Author: Robyn Bottens

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It’s my favorite time of the year. The trees here on the farm turn beautiful colors and as the breezes of Fall begin to blow, the trees release their grip on the leaves and they become a blanket of color for the earth below it. We humans experience seasons too and for me it’s a season of change.  When Monte and I decided to explore being a vendor at the QC Farmer’s Market in Rock Island it meant someone other than Monte would need to take on this roll as he would continue at Freighthouse. That someone would be me. I remember Monte and Alyssa getting up in the dark many Saturday mornings to load our meat and take it to market, turn around and bring home what didn't sell, and do it all over again the next week. In the early days it was the best way to build our business and bring awareness to our regenerative farm. Never once did I wish that I could be the one hitting the alarm button at 5:00 am and doing market but in April of 2022 I loaded my first van of coolers and headed out in the dark.  For the next 99 weeks I was the one responsible for attending and building relationships at the Rock Island market. The Spring of 2023 brought about another team member change and Monte was back in the tractor planting all our fields so we were faced with the decision to pull out of the Davenport market. Unsure of what would happen to sales the reality was we could only be in one place at a time. Our customers did not let us down. We had a great market season with customers pre-ordering for easy pick up, new customers purchasing items at the market and familiar friends from Davenport following us across the river. This Saturday the market season changes to its winter market hours. You will find us in Rock Island all winter from 10:00 to 12:00. Notice I said us, meaning Julie and Treyten will be at market this winter as I am officially retired from market duties! Some things we finish in life we are really happy about and have no desire to ever do again and some things we will truly miss being a part of. I will miss the market and I will think of you all often as I enjoy my coffee and a morning fire in the fireplace this winter.  I’ve met so many wonderful people at QC Farmer’s Market. It's gone way beyond market vendor and customer. We’ve talked about life and loss. We’ve shared our struggles and health problems. We’ve exchanged recipes and ideas. We’ve built real friendships and I will miss seeing each of you every week. But I know it’s the season, it’s time for me to move on to another part of our farm that needs my time and attention.  I hope you all know how much Monte and I genuinely appreciate the support we receive through your purchases, social media posts, kind remarks, and referrals. While we know without a doubt that raising livestock is the very best thing for the soil, for you and your family, it is not easy. Many days present unexpected challenges and opportunities to fix and improve processes. Honestly, some days are discouraging but if you know us well, you know it’s not over until we win. We will continue to get up every day and keep going. Keep educating. Keep telling our story. Keep filling your orders and coming to market. We just need you to do your part…stay healthy, keep ordering and keep sharing Grateful Graze! Cheers to an unforgettable season! Robyn

Dazed and Confused

Most evenings on the farm are quiet and calm. I said most. The guys finish with the daily chores and tasks around 3:00 and try to get home to their families before too late in the day. Monte and I enjoy going around the farm later in the evening which leaves just enough time for something to have potentially gone wrong.Side note: Something really interesting to me is how often we've had this happen and we had no real reason to go out to check things and found something that could have been really serious. It's like there's someone watching over things here and telling us to go out and check the animals. I'm not sure who or why, but it's a good thing.On Monday evening that was exactly the case. We were enjoying a peaceful evening by the pond and a friend wanted to stop out to look at the Milpa plot we had planted to see how things were growing. Just at sunset on our way back I noticed in the distance a large group of hens far away from their barn on the hillside where the barn had been earlier in the day. We've experienced this one other time when we moved the barn too far during our daily move and the hens were confused and didn't know where their house had gone. We spent a couple of hours that night trying to gather chickens in the dark and putting them into the barn. You can imagine what a great exercise that is in marital communications. When the sun starts to set chickens become kind of lethargic (that's a nice word for dumb) and if they can't roost they will huddle into groups on the ground to sleep laying out a coyote "all you can eat buffet". We would like to stay in the egg business so it's rather important to find a solution to the problem.Having had this previous experience we put the marriage saving call out to Remington and Matthew for assistance. We attempted to get the hens to walk to the barn but it just wasn't going to happen. I suggested to Monte the easiest way to get them into the barn was to move the barn back to them. It worked! They were all happy to see the barn back and started jumping inside while it was moving so they could get settled in and perched for the night. Once they were all back inside and perched, we moved them back to the new location where in the morning would be no problem at all. It's like carrying a sleeping child from the car into their bed...they wake up and have no idea how they got there.For us it was another night of dinner at 10:30 and falling into bed so we could get back up and start fresh again the next day still happily married.No harm...No foul! (pun intended) From the Farm,Robyn

