On rolling green pastures in Leelanau County, Nancy and Tim Keilty started a grass-fed beef operation before it was cool. Now the world has come to their door for Leelanau Natural Beef.
On a hill above Cedar, a klatch of brown and white Hereford cattle roams, munching contentedly. Overhead, the sky is a shocking blue, underhoof the grass is bottle green, and nowhere is there an ear of corn in sight. That’s just as Tim and Nancy Keilty, owners of Cottonwood Springs Farm and Leelanau Natural Beef, want it. Here, in Northern Michigan, they’re diligently raising these cattle as the kind of grass-fed beef once more commonly found in Australia or in the American West.
The operation began in the late 1980s, and it began as Nancy’s idea. While Nancy grew up in Indiana, her family owned a cattle ranch in New Mexico. Come summers, when she wasn’t in Leland on vacation, she was out West at the ranch. Years later, Nancy moved to Michigan permanently and was working as a nurse in Northport when she became pregnant with her oldest daughter, Lauren. Nancy wanted to stay home with her baby, but she also wanted to work and be productive. So, she began raising Angora goats.
By the time Tim Keilty appeared on the scene, the enterprising lady rancher had 250 Angora goats and 10 head of cattle. He had come north on a fishing trip during his doctoral program in limnology—freshwater biology—at the University of Michigan when the two met at a party. Not long after that, he ditched his career plans in academia and moved north to be with Nancy. Then, the bottom dropped out of the mohair industry, Nancy sold all the goats, and the Keiltys got into breeding cows instead.
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“He’s ‘Dr. Tim,’ and he was very interested in the genetic end, so we got into that side of the cattle industry,” Nancy says. For years Cottonwood Springs Farm was a seed operation that focused primarily on propagation of a small group of highly cultivated stock. They wanted to produce not just commercial beef, but also the animals that would help other farmers produce better commercial beef. It took 10 to 15 years to master production of the kind of genetics they were seeking: good looking, easy going, good disposition cattle, as Tim explains. They were successful, too, with the cattle and their lineage producing championship bulls and females across many years.
In the midst of it all, though, Nancy began wanting to produce something for the local market, and Tim was game. “I always wanted our kids to eat grass-fed beef,” Tim says. Nancy wanted to raise them. In an attempt to find a market for the beef—whether that was restaurants, grocery stores, or local schools—Nancy circulated a survey to gauge the interest of local chefs. She found intrigue—and some dismay. Yes, these chefs and cooks were very interested in grass-fed beef. Could they have the prime cuts?
The best pieces for some and the lesser for the rest was not exactly to the Keiltys’ liking. So, the couple came up with a more egalitarian idea: the best for all. There would be no T-bones or tri-tips; no top sirloin or flank steaks. Instead, every cut but one would go into the package of ground beef. Their grind would include everything except for the tenderloin.
“You know, you grind all your problems into the patty,” says Tim. “And those are wonderful problems to have. The meat has this wonderful flavor, that’s what makes it so special.” “It” specifically being Leelanau Natural Beef. “You can go out and get ground beef—grass-fed ground beef—elsewhere, but you’re not going to get grass-fed meat with everything but the tenderloin in it. You’re just not going to find it,” he says.
The typical hamburger usually consists of trimmings and less expensive cuts—such as shank and brisket—and can contain up to 30 percent fat. The Keiltys chose an 85:15 blend specifically because it would still contain enough of the healthy fats unique to grass-fed—versus corn-fed—ruminants. Packed with all the prime cuts, Leelanau Natural Beef is dense with protein, full-flavored, and has high levels of the healthier omega-3 fatty acids and low levels of detrimental omega-6 fatty acids.
Initially, Nancy sold the ground beef at the Leland farmers market, and soon people were seeking out Cottonwood Springs Farm. Now, you won’t find Leelanau Natural Beef in the grocery store, but you will find it stacked end-upon-end in the little fridge and freezer occupying a corner of a room filled with 4H ribbons and historic plaques at 6192 South French Road, Cedar. Like so many other produce stands that crop up on Northern Michigan roadsides spring through fall, the Leelanau Natural Beef market at Cottonwood Springs Farm operates largely on the honor system. Leave your money, sign your name, and take your hamburger.
