I often get asked how beef is raised here in the United States.
This is a valid question and usually goes hand-in-hand with "What is the difference between Grass fed and Conventional beef?"
These are great questions and I often don't have a large chalk board to lay it all out, so I wave my hands furiously and try my best to explain how that pound of ground made it into your refrigerator last week...
It usually doesn't end well, with my well meaning, inquisitive conversationalist leaving dumbfounded, to no fault of their own, by that Crunchy, Hippy, Goofy Rancher guy.
Anyway, I finally used my hand-cranked, 1997 model HP to connect to that new-fangled Internet thing and put my thoughts into an Infograph.
Hope this helps... gotta go chase pigs.
Our house here at the Ranch has a front and back yard. We love having a really nice grass stand and a well trimmed lawn – it looks nice, and feels great. Each year we take care to make sure the grass is nice and neat for the fun of the summer season. Usually, about Spring time, we get real serious about it, trimming, edging – all the things normal “city folk” do to their yards to make them look neat and pretty. During the winter months, we let it get ragged and overgrown.
Overgrown, that is, until I break out my lawn mowers. Yes, I said mowers with an “s”. I have a bunch of them. My mowers don’t take gas, do not require oil changes and never need their blades sharpened. I never have to empty the grass bag where the clippings are collected – they do that on their own. I don’t have to push them – they have “power assist”. My kids don’t complain when I ask them to mow the lawn, on the contrary, they rather enjoy it.
It usually takes me about a day to mow the entire yard, and both sides of our 1/8 mile long driveway. When I am done, the place looks nice and clean. All the weeds are gone, the grass is tidy, and my mowers are very happy. I run them until I find them standing all day. I can tell the mower bags are full when the Cows sit down and chew cud. If I find them standing all day looking for grass, they are not getting enough. When you drive by Cattle and see them lying down, they are full and have plenty of feed. If they are standing all the time, they are underfed and the grass is usually overgrazed – you can tell when you see them in the same spot each day that they are not managed very well. Cattle need to rotate from one setting to the next to keep themselves and the grass healthy.
So, I don't sweat very much doing my lawn care... oh and my Cows are happy too.
If you own a milk cow, you always have Milk Calves around. I ran into a guy the other day who bought a Milk Cow. He wasn’t sure what he should do next, so he just put her out to pasture. She was not in lactation, so his goal was to get her bred again then calf, then milk. Cows gestate for 9 months, like humans, and then 83 days after birth are re-bred to have another calf. This makes for a nice 12 month cycle.
Anyway, we've been there... the romantic thought of having your own milk source. I had a rude awakening years ago when we got our first Milk Cow - I was absolutely amazed at how much work they were. I remember coming back from the barn after milking at 5 AM, before heading off to work that day. I had 8 gallons in my bucket (from one Cow!) and told the kids to start drinking...
"Yep, Dad, we had a few cups, we made Hot Coco", they replied.
So, I went to Eve and asked, "Hey honey, did you get some milk?"
"Yes", she replied, "it tastes great, I even made butter".
"Ok, uh, what are we going to do with this?", as I held up the 8 gallons of fresh milk.
"Just put it in the fridge", she blurted out...
"Sure, sweetie, I will, but the fridge already has 25 gallons of milk in it", I replied.
By the end of that week we had 85 gallons. It was time to call all our friends, and get some pigs (milk fed Pork is really awesome). I learned quickly - Milk Cows are bred to produce!
A few days before Christmas this year, one of our Jerseys had a real nice heifer (female) calf. You can see her in the video above. The Cow in the background is not the calf’s mother. The heifer’s mother approached right after I stopped shooting the video to check me out. She is an excellent mom, and a great producer to boot (about 9 gallons per day).
A few things about calves – first and foremost, Mother Milk Cows cannot keep their calves. Our average Jersey produces between six and ten gallons per day. A calf needs about 1-2 gallons to be healthy, so within a few days of birth, a young calf will be die because it cannot stop drinking her mother’s milk and mama won’t tell them to stop either (she likes the relief). The Calf gets "Scours", or diarrhea, and actually dehydrates as it just can’t process that much liquid.
Our management technique is to separate mother and calf for a portion day and all of the night. Milk calves get a nice warm stall with a heat lamp, during the night, and time with their mothers while mom grazes during the day. Time with mama is limited to a few hours at a time - so as to prevent over-drinking. I tell Eve those darn calves need to join "MA", or, Milk-Anonymous, as they all clearly have a drinking problem.