Rain Baby Rain

If the rain were as plentiful on the farm as the baby animals, we would be in great shape. The goats have been popping out kids left and right keeping Matthew extra busy. The fact that they have a guard pig living with them and keeping predators at bay is unique but to watch the two interact is something to see. Momma Pig has definitely claimed them as her own.  In addition to baby goats we have lots of cute baby calves, baby geese on the pond and so far this year we've had 2400 baby chicks go through the brooder. So there are babies and cuteness all around the ranch right now. Like many other farmers we are praying for rain. It's been a long hot dry spell here in Henry County, Illinois and we need a good soaking rain. We've received a little over the weekend, but hopeful for more soon. The cattle are here at Ranch 226 and they are blessed to have plenty of green forage. There are about 45 days of grazing left here on the first rotation around the ranch. Our concern is the slow regrowth with the lack of rain. When we bought the ranch there was no well on the property. We drilled a well and use solar panels to charge a bank of batteries that run the pump to fill our holding tank. With the use of our hose reel and endless garden hoses, we run water all around the ranch to thirsty cows, chickens and pigs. It's one of our biggest challenges to make sure their tanks are full and the connections and hoses are leak free.  Each drop of water is precious. If it comes from the sky or from our well it brings life to the ranch. From the farm, Robyn

The Next Move

When Monte and I first married (25 years ago on June 13th) I thought it would be fun to have a chess set. It would be a game that the two of us could play. Little did I know he was such a strategic thinker with a great desire to win. After being beaten badly a number of times the chess set soon became coffee table decor. His ability to manage and juggle all the tasks he does sometimes blows my mind. He takes on every day with a fresh start while answering emails, texts and phone calls, fixing problems, placing orders, attending meetings, driving a gazillion miles, managing our entire farming plan, sourcing new livestock, scheduling the processing, planning the grazing, marketing our grain, giving farm tours, working at the farmer's market, recording his podcast...the list goes on. It's kind of a living chess game if you will and there are many moving pieces and people to help get it all done. On Tuesday of this week the cattle were moved to the ranch from a field where they've been grazing a cover crop. Before getting on the trailer each animal is weighed and looked over and the No-Fence collars were serviced and put back on the momma cows. Farm tours are in full swing. The past couple of weeks have seen 38 visitors from all around the country in five different groups. Each tour takes about three hours so it's a significant time commitment for our team. You can find more information and dates available on the Events & Tours tab on our website and a link in the newsletter.  Wednesday of this week we had friends from California stop for a visit. Tom Willey and his partner Denesse were visiting family about an hour from our farm. Monte had extended an invitation to Tom several times and they were finally able to make a stop and spend the day together. Tom is an organic farmer from Madera, CA. He was organic before there was organic. After a tour around the farm they recorded a podcast that will be released at a later date.  During their visit we decided to host a little farm to table dinner with a few friends of Grateful Graze. The conversation was lively and delightful. Good people, good food, good times! Thursday night our 13 year old grandson, Devin, started his summer job with grandpa by loading up 550 chickens from 11:00 pm to 1:30 am. Our processor is located in Arthur, IL a three hour drive from the farm. Matthew was here at 2:30 to take the first batch in for processing. Then bright and early on Friday morning team members, Remington, Devin, Treyten and I led a group of students from Black Hawk East on Regenerative Ag Tour. I was kind of surprised that only 4 of the 21 students had any knowledge of what regenerative farming was. I hope we opened some minds to new ways of farming. In his spare time, Monte has been finishing up planting. After the cattle moved off of the field on Tuesday, the fencing was being removed to allow for planting our final field of Non-GMO soybeans. Across the road he inter-seeded a cover crop into a field of growing corn. The cover crop will help suppress weeds and cover the soil protecting it from run off, heat and evaporation. After the corn crop is harvested this fall, the cattle will go back on and graze this field spreading their own beautiful little piles of tractor required! Technology plays a big part in making all of this work but it still requires a man with mission, a mind, and a desire to win. If we could just schedule a delivery of rain we would be in great shape. That's all part of this game we call farming...sometimes you win, sometimes you just leave it on the coffee table. From the Farm, Robyn

What's He Doing Now?

