• Wednesday, October 24, 2012

    More about beef farming

    Janeal Yancey: Moms on the Farm Tour
     This is me on the bus on our
    Moms on the Farm tour.
    A few weeks ago, I worked with a group of ladies in agriculture to host the Moms on the Farm tour. About 30 ladies attended a tour of a dairy and a beef farm, and then returned to campus for some cooking demonstrations by the Arkansas Cattlewomen. We plan to repeat the event in the springtime and improve it. There were lots of great questions and the ladies were really interested to learn about where their food comes from. All the questions and interest have become a great resource for my blog posts.
    Marsha Hedge: Moms on the Farm Tour
     Mrs. Marsha Hedge talking to the ladies about
    her beef farm during Moms on the Farm tour.
    We visited a single-mom, beef farmer, Mrs. Marsha Hedge, who has about 40 cows. She used to have over 100 cows, but because of the drought this past summer, she had to sell about 60% of her herd. So, now she is working off the farm part-time and going to school part-time to get her teaching certificate. Most beef farms have circumstances similar to hers. Ninety percent of beef farms in the US have fewer than 100 cows, and the average size of a US beef farm is about 44 cows. Most beef farmers have to work off the farm or have some other type of income to make a living, or their spouses do.

    Anyway, Marsha raises the calves from her cows until they are weaned and she sells them to another farmer who will either take them to grow some more on green pasture or to a feedlot to eat grain. This seemed to surprise the ladies on the tour that the beef cattle from the farms around Northwest Arkansas don’t go directly to slaughter. One lady wanted to buy a calf from Marsha to slaughter and another asked if she sold her beef to WalMart. Marsha doesn’t have any calves that are the right age or size for slaughter.

    As a host, I should have done a better job explaining that the beef industry is segmented. Cattle sold for beef production may have several owners in their lifetime. I wrote a whole post about the beef industry in February with lots of facts and figures, but I didn’t talk about the different kinds of beef farms in the US.

    What are these different types of farms?

    1. First, you have beef farms that raise calves to be sold as bulls and heifers (young females) to other farmers. These are called seedstock or purebred farms. Their cows and bulls may cost crazy amounts of money, but they hope to raise animals that will be in demand by other farmers to buy to improve their herds. Most of the time, they only have one or two breeds (like Angus or Simmental), and they specialize in genetic traits that other farmers want. They may have really lean animals or cattle that raise calves with lots of tasty marbling. Other traits are important to farmers, too, like growing fast and having small calves so the cows don’t have trouble in labor. There are books and websites full of numbers reporting these traits of purebred cattle. A knowledgeable farmer can evaluate these figures to buy a bull or a heifer that will improve traits in his or her herd.

    Ed Yancey: Red Simmental heifer
    This is a picture of my husband,
     Ed, exhibiting one of our
    purebred heifers at a fair

    If you go to the fair, the farmers that you see exhibiting are usually purebred farmers. They bring their animals to the fairs to show them off to other breeders and to potential buyers.

    Most of the 'fluffy cows' you see on the internet are actually very expensive purebred bulls.

    2. Second, you have cow-calf farmers. Marsha, the farmer we visited on our tour, is in this category. She bought bulls from a purebred farmer and bred them to her cows. She keeps the best of her heifers (girl calves) to go back to the cow herd, but she castrates her bull calves to become steers, and the steers and most of her heifers go to market to become beef.

    Marsha Hedge; Simmental cross cows
     These are some of Marsha's cows.
    Her bull is the solid red one on the left.
    He is from a purebred breeder.
    He actually looks a lot like our bull.
    Like most cow-calf producers, Marsha’s cows are cross-bred, or a mix of several different breeds. In the industry, we call them 'commercial' cows. Also like most cow-calf farmers, Marsha uses grass growing in her pastures to feed her cows. She buys them hay and some other nutritional supplements, when the grass isn’t enough for them, but she wants them to eat grass as much as they can. Cattle are great at using grass to grow and make protein.

    Marsha weans her calves off their mothers at about 500-600 pounds, which is about 6 to 7 months of age. Then she sells them to one of the next two types of beef operations.

    3. The third type of beef farm is a stocker farm. These farmers buy weaned calves and let them grow. Sometimes they eat grass and sometimes they feed them grain, whichever is most economical for them at the time. The Peterson Brothers of I’m Farming and I Grow It fame, have a stocker cattle farm. They buy cattle that weigh 400-500 pounds and feed them until they weigh 800 to 900 pounds.

    4. The fourth type of farm is the feeder or the feedlot, like the one owned by Anne and her family over at Feedyard Foodie. Here, cattle are fed grain in addition to hay or other forage and supplements. Feedlots will feed cattle until they are fat enough to harvest. They are usually only there for about 4 to 6 months. In the meat business, when cattle are fat, we say that they are ‘finished,’ meaning that they are ready to go to the processing plant. Finished cattle may weigh anywhere from 1000 to 1400 pounds, some even more.

    In the US, people like to eat grain-finished beef. We prefer the taste and tenderness associated with it. I know that not everyone likes it, and there is beef from cattle that have only been fed grass available to buy for those who prefer it that way.

    Covered Feedlot in Michigan
     Cattle in a covered feedlot in Michigan.
    Notice that they are eating a
    chopped-up mix of grain and hay.
    In the western US, feedlots are huge, outdoor facilities, but I visited a cattle covered feeding operation in Michigan on a trip with students a couple of years ago. You can see the cattle are eating a chopped up mixture of grain and forage.

    The meat processors send buyers to the feedlots to buy the cattle once they are ready. Then the cattle are sent to the processing plant for harvesting.

    Now, lots of farms may be any combination of these segments. For instance, our family has some purebred cattle that we raise bulls and heifers for sale, and we have some commercial cows that just raise calves for market. So we are kind of a mix of the first two. Some farmers may have cows that raise calves and have a stocker section of the farm, too, especially if they have lots of green grass. Farmers have to figure out what works best for them considering the nutrients available and the market for cattle.

    Marsha Hedge; Red calf

    So, these calves that we saw at Marsha’s grazing in the fields with their mothers in Northwest Arkansas will probably be sold soon. Then, they may spend a few months grazing and growing on a stocker farm in Oklahoma, and then be sold to a feedlot in the panhandle of Texas. Once they are fat, they may be sold to a processing plant in Kansas and their beef may go to any and all parts of the US. Not only do the calves have several owners throughout their lifetime, they have also probably traveled several hundred miles.
    I hope that you understand a little more about the beef industry, and the next time you are buying beef at the store or eating a juicy steak, that you will know that a little more about the path that got the beef to your plate. 

    Please feel free to ask any other questions you may have about beef or cattle.