Choosing Grass Over Corn
The market for grass-fed beef has come a long way since the Keiltys started their grass-fed, no-hormone, antibiotic-free operation back in 2005. According to Nielsen data, retail sales of beef labeled as grass-fed nearly doubled annually over four recent years, growing from $17 million in 2012 to $272 million in 2016.
Some consumers may have begun choosing grass-fed for the perception that the animals were more humanely raised, others for the meat’s nutritional benefits. The Keiltys chose to raise grass-fed cattle for health and environmental reasons.
“The whole corn thing … it’s not good. It’s foolish to put it [corn] in gasoline, even. The energy it takes to grow it is ridiculous, and if you feed it to cattle and beef it makes them really unhealthy. It’s not good,” Tim says.
Like bison, nutritional qualities of grass-fed beef correlate closely to wild ruminants such as elk and deer. In fact, grass-fed beef has been shown to have lower saturated fatty acids than grain-fed beef, and higher levels of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids—the fatty acids found in fish oil that act to lower cholesterol and LDL levels. Grass-fed beef is typically lower in fat, too, with at least four U.S. studies indicating that grass-fed cattle have significantly lower total fat content than grain-finished cattle. Several studies have also suggested that grass-based meats are better than grain-fed at elevating precursors for Vitamin A and E, and at increasing levels of cancer-fighting antioxidants such as glutathione and superoxide dismutase.
No wonder, then, that the Keiltys were so intent on raising their own family on grass-fed bovines.
Hard Work Makes for Happy Heifers
Still, raising the cattle this way isn’t exactly child’s play. Compared to their grain-fed brethren, these Leelanau Natural Beef cows are a slow-growing bunch.
With typical commercial cattle production, calves are weaned, go to feeder sales, and are then raised on corn and grain at the feedlot until they reach slaughter weight. When calves arrive at most commercial lots they typically receive a growth implant in the ear in the form of additional hormones and a prophylactic level of an antibiotic. They are then fed anywhere from 20 to 45 pounds of grain a day until they reach a finishing weight of 1,300 pounds, which typically happens in 12 to 13 months, says Tim. They get there so rapidly because cow digestive systems weren’t designed for high-starch foods such as corn and soy, so they gain weight more rapidly on those diets.
Where it may take one year for a commercial, grain-fed head to reach the 1,300-pound slaughter weight, it regularly takes each cow at Cottonwood Springs Farm more like two to two-and-a-half years. Even then, they might go to processing at closer to half a ton.
About those cows. They seem a happy bunch … and they should be, considering the Keiltys’ program of care. Six months of the year the cows roam the pasture, moving from one parcel to the next several times a week, munching on grass. Come winter, when the snow flies and that sward is buried under snow, the cattle are moved to hay plus minerals that supplement nutritional needs. No antibiotics are used at Cottonwood Springs.
Then there’s the novel grazing program in place. Rather than using continuous or rotational grazing, the Keiltys instead use intensive rotational grazing.
For continuous grazing, a farmer places an entire herd in a pasture and lets the cattle graze until they’ve finished the field. In this method, cows feed freely across a pasture and tend to return over and over to eat the (delicious) new shoots as they appear. In rotational grazing, the pasture is divided into a couple or a few paddocks, and the cows graze on one section at a time while the rest of the pasture regrows. The rancher typically moves the herd every three to 10 days.
In intensive rotational grazing, the pasture is divided into many small segments, which the cattle graze on exclusively for a couple of days before being moved. Here, the cattle take down not only the delicious newer shoots but also everything else—grass and weeds and tiny wildflowers alike. The method may be more work for the farmer, who has to move fences multiple times a week, but, says Tim, it also keeps the pasture in balance. And, because the cows aren’t spread across vast spaces, they spend less time walking back and forth to water—or to those tasty new shoots.
To make the rotation work, the entire farm is mapped and scheduled. During their six months on grass the cows graze 170 acres of the 250-acre farm, working their way across it section by meticulous section. Beginning at the far east end of the farm, they clear a parcel every couple of days before being moved a few yards west to begin again, until eventually, months on, they reach the property’s far edge. Then, the whole routine starts over.