When we talk about the importance of diversity we aren't just talking about it. We really do it. This week we tackled four different projects. We planted a pollinator plot, a milpa garden, the cow chow, and a calendula plot. On one of our farms we have a narrow strip of land across a creek that's difficult to get the harvest equipment into so we planted it into a pollinator plot. It will provide the bees with pollen for honey and the birds and beneficial insects with a place to live and a source of food. I'm looking forward to seeing the blooms and will be sure to take photographs to share with our readers. Then Monte moved the planter to our home farm where we will take 120 acres out of corn and soybean rotation and have the cattle graze the field for the summer. To some farmers that's just crazy talk but to a regenerative farmer it all part of the plan.  Our cows eat more than grass. They have an entire salad bar to eat from! We planted a cover crop mix (pictured above) of Pearl Millet, Buckwheat, Sunflower, Kale, Vetch, and Sorghum. The cover crop (cow chow) will be ready for our cattle to graze later this summer. Above ground will be a lush green field of tasty greens that will provide them with a source of energy that produces a lovely yellow fat we get to enjoy on our dinner plate.  After planting the cow chow we moved to the ranch where we have the pasture that the cattle live on in the spring, fall and winter. During winter we chose a location every year to bale feed the cattle when the snow is too deep for them to find grass. We call this the sacrifice pasture because you can imagine what 100 animals do to the pasture when it freezes and thaws. But what is really incredible about nature is how it heals itself. Monte planted the sacrifice pasture with a Milpa Garden Mix. What's Milpa you ask? The Milpa technique originated in Central America where the Maya used the three sisters: corn, squash, and beans along side other native and cultivated plants to improve the soil and grow food in their forest gardens. We use a mix of seed from Green Cover Seed that includes over forty different seeds including multiple varieties of Squash, Cucumber, Watermelon, Beets, Turnips, Sunflowers, Okra, and many more.  By planting this diverse mix all together, we can grow healthy food that builds healthy soil. Harvesting the Milpa garden is an adventure in experiencing the power of natural diversity firsthand. Not only does Milpa produce delicious food, it attracts beneficial insects, reduces pressure from pests, and increases organic matter in the soil. You can watch a video here about the First Acre Program and how the food grown in this Milpa plot will be used. We will keep you posted on the progress of this project and be reaching out for volunteers to come help harvest and share the bounty with local food banks. The final planting project for the season is the Calendula flower plot. Calendula produces a bright orange blossom. It's also know as pot marigold, common marigold, and Scotch marigold. It produces edible petals that can be used in soups, soufflés, rice dishes, baked goods and to garnish desserts. It's also a popular choice for brightening up salad mix and used for medicinal purposes. It may provide some beautiful photo backdrops as well! So we are excited to experience beauty and the harmony that these flowers and vegetable plants will bring to our ranch. It might just be worth a trip out here to see it for yourself...let the craziness begin! From the Farm, Robyn

Team Work Makes The Dream Work

If regenerative farming was easy, everyone would do it. It takes a farmer with vision, determination, organization, patience and a host of other qualities to rotationally graze livestock just for the health of it. For the health of the soil, the health of the plant, the health of the animal and ultimately the health of the human.  On June 5, 2018 Lucy and her sister, Rose, came to work on our farm as pups. I picked their names. They are named after Monte's grandmother and great grandmother. Both women lost their husband's early in life and kept the farm going to pass on to the next generation. Monte is the fifth generation. So because they were the guardians of the farm it was only fitting that we name these two pretty little ladies after them. Rose and Lucy worked as a team and successfully kept our sheep safe from predators. Lucy is a natural with the sheep and they are her flock. Eventually Rose became more attached to her humans and wouldn't stay with the livestock so she retired herself and now lives happily as our shop dog. When our ranch manager, Ryan Jenkins, came to us and told us he needed to pursue an opportunity back on his family farm and would be leaving us we had several emotions. First our concern for the ranch and livestock and how we would get it all done without his help. At the same time we were happy for Ryan that he was given the opportunity to farm for himself and be closer to family and we always support that. Monte and Ryan stayed in communication and just as we were deciding that sheep were not the best fit for our farm at the same time Ryan was ready to integrate livestock on his farm. Coincidence?  We don't think so. They negotiated a sale of our entire flock, fencing and the sheep guard dog, Lucy. I was ready to let go of the sheep but I wasn't excited about losing Lucy. On a cold snowy day, January 16, 2022, we said our good-byes and our flock and Lucy loaded into Ryan's trailer and moved to their new home in Iowa.  We told Ryan if she ever had a litter of pups we wanted one. The phone call came with news that we had grand puppies and we got the pick of the litter! Monte and I made the trip to Ryan's farm to pick up not one...not two...but three puppies. Not because we like buying a lot of dog food but because our wooded farm has plenty of predators waiting to help themselves to a chicken dinner. Monte also has plans to add goats to continue clearing the underbrush in the timber and they will certainly need guard dog protection.  We don't hunt the coyotes on our farm. There's some interesting research about how they adapt and grow their pack when the leaders die. Hunting them might actually cause a pack to split and grow. The presence of these dogs is enough to keep them at bay and they look elsewhere for their food bringing our farm into balance naturally. We recently had a large raccoon that was helping himself to chicken nuggets. The solution was to live trap and relocate him. The chickens were grateful. We now have three litter mates in training in the chicken barn. They are doing great. The chickens give them space and so far there's no playing games with the birds. So wish us luck! If you can train a dog to guard chickens, they can be with any animal. All that's left to do is come up with creative names for two males and one female.  The ranch hands work as a team. The guardian dogs work as a team. Ranch hands and dogs work together as a team and we are fortunate to be part of a team with other regenerative farmers. Sharing knowledge, experiences and resources makes doing this job a little more enjoyable and a lot more rewarding. It was great to see Ryan and Lucy doing so well and the flock getting ready to lamb and grow. Great job Ryan! From the Farm, Robyn

