LINVILLE - David Lee always starts his day the same - tending to the more than 60 cattle on his farm.
First on the list is feeding the Angus bulls.
Lee grabbed four five-gallon buckets to fill them with non-GMO grains made up of cracked corn, rolled roasted soy beans, dry molasses, cured hay and minerals. With a bucket in each hand, he slowly walked down a short hill until he reached the bulls and emptied the buckets one at a time in the wooden grain feeder.
Before the buckets are empty, every bull has already gathered around the feeder to get a taste of the golden goods.
With empty buckets in hand, Lee walked back toward the silo to fill the buckets once more.
After the bulls were taken care of, it was time to check on the rest of the herd.
But Wednesday was not an ordinary farm day.
Four times out of the year, Lee closely checks on his herd to make sure they are healthy and in overall good shape.
Behind the long, red barn was a field for Lee's herd to graze, and it was time to move the animals, so Lee pulled on a red gate to open up the field and allow the herd to move. He stood in the corner of the gate and called for them.
Twiddling with strands of wheat and whistling for the herd, he does not stop the seemingly natural drill until the animals begin to approach him.
The herd gets closer and Lee begins to mark the way to the next destination. Like ducklings follow their mother, the herd followed Lee.
With the exception of a few stragglers separating from the herd, Lee guided the cattle to a smaller enclosure next to the red barn. Then it was time to start checking the cattle one by one.
With a grease gun in one hand and a can of WD-40 in the other, Lee began to grease the head shoot to create a smooth operation. After he made sure the area was clear of wasp nests, Lee started to move the cattle where he needed them to be. Forming a single-file line, each cow walked to the head shoot where they would be weighed, sprayed to remove flies and checked for signs of illness.
Lee rarely gives his animals antibiotics, but he said there are some occasions where it is necessary.
While the cows are being inspected, Lee checks for signs of pink eye that, he says, can resemble a gray film over the cow's eye and cause the cattle to look as if they are crying.
Lee said there was a strain of pink eye this year that was "aggressive," causing some calves to go from healthy to blind in four days. Through close inspection, Lee is able to give cattle with pink eye antibiotics before worsen symptoms arrive.
While some received medicine, others sported a new ear tag.
By the time the last cow went through the head shoot, Lee had looked over 37 cows individually.
The herd gathered once again where they grazed in a field different than the morning. With the last gate closed, Lee began to wrap up his day.
Behind The Land
Lee and his wife, Cara, purchased the 112-acre farm in 2004, creating Zion's Farm.
Lee specializes in raising certified Angus beef and pork. The products he produces contain no Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMO's, no preservatives and no MSG that is commonly added to processed meat.
Due to Lee giving antibiotics to cattle when needed, his products are not 100% organic.
All beef products are dry aged for 14-21 days to intensify the flavor and naturally tenderize the beef through the dehydration process. In Lee's words, "it makes the beef beefier."
Despite his 15 years of experience, Lee does not qualify himself as an expert, but as a man still learning to be a farmer.
Lee said the key to working on a farm is "slow and steady wins the day."
"We want a tomorrow," he said.
Lee typically spends two hours on the farm everyday, with Wednesday's as the time when he spends majority of the day tending to the farm's needs.
Safety is a No.1 rule on the Zion's Farm.
"You have to be in the right frame of mind to work with animals," Lee said.
To Lee, the best part of the farm is the people.
"They are patient, hardworking, good stewards and they take the rain and the sunshine when it comes and they deal with it," Lee said. "I just love being here. There is nothing about here I don't like."
Lee recalled one of his fondest memories of when he was working on the farm.
He had come to work toward the end of the day when it was cooler outside. He worked throughout the night and into the early morning. As he worked, the sky began to fade from the common midnight blue to a darker shade of purple - turning lighter each minute until the morning sky was consumed by a rising sun.
"It's just beautiful," Lee said.
Understanding The Customer
Rockingham County ranks No. 1 in Virginia for livestock, poultry and product sales. For cattle and calves specifically, the county ranks No. 3 for sales in Virginia.
It takes 20-24 months from the time the cow is born until it can be delivered to the customer, Lee said.
His Angus steers are raised on grass, but for their last 90-120 days, they are fed with natural grains.
Over the last 15 years, Lee says he has been able to perfect the product to match his desired taste, but that perfection sits with the genetics of the animal.
"There are three things about raising cattle: Genetics, rigid selection and management," said Richard McClung, a retired Angus cattle farmer and friend of Lee. "Genetics are everything."
Lee recently purchased 14 British Angus cattle.
"David's purchase [of British cattle] is a good move toward proper genetics to fit custom meat business," McClung said. "I would bet they are the only ones in Rockingham County."
McClung said Lee was "doing something here that is pretty neat," and that it would be a "successful operation."
"The things he is doing here is adding value," McClung said.
Lee said when it comes to branding or trying to develop a product, limiting the focus is key.
"You have to really focus on just that one product and just develop it so it is consistent all the time and it becomes synonymous with what you are trying to provide with that consumer and then look for that consumer," Lee said.
Once the customer is found, understanding the customer can get tricky.
Dale Gardner, former president of the Virginia Cattlemen's Association, said one of the big weaknesses in all parts of the agriculture industry is, "we just produce a product and don't take time to understand the customer."
"Today, the customers are by and large interested in non-GMO," Gardner said. "People always want to know how it is produced. Are the cattle handled under right conditions? Is it done in an environmentally sustainable way? Are you willing to pay extra for those things? Probably not, but it becomes an expectation that is what [customers] want."
Lee said his business model continues to be profitable, with his market for the mid-to-high choice, nicely marbled, non-GMO and healthy product.
"When you compare dry aged beef to other dry aged beef, my product price is very well," Lee said. "We are about 30% less than out competitors, but we do not ship. You have to go to our two retail locations or buy 1/2 beef to have it delivered within a three hour radius from Harrisonburg."
Zion's Farm products can be found at the Mt. Crawford Creamery or at Bridgewater Foods.