In the winter, Mother and Calf are together from after morning milking (at about 10 AM) until sundown. It works really well, we end up with a very friendly, easy to lead calf (she is led out and in by us via her halter) and a happy Mom who gets to look after her calf all day. Our Calves also learn herd behavior as the Mother and baby forage with others in the group. Grazing is a learned behavior and calves watch what their Moms eat as they slowly transition from Milk to Grass over about 3 months time. These elements are missing from most Dairy Cows as they are conditioned to live in confinement and only eat grain. We need to have efficient grass-to-milk converters who have heard and grazing skills. This is only the case for our dairy heifers, not our bull calves – bull calves are fed enough milk to grow up and are quickly put on a grazing rotation, so they can be of use as a feeder steers or sold at market.
In theory, it's pretty simple, but in practice, it can be quite challenging. This is something we will teach to each of our apprentice and interns during their time here at SonRise (beginning in 2016). They must know how to manage Milk Cows as they are the center of the sustainable farm operation. Here is a brief summary of how it works…
The pro-GMO world’s talking points include the argument that we can’t feed the world without the large production levels that GMO’s with immunity to pesticides allow. However, I propose that we just use the worlds grass supply, that is, if we can get to the grass before desertification can.
I have never known how to brand it, but I am constantly divided between two far-distant lands. In one, a Rancher, Capitalist, Outdoorsman and Energetic young “take on the world” critter grazer lives. On the opposite side of the political, religious, world view perspective lives a concerned Environmentalist, Earth Lover and Student of Nature who cares deeply about any scars he might leave on the earth and holds a genuine concern for the world God has trusted us with - constantly aware of the inalienable fact that my children will inherit the choices I make.
I have often mentioned that Grass-fed and finished beef draws these two diametrically opposed worlds together. Many have entered into Grass-fed beef out of necessity – the cattle business is brutal and any marketing edge one might acquire is fiercely pursued – Grass fed and finished beef, with its higher premiums, offers a tempting choice for traditional cattle producers looking for higher profits on their herds.
The problem with this premise is that traditional cattle husbandry methods don’t match up too well with the Grass-fed and finished direct marketing strategy – in other words, it’s hard to take your feed-lot destined calves and “just keep them a bit longer” to make grass-fed beef out of them. It’s taken us years to perfect our methods – making sure we have enough really good grass to keep all the mouths fed and get those critters fat.
Real Grass-fed cattle production requires maximum attention to grass growth and recovery, and this is borne out only through an authentic concern for the environment (one that goes far beyond talking the talk, but really means walking the walk). At its genesis, to be a good Grass-fed and finished cattleman, you’ve got to be a die-hard environmentalist. This creates an internal conflict of sorts as most right-leaning cattlemen don’t have a left leaning, earth hugging, and long-haired environmentalist living inside them.
I spoke with a Rancher recently who proudly exclaimed that his cattle drank out of a stream, and had no water troughs, no modern conveniences and was “livin' off the land like in them old days” – I was absolutely aghast.
Most average folks know that when ruminant animals drink, they tend to manure about the same time. Here at SonRise, we use this to our advantage by placing the water trough in nutrient depleted areas thus attracting more manure deposits for future grass growth (did I mention my main goal as a cattleman is to grow grass?).
So, pray tell – what might the first true environmentalist (or, worse yet, any environmentally concerned millennial) say the first time you tell them that not only do you have running water on your Ranch, but you let your Cows poop in it?
Holy surface water contamination, Batman!
Worse yet, this guy was marketing and selling Grass-fed beef… so his likelihood of encountering that well educated environmentalist was far greater than your average worn out old Cowboy having a cold one at the pub complaining about the price of feed this year.
And what happens when that stuck-in-his-ways stubborn old Rancher does run into that environmentalist? You guessed it - Grass-fed cattle gets another black eye.
That is why Grass-fed cattle can’t be just a slick marketing technique, but must be a lifestyle change – I know I sound like a die-hard Paleo dieter trying to convince a WeightWatchers member to start eating Bacon here, but this is a really critical point – we can’t take on the industrial, confined mega-farming complex with those who don’t care about the environment in the ranks.
Terracing (above the fence line) caused by cattle continually passing back and forth looking for grass on the hillside. This particular pasture has cattle on it year round with no chance for the grass to fully recover. This is not natural, as in nature the herd would pass by and move on only to return months later for another bite.
I have included a picture of an overgrazed pasture for your enjoyment. Some cattlemen would be proud – after all “we got every last ounce of grass out of that pasture,” and to heck with the year-over-year destruction it might cause from nutrient depletion, terracing (left and right grazing lines on the hillside) or erosion due to the shallow roots of overgrazed plants (most plants grow 1/3 above the surface and 2/3 below in root structure – so taller plants hold more sub-surface soils together).
Either way – you are the judge…. And I will be the “Christian Fundamentalist Lunatic Libertarian Environmentalist Rancher” who can’t fit in anywhere.