How They’re Raised-Cattle

Starting with calves has been an interesting experience. Every species is unique and within each species, each member has their own quirks. I’ve heard “sheep are dumb” and “cows are dumb.” Let me just tell you, that’s a lie. Animals are instinctual, but they sure aren’t stupid. Cattle are some darn smart creatures and it gets them (and/or their owner!) into loads of trouble at times. Despite being on only my second pair of cattle, they have taught me so much about their species, so much so that I won’t do much more than only begin to help you understand these awesome giants. But I’ll at least start with how I raise cattle from bottle babies to half-ton toe-crushers.

Cattle raised on the WPP farm are bought as calves. The first two were holstein/hereford crosses that arrived after they were about a month old. The second two are holstein/angus crosses. Holstein is a milking breed and both Hereford and Angus are meat breeds. The first ones looked like dairy cows, but the second pair, twin girls, look like beef cattle. They were brought to the farm on their second day of life, after receiving their mother’s colostrum, which is a vital component of milk during the first 24 hours that provides antibodies to help the calves fight off bacteria and viruses.

Once the calves arrive here, they are bottle fed milk replacer for about 3-5 months. It’s not as ideal as having them with their mother who, naturally, would provide milk for the calf for nearly its entire first year of life. The calves are fed a little grain early on as they transition from milk to pasture to help their stomach turn from a milk-digesting stomach to a solid-food digesting stomach. Grain helps to jump start this process so that the calves are able to get the most nutrients out of the grass as possible.

But the yummy nightly snacks don’t stop there. Since it is usually the end of spring when the calves are coming off milk replacer, the sheep are also coming off their winter grain ration as they no longer need the extra sugars and proteins to stay warm and make milk for their lambs. Everyone transitions together onto alfalfa pellets. These are soaked to prevent them from choking on the dry pellets. Alfalfa is a high protein plant that herbivores love. It gives them a small boost of protein and encourages them to come when I call for them! This makes for retrieving wayward bovines a breeze! When I call “come on big cows” and shake the grain bucket, it’s a lovely sight as they come raising towards me kicking up their heels in excitement!

For the summer, the cattle enjoy the fresh green grass of the pasture and their nightly snack of alfalfa pellets, but once winter rolls around, grain and hay are on the menu. Around late October, early November, when nights start getting nippy and the daylight starts fading fast, they start eating almost entirely stored forage and a few pounds of grain. The grain helps the calves continue to grow well through winter and stay warm with the added sugars that the hay may not be able to provide. By this point, the calves are around 7 months old and well over 500lbs.

As yearlings entering their second spring, they again are switched back to alfalfa pellets and released back onto the pasture. During winter, they are stuck with the “sacrifice paddock,” that is to say, an area of the pasture that is sacrificed for the winter so that the rest of the pasture can have a rest and begin to regrow in the early spring. This sacrificial area will then be fenced off to hopefully give it some time to rest as well before the next winter. The cattle enjoy their second summer as they push past 1,000lbs each.

Once the cattle reach their second winter and before they again need to start eating hay and grain, they will go to the butcher. By this point, the goal is for each heifer or steer to weigh around 1,200lbs. They will have eaten minimal grain and been provided with 99% of the food coming in the form of fresh or stored forages by way of pasture plants, alfalfa, hay, or cut grass. By keeping grain feeding to a minimum, the beef from these grass-fed cattle is heart-healthy and provides a number of other health and taste benefits.

The best part for me, though, as the farmer, is being able to provide as close to natural of an environment for the cattle as possible with the current resources available. While it may not be natural for cattle to receive chin scratches and tummy rubs or be saved from getting stuck somewhere, they sure do seem to appreciate it. Cattle seem to be just as intrigued by humans as humans are by them, and while I don’t always appreciate a giant, slimy cat tongue lick from a cow, I know that’s just one way that they let me know I’ve been accepted as part of the herd.

How They’re Raised-Sheep

If you haven’t read the beginnings of how I ended up with sheep, first go read that story!

I chose hair sheep after long and careful consideration. Being a small farmer, starting with a single ewe and her lambs, it would not have been easy to deal with the yearly or biyearly shearing of a few sheep. Nor would it have been cost efficient. Shearing a trio of sheep could cost $30 and the wool could end up being worth nothing if it wasn’t cared for appropriately while the sheep was wearing it! I knew I wasn’t ready for that, so I found the breed “Katahdin.”

These lovely hair sheep lose their coat every spring. During the summer, their coat is coarse and short to repel rain and keep them cool. In the winter, the grow in a soft, woolly coat up to three inches thick. Like wool sheep, this coat of hair repels moisture through an oil known as “lanolin.” This oil keeps the rain and snow from wetting them down too much, helping to keep them warm. The three inch deep hair then insulates them so well that snow doesn’t even melt off their backs!

