JACKSONVILLE, Ill. — Jim Burrus likes to see the birds. And
there are a lot of them today.
They swarm up when his truck pulls into the pasture, flock
together and circle around before settling back down, mostly on the backs of the
100 or so cows and calves, and the two bulls, that are grazing on the thick,
tall grasses of the section of pasture.
“I love the birds, I love to see them out here,” Burrus
For Jim Burrus and his wife, Mary, seeing the birds is an
indicator that they’re doing things well. The cowbirds also are part of his pest
control plan for his herd.
They co-exist with — and mostly on — the cattle, eating
biting insects and pests. Natural pest control is a vital part of his management
It’s also vital to maintaining his U.S. Department of
Agriculture organic certification for the organic, all grassfed beef that he
sells through his Indian Creek Farm.
“This is my thing in agriculture,” he said, seated at the
dining room table of the house where he was born and raised.
Burrus and his wife believe in longevity and the value of
the past. The house where Jim was born was built sometime in the mid-1800s. A
beam that they found during some remodeling shows the post and beam construction
of the house.
An antique secretary is an heirloom from Jim’s family and
sits in the dining room. An antique desk from Mary’s family is in another room.
That echoes out to the hills that make up the farm’s
pastures, which are a legacy from his father, who also pastured cattle there.
Jim has mostly carried on the cattle operation the way his dad did.
“Dad said as long as he was around, we’re not going to plow
these hills or tear these hills up,” Burrus said.
His father also followed a low-maintenance approach to his
“Dad and his brother farmed together doing mostly grain
farming. It was really easy. We looked at the cows on Sunday and checked the
water gaps if we had a big rain. We gave them a block of white salt on Sunday,
and that was the extent of it. I found a way to make that more profitable,”
Jim and Mary Burrus were honored at the 2014 Illinois State
Fair Ag Day awards luncheon as the Illinois Department of Agriculture’s 2014
Sustainable Agriculture Farmers of the Year.
They operate a 130-head all-organic, grass-fed cow/calf herd
and market about 40 organic beef cattle a year. They sell the USDA
organic-certified beef in wholes, halves, quarters and cuts, direct from their
farm and also from the Illinois Products Farmer’s Market at the Illinois State
Fairgrounds in Springfield.
Burrus said the main questions he gets are about what’s fed
to his cattle.
“The biggest question probably is do you feed any
antibiotics or hormones and then is it 100 percent grass-fed,” he said. “The
antibiotic thing is a big thing.”
In addition, the Burruses grow conventional strip-tilled
corn and no-till soybeans that Jim markets through his local elevator.
“I started no-tilling in 1991 and just a little bit at a
time. No-till saves labor, it saves equipment and it saves fuel and it also
keeps the ground covered and that’s what was really our main focus,” Burrus
He started the path to organic beef in 1994 when he attended
a pasture improvement seminar in Carlock and saw photos of cattle grazing on
hillsides in New Zealand through a practice called intensive grazing.
Pastures, also called paddocks, are divided up and cattle
graze in different sections for short periods, then move to another section.
Burrus said he was happy when he saw the photos and wanted
to learn more.
“I was relieved that I had found a way to plant seed on
those hills and do cattle and keep them the way they were,” he said.
He also liked the benefits of management-intensive grazing.
“In the management-intensive grazing system, you can raise
about 50 percent more grass when you move the cattle on a day or two-day basis
because you’re giving that grass time to rest so you’re growing more grass,” he
The pasture he intended to use had never had chemicals on
it, only the cows grown in the conventional manner.
Burrus said he was a little afraid to take the leap, but
knew that the transition would likely cause more anxiety for a two-footed
creature than for the four-footed ones.
“I suppose the biggest challenge when I started the organic
was we thought we needed all these things to work. I told a friend in Missouri,
I think it’s going to bother me more than it is the cows. It probably took about
three years before they got their immunity back. One hundred years ago, you
didn’t have all those things, and I just kept seeing improvements every year,”
he said. “But that was probably the biggest challenge, to not use all that
Burrus manages the herd by keeping the yearlings. The
animals are butchered at 24 to 30 months of age at Bittner’s Locker in Eureka, a
certified organic processor.
Burrus can treat a sick animal, which then has to be removed
from the herd and sold as non-organic.
“If you are certified organic, you have to but this is the
strange thing — we have not had a sick calf since we started grassfed. We don’t
change a calf’s feed. We don’t change anything for the calf except take the milk
away. All that changes for the calf is he’s on the other side of the fence, and
if he can see his mom, he’s pretty happy and he’s got what he’s been eating
anyhow,” he said.
The Burruses sold the first grassfed beef in 1999. They
earned their USDA Certified Organic certification in 2006.
Demand originally came mostly from the Chicago area, but now
has moved more locally.
Mary Burrus works at the Illinois Education Association and
plans to retire early next year.
“It was our goal when we started to sell everything direct
market and sell a high-quality product, and now that we’re there, somebody asked
me my goal — it’s to expand and provide more beef. Demand is high and we’ve had
to turn customers down,” Burrus said.
Even though his crops are conventional, Burrus takes the
same approach to them. The farm is in the massive Indian Creek Watershed and
only 12 miles from the Illinois River.
It’s hill country, with steep slopes and valleys more
reminiscent of the northwest Illinois and southwest Wisconsin area than
“I am so glad those hills are there. As farmers, we’re
concerned a lot with water. We think that’s really going to be a major thing in
the future, and we’re trying to keep water on our land, hold water on the land.
We’re always trying to think of ways to do that and grass is where we’re at,”
Jim Burrus said sustainable means, for him and his wife,
“To me, sustainable means taking care of the land, building
soil health, building soil, taking care of the animals the proper way,” he said.
For the Burruses, the care they have taken of their land and
cattle has returned the favor.
“Dad always said if you take care of it, it’ll take care of
you,” Burrus said.