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Our Farm

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Thistle Hill is nestled along the banks of the Rappahannock River. The Blue Ridge Mountains dominate the western horizon and, on our farm to the East, are the low ridges that have been in woodland for the past century. It is a pleasant scene that attracted our family many years ago when the roads were still gravel and not heavily traveled. And we have been here since, tending the pastures and trying to be good stewards of the land.
Our family has always believed that healthy soil, healthy grass, healthy animals result in healthy meat and healthy families. And our pastures are the source of our own healthy meat. We do not use petro-chemical fertilizers or sludge from the city or herbicides, pesticides of any kind. We do use foliar fish oil mixed with kelp or organically- certified sea minerals to constantly build up the soil to maintain the good microbes that promote a healthy stand of grass. Mostly, we use our cows as “four-legged fertilizer spreaders”, recycling 90% of the nutrients they consume right back into the soil. We are constantly testing our soils, our forages and water to come up with that remaining 10%.

We seek to maintain a low carbon footprint by staying in sync with what Nature has given us and encouraging the diversity that was meant to be. So when you purchase Thistle Hill Beef you are not only giving yourself and your family pasture perfect beef that is tender, flavorful and healthy, you are also making a responsible choice for the environment.

Our Cows

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In 2002, we began an intensive effort to improve our herd…actually we experimented with three herds…his, hers and ours. At that time they were mostly Angus and we had a cow-calf operation in which we sold our yearling animals at the local stockyard or marketed them to farmers who would take them to the next stage of development. But that was not totally satisfactory. We began reading and searching on the internet and that is how we discovered Devon, a breed that can be raised solely on grass from start to finish. Their story was fascinating.

The Devon had origins in the long gone days of England. The Ruby Red Devon came from the northern part of Devonshire and Cornwall. It was a triple purpose animal, meaning it provided milk, labor and finally meat to their owners. For hundreds of years, Devon meat was well known in England as “the butcher’s breed”. In 1623 the first Devon arrived in the colonies and multiplied rapidly. They were the choice of George Washington and can still be found at Mt. Vernon today. They also served in bringing cannon from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston in 1776 and enabled the colonial troops to win Boston back from the English soldiers. Later they helped move families to the West. Again they were providing labor to pull the wagons as well as supplying milk and meat to feed the hungry pioneers.

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With this noble start you may wonder why you haven’t seen Devon all over the United States. Well, in fact you would have if you’d been around before World War II. That’s when the government found itself with huge corn surpluses, discovered it could be used to produce bigger cows, faster than simply grass feeding. A new agri-business paradigm was created, but to eat up all that corn they needed cows they could put in efficient, if unhealthy, feed lots for four months. Devon fattened in two; bad for the corn business.
So agri-business manufactured new cows through cross-breeding; bigger ones that would devour all that corn. Never mind that their rumens were damaged by the unnatural food they were being given. Never mind that they were given hormones to become larger. Never mind that it was necessary to inject them with antibiotics just to keep them alive for the required four months.

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Cows were meant to eat grass and, by turning away from Devon, agri-business actually insured their survival as one of the few breeds left in the western world that can be totally raised on grass. Now with the demands of consumers for healthier food and with the pressure of the energy crisis, farmers are being forced to learn about sustainable farming and the genetics required in this new environment.

Actually, this is an exciting time to be in farming and an especially good time to be raising Devon. They can calve, grow, fatten and finish entirely on grass. At Thistle Hill, our beef is entirely grass fed…from start to finish. Corn is never fed to our animals. We use no hormones, antibiotics, steroids or chemicals on the beef we produce…ever.

Be warned: there are buzz words used in this business such as “natural” and even “grass fed”. Much of beef that is called “grass fed” is in reality still finished on corn. And most so-called “grass fed” cows have been grazed on pastures that were treated with chemical fertilizers and herbicides. And most receive routine vaccines and antibiotics. That’s why you need to know the farm your meat comes from and just how they do it.

It’s estimated that 70% of the annual production of antibiotics is sold to agribusiness, because of the ruinous corn-based diets that are destructive of a cow’s rumen and the stressful, over-crowded conditions in which industrial animals are raised. That is probably a factor contributing to the emergence in humans of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Those growth promoting hormones are banned in most other countries because they wind up in humans and some scientists believe contribute to developmental problems such as early maturation of young girls and declining semen count in males.

