Prime, grass fed — bird friendly? Audubon Society label coming to a meat aisle near you

A cow shakes its head to rid itself of flies
A cow shakes off a swarm of flies in one of Matt Maier’s pastures near Clearwater, Minn., on July 6. Maier uses regenerative grazing on land he’s rehabilitating.
Ben Hovland | MPR News
green seal that reads grazed on Audubon certified bird friendly land
The Audubon Society's bird friendly seal
Audubon Society

Labels that read “prime” or “grass fed” are likely to catch your eye in the meat aisle. What about “bird friendly?”

Beginning this winter, some Minnesota-raised beef will begin featuring a green and white label from the Audubon Society that says just that. 

The bird conservation group is expanding a ranch certification program it started in the West in 2017 to the Midwest. It hopes to create consumer demand for bird-friendly ranching practices and, in turn, incentivize ranchers to maintain bird habitats.

Matt Maier was one of the first Minnesota farmers to sign up. He said the conservation ranching program aligns with what he’s already doing with his land in Clearwater, Minn.

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a man in a baseball hat stands in a field with tall grass
Matt Maier, owner of Thousand Hill Lifetime Grazed ranch in Clearwater, Minn., stands in one of his pastures. The grasses now grow waist-high, thanks to regenerative grazing practices.
Gracie Stockton | MPR News

When a lot adjacent to his boyhood farm went up for sale, Maier said he jumped at the opportunity to give his kids the kind of childhood memories he cherished.

“And what I witnessed when I moved back to the land [was] insects and birds and butterflies and frogs were non-existent. All the things that I wanted them to experience were not there,” Maier said. “So I’m like, OK, I want to do something about this.”

That something is Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed, a cattle ranch that taps 1,000 acres of grazing land — 120 of it Maier’s own — to raise cattle in a way that mimics roaming bison.

It’s opposite the kind of farming he grew up learning, where cows graze in a small area long enough to decimate most plant life and compact the soil until it’s inhospitable to most new growth. Now, Maier moves his herds frequently over a large area.

An aerial view of farmland
Grazing Land owned by Thousand Hills Cattle Company near Clearwater, Minn., pictured July 6.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“I had my dad driving through the pasture that I managed when I was a kid, and he goes, ‘What are you doing? These are plants that I haven’t seen for decades,’” Maier said. “Well, we don’t graze it down to the ground, which is hard for a farmer to get their head around.”

But it’s exactly what the Audubon Society is looking for when it certifies ranches as bird friendly.

Maier’s pastures are full of insects buzzing, frogs leaping and — most importantly to Audubon — birds chirping as you navigate the tall grass and cow pies. In the distance, lakes and ponds offer prime habitat for waterfowl. The improving topsoil and vegetation have kept runoff at bay, allowing the water to clear up. A lack of pesticides makes what does run into the water safer.

Dale Gentry, director of conservation for Audubon in Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri, said ranches in the West that have made these changes and been certified are already seeing the return of bird species that the organization is most concerned about.

A landmark study in 2019 estimated that the United States has lost 3 billion — nearly one in four — birds over the last 50 years. Those in quickest decline are grassland birds, and the single largest factor is habitat loss to farming and development.

Gentry said the conservation ranching program is a deliberate effort to reverse those numbers. An annual bird count is required for ranchers to keep their certification.

“Consumers want to know that this isn’t just a stamp on a label,” he said.

But consumers also want a deal, especially when they’re coping with inflation. Though a markup isn’t guaranteed, the Audubon seal is expected to fetch a premium price.

“As far as what the meat costs, we’re still not yet truly reflecting the value that’s in that package,” Maier said. “There’s so much value when you look at what we are doing with our habitat, how we are saving insects, birds and water, the nutrition, all of that. But I understand. If you still can’t afford it, what I would say is reduce the amount of beef that you’re eating, and when you do eat beef, vote with your dollars.”

As for concern about the role beef has on climate change, Maier said the industry has a saying: It’s not the cow, it’s the how.

He said the kind of rotational grazing he’s doing keeps more green on the land throughout the year to sequester carbon. And it nearly eliminates the need for tilling, which releases carbon into the atmosphere. 

As for the methane cows produce through their digestive process, Maier points back to the idea of mimicking bison. They were part of the ecosystem, dispersing seeds and fertilizing soil as they migrated. His small herd — especially when compared to the millions of cows on factory farms in the United States — benefit the land in the same way, he said. 

He can see it with his own eyes.

“The other day I came over a ridge by a couple of wetlands and I felt like I was in Jurassic Park,” Maier said. “I had three sandhill cranes flying this way, two young bald eagles flying this way and some wild turkeys coming out of a tree, all at the same time. I was like, wow, this is awesome.”

Maier expects to complete his certification this fall. The Audubon seal on his packages should quickly follow this winter.

A hawk flies above a field
A red-tailed hawk flies over two sandhill cranes in a Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed pasture near Clearwater, Minn., on July 6.
Ben Hovland | MPR News