to local grass-fed beef fans as the Three Sisters Cattle Company.

The farm was founded in 1910 by Ron Muzzall’s great-grandparents. For generations it was a dairy. When Ron ’86 returned from college, the farm had 50 cows. With his wife, Shelly, who grew up with family farming in Eastern Washington, he planned to follow in his parents’ footsteps.

Ron ’86 and Shelly Muzzall with their daughters
Ron ’86 and Shelly Muzzall with their daughters Jennifer (seated), Jessica, and Roshel (top) (Photo Matt Hagen)

But the dairy business was changing so fast. To keep up, the Muzzalls had to continuously add to their herd—something that was hard on their small farm and hard on them. By the time they reached 200 animals, they knew they couldn’t keep growing. “We were too small,” says Muzzall, and Whidbey is not the place for a large-scale dairy. “We realized that this is not a commodity agriculture area.”

They thought about moving. “But this was home,” says Muzzall. By that time they had three daughters, as well as family around them in the Oak Harbor community. So Ron and Shelly looked at the dairy, the pastureland, the green forage, and thought about what they knew how to do. They realized a simple shift might keep them in farming. “We left the commodity business,” says Muzzall.

What had started as a side operation of raising beef for themselves and their neighbors ten years ago became a full-time grass-fed beef producing ranch. The timing, though, seemed precarious. Early into it, mad cow disease was discovered in a Holstein in Eastern Washington. The Muzzalls went ahead, though, and it turned out that that diagnosis and others in Canada may have helped their business. “It brought about this awareness about where is this beef coming from,” Muzzall says. He found customers who wanted to know how their beef was raised and by who, and were willing to pay a little more for the peace of mind.

“Ten years later, our oldest daughter is out of college and back on the farm. The youngest is a high school junior. All our girls are involved in the business,” says Muzzall. While he runs the production side of the ranch, Shelly and their daughters manage the sales and marketing. They have a small store on the farm and also sell locally through farmers markets, through several stores on Whidbey, and over the Internet.

Last May, Three Sisters was featured on the Cooking Channel. The segment, which aired nationally, brought a lot of attention, says Muzzall. But because the farm is small scale (there are about 150 cows), it can’t easily deliver the cuts of meat around the country. The interest, though, spurred the Muzzalls into looking at processing some of the beef and sent them in the direction of hot dog and pepperoni production with Ferndale-based Hempler Foods Group.

Since the Muzzalls started ranching, the demand for locally sourced beef has grown as has the number of small farms in Washington producing beef. To name a few: Basket Flat Ranch in Battle Ground with Jon Schoenborn ’97, Chinook Farms in Snohomish County with Eric Fritch ’84, and the Colvin Ranch in Tenino with Fred ’70 and Katherine ’71 Colvin.

Even with the increased demand for beef from small-scale and local farms, in recent years the large-scale operations in Washington haven’t been suffering. According to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service’s most recent census, the number of beef cattle, on farms of all sizes, in Washington has increased from 2002 to 2007 by about 25,000 head to 274,001.

When you think of Washington crops, beef isn’t the first to come to mind. “I found that there is an entire cattle culture in the West that runs ‘below the radar’ for most of us,” writes historian Laurie Winn Carlson ’04 in Cattle: An Informal Social History. Once she started researching her book, she looked at her own community, at that time the Spokane area, and realized how many farms, even on her drive down to graduate school in Pullman, had cows and calves.

North American cattle ranching brings to mind the Old West, scenes of huge herds driven across open plains, notes Carlson. The scale and style are not nearly the whole story. The reality is that cattle ranching happened and still happens in a variety of environments: tropics, mountain ranges, and meadow wetlands, to name a few. “Cattle are adaptable creatures which do well in nearly all conditions in temperate climates,” writes Carlson. And because grazing cattle is one of the least intensive forms of commercial agriculture, it often gets pushed to the hinterlands and to properties not suitable for other farming.

Scale is another thing. The average cow herd size in the United States is 25 to 40 head, says Don Nelson, WSU Extension’s beef specialist. Almost all of the cattle operations on the west side of Washington are small because of land value and small acreages, he says. On the east side of the state, you can find the larger operations, with 100 head or more.

Small or large, many of Washington’s cattle operations are breaking with tradition to make their ranches more sustainable, says Nelson. Calving is just one example. Typically calving season starts in late February or March. But some cattle producers are changing that. Think about the natural cycle of wild animals, says Nelson. They usually have their offspring in later spring, when the weather is warmer and there is an abundance of green forage. Calves born in February or March suffer terrible stress from the cold, and they are more vulnerable to disease and don’t grow much because of it. It could cost the farmer, too, since under the old system he has to bring in extra feed and use medicines to treat the animals’ illnesses, like calf scours. But if cows calve in May or June, they’ve had a third trimester of fresh green grass, and their newborn calves won’t be stressed by the cold, wet, or snow.

“Many practices have improved over the years,” says Nelson. He points to the old way of weaning and shipping calves the same day. “It’s another bad practice in terms of stress on the animals,” he says. At the feedlot, the weakened calves are more vulnerable to other disease organisms that may come in with the other animals.

A new weaning protocol involves putting the cows and calves in a good pasture with easy access to water, then separating the cows from the calves with a fence. It’s something the Muzzalls do. The calves can be close to their mothers, just not able to nurse. “In a few days, you can turn the cows out, and the calves are fine,” says Nelson. “That reduces stress and in turn reduces disease.”

Another option would be not to wean the calves but let them winter with their mothers, who know how to negotiate the cold, and get to shelter and food and water. This practice is countercyclical, which can be a benefit, says Nelson. Most cattle sales occur in the fall. If you sell these calves in January, the “numbers are down and the prices are better.”

It’s all a matter of using resources in the best possible way, he says. In nature, cattle’s dietary preferences are grass (70 percent), forbs and weeds, and browse, the edible parts of woody vegetation. “A cow-calf producer is really in the solar energy harvesting conversion business,” says Nelson. The energy captured by the plant leaves is converted to carbohydrates that the cattle consume in the grass, and this is converted to beef. “All this is provided by nature free of charge,” says Ne
lson. “All we have to do is learn how to take advantage of these natural processes.” The fewer the inputs, the more free grass rather than purchased grains consumed, the more sustainable the farm.

One thing to remember, Nelson notes: Small-scale producers like the Muzzalls generally produce grass-fed and grass-finished beef, which means the animals don’t get into feedlots and aren’t finished with grain. The often-desired result of the feedlot finishing is consistent flavor and increased intramuscular fat. According to a recent report from WSU’s Impact Center, it’s a practice that evolved after World War II, when there was an oversupply of grain.

By contrast, the grass-finished beef may taste different, depending on what the animal has been eating, and is very lean. Muzzall’s ground beef, for example, is only six or seven percent fat. Health-conscious consumers may prefer it, since it has higher levels of the desirable omega-3 fatty acids and lower overall fats.

It’s tasty, says Muzzall of his beef, but you can’t just throw it on the barbecue and flip it in a half hour. “It’s a whole different hamburger.”


Web extra

How to cook lean beef

On the web

Video: 3 Sisters Cattle Company  (The Cooking Channel, “Food Crafters”)

3 Sisters Family Farms

WSU Extension: Small Farms, Beef