Today, amidst the urban sprawl and paved over groves and ranches of yore, Orange County residents might be surprised to learn that it is still possible to find cattle happily nibbling on grass and grazing the rolling pastures of 5 Bar Beef, a Silverado, CA-based ranching operation located in the Santa Ana Mountains. Residents can purchase 5 Bar Beef’s grass-fed, pasture-raised beef at several farmers’ markets in the county and online.
5 Bar Beef is something of a throwback, but the sustainable holistic grazing practices in use on the 800-acre ranch are entirely evidence-based — and Frank Fitzpatrick, owner and head cowboy in charge, believes that the techniques he uses offer hope for California’s water crisis and the planet at large.
Grow Local OC recently spoke to Fitzpatrick to learn more about his reasons for raising cattle, 5 Bar Beefs’ contribution to the local food system in Orange County, and the sustainable grazing methods that he employs to mitigate drought. Here’s what he had to say:
Grow Local OC: What made you decide to become a cattleman?
Frank Fitzpatrick: On my eighth birthday, I decided I was going to be a cowboy, and I just never changed my mind. I went to Orange County High School and got into the ag department and Future Farmers of America and I liked it; in my senior year I had 25 steers, ten pigs and two sheep. I went to all the fairs.
I went to Cal Poly for my bachelor of science degrees, one in agricultural business and one in animal science. I ran into Jan Bonsma. He was the head of the University of Pretoria ag school in South Africa; he had control of 30,000 head of cattle and had the resources to experiment, and he did. My other big mentor was Newt Wright. He was a cowboy who went to Cal Poly too. He was 17 years older; we were friends since I was about 15. More than anything else, what I learned from Jan and Newt was to think outside the box.
Grow Local OC: How does 5 Bar Beef contribute to the growth of the local food system in Orange County?
FF: I started selling half and whole cows in 2002, and in 2004, we started selling in the local farmers’ markets. We, sell to local food co-ops and some local restaurants, and we participate in the Bon Apetit Farm to Fork Program.
We are the only beef producer in Orange County that sells in Orange County. And we’re among only a handful of ranches in California that produce meat from conception to your plate.
Grow Local OC: How does 5 Bar Beef raise its cattle differently from other operations?
FF: We just turn ‘em out; they are born outside and die outside. So a 3-year-old has been in a corral maybe six times, total; commercially raised cattle are surrounded by wood and pipe 24/7. Our herd and our land are completely chemical-free; holistic management eliminates the need for a lot of stressors like castration, worming, and dehorning.
And they taste like beef. I mean, this stuff is just to die for. What they sell in the commercial beef industry is actually just veal; the animals haven’t lived long enough to taste good, so they rely on fat for the flavor. The average commercial animal is harvested at 12 to 14 months. Ours are two or three years old, mostly three.
Grow Local OC: Why did you choose to feed your cattle grass and raise them on pasture?
FF: My first major revelation hit when I was taking a nutrition class and doing the math and found that it took 32 pounds of grain to make a pound of lean protein. That seemed ridiculously inefficient. You buy fossil fuel, run tractors over and over the land, irrigate, harvest, silo it, crack it, steam it, roll it, cook it. Why in the hell would you do all that work when the cow can walk out there and eat in the field?
Grow Local OC: Isn’t that equation often cited by environmentalists as a big reason people should eat less meat? That and methane?
FF: The earth supported predators and herds for the last fifteen million years. Humans took the predators out of the equation because we’re afraid of them, but the predators moved the herds, and that kept the environmental cycle healthy. That’s what we need to replicate, one ranch at a time; that’s how God ran buffalo 250 years ago, on a sea of grass.
I’ve had my herd of Barzona cattle since 1979, and in the late 80s I ran into Allan Savory. He’s a pioneer of rotational grazing methods, holistic management, that can stop desertification and climate change. With proper grazing, you can set up a cycle that gives the environmentally desirable perennials a better chance to survive and thrive.
Grow Local OC: So do you find it economically feasible to ranch this way?
FF: Producing beef the way we do is marginally viable in a drought situation. We’ve owned our herd of cattle for 37 years, and these periods of marginal economic viability […] have to be lived through and sustained. The situation of limited grazing in Orange County could be reversed by cooperation by local environmentalists that control vast areas of land in the county that have been traditionally used for grazing. There’s a belief that cows are causing global warming, when if you take a wider view, cows are part of the solution.
The land is visibly deteriorating since the cattle were removed 12 or 13 years ago…I would like the opportunity to reverse this land degradation with holistic planned grazing.