Jim Burrus of Indian Creek Farms checks over his herd of organic beef cattle. Jim and Mary Burrus and their Indian Creek Farm in Morgan County were honored with the R.J. Vollmer Sustainable Agriculture Farmer Award by the Illinois Department of Agriculture at the 2014 Ag Day awards ceremony at the Illinois State Fair. The Burruses use sustainable farming practices in their organic cow/calf and pastured beef operation and their conventional corn and soybean farming.
Jim Burrus of Indian Creek Farms checks over his herd of organic beef cattle. Jim and Mary Burrus and their Indian Creek Farm in Morgan County were honored with the R.J. Vollmer Sustainable Agriculture Farmer Award by the Illinois Department of Agriculture at the 2014 Ag Day awards ceremony at the Illinois State Fair. The Burruses use sustainable farming practices in their organic cow/calf and pastured beef operation and their conventional corn and soybean farming.
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 said.

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 plan.

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 cow/calf herd.

“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,” Burrus said.

Efforts Honored

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 said.

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 said.

Going Natural

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 stuff.”

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.

1999 Start

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 downstate Illinois.

“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,” Burrus said.

Jim Burrus said sustainable means, for him and his wife, “taking care.”

“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.