Macalester Students See Grass-Fed Ranching Firsthand

By Patty Jacobson, Operations Manager


Todd Churchill (in hat), founder and co-owner of 1000 Hills Cattle Company, surrounded by Macalester students

More and more people are learning about the environmental and health benefits of grass-finished beef and asking for it in stores and restaurants. Fifteen Macalester students from St. Paul, MN, got a chance to learn about this kind of ranching firsthand by visiting Thousand Hills Cattle Company in Cannon Falls, MN, a Bon Appétit Farm to Fork supplier.

Organized in part by Karen Wheldon, Bon Appétit sustainability student employee, the tour included the Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation’s Midwest Fellow, S.K. Piper, and Operations Director Patty Jacobson. Thousand Hills is a cooperative of ranchers raising grass-fed beef in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

Owner Todd Churchill is a former accountant who was once employed by Lorentz Meats, a small butchering and slaughterhouse company. Inspired by his work with Lorentz Meats’ ranching customers, Todd started learning about the benefits of rotational grazing, in which the cattle are allowed to fully graze one section of pasture, fertilizing it as they go, before being moved to another section. This practice allows the grass to naturally replenish in the grazed section, is less intensive, and requires fewer petroleum-based inputs than feedlots that raise cattle on grain. It also results in less water and air pollution from cattle waste.

Not only is grass-based ranching healthier for the environment, but grass is healthier food for cows. Ruminants like cows have digestive systems that are made to digest grass. Corn and soy, the preferred feed in industrial operations, actually upset their stomachs. Furthermore, the crowded feedlots in which corn-fed cows live are breeding grounds for disease, leading to illness and overuse of antibiotics. Grass-fed beef is healthier food for humans because it is lower in saturated fat and higher in beneficial omega-3s. Grass-fed operations generally eschew the use of antibiotics and added hormones, which leads to an overall healthier food system.

Visiting a Thousand Hills pasture was eye-opening for the students. Of special interest was the “mineral cafeteria,” a small covered wagon full of pure minerals that gets rolled out to the pasture each day.

The cows eat freely from the “mineral cafeteria” because they instinctively know exactly what they need to eat to supplement the nutrients they are getting from the grass. The cattle were calm and content in the fields. It was an impressive operation. Even the vegan students on the tour said they admired Todd’s obvious commitment to raising cattle in a clean, humane environment.