The Grateful Graze Farm to Table Experience

Farm to Table restaurants have been popping up in cities all across the country over recent years. Typically the chef or owner have a desire to connect their customers with fresh local food. It’s rare to find a chef who actually spends time on a farm or with the animals. Until now. Meet the Grateful Graze Chef, Matthew Mulder.  Matthew started working in restaurants when he was 14 years old and was inspired while working  as a line cook at The Deck in Geneseo to pursue a culinary career. He graduated in 2003 from Scott Community College under the instruction of Chef Brad Scott. He did apprenticeships at Miss Mamies and Five in Moline and learned from two other influential Culinary Institute of America chefs during his early years. It was during his time at TPC Deere Run where he learned how to bake bread and enjoyed experimenting with all kinds of sour doughs. His most recent culinary positions were as Executive Chef at assisted living facilities. He enjoyed engaging the residents in the food preparation but after Covid with staff shortages and watching the residents being forced to stay in their rooms he decided to take a break and focus on his farm animals and do a house remodel. Matthew had been told by a mutual friend that he needed to meet Monte Bottens. One Saturday morning at our small farmers market in Cambridge Illinois Matthew had an opportunity to meet and have a lengthy discussion with Monte about how he was doing regenerative farming and using Gabe Brown’s business model. Matthew decided then and there that he wanted to come to work on our farm and learn all he could about how to raise animals in this way. It just so happened that the farm was in need of extra hands as we would be receiving our first batch of pigs soon. Matthew signed on and our journey began. It seems that every time we are in need someone comes along to fill that need and Matthew not only filled the need but he was a natural with the livestock. Another little piece of our background is that I have always told Monte there are two things I won’t let him do. One, own a dairy and two, own a restaurant. I’ve always been very supportive of everything he wants to do but I know what kind of commitment is involved in those two businesses.  Monte and I enjoy fine dining and great food. At the beginning of this journey he commented that he would love to be able to enjoy our meat prepared in a fine dining establishment. I knew what he was hinting at. One night I had a brain storm and shared with him the idea of doing Farm to Table dinners in a rented facility on an occasional basis. I thought it was a grand idea to satisfy his restaurant dream and utilize Matthew’s talent all while providing our customers with a great experience. Our first dinner was a Valentines dinner and the response was incredible. We made plans to host another dinner and then everything came to a halt when Matthew injured his back. We weren’t sure if he would be able to return to the farm or do another dinner. The healing process was slow and painful but we are thrilled to have him back at the farm caring for our livestock.  We are also excited to be hosting our next dinner this Saturday night, May 13th at 6:00 pm at the beautiful Central Schoolhouse Bed & Breakfast in Geneseo. Because it’s the day before Mother’s Day we have marketed it as a Mother’s Day event but it’s simply a Farm to Table dinner for anyone to attend and enjoy. The tickets are $75 per person and can be purchased by clicking the link below. Central Schoolhouse is managing ticket sales on their website.  Chef Matthew will be preparing a six course dinner with locally sourced ingredients and featuring many items from the Grateful Graze farm with the main course a Roasted Airliner Chicken Supreme. In between courses Monte will share with our guests insights on how we move and care for the animals, and the benefits of regenerative farming. It’s more than a meal. We want you to enjoy a really great dinner, gain firsthand knowledge about the future of farming, and leave knowing that the money you spent made a difference. Whether or not we continue to do dinners depends on your response and attendance. We want to focus on things that bring attention to regenerative farming and provide leadership utilizing our gifts and talents.  We really hope you will join us. Seating is limited and we want to fill it up so don’t delay in getting your tickets purchased before sales end at midnight on Wednesday, May 10th. See you at the table! Robyn

