Want to see a Georgia grass-fed beef farm in action? Visit Will Harris and White Oak Pastures!

What better trip to take on Labor Day weekend than to a Georgia grass-fed beef farm so we could see exactly where our soon-to-be-grilled meat would be coming from? So Zack and I packed up the car and headed south to Bluffton, Georgia, and White Oak Pastures. I had emailed Will Harris, the fourth generation owner and president, to see if he would even be working on Labor Day weekend and he said he’d be there and be happy to show us around. Ever since making the conscious decision to eat only local, grass-fed, sustainably-raised meats (which may sound uppity, but isn’t hard to do), we’ve been eating a lot of Will’s beef. In fact, we’re even beginning to think Zack’s frequent purchases of White Oak Pastures ground beef is the reason his Publix keeps stocking it (you might also recognize White Oak Pastures from Whole Foods and local restaurants like Farm Burger).

Since we learned so much in the few hours we were on Will’s farm, I’ve divided this blog post up into three sections: the processing plant, the land, sustainability, and Serengeti model, and Will’s other projects.

Part I: White Oak Pastures’ Processing Plant

We arrived a little after 3 p.m. and Will was in his office in the processing plant, which you can see from the road (highway 27). The Harris family built the plant after deciding to opt out of the industrial meat industry and to raise cattle in certified organic, certified humane facility. Throughout the cattle’s lives, they roam 2,500 acres of open pasture and eat only native hay and sweet grasses grown right on the farm. One of the most impressive accomplishments of White Oak Pastures in that it is a completely zero waste facility (which I’ll explain more in part two) and that this true southern rancher could talk all day about sustainable, organic agriculture. After handshakes and introductions to the dogs, we commenced the tour.

Will Harris in front of his processing plant at White Oak Pastures with grass-fed, free range cattle

We took a quick photo with Will Harris in front of his processing plant at White Oak Pastures with grass-fed, free range cattle

The first stop was the office of Brian Sapp, the manager who oversees the farm’s day to day operations and compliance. After much searching for the perfect candidate, Will recruited him from the University of Florida after Brian received his master’s in Meat Science. Brian is an artisan meat cutter and, as Will said, “he’s been a true godsend” as a borderline obsessive-compulsive about crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s, which in turn frees up Will to handle the ranching side of the business. He also showed us the office of the federal USDA agent who is required to be on-site every single day the plant is in operation (which is Monday through Friday), who maintains his own locked office, and who, by law, has a separate bathroom and shower.

Next, we entered the room where the cows are humanely slaughtered. I know that may seem like a contradiction, but consider this: most industrial processing plants kill up to 400 cattle an hour where as White Oak Pastures kills 25 cattle a day – one at a time, so the animals stay calm and unaware of their fate (which, I found out, can have a profound effect on the taste of the meat). Each cow follows the following steps:

White Oak Pastures' steps to humanely slaughtering their grass-fed cows

White Oak Pastures slaughters 25 cows a day compared to industrial farms who slaughter up to 400 an hour

  1. The cows are brought to a large, covered area just outside this door.
  2. One at a time, they are led through this door and into the chute by the cowboys who have handled them their whole lives, so that they don’t get panicked or flustered.
  3. This wall raises and lowers and would be down, flush with the floor, when the cow walks in. The worker stands on the platform and, using a pneumatic captive bolt, stuns the cow so it is rendered senseless (called “Dr. Temple Grandin’s humane animal handling process”). While the heart is still beating, the animal can feel no pain.
  4. The worker raises the wall and the stunned cow tumbles down the small ramp to the floor.

Next, the cow is hoisted up by its back legs to hang from an overhead conveyor chain while a worker cuts its carotid artery over a funnel that catches the blood. The cow then moves on to have its head, hooves, hide, and viscera removed (all of which goes on to serve a purpose, whether on or off the farm, which we’ll get into).

