John Willoughby: Greene Publishing, Inc.
From hay to cattle and sheep, Chris Ellis of Ellis Farms has been successful in growing and maintaining his farm in Madison County. Ellis began with growing little by little, learning about caring for and raising sheep and cattle. Now, he is "a cut above," gaining the trust of customers on a daily basis.
Born and raised in Charleston, S.C., Chris Ellis and his wife, Jeanne, bought land south of the City of Madison in 2010 and moved into their newly-built home in 2012, after deciding to move away from the city life upon retirement. "I was tired of the city life," said Ellis. "I said 'you know, to keep active, let's go buy a farm, get out of the city and do something totally different,' and this was totally different." Beginning in 2012, Ellis Farms raised perennial peanut hay for two years, however, according to Ellis, "that's a whole lot of work, so it was time for a change. We bought some cattle and in the process of having the cattle, a neighbor gave us some sheep."
"With cattle, it's just easier. It doesn't take that much time to take care of them," said Ellis, who is looking to begin a paddock grazing system. "You turn into a grass guy; you learn how to grow grass. If you can get your grass up, you can support more animals. That's a big point."
Since obtaining the cattle and sheep, the Ellises have researched what makes the best genetics for the least amount of work for cattle and sheep. Upon finding a research article, it was discovered that cattle ranches in the panhandle of Florida conducted a taste test between four breeds of cattle: Black Angus, Angus/Wagyu, Devon and South Poll. Out of 60 to 80 testers, the south poll scored the highest out of the three other breeds. "The South Polls were a developed breed by the lead singer of the group 'Alabama,'" said Ellis. "It took him like 25 years to develop South Polls and they are a mixture of four different breeds."
Upon Ellis completing his own taste test, he confirmed the South Poll breed scored the highest, allowing Ellis to conclude that South Poll beef is an excellent choice. Upon seeing that Wagyu improved the Angus score by approximately 65 points, according to Ellis, South Poll was bred with Wagyu. "We found out that if you cross a beef cow with a particular breed that it would make them much more tender, so we did that and we tried it and it absolutely did just that," said Ellis. "Then we ran across the Wagyu which adds more marbling, which makes it more of a choice or a prime." The Wagyu, Ellis explained, is nine grades above the regular three to four grades of choice.
Today, South Poll mix and Wagyu cattle graze the fields of Ellis Farms, as well as Katahdins Sheep. According to Ellis, he sells out of cattle and sheep every year. "We've got people asking us to supply them 10 [sheep] a month," said Ellis. "I just don't have that number of sheep to do that so right now we're weighing: do we want to raise more sheep or more cattle? Both sell great."
As far as keeping his herd of sheep consistent, Ellis explained that within two years, his sheep breed three times, always breeding one male and one female. He then raises the male and sells it but keeps the female to breed three more times within two years. "In two years, you get six," said Ellis.
With no prior experience in farming, Ellis explained that research, reading and speaking with experienced farmers has been extremely helpful in understanding how to keep the operation flowing. "So when you talk to the people, they'll tell you their experience and what they know. We joined some organizations, went to the meetings and that, in itself, gave us probably 80 percent of what we needed to know. The other 20 percent, because you've done it for 'X' number of years, you learn how to do it," said Ellis. "From time to time, I go ask." Ellis also explained that trial and error has been a part of the everlasting growing process.
One unique quality about Ellis Farms is that Ellis uses no antibiotics, hormones or steroids. Ellis grass feeds and finishes his cattle and sheep allowing for a valuable amount of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is thought to reduce heart disease and the risk of cancer. Benefits to the beef include total less fat, more heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, five times more the CLA, higher vitamin E and beta carotene, as well as the ease of digestion. For the sheep, grass feeding and finishing provides for an excellent source of B12, protein, selenium and niacin. Additionally, a source of zinc and phosphorus is added.
"We just try to keep it as natural as can be," said Ellis. "During the winter months, we go and buy feed for the female cows because they need supplementation during the winter months. When they're lactating, that takes a lot out of them and to get them the proper nutrients, we put out minerals and stuff like that. We do supplement the cows with that when they've got the babies with them because it's important that you do that. Even with the sheep. They're all natural supplements, not GMO."
When a customer buys at least one half of a cow, Ellis Farm uses Kinner Kountry Sausage for their processing. Customers usually come to see the sheep before they buy. Ellis invites anyone to come to his farm to evaluate the potential product. As far as cattle goes, pricing depends on the economy and what people can afford at any given time.
For more information about Ellis Farms, their operations, animals and prices, log onto ellisfarms.org. You may also call Chris Ellis at (850) 464-0424 or (850) 464-0807.