True grass-feds have never had hormones, shots, inoculations, sprays or pour-ons; have never grazed pastures contaminated with herbicides and have never eaten corn in any stage of their development. It is the freedom from corn that provides the balance in that important Omega3 / Omega 6 ratio and Conjugated Linoleic Acid which studies have shown will help reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and many other health problems.

Be warned again: even a little corn just before slaughter drastically changes the profile of the meat and eliminates all its health benefits. Like pregnancy, there is no such thing as “a little bit”.

And, while we’re at it, a final warning about “organic” beef. Feeding “organic” corn to a cow does not change the result. All the health benefits you want from the proper Omega ratios and the right kind of fats go right out the window. Organic corn fed beef is not as good for you as pure, exclusively grass fed beef.

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There’s another reason for knowing the source of your meat. A cow that grows up in beautiful, healthful, un-crowded, stress free conditions yields the best, most tender beef. Devon genetics provide the tenderness; Thistle Hill pastures provide the taste. To insure our pastures are stress-free, we never handle our animals in a rough or careless way; for their sake, and yours.

Today there is much talk about “traceability” and the need for more government regulation. That is because the beef you buy in the supermarket has traveled thousands of miles and made three, four or more stops along the way. You may read “stress”. The feed changes, the water changes, the herd mates change and the treatment from their caretakers changes, too. STRESS!

The final months for the average cow are particularly stressful with animals crowded into feed lots; standing deep in their own waste and mud; pumped full of antibiotics to keep them alive until slaughter; and finally driven, terrified with thousands of others through chutes and pens and dark corridors to their end. Millions of pounds of meat at a time are processed through cutters and grinders. That’s why there are repeated outbreaks of E.coli, salmonella and Mad Cow disease. They are the inevitable by-products of “industrial beef”.

At Thistle Hill you need not worry about “traceability”. Our animals are born here. The nutrients they received in the womb and as calves milking their mothers are the same as they later consume as they graze our pastures. The healthy forage, the stable herd, the caring humans all result in a stress free environment to within an hour or so of their final harvesting.

Learn More

This has been a brief introduction to our farm and our meat and the art of raising grass fed beef. What follows is a list of books and websites that will tell you much more.

 

Books:

Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan….the best-seller that brought healthy
eating into the mainstream culture.

The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall…a beautiful and
fascinating book that every lover of meat should have close at hand.
Written by a popular British television chef who raises his own Devon
beef. Lots of pictures, recipes and tips.

Pasture Perfect by Jo Robinson….she was “there” before Michael Pollan and still
the most valuable guide to eating naturally and healthfully.

Grass Fed Gourmet Cookbook by Shannon Hayes…a farmer’s daughter tires of
the nonsense written about cooking grass fed meat and so writes her own
cookbook.

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser…for a look at how fast foods changed the
landscape of food production and its ramifications for America..

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral by Barbara Kingsolver. A Virginia poet relates her
experiences taking her family to live entirely “off the land”.

The Shameless Carnivore by Scott Gold. This is not to be confused with a
“shameful” carnivore, who is completely disassociated from the animal.
The author advises: “Visit a family farm or any small producer that
is really conscientious about how they raise their animals. This is in and of
itself very important, not just for the animals’ welfare, but for our welfare
and the welfare of the planet. And obviously, for flavor, which is what it
ultimately boils down to, the happiest animals make the best meat.”

 

Websites:

www.EatWild.com Jo Robinson’s compendium of everything you could
possibly want to know about natural, safe and healthy grass fed meats.

www.NorthAmericanDevon.com The “trade” source for information on Devon
cattle but lots more on grass fed beef and the whole field of healthy
eating.

Greener Pastures A free report from the Union of Concerned Scientists about the
nutritional benefits of grass fed beef and dairy products.

www.grandin.com The leading authority on domestic animal behavior (see
above), whose break-through theories are now gaining acceptance in the
cattle industry.

www.blueridgemeats.com Lois and Doug Aylestock’s own website where their
dedication and philosophy shine through. Does your butcher talk like
this?

Merry Moo Market - Flint Hill, Virginia

The Merry Moo Market is a small gourmet store offering fresh meats, seafood, game, local meats (including Thistle Hill beef and pork, of course) and fine wines.

All game and meats are raised without antibiotics and hormones. There’s Trickling Springs ice cream, too, but leave the “coffee” for me!



Thistle Hill Farm · Hume, Virginia · info@thistlehill.net · (540) 364-2090