A Tennessee “Century Farm,” Spring Valley Family Farms in Lutts, Tenn., is changing how cattle are marketed in the Mid-South. While still selling some cattle at the local livestock auction, Spring Valley Family Farms is transitioning to a direct to consumer sales model, and early consumer indications are promising.
“Our goal is to market all of our cattle from gate to plate,” says John Bradley, who operates Spring Valley Family Farms with his wife, Debra. In 2014, The Bradleys’ farm sold close to 30 head of processed cattle directly to consumers. They try to have three to 10 cattle ready for harvest at all times in order to cater to consumer demand.
Interestingly, many of their customers to date have been row crop producers. “Farmers support farmers,” says Bradley. Farmers, however, aren’t their only loyal customers. “We have customers as far east as Nashville, as far south as Shaw, Miss., and as far north as Tiptonville, Tennessee. The only commonality is that each one is a person that cares what his or her children eat,” he says.
Spring Valley Family Farms Angus cattle are considered “natural.” What that means is the cattle are raised without ever having received hormones, antibiotics, or feed additives. The cattle graze on pasture for 10 to 12 months until shortly before harvest, during which time they are hand-fed an additive-free grain feed mix consisting of all natural corn, soybean meal and cottonseed. The cattle also continue to feed on pasture during the three- to four-month window they are readying for harvest.
“We also sell grass-fed beef if a customer requests it,” says Bradley. “Grass-fed beef has substantially different cooking characteristics than traditional, natural beef, but we do accommodate consumers who prefer that type of beef product.” All of Bradley’s grass-fed beef consume a 100 percent vegetarian diet consisting of grass and select legumes and clovers.
Whether grass-fed or a combination of grass- and feed-fed, Bradley’s cattle are free to roam 650 acres of pastureland and graze on fresh grass and the all-natural hay raised on the 100-year old family farm. That’s ample room for Bradley’s 140 brood cows, 20 bred heifers and five herd bulls to spread out and graze.
Bradley’s cattle operation, which is located in Tennessee’s Hardin and Wayne counties, is a closed production system. “We don’t bring any animals in except herd bulls for breeding from known herds,” says Bradley. In addition, he says, when choosing breeding bulls to bring onto the farm, they look for specific genetic traits such as tenderness and marbling, as well as for calving ease and growth rate. “Our system takes longer, but we are a family operation and we are also are own consumers,” he adds.
The Bradleys have been raising natural beef for five years, although John Bradley has been in the cattle business, in some capacity, nearly all of his life. Both John and Debra recently retired from their “day” jobs — he as a long-time agronomic researcher in the public and private sectors, and she as a computers systems analyst — and are now both concentrating on their “Gate to Plate” business full-time.