Growing Cattle: A Long-term Commitment
We finish all the cattle we raise, with the exception of those which are retained for breeding. Here is a description of that process.
Birth. Our calves are mostly born in March and April, where we keep the cows and calves in pens with barns and bedding to protect them from the cold. The cows are fed a mixture of corn silage (the entire corn plant – ear, leaves, and stalk – is chopped into small pieces – see elsewhere for photos of this process), hay, corn stover (the stalks and leaves left over after harvesting the ears), and some corn and/or distiller’s grain. They also receive vitamin and mineral supplements to help balance their diets. Happy cows make better calves, and we try to keep them happy! Due to cold and sometimes wet and snowy weather, our barns provide havens for the little ones to give them time to get bigger and stronger before heading to the pasture. They drink mother’s milk and, as they grow, they also eat a little of their mothers’ food.
Growing. Beginning in late April/early May, pasture growth typically allows us to begin grazing. Grass, alfalfa, and clover form the base for rotational grazing. The herd is always very excited to get out of the lot and into this realm of freedom. We return the cattle to their pens and barns in the case of threatening weather or during extensive wet periods when their hoofs can do damage to alfalfa stands. Cattle are moved between pastures to allow rest and regrowth depending on conditions. If necessary, they return to pens and barns for a time to allow adequate regrowth, during which they eat foods we store up for them (i.e., corn silage, hay, corn). This continues until September, when it is time to wean the calves.
Weaning. Before weaning, we provide vaccinations to the calves to prevent typical cattle diseases and we treat them for any parasites they may have encountered in the pasture. We also castrate the males, so that the bulls become steers. We then return them to their mothers for two weeks or so, which reduces the stress of this experience. Then we separate the mothers from the calves, which triggers a couple of days of mooing. But the mothers soon realize that having a 600-pound calf nursing maybe wasn’t that ideal, and they are happy to go back to the pasture and eventually to the stalk fields during the fall. By this time, calves are used to eating from the feed bunks with their mothers, and they are happy to eat their own food without any competition.
More Growing. After weaning, calves eat a diet that is almost entirely roughage – corn silage and hay, plus soybean meal as a protein supplement. We also feed vitamins A, D, & E to make up for the fact that it is now fall and foods are no longer fresh, but must be stored in our part of the country. Corn is gradually added as the calf matures. We believe in using a high roughage diet throughout the calf’s time in the feedlot – even when a calf is weighing 1200 pounds, he is eating about 40 percent of his diet by weight in the form of roughage. We believe this reduces stress and permits the cattle to use their normal digestive processes to their advantage – and ours.
Harvesting. When the calves approach 1200 pounds, we take them to a local locker for processing. The carcass generally hangs in a cooler for a period from 2-3 weeks, after which it is cut, wrapped, and frozen – ready to be taken home by our customers.
This entire process – from birth to harvest — takes about 15 months or more. We typically begin harvesting the calves in May or early June, and the last ones are ready in the early Fall. Of course, the investment time frame is much longer than this. If we start with a heifer calf born on our farm, it will take one year until she becomes old enough to breed, another year to have that first calf, and then another 15 months until that calf is big enough to become a steak.
We must operate on long time horizons. When other farms were profiting from high corn prices, we decided to look to the future and to invest in new pastures and more cattle, continuing to chop and feed that high-priced corn, marketing it on the hoof rather than sending it to town. It is a steady commitment, as these animals require our care in freezing cold, blazing sun, and everything in between. Fortunately, there are days when it all works, when there can be nothing better. Looking out at a peaceful grazing herd, watching a newborn calf get up and nurse, and seeing growing calves come to the bunk and eat somehow makes up for the days of snow, ice, mud, and hardship.
Our methods are more costly than those used by commercial feedlots. But we think the difference is worth it, both in terms of the quality of life we are able to deliver to our animals, and in terms of the quality of the meat that these animals provide for us. We take care of our cattle; they take care of us. It is that simple.