Ontario Beef Farmer and Nurse
Sandra Vos, a nurse and sole female operator of an Ontario beef farm, explains how nature and nutrition can work together.
How did you get into beef farming?
An opportunity came up to buy an 80-acre farm in Brant County almost 20 years ago. I said yes without having any farming background, except for helping at my uncle’s farm. I knew nothing about planting, making hay, or how to drive a tractor, and was afraid of cows. The land needed some restoring, so thinking through what I could do to make it safe and efficient for me as a sole female operator, I decided to make it a grass farm, and that led me to raising cattle.
Without the grazing cattle, those habitats wouldn’t exist.
Tell us how cattle raising can be good for the environment
As a nurse, I’ve always believed that good health comes from good food, and good food comes from good soil. The cattle on my farm do amazing things for the soil and help create many different types of forages that attract birds, bees, and butterflies. Without the grazing cattle, those habitats wouldn’t exist.
What type of sustainable practices do you use on your farm and how does animal impact play a role?
I practise something called rotational grazing. By moving my cows every day, I’m not only giving the grass a chance to grow back, but I’m also spreading around the manure and urine, which are organic fertilizers. The bugs in the ground pull the manure down into the soil, creating organic matter, which is critical to healthy soil biology, as well as to holding the rain and sequestering carbon. I think that sort of animal impact is essential to restoring some of the grasslands we’ve lost.
As a farmer and a nurse, how do you see nature and nutrition working together?
Biodiversity is good for the land but it’s also good for nutrition. I think working with nature — rather than against nature — translates into an amazing end product. If the land is healthy and producing lots of good, biodiverse forage for your cattle to eat, then it’s producing good nutrition in the meat. The cows also work to keep the land healthy. Aside from improving the soil biology, they help keep invasive plant species at bay. Cows are great at eating things like grape leaves, for example, and preventing them from strangling the trees in the bush pastures.
What are the common misconceptions around beef production and consumption in Canada?
One thing I hear is that we’re eating too much red meat, but every chart shows that red meat consumption has been declining for 30 years. In terms of the environment, Canada is uniquely suited to raising cattle with our cold climate and large tracts of natural grasslands and pastures. Another misconception is that all beef comes from factory farms. In fact, about 98 percent of our beef farms are small, family-run farms, and the bulk of a cow’s or calf’s life is spent eating hay and grass in the pasture.
How can beef be a healthy, sustainable, and local option?
Beef is nutritionally dense and rich in minerals like zinc, magnesium, and iron. By supporting local beef farmers who use sustainable practices, you’re also helping to make a difference in the environment.