Bending the conventional rules to produce quality grass-fed beef
By Tom Wrchota, Omro, Wisconsin — When Susan and I set out 11 years ago to establish a sustainable farm enterprise, we developed some simple goals relating to work enjoyment and profitability. We did not realize how many of the customary farm teachings and practices would have to be altered or omitted in order for us to meet our objectives. Below are just a few ranch management practices that might come with a warning label, “Try this at home at your own risk.”
• No grain for slaughter animals. I ate a lot of excellent, grass-finished beef many years ago while living in Costa Rica. When I launched my own operation, I felt that the quality grass growing regions of the Upper Great Lakes would be nearly ideal for a grass-finishing operation. Susan and I want to target a health-conscious clientele with our products, and we strongly believe that grass-finished cattle produce the healthiest beef.
But I felt we needed the right type of cattle genetics. I had read various accounts of finishing cattle in western Scotland and northwestern England as far back as the 1700s, when cattle roamed freely in the cold and windy uplands. Those genetics were likely the type of animal I needed for a no-grain, grass-finishing operation in our locale. Pictures of British beef cattle up to the early 1950s commonly showed these features: moderate frames, very short legs, wide muzzles, broad shoulders and backs, lots of beef on the backside and ribs, and boxy bodies with large dew-laps. Thin was definitely not in.
I wanted a female line that showed those basic characteristics, plus some earlier maturing/tender traits along with hardiness, feed efficiency and self-sufficiency. In other words, I wanted cows that would be cheap and easy to manage. Using the right bull, these female characteristics would provide the type of slaughter animal I needed. Almost all of our Black Galloway cows fit the above description, although at 1,100-1,300 lbs. they are not small framed. Still, that’s down from 1,200-1,450 lbs. a decade ago.
Perhaps no-grain finishing is not the cheapest way to produce beef, as our slaughter animals usually require about two years to finish. Yet this management has consistently produced a quality product that satisfies our direct-market customers. (I’ll address that in a future article.)
• No grain for cows and heifers, even in winter. At the end of the grazing season (usually November or December) our straight-bred lactating cows and heifers have always been in great body condition, allowing them to deal with the rigors of surviving outside in our part of the Upper Great Lakes. In winter, they eat about 25 pounds per day of first crop, grassy hay made between late June and late-July. They are still nursing calves and nurturing their fetuses. Our winter feed obviously is often very marginal in terms of nutrition standards for lactating cows. But during the growing season they grazed the best feed we can offer. In winter our females utilize their fat reserves to maintain themselves and their young until the spring flush.
• No special accommodations. During the growing season our 40 head are separated into only two groups: males and females. Both groups receive fresh, high quality grass/legume paddocks every one to three days depending on livestock densities, grass growth rates, and availability. Clean drinking water and free choice minerals are always located within 500 feet. That’s not all that uncommon, right? But that’s all we do for the cattle! We don’t provide shade, and our cattle do not have any winter shelter. Each cattle group is in its own winter yard, eating hay under a single hot wire stretched out about 200 feet. The only wind protection and heat source are big square bales stacked three high, 12 feet to the west of the wire, and the slow buildup of a manure/hay pack underneaththem. The pack also keeps them reasonably dry and out of the mud during the early spring. Even with these “survival” winter feeding and housing practices, we have had almost no breeding or re-breeding problems.
• (Virtually) no parasite control. For the first five years, I strategically wormed all of our cattle. But I decided to stop worming our adult cattle after reading several articles that said adult animals often had low or no internal worm counts when good grass management practices (rotation, higher grass residuals, etc.) were utilized in northern regions with cold winters.
I also read an article about some non-U.S. research that found no difference in external pest counts for cattle using medicated rubbers, versus those that just scratched themselves on one with no chemicals. I observed that flies seemed to build up almost complete immunity to our medicated rubber by about the fourth year of its use. So I placed layer chickens in the fields, and stopped medicating the adult cattle. Over the last five years I have not noticed any adults that have not been in good to great body condition. I have not seen any infected hides. As long as they continue to thrive without medication, I’ll continue the practice.
• No vaccination of home-raised cattle. While we have never vaccinated our on-farm cattle, all animals bought from other ranches are vaccinated, wormed, and segregated for a week or two before being allowed into their respective groups. A new herd bull must be a virgin, or have bred only virgin heifers, before going to work at our place.
We do everything we can to provide a healthy environment for our animals, moving them through sunlight-cleaned pastures, providing them with vitamin-filled grasses growing on high organic-matter soils, with clean water and minerals in every paddock. During winter the cattle are always outside for clean air and sunlight, and they are well bedded, with plenty of room to romp. Their legs and bodies maintain good muscle tone, and their hooves stay naturally trimmed over the winter months.
I spend considerable time during the year observing our cattle for signs of any health troubles. I cull animals, keeping only the healthiest cattle that perform best in our grass/hay-only system. Bottom line: For us, treating animals for health problems has always been much more expensive than preventing problems in the first place. That being said, we are not anti-medical technology, and would not hesitate to use some if we felt we needed it.
• Late calving. Since our cows keep last year’s calves with them all winter, and they’re eating mediocre hay, we make sure that mama has an opportunity to eat some great vittles before, during, and after she drops a new calf the following growing season. So May, June, and July are our normal calving months. Obviously, there’s some economics in this, since we’re substituting low-cost managed grass for high priced feed amendments.
• Newborns get rotated with the rest of the herd. Through July we’ve had about a dozen calves, and we didn’t see a single one born. That might not speak well of me as a cattleman, but it does indicate that our cattle are “do it yourself” types. That’s the way we want it. We allow a well-adapted cow to take care of the calf by herself, with little to no intrusion by us.
• No weaning. Very seldom do we separate a female calf from her mama if we plan to keep her in our herd. The cow has so much to teach her calf about how and what to graze, along with the social relationships of the group, that it just doesn’t make sense to complicate our lives by setting up another feeding and management system for young females. All the other calves are often naturally weaned the following spring or, if they have to be separated, we let them nose their mamas across a common fence until they stop yipping. All of this is done to limit stress, eliminate extra feeding, and develop well-adjusted cattle that don’t take out their frustrations on the ranch manager.
• Almost no castration. This is also part of our goal of minimizing animal stress. Except to have them scratch themselves on the gates, or eat some hay in the corral, our cattle are rarely put into the chutes or head gates. We’ve always had well socialized, docile bulls that garner an extra 100 to 200 pounds at butchering time, yielding grade 1 or 2, with a select or low choice cut of meat at the end of their 19- to 26-month stay at the ranch.
The fact that we sell all of our meat directly to individual customers or small health food stores certainly drives us try to avoid many conventional cow-calf/slaughter cattle practices. Ranches selling to commercial markets will do things differently.
We’re sure many professional advisors would say that we’ve been lucky, and that our oddball practices aren’t for everyone. We can’t argue with them, except to say that after 11 years without any major problems, luck probably isn’t the only factor involved.
Our oddball practices are successful because we’ve matched our livestock to our management system based on high quality, managed pastures.
Tom Wrchota and his wife, Susan, graze cattle and direct-market beef and other products from their farm near Omro, Wisconsin.