Katahdin sheep are easy keepers: They eat grass and a few handfuls of grain and give you beautiful lambs in the spring with nary a single cry other than to ask “Where’s my snack?!” It’s a pretty darn exciting thing to walk up to the pasture on a cold February morning, still dark, with snow covering them ground to find your ewes lambing, unassisted, and cleaning off their newborns with their only worry being to dry off that little lamb and get it standing and eating. They are incredible creatures and wonderfully instinctive.

I provide my sheep with a shelter from the elements, but they aren’t often inclined to bother with it. On hot days, the sheep find a breezy, shady spot to pant for the afternoon. On raining days, they’ll be out eating grass in the pasture. When it’s snowing, they’ll be laying out there chewing their cud, entirely not bothered. Just about the only time they mind the weather is when the wind starts howling on the colder or wetter days. Then they’ll gratefully use the shelter.

They have full run of the pasture right now, but this winter, they will be confined to the front section to help the pasture heal. Once the grass starts growing, I’ll begin rotating them through the pasture, paddock by paddock. Rotating them around the pasture rather than giving them free reign to the entire area encourages them to eat more than just the “candy grass” and makes them eat a more rounded meal. Some grasses taste better than others, but has more sugar, while others have more nutrients and taste less delectable, so the sheep skip that on the first pass if they have access to the whole pasture.

In September, I take off the ram’s silly apron that prevents accidental lambs, and let him get down to business. In the past, Sam would have completed his duties in a few days and in February, I’d have lambs all on the ground in a week or two. This year, Cork is in charge. Being a young fella, we will see how he does with completely his duties. Hopefully, the lambs won’t be born too far into the spring, but again, Katahdins are good at what they do, so I don’t think there will be much of a problem.

During the months the ewes are in milk with their lambs, I feed alfalfa pellets to give them the necessary protein they need to stay in good condition while caring for the hungry babies. Once the lambs are gone or grown and the cold sets in, out comes the real good stuff, the grain! Sheep go crazy for grain! They will trip over each other to get to the grain bucket and potentially take out the food-lady to get their share! The sheep get a few cups of grain per day to help them stay warm through the cold winter nights and give them the extra calories through the duration of their pregnancy.

Once the lambs are born, I give them a few weeks to build up their strength before I manhandle them too much. But once they are found strong and healthy, the boys go from being rams, to being “wethers,” meaning they don’t get to keep their testicles, which lead to meat having quite a bit of flavor. The lambs grow to about 9 months old, and the ewe lambs are kept behind with their mothers and the wethers head to the butcher. Sheep are considered “lambs” until they are one year old. So when you see “lamb” for sale at the store, it’s not a little baby they slaughtered, it’s a sheep who is often 75% full grown, but just under a year.

The sheep on the farm here at WPP get to stay with their mothers until the day they go to the butcher. I allow the ewes to decide when to wean their lambs. For the most part, the ewes get tired of being thrown around when their nearly full grown lambs head butt their udders in an instinctual effort to encourage more milk production. I’ve seen ewes with their back legs up off the ground from getting head butted so hard! The mothers then usually call it a day and stomp off!

While I still might see 9 month old lambs nursing from time to time, it becomes pretty infrequent by that point. Other producers may only let their lambs nurse up to 3 months, sometimes 4 months before they separate the lambs from the ewes. I find Katahdins don’t need the separation and it’s hard to see them go through that process unnecessarily, so I don’t do it. These sheep might lose some condition and be a bit bony by the middle of summer, but they gain it all back before winter so they stay nice and warm with some fat covering.

So there you have it, raising sheep in a nut shell. There’s always so much more to sheep than meets the eye! My sheep are shy at first, but they know a bucket of grain when they see one and will run to even a stranger, though wary at first. My sheep truly know my voice and come when I call out “come on sheep!” They are eager to be near me and see what treat I may have brought them. It’s such a calming experience to spend time with the sheep. They come to nuzzle me and get a gentle scratch behind the ears or under the chin. The best moments are when Cindy, my matriarch ewe, sways back and forth as I scratch her back. Even sheep love a nice back massage!

Farming Misnomers, Half-Truths, and Outright Lies

Grass fed. Pastured. Organic. All Natural. Cage Free. Hormone free.

I’m sure you’ve seen all the various “natural” labels that have been added to egg cartons and packages of meat in all the grocery stores. They serve to encourage the consumer to purchase the blue package over the red package or yellow package. It screams “I’m a healthy product. These animals were treated right!” But is it? Were they?

