John Lyons has never been to Hawaii, but his cows have.
Lyons sold seven of his specially-bred, grass-fed South Poll bulls to the 4,000-acre Hana Ranch in Hawaii last year.
In all, the Hawaiian ranch bought 27 South Polls from Lyon’s Piedmont ranch and others, trucked them to California, flew them to Honolulu then loaded them on a barge to Maui.
"They paid trucking," Lyons said. "There’s not many people that do what we do … This is what I’m passionate about."
Special breed of cattle
The South Poll breed was developed in 1989 by Teddy Gentry, bass player for the band Alabama, at his Fort Payne ranch, Bent Tree Farms.
A composite of four other breeds — Barzona, Hereford, Red Angus and Senepol, from the U.S. Virgin Islands — South Polls tends to be docile, easy to work with and heat-tolerant.
Good cattle for the South, or for an island in the middle of the Pacific, Lyons explained.
Lyons, 57, walked a reporter into a grazing area Wednesday, within petting distance of several bulls. The thick-chested animals paid little mind to the intrusion, instead happily chewed in a fresh patch of deep green grass. Perhaps the two most important characteristics of the breed, Lyons said, are longevity and fertility. Cows that don’t muster up are sold off, but not as South Polls. Doing so ensures a better breed, he explained.
He’ll feed his cattle hay in January and February, when grass is sparse, but the rest of the year it’s grass and planted cover crops such as turnips, oats and radishes.
"A 50 pound bag of seed goes further than a 50 pound bag of feed," Lyon said. "There’s so much life in the soil, and people don’t realize that."
Lyons doesn’t use herbicides or pesticides, antibiotics or growth hormones, and very little fertilizer — rarely. All those chemicals, bags of feed and expensive machinery eat up profits, he explained. Life will take care of itself if you let it.
"Eating good. Happy. Out in the sunshine. That not only makes a good cow, it makes a good person," Lyons said.
Special breed of rancher
For an Alabama cattleman Lyons is as atypical as the cows he raises. The semi-retired special education teacher reads Norwegian fiction, doesn’t watch sports — though he used to coach — and identifies as a liberal.
Lyons was born in California and moved around a lot, growing up a "military brat." His father moved the family to Calhoun County when Lyons was still young, after the elder Lyons got a job as an air-traffic controller at Anniston’s airport.
Lyons had no cattle-ranching experience, but had always wanted to try his hand. In the 1980s he and his wife, Andra, began keeping cattle for other ranchers, and in the late 1980s he started researching grass-fed cattle, which was just beginning to become popular. He traveled often to ranches in Missouri to study the process, a state he said has and is "lightyears ahead of us in Alabama."
During his research he learned that Gentry had cultivated a special breed of grass-fed cattle at his Fort Payne ranch, an hour’s drive from Lyons’ own.
The Lyonses bought their Piedmont farm at the foot of Hurricane Mountain in 1994 and began clearing the overgrown 125 acres. Once cleared, he put his South Polls to pasture.
Andra is a retired science teacher from Kitty Stone Elementary in Jacksonville, and Lyons retired in 2011 as a special education teacher for Jacksonville City Schools, although he still teaches part-time for homebound students.
Lyons knows his cows, and he’s big on grass-fed beef. It’s better for the animals, better for the soil they live on and for the people who eat them, he explained, than traditional hay and corn-fed cattle.
Grass-fed beef is leaner, and contains more healthy omega-3 fatty acids than other cattle, according to a three-year study by Clemson University, ending in 2004. And it tastes better too, that research showed.
According to the Wallace Center of the Winrock International Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes healthier food systems, grass-fed beef has also become big business.
The center found that in 1998 retail sales of grassfed beef in the U.S. were less than $5 million, and came from about 100 beef producers. In 2012 those domestic sales topped $400 million. Include imported grass-feed beef in that figure and in 2012 the industry generated $1.5 billion, according to the center.
But there are those in the meat business, such as the North American Meat Association, who say that there simply isn’t enough land to raise enough grass-fed beef to feed the masses, and traditional methods aren’t necessarily bad for you or worse-tasting.
Lyons doesn’t worry too much about convincing others that his ways are better. There’s a lot of money and support behind traditional cattle methods, he explained, and Alabama farmers aren’t easily convinced that change is good.
"You’re not going to change a farmer’s opinion on anything here. You’re wasting your time," Lyons said. "So I worry about myself."
And why worry? Business is good, Lyons said. He’s selling cows to ranches across the country, including Amish ranchers from Pennsylvania. Turns out, raising cattle that live on grass isn’t a new trend for their old ways, he said.
"We have a waiting list of people wanting to buy heifers," Lyons said. He doesn’t advertise; word gets around quick.
His problem now isn’t finding buyers for his cows, it’s finding more land to raise them on, and that hasn’t been easy.
"I’d like to lease some more land," Lyons said. "Maybe you could put that in your article."