The life of a rancher can be challenging, but things are even more complicated here in the Midwest. The weather is unforgiving – alternating between sweltering summers and harsh winters with brief reprieves in transitional spring and fall. The work never ends, but Brian has found a comfortable working balance living with his family on the farm.
Brian has been with Certified Piedmontese for 11 years since the program was in its beginning stages. He lives on the farm property with his family. Two rowdy kids, a dog, and three cats that come and go as they please seem like a handful, not to mention the couple hundred head of Piedmontese cattle.
One of the first questions we asked was about the smell reminiscent of sauerkraut that unapologetically invaded our noses and curled up there, refusing to leave. Brian pointed out the three-man tall piles of hay behind him. “See these? Alfalfa haylage. Fermented hay,” he expanded, “It smells horrible, and if you get it on your shoes, you might as well leave it outside. Someone told me that it’s great feed, and I go, ‘It smells ridiculous. There’s no way the cows are going to eat this.’” Brian made a dramatic pause. “They love it.”
Turning from the farmhouse, we made our way on foot down a dirt road that passes by the five feed yards on the premise, some of them occupied with cows who came in from the pastures for a healthy breakfast of alfalfa hay. “They come in for breakfast, and then go out to roam again,” Brian said. One of the fenced areas housed young calves that ran away when we neared, their hooves kicking up sand and dust, which an unfortunate wind blew our way. They’re lucky they are cute. “
Those young ones are still skittish,” Brian said. He showed us to the older cattle further down the road. Amazingly, these cattle did not shy away from us and stayed in the feed yard despite the wide-open gates. A great thing for our graphic designer, who would not give up on trying to pet and feed the cows.
Piedmontese cattle are double-muscled, larger than most breeds, but have a gentler disposition. Those that have never been on a farm would not realize how still a cow can be, not moving a single inch except for the occasional slow blinking and tail flicking. In contrast to their calm observance, weird humans excitedly take a multitude of pictures of them chewing hay on the other side of the fence.
As we wandered down the road, Brian pointed to different cows and told us each of their little quirks: The spotted cow over there loves to rile up the others; the coffee-colored one near the edge likes to mind its own business; so on and so forth. Brian finds cows with darker coloring and a white face “funny lookin’, ‘cause don’t they look like they have masks on?” He points out a cow in the distance, “There, near the salt. She’s my favorite. We call her Moses. She’s very gentle.”
When Brian climbed into the enclosure to grab emptied buckets, the cattle followed him from end to end at a sedate pace. “They’re looking to see if I have more food,” he laughed. “Piedmontese cattle are so curious; nothing gets by them.” It was evident that the cattle adore Brian and vice versa. When a rancher behaves negatively, it’s easy to produce fearful cows, whereas a rancher with positive behavior leads to happy, healthy herds that are cooperative and easy to handle.
Certified Piedmontese cattle are raised under the notion that a sustainable relationship among ranchers, cattle, and the land on which these cattle are raised is vital to responsible beef production, and low-stress, humane handling practices are certainly part of that vision.
Brian pointed to the different colored tags hanging from the cows’ ears. “We scan these tags to know when and where they have been since they were born, and some will even tell you who’s the mother.”
It is time-consuming and meticulous work to trace every single cattle from birth to harvest. Nevertheless, Certified Piedmontese invests the time and resources so customers can be confident that the beef they eat is a wholesome product raised with integrity.
Certified Piedmontese uses an advanced tracking system that measures, catalogs, and analyzes every animal's growth, health, and nutrition data in the Certified Piedmontese program. All cattle are tagged with a microchip containing the crucial details about that animal and a unique identification number. This electronic identification makes sure our strict protocols are followed at every step in the animal’s life.
“No Antibiotics means no antibiotics whatsoever.”
Brian Friesen, a rancher at York Farms
Certified Piedmontese cows are never injected with hormones, GMOs, or antibiotics. “We keep them happy and healthy so they don’t get sick. No sickness, no antibiotics.”
“But what if a cow does get sick?” I asked.
Brian sighed. “When any of the cattle get sick and need antibiotics, we’d give them the medicine. Then I gotta put a purple tag on ‘em and they either go to a sale barn or a different feedlot not part of the Certified Piedmontese program.” Any animal introduced to antibiotics would have new homes found for them. As with other rigorous standards set by Certified Piedmontese, the “No Antibiotics” protocol is strictly enforced with zero room for negotiation.