The farm also fertilizes sparingly and relies heavily on natural compost. While such farming may be good for the beef, it’s also better for the fields, Tim says. “When you get down to it, we’re raising grass. If our pastures are inferior then our beef will suffer.”
These cows are so used to being moved from spot to spot—for fresh grass, granted—that they start mooing happily whenever they hear the sound of the Polaris four-wheeler gunning up a field. “That’s why we have fat, happy cows,” Tim says.
Such farming may not be for massive production, at least not on the Keiltys’ farm. While there was a time they could have expanded operations—over the years they’ve had at least a dozen restaurants call asking for the meat—they chose instead to remain smaller. They didn’t feel they could produce the kind of quality meat they wanted, at mass levels.
Plus, while Nancy confesses to being a little tired of getting pushed around by cows, both she and Tim actually like interacting with people eager to know where their food comes from. Tim might be mending a fence; Nancy might be coming in from getting a newly birthed calf on its feet; but being work-worn and a little dirty doesn’t stop them from giving impromptu tours to the men and women who swing by Cottonwood Springs Farm for a couple of pounds of grass-fed, everything-but-the-tenderloin beef to throw on the grill.
Grass-fed beef may be known for its health benefits, but there’s also the matter of taste. There’s none of the dryness that once concerned consumers. Instead, Leelanau Natural Beef is meaty, juicy, dense and rich. There’s just a hint of wildness to this beef, something that would be a luxury in the city. Here in Northern Michigan where so many freezers are packed with game and venison all winter long, these burgers seem right at home. Slide a patty on a bun and it will ooze redly, yet stand up perfectly before giving way on the palate.
There’s no little litmus strip you can paste onto a beef patty and say for certain that the animal from which it came was truly grass-fed. That requires trust. It requires the consumer to put their faith in a brand and a label and to take a leap of faith that what they are getting is meat rich in those omega-3s and linoleic acids that come from being raised on grass. Or, that it is, in fact, a cow that had, as Tim says, “two-and-a-half years of a marvelous life, and one really lousy day.”
But then, who needs blind trust when you have the view? Roll up the hill north of Cedar and there it is, all the evidence a red-blooded, burger-loving American could need: dozens of happy brown and white Hereford’s strolling knee-deep in that viridescent grass, heads down, happily munching away.
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Where, and How, to Eat Leelanau Natural Beef
Leelanau Natural Beef is good between any bun, but when it comes to burgers opt for brioche when you can. The bread’s hint of sweetness accentuates the meat’s slightly feral quality.
ON THE 19TH HOLE
At Bogey’s, the 19th Hole at The Leland Lodge, the Leelanau burger comes with Leelanau Natural Beef stacked with lettuce, tomato, onion and cheddar cheese.
IN A BURGER OR LOAF
At Glen Arbor’s Good Harbor Grill, Leelanau Natural Beef comes served on a cracked-wheat bun with lettuce, tomato, and onion. Their Farmer’s Meatloaf is a combination of Leelanau Natural Beef, local bison, and savory seasonings, all baked under a glaze of local maple syrup and Dijon mustard.
THE FAR FROM BORING BURGER RECIPE
The Keiltys have distinct ideas about how best to serve their beef. Witness the procedure for Tim’s aptly-named “Far from Boring Burger.”
On a hot grill, grill Leelanau Natural Beef no more than medium rare*—about 2 minutes per side.
After flipping, add thin slices of two-year aged cheddar, such as Black Diamond. While melting cheese, toast a brioche bun on the grill.
Remove burger from grill, top with a paper-thin slice of sweet onion, organic lettuce from Meadowlark Farm or 9 Bean Rows, and a thin slice of tomato when available.
Top with a little ketchup and Dijon mustard to taste depending on mood. Tim likes to cut his in half and then enjoy.
* Given the burger’s very low fat content, Nancy begs you not to overcook her beef.
When Julie H. Case isn’t writing about travel, wine, or weird science, she can be found deep in America’s forests, foraging for mushrooms, which she blogs about at soIgather.com. @julieHcase, julieHcase.com // Andy Wakeman is an editorial and commercial photographer proud to call Northern Michigan home. andywakemanphoto.com.