BASSETT, Neb. – Isolation comes with the territory in the Sandhills of Nebraska, where grassy dunes laced with wet meadows undulate above the Ogallala Aquifer, and the thinning towns are few and far between.
In the four years since he settled here, Prescott Frost has found himself set apart more than most. In a state where corn is king, he is on a quest to breed a better cow for the grass-fed beef industry – one that can thrive without chemical pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and, the clincher, grain – and to market his own brand of artisanal meat.
A great-grandson of the poet Robert Frost, who tended Ayrshire cattle in Vermont, the Connecticut-born Mr. Frost has spent a lifetime taking the road less traveled by. He put down roots on 7,000 acres in what he calls the Napa Valley of ranchland, home to more than 700 species of native grasses and forbs: bluestem, buffalo, reed canary, brome – the salad bar on which grass-fed beef is raised.
“If change is going to come to the cattle industry, it’s got to come from educated people from the outside,” Mr. Frost said, quoting from Allan Nation, the publisher of The Stockman Grass Farmer, considered the grazier’s bible.
Change comes slowly closer to the 100th meridian, the line of longitude bisecting East from West, where the average annual rainfall drops to less than 20 inches, acreage is measured in the thousands and the big city can be a day’s drive away. Where the great cattle herds once roamed, grass finishing – an intricate and lengthy ballet involving the balance of protein and energy derived from the stalk, with the flavor rendered by earth, plants and even stress – is a nearly lost art. Recent tradition dictates that animals be fattened for the slaughterhouse as quickly and as profitably as possible, on average between 14 and 18 months of age with the help of grain. These unconventional ranchers, their cattle idling in pastures for two or more years before reaching maturity, elicit cocked eyebrows.