LISBON, Ohio — When Max and Mary VanBuren moved to a reclaimed strip mine farm near Lisbon, Ohio, in 1999, they were aiming to do something a little unconventional.
They each had a cattle background, but they weren’t interested in a typical operation — their plans included a more unique approach to raising livestock.
Since 2004, the VanBurens, along with business partners Dan and Tracy Gallo, have produced 100 percent grass-fed, organic Scottish Highland beef.
The decision to go organic was a long time in the making for Max and Mary. Both grew up on conventional farms and the couple operated a traditional dairy near Columbiana, Ohio, in the late 1980s. Max, a veterinarian, also ran an embryo transfer business from 1981-1996.
Max admits that 20 years ago, he would’ve laughed at the idea of organic farming. But in the mid-1990s, the concept started to make a lot of sense.
“We kind of had an epiphany of sorts,” Max said.
Max and Mary realized — with some alarm — that people their age were appearing regularly in the obituary column of the local newspaper and suddenly, their health seemed like a pretty big priority.
Years of short nights, long days and getting kicked around by cows had started to catch up with Max. He became interested in preventing medical problems and started to study how food affects the human body.
He decided he wasn’t happy with the food he’d been eating and began to seek out organic products. It wasn’t an easy decision for the veterinarian, coming from a conventional farm background, but one he felt was necessary.
“The organic concept was something that we thought we wanted to be involved in,” Max said.
In their 40s at the time, the VanBurens sold the dairy and Max opened a small animal vet office before giving up his embryo transfer business.
Now, the couple keeps about 75 Scottish Highland cows, calves and yearlings on 155 acres of certified organic pasture. Their farm is divided into 2- to 5-acre grazing fields that consist of mostly white clover, red clover and grass.
“We wanted to produce as pure of food as we could produce,” Max said.
There are some important health benefits that come from eating 100 percent grass-fed beef, according to the farmer.
The meat has very high levels of conjugated linoleic acid and omega 3 fatty acid. In studies, conjugated linoleic acid has been shown to prevent cancer and the omega 3 fatty acid is helpful in preventing cardiovascular disease.
But to get these benefits, it takes a lot of high-quality forages. Grain feeding or poor forages greatly decrease these fatty acids, Max said. He added that it’s challenging to produce enough high-quality forage while keeping in compliance with organic regulations.
Max and Mary picked Scottish Highlands because they are most efficient for what the couple wanted to do. According to Max, Scottish Highlands are low maintenance animals that do well on hills and eat almost any forage. The females are good mothers and calves are usually small.
Scottish Highlands mature a little slower than other breeds — it takes 24 months for them to reach 900-1,100 pounds on VanBurens’ reclaimed strip mine meadows. But they stay productive for many years, as cows can calve until they are 15 or older.
The VanBurens weigh their growing cattle every three months and yearlings are given an ultrasound test. A herd bull is used for breeding, although some cows are artificially inseminated.
Since there aren’t many herds like the VanBurens’, Max said figuring out how to get maximum production has been a big science experiment. He calls his farm a year-round forage testing program.
Max said there’s a fair amount of genetic selection involved in shaping the herd. He looks for easy fleshing animals that have good feet and legs. Disposition and the ability to gain weight quickly are two other important factors.
All selection is done from within the current herd, Max said. No outside animals are brought to the farm.
By choosing cattle that meet the needs of the farm, Max and Mary intervene as little as possible. They prefer to let the animals grow “how nature intended.”
And that’s the philosophy that drives their farm.
“It’s just about how things are supposed to be,” Max said.
It’s about what you get when conventional goes natural.