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.

What’s Up With This Whole “Grass-fed” Thing Anyway?

You eat because you have to eat to live right? And because food tastes good too, of course! Healthy, delicious food sometimes looks just the same as some less healthy options. Grass fed beef and feed lot beef don’t look all that different and some people don’t find it to taste very different. It’s a subtle difference that can make a big difference to your health.

Grass fed, pasture-raised cattle at WPP aren’t stuck in a stall their entire lives, being handed all the food they need. The calves brought to the farm are only about 24-48 hours old after being sure to receive the necessary antibody containing colostrum from their mothers. This ensures that they are able to fight off potential illness and infection as youngsters. Once they join the flerd (flock/herd), they cattle are allowed to roam the pastures, starting to nibble perennial grasses and legumes.

Just about a month old!

Grass fed doesn’t mean they only eat grass. Clover, dock, plantain, and many other broad-leafed “weeds” as you might call them, make up the diverse diet of herbivorous ruminants like cattle and sheep in addition to the numerous species of grasses. The benefits of being out on pasture, eating what’s natural for cattle aren’t always measurable, but most of them are. So let’s get into what those benefits are and why on earth you should care!

Some benefits are related to the health of the cow, some to your health, and other benefits are for the earth itself! But today, in this blog post, we’re going to focus on YOUR health and how grass fed, pasture-raised beef isn’t just good for your taste buds, but your heart and other organs too!

I’m betting you’ve heard of how awesome Omega-3 is for your cardiovascular system, right? It is said to lower inflammation and increase heart health. Feed-lot beef is found to contain similar amounts of Omega-6, which is necessary, but it’s found to be in a ratio to Omega-3 that appears to have negative impacts on health. In lab tests, grass fed beef is found to contain up to 5.5x more Omega-3 than conventional beef.

She finally stood still long enough for a picture instead of trying to lick the phone!

Another important component of grass fed beef is in the fats it contains. Grass fed beef has more conjugated linoleic acid or CLA, a type of fat. This is linked to lowered rates of inflammation and aids in boosting the immune system. It’s also thought that CLA has cancer-fighting benefits. But grass fed beef also tends to have less fat overall due to the cattle spending more time moving around finding tasty plants to eat and the fact that grain tends to encourage packing on the fat, especially fat like saturated fat.

At WPP, cattle are also never given hormones, steroids, and rarely, if ever, given antibiotics or vaccines. Conventional cattle are injected under the skin with a hormone that is slowly released over their short life to boost growth rates. Due to the unsanitary conditions of feed-lot beef, cattle are often given antibiotics and steroids. Out on the pasture, however, this is unnecessary as they are able to move away from their own excrement and the chickens that they co-exist with move in to spread out their piles of dung, eat the bugs, and allow it to be absorbed into the ground more quickly.

Sometimes they get some treats like freshly mowed grass or corn leaves and stalks.

Sometimes, it is necessary to use antibiotics if an animal gets an illness or infection and some cattle are given vaccines to prevent against things such as tetanus. For instance, the first steer brought to the farm was given a tetanus shot when he was banded to become a steer rather than a bull since this process can allow for that bacteria to enter his bloodstream, but since that point, none of the cattle have received vaccinations. At one point, I was concerned about the potential infection that could have sprung to life through the one calf’s naval as it was slow to heal. For that, I bought long-acting penicillin, but waited to see if it would be necessary. Thankfully, her naval did heal on its own, so I never needed to use the penicillin, but I would have used it to save her life if I had to because to not do so would quite simply have been animal cruelty.

There are so may more benefits to grass-fed, pasture-raised beef, but we won’t get into all of those today. We will go into more benefits in the post “How it’s Raised: Cattle” when that gets written. We will also talk more about rotational grazing and how it impacts the environment and the animals. For now, though, look forward to winter 2020 when beef will again be available!

They’re pretty friendly creatures, too!

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.