In this episode of Sustainable Dish, we chat with Brandon Howley of Happy Hollow Beef, a multi-generation ranch in East Texas outside of Dallas. The founder of Happy Hollow is Chuck Howley, an NFL star who is heralded by many as one of the greatest linebackers in Dallas Cowboys history. After serving in the military, Brandon returned to the family ranch.
One of Brandon’s first goals for the family ranch was to explore grass-finished beef and direct marketing to local consumers. Although transitioning to grass-finished beef may seem like a matter of simply changing what the cattle eat, it can be a far more complex process.
One of the first major hurdles that an operation has to tackle is figuring out whether the farm can produce enough forage to finish animals on grass alone. This often leads producers to adopt management intensive grazing, also called holistic planned grazing, multi paddock grazing, or rotational grazing. By limiting cattle’s access to pasture, producers can encourage cattle to eat forages that they would not have otherwise consumed. This increases overall grazing efficiency and makes better use of the pastures. It also facilitates better psature diversity by preventing cattle from selecting only the forages they like most.
This grazing system also enables pastures to have adequate rest so that they can regrow and continue to provide forage to livestock throughout the year. The goal of many grass-finishing operations is to adopt a grazing plan that leads to grazing on as many days of the year as possible. Depending on where a producer is located, it may be necessary to feed hay during the winter months. But with careful grazing management, many producers stockpile forage to graze well into winter.
Brandon also shares with us how his family has evaluated the type of cattle that they raise in their new grass-finishing program. Not all breeds of cattle have been selected to finish on grass alone. Even within the same breed, some animals seem to thrive more readily on a grass-based diet while others may not gain the same amount of weight or finish as quickly.
Finding access to a processor that services independent farms who don’t sell to a major packer has also been a challenge that Brandon has had to navigate. This is one of the biggest bottlenecks for meat producers who sell directly to consumers, restaurants, and other alternative channels. The pandemic has made access to processing even more challenging as processors deal with labor shortages and a major uptick in demand from beef producers. With grocery store shelves empty, many consumers are turning to local farmers to meet their grocery needs. Although this increase in demand for local food is wonderful, it’s only as good as farmers’ ability to process enough animals to provide an adequate supply. The Howleys are exploring a number of possible solutions to their processing bottlenecks including constructing a processing facility on the premises.
Finally, we chat about some of the social aspects of converting to a grass-finishing operation and the funny looks from neighbors that often comes with it. This hasn’t deterred Brandon from reaching out to the local community to promote local food and more awareness about how well managed cattle offer countless benefits. As part of his effort to convert the family operation to a grass-finishing program, Howley is working with the Dallas Independent School District in a program that helps students learn about raising cattle. The carcasses are then provided to the local culinary school to facilitate butchery education.
Enjoy the show!