Oregon writer, Rain Trueax, and Oregon painter, Diane Widler Wenzel co-author Rainy Day Thought. Diane generally posts on Wednesdays and Rain on Saturdays. There may be extra days or changes as situations warrant. Comments are always welcome and appreciated as it turns an article into a discussion.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Life in a Herd

The interaction of a cattle herd always interests me. Not too many ranchers have the option of operating a more or less free-living herd. If someone is in cattle raising for the money (well we all like it to make a profit), they don't have the luxury of raising them as we do. The various ages are separated, fed appropriately, bred when it's the right season, sold when they are not profitable. It isn't a choice.

In our case, we live very close to our animals. Our herd is one of all ages, including geriatric, and a bull. We raise them for food but it's only the two year olds that we sell. We keep a few of the heifers as replacements, have the old ones that die or have to be put down for health reasons, and generally have an organic herd to watch move around the farm.

Our herd has a place they tend to have their morning nap, their afternoon nap and where they will sleep at night. Other than when sleeping, meals are continuous affairs, the ultimate movable feast.

Cows can be tough on each other, on a weak cow and employ bullying techniques for reasons maybe only the herd could explain-- if it cared to try; but it has given me much pleasure through the years to see the affection with which the adults treat the young-- and not just their own calves. In some of these photos you see a cow coming up to nuzzle and lick a calf that is not her baby, but for all I know might be her daughter's or even granddaughter's.

I like seeing the bull with the herd in his protective role. Well to be honest, I have thrown a few small rocks at him when he got protective over a heifer I considered to be too young for breeding. I told him what I thought about it but he more or less looked at me as if to say-- are you nuts? And there was definitely no talking her out of it!

So far, allowing the herd to manage its own breeding, has not led to problems in calving, but it's not as professional. We could fence him off from the rest except when it's time to breed, but we are in this partly for the enjoyment of raising the animals, watching the herd's interactions, and seeing him with the others is part of that.

One more calf was born after the one we nearly lost. Those two are tending to hang out together. It's what calves do-- play with their own age group, and form very tight bonds. Often we try to arrange to kill all in such a group at the same time.

I know it seems tough to realize these animals are not pets but are intended for food. It's my least favorite part of raising livestock. Worse is what we are facing this summer as we must thin their numbers (sheep and cattle). Last year, when Farm Boss was calculating taxes, he told me we paid $5000 more for livestock feed than we made on sales. We gulped.

We had known we weren't making a profit in the past, but with cost of hay production going up and cattle prices not, this has been a hard time on growers. Our situation was not so critical when Farm Boss was earning an income off the farm but with retirement (retired from paying jobs, not from working), that cannot go on.

It's not easy to market grass-fed animals directly to consumers. It's especially hard in a culture like ours where people like fatty beef. Many don't understand that grass-fed beef is as healthy as eating salmon in terms of Omega-3. Europeans eat grass-fed beef. Mostly it's Americans and Japanese who do not or at least have not.

If you are one who is interested in healthier meat (and yes there is a slight difference in taste, but I prefer the more flavorful grass-fed), try to find growers nearby to help encourage more of this type of production. It is healthier for the livestock and the consumer. A lot of a people's increased needs for pills might go directly to the kinds of food consumed.


donna said...

Some of our local restaurants are into grass fed beef raised on small farms right now. It's a trend I wish would spread. If you must eat beef, grass-fed is the best!

robin andrea said...

I like how you raise your herd, rain. They are healthy and cared for. They live natural lives in open pastures. If I were a beef-eater, I would want to eat the meat that comes from your farm. My brother who lives in Virginia also raises cows the way you do. He says the same things about his beef. I'm not sure why it's so hard to get people to eat more healthily, but it really is.

Darlene said...

The short time that I lived on a cattle ranch I fell in love with the herd. After calving, the herd would choose one mama to baby sit the calves while the rest went down the hill to the watering hole. When they came back the calf sitter would go get her drink. They certainly feel responsibility for the calves.

Sandy said...

We had a huge cattle/grain farm and our cattle were all grass fed. Large pastures, and yes, the mothering goes on even it is isn't said cows calf. I miss that part of farming! I have to agree that grass fed cattle are a healthier alternative.

Kay Dennison said...

Thje food police (who I'm sooo intesely sick of) neglect grass- fed beef. There's an old-fashioned butcher shop in a little town near here that sells it but it's pretty expensive. And their pork is excellent, too!!!

joared said...

My uncle had a dairy farm and sold milk. Also,for a couple or three years we had two Guernsey's for milk only, but had them bred and raised their calves before selling them. These cattle were all free range.

The setting for your animals seems ideal. I've been appalled at the areas where so many mass produced animals we consume live. California milk producer's ads are most misleading. Before the herds had to move to Northern CA due to the encroachment of housing developments in a community south of where I live, I had occasion to drive through those areas on many occasions. The ad pictures were completely opposite to the environment to which these cattle were subjected. I later learned that a friend was responsible for the ad, so I did express my view but he defended the ad.

I do understand the need to make a profit, or at least break even. Hope you're able to do that soon.