White Oak Pastures slaughter room

The slaughter room for the cattle was smaller than I expected, but then again, I'm not really sure I knew what to expect!

After that, the cow moves into a refrigerated section (to the left of Will in the above picture) which connects to the butchering room next door. As we walked over to the butchering room, I mentioned to Will that it was over a year-and-a-half ago that I decided to start down the path of eating less meat by giving up sandwich meat. That’s as far as I got. Instantly, Will said,

“You don’t want to eat that sh*t. Ever. I know what goes into it and it’s the worst of the worst. Lips and anuses. Hotdogs? Awful. All they do is take a bunch of parts and liquefy them completely. Stay away from all of it.”

Zack told him about a friend of his who feeds hotdogs to her cat because the cat loves it and it’s cheaper than actual cat food. Not that it’s okay to feed anuses and lips to our family pets, but shouldn’t we set the bar a little higher for ourselves than cat and dog food? Anyway, onto the butcher room…

Whole cows hang in the refrigerated area between the slaughter room and the butcher room (in the front are livers and other edible organs)

Whole cows hang in the refrigerated area between the slaughter room and the butcher room (in the front are livers and other edible organs)

The slaughter room and the butcher room are kept completely separate from each other. The workers keep to their sections and every part of the processing plant is thoroughly cleaned before anyone goes home for the day in order to prevent any sort of contamination (it was completely spotless – you would have no idea that 25 cows were killed a day in this plant). The only part that connects the two rooms is the refrigerated “closet” where the carcasses move from one side to the other to get divided up.

The butcher room at White Oak Pastures, a grass-fed beef farm in southern Georgia

The butcher room at White Oak Pastures

The whole cows emerge from the door seen here and move along the conveyor to a butcher standing at the head of the table. With his masterful skills, he cuts away pieces of beef and places them on the table for the other butchers to refine. The animal automatically lowers as he cuts pieces off so it stays level with where he’s working. Will pointed out that this is one of the toughest jobs because it requires pushing around almost 600 pounds of hanging beef.

So, from the grassy field to the ready-to-ship box, here are the numbers:

  • 1,000 pounds – the weight of one, live cow
  • 580 pounds – the weight of one cow after it leaves the slaughter room (minus the head, hooves, hide, and viscera)
  • 380 pounds – the weight of one cow after it’s butchered
  • 7 – the number of boxes one cow is sorted into for delivery to stores (like Whole Foods); each box is labeled with the date the cow was slaughtered, the date it was butchered, and the tag number from its ear. This is the ultimate in source verification and traceability.
  • ~200 pounds – the amount of meat you would get boxed up, ready to cook or freeze, should you decide to order an entire side of cattle (which you can do on their website)
  • 1 week – the time that passes between each store’s delivery (so I need to check and see on what day of the week Whole Food on Briarcliff gets their shipment in…)

After the tour of the facilities, we headed back out to the office where another young couple was parking and getting out of their vehicle. They had also driven down the road and were headed to her family’s farm when they decided to stop in and check the place out. Both had heard of White Oak Pastures previously and wanted to see if they could pick up any meat to take on to their family (which they did). Will said he was just showing us around and about to take us out and show us the farm. He asked if they would like to join us, to which they agreed, so Will loaded us up in his truck and we headed out.

Keep reading with part II: White Oak Pastures’ land, sustainability, and Serengeti model of this Georgia grass-fed beef farm.

3 Responses to “Want to see a Georgia grass-fed beef farm in action? Visit Will Harris and White Oak Pastures!”
Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Want to see a Georgia grass-fed beef farm in action? Visit Will Harris and White Oak Pastures! […]

  2. […] by Our Green Atlanta on March 1, 2011 We’ve talked about White Oak Pastures on Our Green Atlanta before and about how much we love their beef (here, too), but if you’re more of a white meat […]

  3. […] Want to see a Georgia grass-fed beef farm in action? Visit Will Harris and White Oak Pastures! […]

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