A Healthy Eco-System

A group of nature loving folks gathered at our ranch Friday evening for a time of fellowship, education and exploration. The evening started with a meal featuring proteins from Grateful Graze and a special treat of freshly harvested Pheasant Back Mushrooms from our timber. After dinner Monte introduced Brian Fox Ellis from Bishop Hill, Illinois. He is a nationally known author, speaker, and historian who has a passion for teaching through impersonating pivotal local historical figures.  He walked the ranch with us and discussed the work of John James Audubon and the Audubon Society as it relates to eco-system health.  The weather presented some challenges with wind and cooler temps, but the group was eager to learn on our hike how healthy soil and managed grazing, to mimic nature, is making a huge impact on water quality, carbon sequestration, plant diversity and bird habitat. The farm was purchased by Monte and Robyn Bottens in January of 2018. It had been in CRP for 18 years which has presented both pros and cons. On one hand it hadn't been farmed or had any chemical applications during this time, on the other hand it had been taken over by golden rod and other invasive weeds, trees and shrubs.  Monte shared these two photos of the farm taken 77 years apart and below were his talking points for the evening. The LAW of Context The closer we can mimic the natural system, the less inputs that will be needed and the greater the outputs will be. 5 Soil Health Principles Minimize Soil DisturbanceKeep Soil CoveredLiving Roots at All Times Maximize DiversityIntegrate Grazing Livestock The Microbiome - Everything is Connected Soil Health  = Plant Health = Animal Health = Human Health = Eco-System Health Eco-System Health Birds are and indicator species, much like earthworms are for soil healthDIVERSITY is the key.  The more species and the more uncommon the species present, the more complex and robust the ecosystem is.Predators (Coyotes).  We farm with predators and DO NOT kill them.  Research shows that animal diversity collapses by >50% when predators are removed. WIN - WIN - WIN Delicious, nutrient dense food for our customersA great life for the animals in our careEnvironmentally friendly and soil improvingOpportunities for young families to return to agriculture. The following is a list of birds identified in our pasture in a period of 15 minutes using the Merlin app and identifying their songs and the recording can be heard in the video: American RobinBaltimore OrioleBrown-headed CowbirdCarolina WrenCommon GrackleDowny WoodpeckerEuropean StarlingHouse FinchHouse SparrowNorthern CardinalNorthern FlickerRed-bellied WoodpeckerRed-winged BlackbirdSong SparrowSwamp SparrowWhite-crowned Sparrow

Our Protective Moother Cows

This Mother’s Day we are not only celebrating our mothers but rather all of the moms out there, including our protective MOOther cows!When it comes to animal welfare, the physical benefits of a mother and calf being together are obvious. Observing our cows, we also see the psychological well-being of both mother and babe when allowed to naturally be free-living cows, without human intervention.In the video of a mama cow giving birth to a baby calf below, watch how she pushes it out with impressive ease. The act of a cow giving birth to a calf is called partition. Partition can take anywhere from two to twelve hours depending on the individual cow. Here, at Grateful Graze, we increase vigor by specifically selecting for calving ease in our cattle and culling or selling any cows that struggle to give birth unassisted. Bone structure, pelvic size, and how strong their maternal instincts are all contribute to whether or not they are a part of the herd.Calving on Cover Crops Immediate licking and suckling not only help the maternal bond mothers and babies need, but also contribute many health benefits.Once the calf is born, the cow will lick it all over to clean it off. She will even eat her after birth because it is filled with important nutrients. One thing we have noticed specifically here at Grateful Graze is that a cow who has recently given birth to a calf will make a deep moo sound to tell the other cows that they need to help her protect her newborn. Similar to when bison roamed the Great Prairie, cows will take turns protecting their young. In this instance, her friends will come over once they hear her call and help her watch her baby so she is able to both eat and rest.It is not too hard to find a babysitter or two around here.After a half an hour to two hours, the calf will stand up and start drinking. These moments are imperative to the well-being of the calf since it needs to drink the colostrum in the cow’s milk to survive. Colostrum is the first form of milk that is produced by the mammary glands after a cow or any mammal for that matter has given birth. It is a nutrient-rich fluid with immune, growth, and tissue repair factors, which is how a newborn is able to develop some sort of immune system to protect themselves right after they are born.Back to the protection of the calf. What a mother wouldn’t do to protect her baby right? Cows don’t mess around when their calves are threatened. A mother may lower her head, charge, and headbutt the threat. Is it wrong that as a mother, I have wished I could do this to protect my kiddos?For these reasons and many more, we are so grateful for our protective MOOther cows and all of the other moms out there who do everything in their power to protect their family and friends. Personally, I can say I have never met a being as selfless, caring, and of course loving as a mother before. Happy MOOther’s Day, Everyone!