Where’s your beef from? Learn about how JNelson Farms raises their grass-fed cattle

When I arrived at JNelson Farms, Jon Nelson wasn’t there. Tammy Nelson, his wife and co-owner of JNelson Farms, informed me Jon was down the road chasing cows. 

Occasionally, Jon gets a call about cows wandering loose that may or may not be his. When he identifies cows with the JNelson ear tag, he herds them back into their grassy, fenced-in pasture at their property on North Stark Road in Hope.
When it’s time to herd the cows, sometimes all Jon has to do is call them.
And that’s the first distinction between grass-fed cows and grain-fed: Grain-fed cows don’t get out. Jon didn’t consider raising his cattle exclusively on grass until people from his CrossFit gym mentioned it over a decade ago. 

“People were asking us about grass-fed beef,” says Jon. At the time, the Nelsons were feeding corn to their cattle. Jon assumed beef is beef regardless of what it’s fed, but his gym mates encouraged him to do his research. He was surprised by what he found. “... Grass-fed versus grain-fed is much different and much healthier – much more complete.”

Grass-fed beef touts higher quality protein and includes other nutrients important for muscles and brain health. It’s also lower in calories and fat than grain-fed beef. Yet, grass-fed beef has as much as five times the amount of omega-3 fatty acids, which are championed for a number of health benefits. Grass-fed beef even has a higher content of vitamins A and E compared to grain-fed. As Jon learned more about how much of a difference grass-fed beef can make for health, he has become particular about how he manages his grassy fields, too.

“We really have become believers in grass-fed beef, holistic management, no chemicals,” says Jon. “We don't use any chemicals, herbicides or insecticides, no GMOs, no conventional fertilizers. For the most part, we try to use the cattle for fertilizing, but we do have some hay fields that we rent and then we use organic fertilizers.”

Grass-fed beef is more nutritious than grain-fed and may be more beneficial to the environment than traditional farming practices.
While it does require more land, raising grass-fed cattle may be more environmentally friendly than traditional farming practices. The grasses trap atmospheric carbon dioxide, helping to fight climate change. Allowing the cattle to leave waste on the ground also enriches the soil health with beneficial microbes.

Besides the clear health and environmental benefits, transitioning to grass-fed beef was an easy lifestyle transition for Jon.
For beef to be considered grass-fed, the cattle must be fed only grass from birth until harvest. That includes fresh grass or hay.
“At the same time, some of my boys – we've got five boys – were starting to leave home, and they had helped me on the farm a lot,” he says. “I decided I really didn't want to drive the equipment all my life and be away from home and the family. So, we started investigating the concept of putting a fence around the place and then just raising cattle.”

Before he transitioned his farm to grass-fed cattle in 2011, Jon was operating a cash crop farm while he worked full-time at Dow Corning. He retired last year after more than 30 years with the company, which became Dow in 2016. While Jon grew up on a dairy farm, he wanted an education before taking over the family business – that’s why he earned an engineering degree from the University of Minnesota. He was planning to stay in Wisconsin but was ultimately swayed by recruiters from Dow Corning.

“My goal was to find a small town with a growing company where I could have a hobby farm and drive less than a half hour to work,” says Jon. “Midland fit the bill, Dow Corning fit the bill, and so I came out here and we bought this farm in 2002.”
After the cows graze down a section of pasture, Jon moves the wire fence so the cows enjoy a fresh patch of grass. This practice is called rotational grazing.
When it came time to choose between his farm in Midland or moving back to Wisconsin, he chose to stay. Jon now owns 380 acres of land across the state and contract-raises on another 600 acres – meaning he owns the cows but not the land they’re on. The farmer who owns the land raises them according to Nelson’s standards. 

“I want to help producers who are interested in cattle have a cost-effective way to get started, and then help them learn how to do it and eventually have them running their own operations,” says Jon.

Jon has done other outreach as well. He regularly speaks at agriculture conferences across the state, and next summer, Understanding Agriculture will be running a 3-day school at his farm called Soil Health Academy

“It helps build awareness of JNelson Farms, but the bigger goal is really to educate both the farming community and the consuming community around the impact of the foods that we choose to eat on the land,” says Jon. 

Jon ensures all his cows are gentle.
Jon also offers pasture walks on his farm. 

“I always tell folks, you don’t have to buy my beef, but wherever you buy beef from, go see their farm. And if they won’t show you their farm, that’s telling you something,” he says.

Orders “as little as one pound of burger and as much as a whole animal” can be placed directly on their website. Unless they’re out of inventory, orders are fulfilled within 24 hours and can be picked up at their farm at 4240 N. Stark Road in Hope. Their grass-fed beef can be purchased at several retail locations in mid-Michigan, too.
JNelson Farms is located on N. Stark Road in Hope.
JNelson Farms beef is also distributed by six companies, many of which are based in Michigan: Cherry Capital Foods, Provision Family Farms, Apsey Farms, Trillium Wood Farm, Washtenaw Meats, and B&B Farms.

If you have any questions about placing orders or about his farming practices, the best way to contact Jon Nelson is via text on his cellphone, 989-859-9670 or by email at jon@jnelsonfarms.com.

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Read more articles by Crystal Gwizdala.

Crystal Gwizdala is a freelance writer with a focus on health and science. As a lifelong resident of the Tri-Cities, she loves sharing how our communities are overcoming challenges. Crystal is also a serial hobbyist — her interests range from hiking or drawing to figuring out how to do a handstand. Her work can be seen in Wide Open Eats, The Xylom, Woman & Home, and The Detroit Free Press. To see what Crystal’s up to, you can follow her on Twitter @CrystalGwizdala.