SOUTH POINT A rancher in Ohio takes a different approach to raising cattle, applying his expertise in science to animal husbandry.
Dr. Stephen Walker, a veterinarian, owns Double Shoe Ranch, started by his family in 1943.
“It became clear to me that it was much better to optimize the soil health and manage the grass I had to maintain a healthy place for my cattle to grow and thrive,” he said. “I have been told my whole life that you can’t make a living farming around here. I often think many people spend their entire life trying to prove their dad wrong. I’m no exception: I have spent the last 25 years constantly improving my Angus cattle so they are more efficient on grass and produce top-quality beef.”
Walker’s grandparents, who hailed from John’s Creek in Pike County, came to the area in 1943; his grandfather worked at Armco and his grandmother worked their 65-acre dairy farm, selling milk and vegetables door to door in Ashland and Ironton. The farm grew to 100 acres.
“By the time I was born, the dairy had been put out of business by increasing government regulations, but I spent a lot of hours picking beans and blackberries from the farm and selling them door to door with my grandma, as well as helping my dad and grandpa with the cow herd,” Walker said. “That way of life got in my blood and all I ever wanted to be when I grew up was a farmer.”
Walker’s father encouraged him to go to veterinarian school, which would enable him to continue working on farms plus make a better living than a farmer. He studied at Ohio University, but during the summers worked in the chemistry lab at Ashland Oil.
“The first summer I absolutely hated it,” he said. “But the second summer was a lot more interesting and, by the time I became a college senior, I was fortunate to be offered a job as a technician in an environmental chemistry lab at the refinery.”
To boost his career there, he also attended Marshall University, earning a chemistry degree. While he did get promotions, Walker said he craved the farm life.
In 1993, he bought his grandparents’ farm and got the chance to return to outdoor work.
“I tell people it’s only work if you don’t like it. I haven’t worked a day since I graduated vet school,” he said. Walker has been an equine veterinarian for almost 20 years, with patients from as far away as Charleston, Grayson and Lucasville. “I work on horses of all sorts and sizes, from show champions to backyard pets,” he said.
His use of science in raising cattle has been beneficial, helping him raise more than 120 head of Angus cattle on nearly 1,000 acres of owned and leased land, Walker said.
“My background in environmental chemistry helped me to understand the importance of soil health and I began to realize that many of the traditional farming practices I had grown up with were actually very detrimental to the land I loved so dearly,” he said. “The cattle are constantly rotated across our pastures, never staying in the same pasture more than a couple days. This allows the grass to rest and recover in between grazings, which makes it have a deeper, healthier root system, which, in turn, allows it to produce more top-quality forage for our animals.”
He said calves are kept until they are 24 to 30 months old, allowing them time to completely mature and fatten.
“This natural ‘finishing’ is what sets our beef apart,” he said. “By allowing our cattle to graze the best pastures, we are able to produce the best tasting and juicy grass-fed beef available.
Our beef is marketed through our website directly to the consumer.”
Consumers may purchase the whole animal, a half, a quarter or an eighth. He said to sell any smaller of a portion would require a different kind of license which his ranch isn’t interested in.
“We are basically selling a cow (or part of a cow) to a customer and delivering that animal to the butcher for them,” he said. “The butcher … dries and ages (the meat) two to three weeks to further deepen the flavor and make it more tender.”
Price is based on hanging weight, which is the weight after the hide, head and intestines have been removed and is determined by the butcher. Then, meat is packaged in vacuum-sealed freezer plastic and flash frozen, ready for the buyer to pick up.
Walker said like many grocery stores and meat markets, his ranch has seen a big increase in demand since the coronavirus pandemic began.
“Our butcher is currently booked until the middle of August, so beef ordered now won’t be ready to pick up until the end of the summer,” Walker said.
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