LAWRENCE, Kan. -- With growing concerns about obesity problems in our nation, many consumers are looking for healthier alternatives for their diets. Melvin and Joyce Williams, owners of MJ Ranch near Lawrence, Kan., have recognized this demand, and are hoping to fill it with leaner 100-percent grass-fed beef.



The Williams' have recently converted their ranch into a sustainable, rotational-grazing operation. They say they made the change, not only because of the growing demand, but because of the benefits to the environment.



"It's just better on the land," said Melvin. "It helps to preserve the natural grasslands, and gives us better water quality, because there isn't as much concentrated manure."



A desire to learn more about the science of grazing led the Williams' to apply for a grant from the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (NCR-SARE). Their grant funded a study of the effects of rotational grazing, as well as an experiment on sustainable fertilization methods for their hay fields.



The Williams' worked with K-State Research and Extension agent David Hallauer, in the Meadowlark District, and Jerry Jost of the Kansas Rural Center to host a fall field day last fall. "I have really enjoyed working with the Williams'. The Williams' farm tour last fall resulted in a lot of good discussion among everyone from producers to presenters and ranged from management of forage fed to marketing the end product when finished," said Hallauer.



The hay research involved segmenting a 50-acre brome hay field into four 12-acre plots. Plot A was fertilized with Chilean nitrate. Plots B, C and D used interseeded legume plants as a source of natural nitrogen. Plot B was fertilized using hairy vetch as a cover crop.



Plot C used alfalfa as a cover crop, and Plot D used red clover as a cover crop. Two additional plots were segmented (E and F) which were fertilized with conventional fertilizer as control plots.



The results of their research showed that, while the plots that were fertilized with alternative methods yielded only 45 percent of the hay that the control plots yielded, the protein content was 55 percent higher and the relative feed values were 4.7 percent higher.



The Williams' are currently marketing their grass-fed beef by directly marketing it to consumers. They have also recently begun selling through a natural foods market in Lawrence. They promote their product through word-of-mouth as well as a display at the market touting the benefits of the grass-fed product. They have also listed their products on the Internet sites www.eatwild.com and www.localharvest.com, which promote local and natural foods.



The Williams' forward-looking attitude already has them working to solve their next challenge: finding more water sources. Some of their newly-segmented pastures lack natural sources of water, requiring them to haul water to some of the more remote areas of their property. They are working with the local conservation district to find a solution for those areas.



Whether it's for the health benefits or for the consumer confidence in local, naturally produced beef, Joyce said she is glad the demand for their product is growing.



"It makes me excited that people are getting better nutrition and healthier meat," she said. "It is very satisfying to know that we are providing a product that is good for people and good for the environment."



Applications for the 2006 NCR-SARE producer grant program are now available. To help producers prepare grant applications, the Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops will host two grant-writing workshops. The first will take place on Nov. 3 in Lawrence, and the second will be Nov. 9 in Wichita. More information about the workshops is at www.kansassustainableag.org.



SOURCE: K-State Research and Extension news release.