As director of the Animal Welfare Approved program, I recently had the opportunity to visit the Arapaho Ranch, in north-central Wyoming. At 580,000 acres, it is the largest USDA certified organic ranch in the U.S. - and one of the most inspiring ranches that I have ever seen. Arapaho Ranch is actually part of its environment, working in harmony with nature, rather than trying to control it. My visit began at the front of the local high school in the town of Thermopolis, where I met with David Stoner, who manages the Arapaho Ranch on behalf of the Tribal Council of the Northern Arapaho Nation. David is one of those people who can say a huge amount with very few words, and as we drove out to the first pasture it quickly became clear that the Arapaho Tribe had struck gold by appointing him to manage their ranch.
Mark and Annette Thomas raise Certified Animal Welfare Approved by A Greener World (AGW), Certified Grassfed by AGW beef cattle outdoors on pasture at Thomas Land & Cattle near Enid, Oklahoma.
Annette grew up on a fifth-generation family farm in a small farming community in western Oregon. Her family owned and operated a sheep farm and her earliest memories were out working with the sheep and feeding her bottle lambs. Through high school and college, she worked for other local family farmers, gaining experience with a variety of crops. “It was during my first animal nutrition class, however, that I became hooked on ruminants and how they can convert forages into high-quality meat and milk with their sophisticated digestive tracts,” says Annette. After earning her degrees in animal science, she worked in the animal feed and health industries for more than 10 years before transitioning and committing her time to the farm. Similarly, Mark grew up working on his grandparents’ small cattle and fruit farm in Texas. In high school and college, he worked for a local cattleman and on the school farm while earning his degree in agriculture and has 30 years of experience in the forage seed business.
In the spring of 2013, the Thomases moved to Oklahoma and purchased 160 acres at a local land auction, leasing another 160 acres of native pasture and buying another 160 acres of land down the road which they use in an annual crop rotation to feed their herd of beef cattle. All of the land is dryland or utilized without irrigation, with solar and windmill pumps providing drinking water for the cattle. Sandy soil means that water management is the primary consideration to the system, while the weather patterns in northwest Oklahoma can be challenging—varying between extreme heat indexes in excess of 110 degrees and extreme wind chills below zero. “We are transitioning our operation to one more focused on soil health,” Mark explains. “By implementing practices based on the principles of regenerative agriculture, such as no-till planting, cover cropping, adding legumes and forbs to increase biodiversity and rotationally grazing our cattle, we hope we can sustain our farm for years to come.”
Mark and Annette currently manage 50 Black Angus based cow calf pairs, which tolerate heat well and whose moderate frames are more efficient on pasture-based systems. In 2012, they purchased their first group of bred heifers from a family friend, growing their herd slowly with a focus on animals that do well on pasture and are compatible with their highly variable climatic conditions. “Pasture-based systems are natural for cattle—they are how cattle evolved and enable cattle to thrive,” Annette explains. “When managed well, pasture-based systems can produce nutrient-rich forages cattle can convert into high-quality beef, while promoting long-term soil and plant health.”
Mark and Annette applied to the Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW and Certified Grassfed by AGW programs in part because they liked the way the organization seeks to inform and educate consumers about the benefits of high-welfare, sustainable farming practices, and helps to promote certified products at the local, regional and national level. “When we first found out about the Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW program, we were already meeting the majority of the standards. And during the process of transitioning our farm to achieve certification, we’ve learned better ways to raise cattle that are consistent with our values,” says Annette. “Becoming Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW and Certified Grassfed by AGW has provided the independent, validated certification consumers value, and which will allow us to achieve a premium for our beef and help ensure our farm is able to continue.”
Long term, the Thomases want to continue to learn new farming practices and evolve to meet the needs of the customers who value their beef. “At the core of the vision for our farm is that we are a family operation where we are responsible for every aspect of its operation—from the high-level decisions to daily chores—and where our children have the opportunity to develop a lifelong passion for the animals and the land,” says Annette. “By staying a small family farm, we are able to maintain what we feel is the most important aspect of our animal husbandry practices for our operation—personally observing and caring for our animals every day.”
As a first-generation Oklahoma farm, the Thomases have many to thank for helping them achieve their vision and aspirations so far. “We are grateful to our families, other farmers and all those who have shared their expertise, as well as our customers who purchase local meat and place value on our grassfed beef,” Annette adds.
Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW, Certified Grassfed by AGW pasture-raised beef from Thomas Land & Cattle (marketed as TLC Grassfed Beef) is available at Jumbo Foods West, Pearson’s Natural Foods and T & C Meats in Enid, OK. It is also available at The Farm Stand in Tulsa, OK. The retail stores carry individually-packaged, dry-aged cuts, including steaks, roasts, briskets and ground beef from a single animal. TLC Grassfed Beef also sells packaged beef, as well as wholes and halves direct to consumers from the farm.
Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW, Certified Grassfed by AGW Natural Style Grassfed Beef Jerky from TLC Grassfed Beef, is available at Pearson’s Natural Foods, The Wine Press, Jumbo Foods West and The Bike Shop in Enid. It’s also available at 2nd Street Wine Company and the Conscious Community Coop in Edmond and The Farm Stand in Tulsa.