When Lake returned home over 30-plus years ago from the Marine Corps, a sudden death in the family left the farm near Warriors Mark, Pennsylvania in a financial crisis. In order to keep the family farm, all the cattle and equipment were sold to pay the inheritance taxes.
From the start, Lake had to look at raising cattle differently.
"I had no equipment and I was gone several days a week," recalls Lake. "I decided the cows had four legs and I only had two, maybe they could do the work instead of me."
When he started rotational grazing, literature on the practice was next to non-existent. Lake instead had to learn through trial and error.
"I knew nothing of endophytes or rotational grazing practices or grass-based genetics," Lake will tell you when asked about how he got started. "I learned by making about every mistake in the book."
Even with his inexperience, however, Lake was always sure of one thing – he wanted to change the conventionally-farmed soils of his land back to those which were alive. The ways you do this, Lake will tell you, are through "earthworms and microbial life rather than plowshares and insecticides."
The farm-to-table journey of Thistle Creek Farms' beef begins on Lake's farm where his cattle are raised from birth to slaughter. Calves are born on pasture between April 15th and October 15th. Spreading the season out ensures Lake will have a steady supply of beef for his customers throughout the year.
Calves are left on their mothers until they are approximately nine to ten months old. When it is time to wean, Lake uses fence-line weaning methods to transition the calves to their next life stage as a feeder.
"When you bring the calves off there's so little stress," says Lake," so, to us, it's more profitable."
Because of later weaning and the fact that they have been on grass since day one, Lake says the transition to becoming a feeder isn't as stressful as other methods.
"The feeders get the better grasses that green fast," says Lake. "They adapt quickly because they are in a bigger herd of 300 animals or so and they feel very safe."
Lake grazes his feeder cattle in a mixed group of various sizes. He can do this, he says, because of the length of the strips of forage he grazes.
"No one is being shoved away from the bunk, because the bunk is so long I always have a strip big enough, which means no one is fighting over the feed," says Lake. "So I can run from weanlings all the way to finish in that same field or herd."
Fencing plays an important role in Lake's grazing system and his pursuit to improve the soils on his farm.
"If you can't control the animals then you are not going to be able to do mob grazing, and that really has turned our soil," says Lake. "It builds up the organic matter so much. You can't do that without having a fencing system that controls cows."
A Gallagher customer since the very beginning, Lake brags he still has the first five Gallagher metal fence posts he purchased when he first started grazing those 30-plus years ago. He credits their great customer service and quality products as the reasons he keeps coming back to the brand.
"They're good at backing their things up," says Lake. "Gallagher goes that extra step in making sure it's what you want and that it lasts."
Lake continues to graze his feeder cattle until they are about 22 to 24 months of age. Accumulation of ample fat deposits near the tail head are the tell-tale sign he uses to identify animals ready for slaughter.
Once finished, the feeders are sent to one of five different meat processors located across the state of Pennsylvania. Thistle Creek Farms uses these processing facilities to process and package their meat for retailers and suppliers. The cattle are slaughtered according to grass-fed standards.
Like some other grass-fed producers, Lake's farm has opted out of pursuing the United States Department of Agriculture's organic certification for their beef due to what they believe are unnecessary procedures. Instead, Thistle Creek Farms guarantees their product with a signed affidavit and promise that their beef was produced using only organic, grass-based, GMO-free feed sources and management practices. Thus far, their product has been very well received.
After USDA grade and quality inspections, Lake's beef is packaged with Thistle Creek Farms' logo. He partners with local retailers and a regional supplier, Happy Valley Meats, to get his beef to its final destinations which include five-star restaurants in New York, Boston, and Lancaster, as well as high-end grocers like Brick Farm Market in New Jersey.
"I so worry about making a good product and being what the person wants that I really concentrate on the product" says Lake.
Last year, Lake says he sold about 180 finished animals. He hopes to expand production to approximately 250 head per year in the years ahead. Similar to Gallagher's commitment with their products, Lake plans to keep quality at the forefront with his organic, grass-fed beef and believes his biggest success to date is "producing a product that keeps customers coming back."
For more info on Thistle Creek Farms, visit their website: http://thistlecreekfarms.com/
Authored by Jesse Bussard
, an agricultural writer based in Bozeman, Montana.