“Greenwashing” is a term used to describe the labels on these packages of products that may or may not be entirely what they say it is. Ever hear of “vegetarian fed” chickens? I find this label to be the oddest of all. Chickens aren’t even vegetarians! Chickens love their bugs! There’s not much better than watching “chicken tv” and seeing an episode of “keep away” with a grasshopper in the beak of a hen as she tries to find a quiet spot to eat her morsel in peace; all the while, she’s chased by other hens who see her prize and want their own nibble.

But all of these labels are misleading or really just downright lies. Cage free and hormone free are interesting ones when it comes to buying chicken. Many people don’t even realize that broilers have always been cage free and hormones haven’t been used or allowed by the government for over 50 years for poultry. There isn’t even a growth hormone that can be taken orally! The thousands of chickens contained within one broiler operation would need to receive numerous injections for growth hormones to even work. So, while it’s not a lie, it’s massively misleading.

“Organic” has been a term that has found its way onto grocery store shelves in stores big and small across the country. There are multiple organizations that seek to certify organic producers and you will often find that logo alongside the word organic. But what’s the deal? What does that even mean? It’s meaning less and less the more common it becomes. Organic was originally intended to mean that the vegetable or animal was produced without the use of man made chemicals, without scientifically genetically modified organisms, and labor-intensive pest and weed control.

Instead, what we have seen, is numerous methods to skirt around the heart and soul of this term. Plastics are being used by the mountain-full to keep down weeds. New pest-control sprays have been created to kill bugs that utilize naturally-occurring bacteria and fungi. The water has been so muddied in regards to this term that it’s hard to really know what it means anymore. Not to mention that many organizations that certify that farmers and producers are organic allow self-reporting and rarely inspect these farms. That is not to say that all certifying organizations are shady or don’t do their due diligence, but it takes effort to know which ones to trust.

Then there’s “grass fed,” “free range,” and “pastured.” How much grass does a sheep or cow need to eat to be grass fed? A couple handfuls per day? As much as they want? Only grass and no grain? “Pastured” and “free range” sounds like that means they live full time out on the pasture. Does it? Can we really be so sure? Does an hour or two per day count? Many people hear “grass fed” and imagine cows idly chewing their cud while other cattle shove delicate grass blades into their mouths with their long and flexible tongues.

Unfortunately, this is sometimes far from the truth. Eggs labeled as coming from “free range” hens in the United States may never have even seen the outdoors. They may have never eaten a blade of grass or hopped after a cricket as it fled away. Grass fed cattle may eat chopped hay indoors day after day and only get out on grass for a few hours. They may eat mostly grain or silage.

When presented with all of these labels and phrases, it can be hard to know the truth behind them. What’s far simpler is knowing your farmer.

When I say that my sheep and cattle are grass fed and pastured, I’m pretty darn serious. When my first two cattle spent their days planning prison breaks because they thought the field at the bottom of the hill (acres away, not my property) looked far greener, I had to lock them up for a few weeks before they could be moved to more secure pastures. But while they were locked up in the barn, they received daily bales of hay and I scythed as much fresh, green grass as I possibly could. I would drag tarps full of heavy, wet grass and weeds to those two and load them up with all their rotund bellies could handle. So when I say “grass fed,” I’m serious.

When I say that my hens are pastured, free range, and cage free, I mean that I can barely even contain them inside the pasture. They find holes big enough in the fence to slip out; they fly over; they straight up climb the fence. They have two acres to roam, but they choose their own destinies around here. I’m just surprised I haven’t found any in my kitchen yet. Sure, my hens are subject to the predation that is typical of any farm that has free ranging chickens. Sometimes hawks, foxes, weasels, and raccoons will take some of my hens. But I understand that the best of life has risks. I won’t shut my chickens up like bubble boys and girls because the world is a dangerous place. I do my best to protect them, but aside from a secure coop at night and Abel to guard during the day, there’s not much else I can do unless I were to hold their wing all day and all night.

The final term I want to discuss is “all natural.” This one is a doozy and it’s one that I frequently use. It’s unfortunately rather ambiguous. What’s “all natural” mean? I’m not sure what those great big companies being sold at Giant food stores intend it to mean. To me, it means as close to what mother nature intended as possible. It means rotational grazing. It means fertilizing with real fertilizer (you know, the stuff that comes out the backside of an animal). It means using pigs to till up the ground so I can plant more easily. It means attacking pests by removing them by hand. Same with weeds. Sure, on rare occasions, I will use some naturally-based sprays to combat some of the more nefarious critters, but it’s certainly not the first resort. All natural, to me, means working WITH mother nature. She’s kept the earth in balance pretty well until we thought we were smarter. Diversity and rotation are keys to success when it comes to all natural farming and sustainable agriculture and while I’m no master just yet, my focus is to keep improving and keep providing the most delicious, wholesome food my little farm can produce.