We spent a lovely afternoon a few days ago at Rapid Creek Ranch, owned by Doug and Pam Darrow and managed by their son Justin Wade. The farm sits on a beautiful 280 rolling acres just south of Oxford and 10 miles west of Iowa City. Justin and his girlfriend Melyssa took our friends and my husband and me on a tour of their small environmentally conscious farm where they use managed rotational grazing.
First stop was the week-old chicks still in the barn with access to heat lamps. They will be moved to the pasture in a week or so when they are old enough to with stand any cool nights. Next we were into the SUV and off to see the broilers in the pasture under movable coops. These guys were big and just a week or so from harvest. We found them in the midst of a clover filled meadow where the coops are rolled to a fresh area of grasses, wild flowers and cow pies every day. The cow pie part is all about this rotational grazing. Currently the birds are harvested at a state inspected facility near the Missouri border although the ranch is looking for a closer processor and also exploring the possibility of killing and dressing some of the birds themselves for direct sale from the farm.
After a short drive across a pasture we came upon two group of laying hens that were wandering not far from their roosting wagons, or egg mobiles (hand built by Doug and Justin). During the day the layers are free to wander through the grass meadow and at sundown are put into their wagons. Justin indicated that the older group, the white ones learned to go into the wagon in less than a week. The new red layers were just purchased a few days ago and are still learning the daily routine. The layers also are frequently moved to a new part of the pasture.
According to the Rapid Creek Ranch website (still in process-Justin says he has been waiting for a rainy day and you know how that has been lately), their method is to be able to “run more animals on (fewer) acres, as well as improve the grazing environment for the animals”. Justin told us that this kind of grazing is really about grass farming, soil improvement and conservation.
The next jaunt in the SUV was across several segments of fencing requiring a steady hand to open the gates. The cattle are also moved almost every day to new pasture and all of this requires the seven miles of movable fencing that the ranch owns. The cattle were grazing on the other side of the creek, which they are kept from for conservation purposes. Water is piped in by hose. Five bulls were in with the heifers and babies and it was an active group. We had learned from Doug in a previous conversation that he has been in the cattle business for years starting as a young man herding cattle in the Sand Hills of Nebraska.
Rapid Creek is a small slice of heaven close to Iowa City and is run by kind and generous folk trying to improve their soil and water and produce their livestock in a chemical free environment. They produce some of the tastiest eggs, chicken and beef which are sold locally at reasonable prices. Remember supply can be seasonal as they are local, local, local.
Their eggs can be found at several local restaurants and all their products are for sale at the Iowa City Saturday farmer’s market (you can find them at the south end of the market under the College Street Bridge), the Iowa Valley Food Coop, and in Des Moines through a monthly buying club, run by Justin’s sister Lael Neal. She can be reached at email@example.com. For information for eastern Iowa contact Justin at firstname.lastname@example.org or Doug at email@example.com .
Martha Schut is an Iowa City resident with a passion for local food and Earth care/sustainability. Photos by Martha Schut.