Happy cows in Nevada County | TheUnion.com

Happy cows in Nevada County

Are California cows really happier?

Jim Gates’ cows seem to be. With starlings and blackbirds chattering in the giant oaks overhead, they spend their days grazing and eating grass on some of the most idyllic meadows in the county.

Jim is the owner of Nevada County Free Range Beef. All the cattle he raises and sells are grass-fed.

I asked him why.

“Because grass is what the good Lord intended ’em to eat,” Gates commented. “Their digestive systems aren’t made for corn and other foods used to fatten up feedlot cattle.”

Gates never uses growth hormones, and his cattle rarely require antibiotics. If an antibiotic has to be used to treat a life-threatening injury or illness, the animal is taken out of the beef program.

“To put it real simple, fewer animals in a larger area reduces disease.”

Grass-fed beef does cost more to the consumer – largely because it is done on such a small scale – but the demand is increasing despite the slow economy.

Nevada County Free Range Beef began as a group of ranchers who met at the Mt. Pleasant Hall in 2003. Today, Gates is the only rancher left, though several produce under his name.

In 2004, Gates raised and sold 12 animals. In 2008 he sold 150.

His meat is available at SPD markets in Grass Valley and Nevada, BriarPatch Co-op Natural Foods market in Grass Valley, Natural Selection in Grass Valley and Mother Trucker’s on the San Juan Ridge.

He also sells freezer beef half, quarter and whole.

“People who buy this meat want the security of knowing their meat is not contaminated, humanely raised and safe to eat,” Gates said. “They want to know where their food comes from.”

Another reason for the additional expense of grass-fed meat is the absence of small packing houses that are available to small, local producers. Gates must truck his cows to the University of Nevada, Reno, to have them butchered and processed.

E. coli, a bacteria that’s been associated with beef in recent years, has many strains. Most are considered normal digestive flora for many mammals including humans, but many “bad” strains are associated with illness and death.

A study by Cornell University determined grass-fed beef has approximately 300 times less E. coli than grain-fed beef. Also, in the same study, researchers found that E. coli in grass-fed beef is much less likely to survive our human stomach acid and to cause infection. That is because feeding animals grain, over time, makes the “bad” E. coli more acid-resistant.

Grass-fed beef is a more delicate meat so it is cooked at a lower temperature and for less time. It’s also leaner so, for instance, hamburgers may need to be cooked in a little oil. “It’s not a radical but a noticeable difference in flavor,” commented Anna Trabucco.

Gates keeps the majority of his cattle on land he leases from Anna and Bill Trabucco. The Trabuccos have placed their Bitney Springs-area ranch in an agricultural conservation easement with the Nevada County Land Trust, which means they have given up the development rights to ensure its use for agriculture in the future.

Jim Gates recently starred in a movie production, “Meat Jim,” that was featured at the 2007 Wild and Scenic Film Festival.

Two young students made a film with the premise that beef consumption was one of the causes of global warming. They chose Gates as a person who would be the most difficult to convince of this argument, but along the way, they learned how his meat production was completely different. The girls won an award for their film.

When I asked Gates where he was from originally, he seemed almost dumbfounded by the question. That’s because he can trace his Nevada County lineage back seven generations to Sam Alderman, who came to Nevada County on a wagon train and stayed.

You can still see the sign for Alderman Meadows along the road to Bowman Lake.

His mother’s family, the Personenis, came to California by ship in 1895; relatives still live nearby on Bitney Springs Road.

“My family has been runnin’ cows ever since,” Gates said.

Patti Bess is a local freelance writer and cookbook author. E-mail her with questions or for more information at pbess@exwire.com.

2 1/2 lbs. chuck roast, bottom round, brisket, shoulder pot roast for stew meat

1 to 2 soup bones (optional)

3 medium tomatoes or one 14 oz. can crushed tomatoes

2 stalks celery

1 large onion, chopped

5 to 6 c. seasonal vegetables (such as potatoes, peas, yams, corn, carrots, celery, cauliflower, beans), chopped

1 sprig rosemary

1 bay leaf

4 to 6 c. water

1 to 2 c. red wine (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

In an 8-quart stock pot over medium heat, lightly sear beef 3 to 4 minutes each side. Use a little salt so the meat doesn’t stick.

Add enough water and/or wine to cover the meat. Add the bay leaf, salt and pepper. Turn heat down to a simmer and let the meat cook for 1 1/2 hours or until fork-tender. Remove the meat and set aside.

In the same pot, saute onion to release its sweetness, about 5 minutes over medium heat. Add all the vegetables, the rosemary and the soup stock, cooking on medium-low until the vegetables are tender; about 20 to 30 minutes.

While the vegetables are cooking, cut the beef into small pieces. Add to the pot when the vegetables are close to tender. Adjust salt and pepper if desired.

Serve with a crusty bread. Makes 8 generous servings.

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