To most anyone in the beef business, they love what they do. Raising a herd of animals brings a high level of rewards and satisfaction. Beyond the pitfalls of challenging weather, market prices and the hardships of keeping animals healthy, most ranchers would not give up this lifestyle. It’s what they do.
A customer asked me why it takes so long to develop a cow? He was a little surprised that we didn’t throw cows in a corral, watch them grow 10-20 pounds a day and magically the beef turned into a juicy steak.
I educated him on the management tasks it takes to get cattle to finish weight. After I told him the steps, he shook his head and said he was glad he was not a rancher. He joked that he will leave the cow raising to someone else if he can be the taste tester of the final product. Sounds fair enough.
To consumers who crave a healthy piece of meat, it takes some effort to get there. Producers work hard at creating great beef. It’s a process full of risks and rewards. For us here’s how it goes:
Beginnings: Calves are born on the ranch beginning in March. The early calves will spend the spring, summer and fall with their mommas. In October, these 600-670 lbs calves are sorted and sent on trucks to the Midwest feedlots. Since we raise GAP cattle, the calves are developed for sale in the upscale markets of Whole Foods and other places.
In that process, we need to make sure the calf is born healthy and stays that way. We battle predators, snake bites, porcupine quills and all other sorts of thing. If everything goes to plan, we sell a marketable product in the fall that allows us to stay in business.
That leaves the cutbacks. Such a negative word!
These later born calves follow the same process as the older calves, but in October, we sort them off and send them to our creek pasture. Weaned away from their mothers at about 500 pounds, they will spend the fall and winter living on hay–raised on the ranch and a little bit of alfalfa cubes. They receive shots to protect from pneumonia and respiratory. Steroids, hormones and antibiotics are never used in cows used for the beef program.
Our goal for these calves is a weight gain about 1.2 pounds a day. The target weights at processing are about 1,200 pounds. A calf’s life is about 20-24 months.
Walk Like a Calf: Once the calves are weaned and settled down, we start walking through this young herd. My daughters walk and chant and sing to these calves. Yes, humans can be odd. We want the cows to be gentle. That human interaction is important. We contend that calm and contented cows make for higher quality meat.
Summer Twice: The calves are now reaching weights of about 800 lbs. During this second summer of their lives, they are moved from pasture to pasture more frequently. It’s important that they keep growing and the quality grass makes sure that happens. We start weighing these young cows to make sure the weights are in line with the season.
We now start making decisions which calves — now cows– will head to the beef slaughtering facility. They will still graze for another six months.
The Final Step: This is where it gets a little tricky. Pure grass-fed cattle is the ultimate goal. However, reality takes charge here. We give the calves a free choice of barley and alfalfa cubes the last 30 to 40 days. The cows have a choice of late-season grass, hay and grain cubes. As a grass goes dormant, cows quit gaining and the beef tenderness can be impacted. Yes, they do get a little grain
There is the argument that we break the natural cycle while giving the cows a grain supplement. We are not true grass fed, and we are very honest about that.
Some of our customers do not care for the “wild” taste of grass-fed cows. We also find that the consistency of tenderness improves with a grain finish.
We are happy with the results. What makes our cattle different is the fat content. Calves that spend their adult lives in a feedlot receive large quantities of grain. The meat possesses more fat and marbled flavor. Some consumers like the taste of the grain and fat.
We prefer the leaner mostly forage finish. We’d like to think our beef is healthy because the grain is meant to enhance the flavor, not replace their diets.
Our product is a little different. We grow leaner cows. That’s the kind of beef we want to raise. Our cows get a lot of human attention and we take care of them. Our family loves our cows. We want to share our beef and we hope our customers appreciate the difference.