“It’s always fun when we turn them out into a new pasture. Like teenagers driving a sports car, and Oh, they just go crazy.”
Brian Friesen, a rancher at York Farms
Brian offered to take us on a trip out to the pastures, and we jumped on the opportunity to see the cattle in their natural environment. We squeezed into a small truck, and Brian unlocked a gate to let us through before climbing aboard. The ride was once again extremely bumpy.
We drove for some distance without spotting a single cow. It felt like going on a safari field trip where you barely see any of the promised wildlife. The low-hanging morning mist has cleared and peering around exposed nothing but vast stretches of grassy fields in all directions, dotted with sparse clusters of trees in the distance.
“I don’t see them,” I said.
“Yes, where are the cows?” our Content Lead asked.
“Well,” Brian started, turning the steering wheel to avoid a ditch. “Believe it or not, there are 100 cattle out here. We just have to track them down.” The truck mowed down coarse, tall grass as we drove further.
Brian tells us about caring for the pastures. Across all Certified Piedmontese programs, we ensure that ranchers graze livestock on diverse pastures offering many different species of grasses, legumes, and forbs. The wide variety is vital for the health of the cattle and the palatability and nutritional value of the finished beef.
From late spring to early summer, sudan grass, which can be used for grazing, hay, or silage, is planted. When the weather turns cool, ryegrass that grows better in the climate will take over the pastures. Regenerative agriculture is a major avenue in climate restoration. In alignment with Certified Piedmontese sustainability goals, York Farms had always employed rotational grazing and planting diverse cover crops to enrich the soil and protect against erosion and build soil health by sequestering carbon dioxide in the ground.
York Farm’s pastures of diverse perennial grasses are never introduced to pesticides and fertilizers. “I don’t use anything that’s chemical, for sure. I basically run it all organic. There’s none of those chemicals or anything going into any of our ground,” Brian explained. “We use their (the cattle’s) waste for what fertilizer we need here, but we don’t even need half of it. A lot of the times, I’ll give them away to local farmers.”
Note that though some grasses, especially sudan grass, produce heads of seeds, the cattle on York Farms never get a chance to consume them. “We make sure to let the cows out here to mow it down before the seed heads start growing. They’re not supposed to eat grains or seeds, only grass.”
“Before we knew it, we were surrounded, and they aren’t afraid to get close.”
Brian Friesen, a rancher at York Farms
We finally came across the herd of cattle, huddled in a wide dip in the pasture with a shallow pool of rainwater gathered at the base. As we rocked and slowly made our way towards them, they showed just how happy they were to see us.
“Hey,” our graphic designer said. “They’re coming so close.” I nodded. The cattle were gathering so close I could almost reach out and touch one’s damp snout.
Brian chuckled, flipping open the front windshield so we could get an unobscured view. Dozens of pairs of moony eyes stared at us, circling around the vehicle. “They know we have food.” We were driving at a snail’s pace, slowly parting the sea of cows. “You gotta be careful; sometimes they don’t get out of the way,” Brian cautioned.
When we had almost made it through the crowd, Brian placed his hand on a silver handle on the dash. “Ready?” he asked. Without waiting for an answer, he yanked on the handle, and a small hatch fixed on the left side of the truck started opening and closing at small intervals. Creak, the hatch lid opens, and a few pellets the size of a grown man’s finger tumbled out onto the grass. Crack, the hatch lid closes.
Creak, crack, creak, crack. As the little truck moved forwards, we left a trail of grass pellets behind us, and the cows followed like children after the Pied Piper, impatiently munching down the treat. “It’s good training,” Brian quipped. “They’re learning to move where we want them without us having to rope ‘em.”
The grass pellets were a supplement made from ethanol plants to ensure a healthy balance of nutrition and weight in the cows. We pulled to a stop and climbed out of the truck. Hands on hips with a proud tilt to his head, Brian pointed to the cows. “Look at ‘em line up. They love it.”
“Are you their dad?” I asked.
Brian’s eyes crinkled. “Somedays, it feels like it.”
Here is a rancher, someone who wakes up every day and goes to sleep on the temperate grasslands of Nebraska, caring for hundreds of heads of cattle day after day, come rain, snow, or shine. From the perspective of someone city born and bred, it’s hard to imagine.
Brisk winds swept across the grassy plain, making us grab onto our caps. Breathing in the clean, fresh air with a hint of petrichor and grass, it was peaceful. A perfect composition of green rolling plains, blinding sun, and clouds streaking across the blue sky. Open and continuing on as far as the eye can see.