Over the past seven months, we have had the chance to learn many new things. Figuring out what all the light switches do, just how late can we can leave the kitchen without missing the bus, and what, exactly, qualifies a storm to be a blizzard (not what you might think). We have also begun to learn what it’s like to have animals on the farm. For a good long while, it was just us five humans, filling up the house while looking forward to filling up the fields.
We started our flock, literally, a month ago, when five laying hens and a rooster joined us at the farm. The girls quickly approved of or re-named them (we ended up with Little Jerry, Blanca, Pepita, Chloe, Queenie, and Peanut) and it started to feel like a farm around here. As anyone with chickens knows, the first few are a gateway flock, and soon after, 10 more layers soon called our (former) dairy barn home. (For anyone wondering, we have only named a few from the second wave. Amelia Egghart, Gayle Layers, Ova Winfrey, and Reba McEggtire are as bold and feisty as their namesakes.) These ladies established their pecking order far sooner than anyone managed to adapt to our nesting boxes; each day is an egg hunt, but we are enjoying our free range, farm fresh eggs every morning.
The next, some would argue more important, animals to arrive on farm were two yearling heifers from another grass-based farm nearby. These girls – one just as small and shy as the other is big and bossy – are part of next year’s beef crop and will be with us until early November 2019. The heifers are Aberdeen Angus cattle; Chris picked them specifically because of their herd’s success on grass as well as their smaller, more compact frames. They look very different from the feedlot cattle you might see while coasting along the highway, and for good reason.
The cattle that perform well in feedlots have gotten larger and larger framed as the years have passed. All colloquialisms have their roots in truth; the adage that declares a larger-than-expected being to be “corn-fed” can trace its lineage back to a feedlot, I am sure. These cattle, in order to put on weight and “finish” on corn, must become larger and larger – building frame along with steaks to keep up with the high-energy diet that they are force fed. As a result, our steak sizes have gone the way of the Big Mac. Bigger, fatter, faster, cheaper. According to Jayson Lusk, Head of the Agricultural Economics Department at Purdue University, “the average weights of commercially slaughtered cattle hovered around 1,000 lbs from the 1950s and the mid 1970s…In 2016, the average weight was 1,363 lbs. That’s a whopping 366 lbs higher in 2016 than in 1975!”
In a pasture-based system, where the cattle forage for diverse grasses, forbs, and flowers for their diet – trapping atmospheric carbon along the way, mind you – the animals simply don’t need to be quite so strapping to make your steaks. Because our cattle are fed a cleaner, more nutritious, balanced, grass-only diet, they are able to convert the carbon and carbohydrates from our pasture plants into clean, nutritious meat for you without any extra bulking up.
Knowing all that we do about diet and cattle size, why then, would we add a tall, bulky, corn-fed Charolais steer to our herd? Several reasons, actually. One, we are helping out a fellow farming neighbor who has been nothing but helpful and supportive for us. Our neighbor, Phil, is an extraordinarily thoughtful, considerate, and hardworking conventional cow-calf farmer. He cares about his animals and works around the clock (and around the county) to be the best farmer in the way that he knows how. Phil has offered advice, knowledge, and equipment to these beginning farmers many, many times. Along with the calves that Phil sells at the local sale barn, he often raises and finishes cattle for private sale to friends and neighbors. The buyer for the sizable Charolais steer backed out, and facing an already full freezer, Phil offered him to us for a very reasonable price. But even with the bargain price taken into account, what would we DO with this steer?
We plan on putting him to work while he’s here! Rotational grazing benefits both our cattle and our pastures. The more cows we have in our “herd,” the more quickly we will be able to make noticeable improvements in our acreage. Rather than having access to an entire pasture for several days, weeks, or even months, our cattle are kept close together and moved to new ground every day. Because they are collected together in a small area, the cattle graze the pasture plants evenly – no picky eaters here. And because they are moved every day to fresh pasture, all the plants get to rest, recover, and grow back heartier and more nutritious than before. Having one more nose to the ground will allow us to make the cattle’s daily pasture portion slightly larger, ergo, more ground rotationally grazed in a season, and healthier, heartier pastures for 2019.
Another benefit to having this steer join us is purely as a learning experience. We are new to farming, and although we feel as prepared as we can be, there is simply no substitute for real life experience. How will this steer do as he transitions from corn to grass? How will adding a new cow to the herd affect the mob mentality already established by the others? And how will a cow of his size and build fare when offered only what his previously corn-fed rumen is truly designed to eat? These are all pertinent questions; we need his help to learn the answers. Any and all information will help us to be better farmers. The more cattle, seasons, and experiences we are exposed to, the more prepared and proactive we can be on the farm.
So if you find yourself visiting the farm, or scrolling through pictures on social media, don’t be surprised when you see one tall, husky steer out on pasture in the midst of our shorter, more compact herd. He is here to do some pasture work while he teaches us some lessons along the way. Come on out sometime and learn along with us!