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Dex Vogel Raises Happy Cows

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Dex Vogel Raises Happy Cows

If you're looking for great, grass-fed beef at the east end of Bonner County, look no further.

He’s never heard of Joel Salatin and PolyFace farms. He’s never read anything by Michael Pollan, and doesn’t subscribe to Allen Nation’s Stockman Grass Farmer. He’s a local boy whose family roots go back four generations, to his great-grandfather Oliver who homesteaded in the Clark Fork River Valley. Dex and his wife, Liz and daughter, Tessa, live in the house Oliver built. He hunts at every opportunity, volunteers at his daughter’s school, and every now and then likes to head to the local bar for a cold PBR and, if you catch him at the right moment, a little bit of Kenny Chesney karaoke. Dex Vogel also happens to raise some fine, grass-fed beef.

“Happy cows,” is Dex’s recipe for success in raising beef cattle, and though he’s never heard of Salatin he almost seems to be channeling him as he explains his philosophy of ‘cow farming.’ “They need a place to get out of the weather and plenty of pasture, so a cow can stand and eat all they want.” Or as Salatin would put it, “Farm friendly food asks the question—’Is the pig happy?’”

Happy cows also need someone to check on them “at least once a day. When you have cows, you can’t just take off on vacation—you have to make sure you have someone trustworthy to come by and make sure they’re all right.”

Dex has taken a break from fixing fence damaged by snow flung by plows last winter—a job that never seems to be complete—in order to talk about his cows. It’s a hard-working life he lives, especially on each end of summer, during calving in the spring and haying in the fall. And it’s not the life Dex thought he’d be living, even though he grew up living much the same lifestyle he’s providing for his daughter today.

“I thought I was going to be an engineer,” Dex explained. A graduate of Clark Fork High School, he headed off to Spokane for college and after two years, in ‘89, he went to work for Ruen-Yaeger and Associates, putting his engineering training into practice. He still works for Ruen-Yaeger, but after marrying Liz and a stint working with his father in the gravel business, plus moving around a bit from Post Falls to Sandpoint, he returned to Clark Fork to create a new life.

“If I didn’t love cows, and enjoy the good times involved in raising them, I wouldn’t do this,” said Dex, referring to his 130 acres and approximate 50 head of cattle. He grows hay on about half the land, while the other half is pasture for the cows.

He started out with two cows and two calves, and his herd has slowly grown to its current size. “I didn’t really plan on having this many,” he said. The beef he raises is “a mutt mixture,” he laughs, saying his herd includes Black Angus, Simmetal, Hereford and even some Jersey and Holstein. He brought in the big Simmetal bull, who presides over the herd looking more like a buffalo than a placid bovine, because he wants to breed in the size, but on the whole he’s fairly pleased with the calves he’s been turning out—on average, about 17 every spring.

Generally five or six of those calves will end up as meat in a local freezer, and the rest will be trucked to the sale.

“I’m not a commercial operation,” Dex explains. “If you buy beef from me, basically you’re buying one of my cows. Then I keep it for you, and haul it down to be slaughtered, cut and wrapped on your behalf.” He’s just as happy to sell the cows locally as he is to sell them at one of the weekly beef sales available, and says those interested just have to give him a call. His cows are not as large as some—it will take a few generations for that Simmetal bull to make an impact—but hanging weight at butchering is generally 500 to 600 pounds. If that sounds like a lot of meat, it is, but there’s plenty of people willing to go in on half a cow, and Dex is happy to make those arrangements.

Despite his small size in the beef industry—”basically I’m just a hobby farm”— Dex keeps his prices competitive with comparable local beef. “I’m not doing this to make a killing in cows,” he said. “I need to cover my costs but this isn’t my day job,” even though it takes up a good portion of many days.

The demand for local beef “exploded,” Dex says, when Mad Cow Disease was making the news, especially when an infected cow was found in Washington state. That demand stayed pretty steady, but “the economy’s tight,” he said, and people aren’t as willing to buy their meat for the year up front. Still, there are a lot of people in the area willing to spend a little more than they do at the grocery store in order to buy beef raised in a way that’s in line with their values, beef they can see for themselves on the hoof before plonking down their hard-earned cash.

Although much of the way that Dex raises his happy cows could describe a growing, environmentally-based approach to eating meat (and a growing awareness of the drawbacks of corporate beef) Dex points out that what’s really going on is a return to the way his grandparents provided food for the table. “This is the way it was done when I was growing up,” he explained.

So why is that a better way? Bovine spongiform encephalopathy—popularly known as Mad Cow Disease—is a bovine infection caused by... well, by cannibalism, basically. Beef producers, in the ongoing quest for bigger, more beefier cows, have gotten in the habit of feeding cattle supplements that contain parts of cattle and other animals. Not only are all breeds of cattle susceptible, BSE can be passed on to humans who eat infected meat, who then develop Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, resulting in dementia, hallucinations, and motion problems. It can be fatal within  weeks and there is no cure. Although identified infection is rare, there are those for whom any infection is simply not worth the risk—especially when some commercial beef products (like hamburger) can contain the meat from hundreds of cows.

Of other concern is the U.S. practice of feeding grain to cows in order to fatten them for slaughter. Michael Pollan converted thousands of people to grass-fed beef in his book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: In Defense of Food,” where he referred to humans in the U.S. as “processed corn walking.”

The biggest portion of every bushel of corn produced, he says, goes to feeding animals not designed to eat it; like the grass-eating cow, an animal “exquisitely adapted by natural selection to live on grass.. adapted by us—at considerable cost to their health, to the health of the land, and ultimately to the health of their eaters—to live on corn, for no other reason than it offers the cheapest calories around and because the great pile must be consumed.”

The only time Dex grains his cows is when they calve, and have less access to pasturage. “I ask (my customers) what they want, and everybody who buys it loves the taste of grass-fed beef.”

Dex also avoids all medication except for some vitamins, scours prevention and selenium, which doesn’t exist in the soil around here. Only once has he given antibiotics, when an epidemic of pink eye spread to his herd from a neighboring herd that had been trucked in from ‘outside.’

Most telling, probably, is that a smile lights his face as he shakes an old pear tree and calls for his ‘girls’ to come and see him.

“I won’t keep a mean cow,” he says to explain the placidity of his herd, even the bulls. “It’s just not worth it.” Dex, you see, wants only happy cows. He invites anyone interested in buying his beef, and seeing where it originates, to come out to the farm for a visit—though you might want to come prepared for fixing fence while you’re at it.

If you’re interested in purchasing some grass-fed beef, give Dex a call at 208-266-1347. Leave a message if you get the machine; like Dex explained, the farm is not his day job. But he’ll get back to you.

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Landon Otis

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food, Clark Fork, Dex Vogel, grass-fed beef, beef, cows

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