We visited Steve and Tammy McPherson on a chilly day in October, driving back roads to reach Triple Tree Farm
, one of our suppliers of pasture-raised beef
. Heidi the dog greeted us when we pulled in. We spotted Steve in a pasture behind the barn, about to head down the lane on his horse to tend to a cow.
While we waited for Steve to return, we scratched Heidi and looked around. Green pastures surrounded us, fenced into sections. One had an assortment of goats and chickens; a stray chicken flapped out of our way near the large barn. A lone, brown-and-white cow stood in the nearest field. An interested donkey waited with his head over the fence behind the barn. Steve returned, and as soon as he started to talk, the donkey started braying so loudly we couldn’t hear.
Steve and Tammy are both from North Carolina. When I asked how long he’s been working with cattle, he told me, “I’ll be forty-nine in December, so I’ve had cattle... 48 years!” He’s been a full-time farmer since 1994; previous jobs included truck driving. Tammy has been working with cattle since 1983; previously, she worked as an engineer, but is now on the farm full time.
Their 100 acres are the original, sixth generation family farm. They also rent hundreds of acres to have more pasture on which to rotate the cattle. Rotating depends on the time of year and the age of the cattle. Younger cattle need the most grass to meet their nutritional needs. If the weather is dry, they’ll move to the field with the best water source. Mothers with calves are kept closer to the house, because of coyotes. (The McPhersons use donkeys, which are territorial and chase coyotes, to protect the cattle. We’d met Reno, the loud donkey by the barn.) The cattle are on pasture their whole lives, a mix of grasses and clover. They get supplemental feed when necessary, like in the winter when they need a little more energy; this can be a homemade blend of corn gluten, soy hull pellets, minerals, and haylage, or a “molasses block.”
Like most NC cattle producers, Steve used to raise cattle destined for Midwestern feedlots for finishing. “Raising cattle as a commodity didn’t allow us to focus on quality, and it meant accepting the really low and often variable prices we’d get at the auction barn,” Steve said. In 1995, he switched to Angus cattle, so he could maintain the quality of the herd and focus on selling premium bulls. In 2007, he started finishing cattle on grass, and began a shift from producing cattle for breeding purposes toward cattle for beef. In 2011, they had about 100 cattle.
Carrying buckets of feed, Steve and Tammy led us across the street and through an uneven pasture, followed by an excited Heidi. (The feed was to lure the cattle towards us, so we could take photos and video.) At the back by the trees, Steve began calling the cattle with a high-pitched holler. A moment later, a small black cow bounded out of the bushes, stopping when she saw us. Another came behind her. When Steve hollered again, the cattle followed him to a field, watching us warily, but soon were happily munching on
the feed he had spread on the grass. These cattle were about one year old. With pasture feeding, they’d be ready for slaughter when they reach eighteen to twenty-four months.
After taking our pictures, we headed back to the house. The cattle followed us, like children playing red-light-green-light, stopping whenever we turned to look. Steve and Tammy both love being home on the farm and spoke of their enjoyment of working with the animals. Steve joked, “I’ve been full time farming for 17 years now, and working for myself... I wouldn’t be employee of the month anywhere else.”