Alaskan cowboys bring local beef to the table

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify information about members of the Fox River Cattlemen’s Association.

For those looking for local beef raised on pasture near Homer, there’s a ranch closer than you might think, just out of sight. Fox Creek Ranch, a cattle grazing haven hidden at the head of Kachemak Bay, is another option for local beef. The herd is one of four run by members of the Fox River Cattlemen’s Association on grazing leases past the end of East End Road. Historically, as many as 16 cattlemen have belonged to the association, according to Otto Kilcher, chairman of the association.

Fox Creek Ranch is owned by Akaky Martushev, a member of the cattlemen’s association, and his family. Robert Gibson, former director of the Alaska Farm Bureau, said he helps Martushev manage his cattle. Under a state grazing lease, the cattle graze 15,000 acres of beach and forest at the tidal headlands of the bay. A mix of Angus, Galloway and some Texan Longhorn Steers, there’s no doubt about it — these are some good looking heifers. En route to the ranch this past weekend, as the wind picked up and snow flurries started to form, Gibson glanced with anticipation at the thickening clouds.

“We might have some new calves by morning,” he said. “This will get the calving process going tonight. Inclement weather always does.”

He was right. By morning there was a calf a few hours old, wobbling on unsteady knees, a shadow on her mother’s side. A Red Angus, the heifer was a first time mother, and the ranchers had to coax her to let her newborn calf suckle. In their small enclosure, she bleated encouragingly at the baby.

“They’re bonding,” Martushev explained.

This tending, this familiarity, is done out of an intimate knowledge of the herd. He tossed her some grain, and she glanced at it and continued chomping on hay.

“They don’t know what grain is,” he said.

“Cows are naturally herbivores,” Gibson said. “It’s only humans who have introduced them to grain.”

Descendants from wild aurochs, cattle have been domesticated since the early neolithic age, over 10,000 years ago. They evolved to graze on grasslands, and to live in roaming herds. Instincts like these are intact in the 100 strong herd grazing at the head of Kachemak Bay. There, the cattle live a life remarkably close to the one they evolved for.

“It’s a continuation of their inborn character,” Gibson said. “They continue to do what they’ve always done.”

As spring unfolds, the cattle begin to calve. They nurse for six months in the pasture with the rest of the grazing herd until the weather turns cold and cowboys drive them back to the ranch. A perk of being close the beach? Access to mineral rich kelp and seaweed and beach wild rye, in addition to the clover, sedges and grasses on pasture. This diet reflects in the meat.

Cattle with lives like these live under what’s referred to as holistic herd management, a principle of ranching that works with the animals’ physiological instincts in the environment in which they evolved. The grazing lease carefully manages the herd with the critical habitat in mind so not to overburden the land.

“It’s holistic cattle management,” Gibson said.

In the fall, the herd returns to the ranch and eats Homer-grown hay throughout the winter. In spring of the next year, they return to the pasture for six more months. Then, after 18 months, the steers are ready for slaughter. Some ranchers, to fatten steers up quickly, force feed them a lot of protein before they sell the meat. At Fox Creek, the steers eat grass their whole lives, up to the very end.

“We like to describe it as grass fed and grass finished,” Gibson said.

This is where the customer can get involved. There are two avenues for purchasing beef from a rancher. In one, the rancher transports his live animals up to a U.S. Department of Agriculture approved meatpacking facility, which does the slaughter, butcher, and processing into cuts. Once the beef gets the USDA stamp of approval, the rancher can then sell the cuts of meat directly to the public.

The second method is referred to as farm gate slaughter. In this method, the customer can buy a whole or half share of a live animal, and the rancher does the slaughtering himself on the ranch. The customer can then take their purchase to a meat processor, such as McNeil Canyon Meats, and request which cuts of meat they want.

“It creates a better quality of meat when the animal doesn’t have to go through stress of transportation to the slaughterhouse, because stress releases lactic acid into muscle tissue,” Gibson said.

Why go through the effort? For the transparency, better health, and for the rancher-to-customer relationships.

“Ranchers deal directly with customers and we can inform them how the animal was raised and how the meat is produced. Since it’s grass fed there’s no vaccines or growth hormones, so it’s healthier than industrially produced,” Gibson said.

Direct rancher-customer relations are important to a healthy local food economy.

“If a consumer wants to know how the animal is raised, both nutritionally and humanely, we can inform them,” Gibson said. “That’s a very important part.”

One might wonder why there is such a labyrinth of rules and restrictions to access local meat. Not too long ago, families often had their own steers. Then, as populations grew and demand for beef followed, the first big, famous cattle drive was held in 1864. The cattle were driven from Texas to Kansas City, headed for the railway system to be distributed to Chicago.

“That’s really when it started, industrial cattle beef production and management,” Gibson explained. “There was a big upswing in it then. Before that, meat in America was raised for sustenance needs, families often raised one or two milks cows and a couple of beef animals. Each year they’d slaughter what their needs were. It wasn’t a cash economy, but a subsistence economy in the past.”

As the American population grew and meat consumption increased, consumers needed a uniform stamp to ensure health safety across large amounts of product; this is where USDA approval became mandatory to sell cuts of meat to the public. However, in Alaska, it’s prohibitive for ranchers who live far from the only USDA approved facility, which is in Palmer. It ends up being costly to ranchers to offer their beef to consumers.

“Right now, ranchers on the Kenai Peninsula are hesitant to increase their herd.” Gibson explained, “Because it’s so labor intensive and expensive to transport their animals up to the USDA facility in Palmer. With a local Kenai Peninsula facility, ranchers could feel confident that they could increase their herd, and as a result offer more and higher quality meat to regional residents.”

“We are expanding the herd. We would love to be able to sell USDA meat at the Farmers Market,” Martushev said.

As populations continue to grow, they will need to be fed.

“That’s why I strive to develop an increase of locally grown beef and meat production in the state of Alaska,” Gibson said.

“I have a plan to coordinate that effort through the formation of an Alaska Cattleman’s Association, so that Alaskan ranchers can come together and exchange ideas and knowledge,” he continued.

Having registered, Gibson is in the planning stages of bringing all ranchers together for the ultimate goal of increasing meat production in Alaska under holistic herd management principles. To order Fox Creek local beef, or for questions, email Gibson at robert@arctic.net.

Jennifer Tarnacki is a freelance writer living in Homer.

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