By Vicki Ikeogu, St. Cloud Times
Driving up the long, narrow dirt driveway of Rolling Hills Traeger Ranch near Avon, you may think this is just like every other beef cattle operation in central Minnesota. However, Christina Traeger, 39, is no ordinary beef cattle farmer.
You will not see heavy farm equipment on Traeger's property. The single mother of three daughters does not own any. She does not grow corn or soybeans, nor does she purchase any for her animals.
Traeger has chosen to lessen her carbon footprint by raising her animals as close as possible to the way Mother Nature intended.
Since 1997, Traeger and her daughters have developed a herd of their own. With about 175 head of British Whites, a breed known for gentle behavior, Traeger embodies what she believes to be effective sustainable farming.
Traeger became interested in sustainable farming while growing up on her parents' dairy farm during the 1980s.
"My parents sat on the original committee on sustainable farming in Minnesota," she told the St. Cloud Times..
During the 1980s, Traeger said the main focus of sustainable farming was on setting aside a number of acres each year where farmers would not plant. The idea was to allow the land to heal.
But by avoiding crop production, Traeger has taken that concept to a whole other level.
Traeger said most farmers will spend about a dozen times going over their land to plow, sow, spray, fertilize and harvest crops such as corn and soybeans. Along with exhausting the land, Traeger said the fuel burned by the equipment also takes a toll on the environment.
"I don't like the eco-impact," Traeger said.
In addition, the risk of feeding her cattle genetically modified organisms did not sit well with Traeger.
So instead of relying on feed, Traeger's cows receive a steady diet of pasture grass. In the winter, her herd gets hay, a crop Traeger said is a lot less processed than its counterparts.
Traeger's cattle graze on her 75-acre property. She also rents between 200 and 400 acres. She rotates her cattle to different pastures once the land is reaching the point of exhaustion.
While grazing, Traeger said, her cattle help fertilize the land and restore it to its original vitality, all without the assistance of heavy-duty farm equipment.
Traeger's operation allows for her British Whites to be raised in ways similar to how she believes they would live in the wild.
"We try to raise our animals as close to nature as possible," Traeger said.
Traeger raises her herd to be bred not only later in the season but also later in life.
"They are more mature," she said. "And in the long run can produce extra calves."
Traeger first breeds her heifers at age 3 compared with the typical practice of age 2.
And instead of an early spring calving season, Traeger waits to calf until mid-May, the same time of year deer and bison are born.
"By May, our cows are grazing when they calf. It's not too hot so we don't have to worry about pathogens and it's not too cold where we have to spend money on straw (to keep the calves warm and dry)," Traeger said. "And it puts less stress on the moms."
Compared with conventionally raised beef cattle, Traeger said her calves are on the small end of the weight scale at birth, but she maintains they are healthy.
Because of the later breeding and birthing process, Traeger has seen a decline in the number of assisted births and has nearly doubled the lifespan of her herd by decreasing the stress on her cattle.
The average age of Traeger's herd is between 11 and 13 years old.
Out in the pasture, Traeger can identify every one of her cattle by name. And she can even recite their lineage. This comes in handy when breeding stock is the most profitable part of her business.
Forty percent of Traeger's herd is designated for breeding stock.
Traeger said she can sell her animals at about one and a half to two times the market price for beef breeding stock.
Traeger said demand for breeding stock has increased, especially since feed prices are making it cheaper for farmers to grow their herds. But she is not pushing her prices up higher than the competition.
"With the markets being so high, we can't push our profit margins," she said.
Traeger speaks with caution about immediate expansion. A few years back, things were not so great for her and Rolling Hills Traeger Ranch.
In order to sustain her farm and her family, Traeger worked full time in the construction industry alongside her father until 2010.
During that time, Traeger began to diversify her farm by raising Berkshire pigs. Her youngest daughter, Hailey Breth, 16, has also helped by raising chickens and selling eggs. The ranch sells fresh produce during the summer.
Money has been tight for Traeger. But she is determined to make it.
Traeger also owns and operates a mail-order meat service, Grillin Meats. People can purchase her beef on her website or directly on the farm. Processing is done at a USDA-certified plant in Miltona.
"People can buy a quarter, a half, a whole (cow or steer) or just packages of meat," Traeger said.
A package of ground beef averages $9 a pound. Tenderloin steak can cost about $22.50 a pound.
Marketing has been a struggle for Traeger. But through word of mouth and social media, she has been able to build a steady stream of customers, especially for her beef.
And as soon as she has built up her presence, Traeger hopes once again to break the mold on traditional farming. She said she has her eyes on creating a Community Supported Agriculture timeshare operation with her herd. Her vision is to provide those who financially sponsor her operation with either breeding stock or meat.
"I'm not out to do this to get rich," Traeger said. "I was taught to be the change you want to see in the world. And the way I'm doing things, if people want to do this, I'll show them how."