Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Holy Cow

No, I'm not converting to Hinduism. :)

But I'm getting a little overwhelmed with the cow bovine (cows are female bovines who have calved) questions rattling around in my mind. There are just so many options and variables! Maybe if I simplify it a bit, something will come...

The ultimate goal: To have our pasture of ~15 acres producing beef.

Some of the possibilities:

  • buy yearling steers in spring, finish them on grass to harvest in fall
  • buy yearling steers whenever, pasture them, mow and bale excess pasture for winter use
  • buy newborn bull calves in spring (these would be dairy breeds; holstein, jersey, etc), bottle feed into summer, pasture and feed until they are 1.5 years old
  • buy a dairy cow, buy newborn calves, enjoy milk, wean calves to pasture in summer
  • plant and harvest alfalfa for winter feed for some of the above options
  • buy a herd of beef cattle
  • build a herd of beef cattle, starting with young (newborn?) heifers
  • rezone and sell the pasture, use the money to buy sixteen truckloads of frozen beef
Just kidding on that last one.

Each of these has its own challenges. For instance;
  •  I'm pretty sure I can't afford to buy a herd of beef cattle. I might not even be able to buy yearling steers or heifers. I saw one ad on craigslist for a handful of cattle (four, I think) and multiplying the estimated weight by their cost per pound... ouch. 
  • Buying dairy bull calves is affordable, but labor-intensive and the final product might not be palatable to the discriminating connoisseur. Not that I fall into that category, but assuming I might be able to sell some.
  • My dairyman neighbor advises that bottle calves are NOT a way to make money. Fun family project yes, but not economically advisable. I've just priced milk replacer, and with an early weaning, we're still looking at $50 in replacer bare-minimum - assuming no one gets worms or scours or pinkeye or a hangnail. That would have to be followed by calf feed (certainly much cheaper than replacer, but not free like pasture grass). Since I'm only aspiring to hamburger, I'm not sure what quality milk replacer would be required. There is quite a variety and some of it is intended for replacement dairy heifers and the like, and I'm pretty sure they require more, nutritionally. 
  • I'd love to have a milk cow, and that may happen, but the logistics of getting it here, where to keep it, how to milk it, required equipment and learning-curve would put me pretty far out of the calf season.
  • I don't have a way to mow or bale my pasture excess. I have someone who can mow it, but raking would still be an issue, as well as baling. I don't have a place to put hay bales yet either. Pallets and a tarp might serve. Would trying to buy that equipment be wise? Would it pay for itself or would it be another headache? Can you rent that kind of thing? I know you can hire it done, but you're at the mercy of the other guy's schedule, and your nutrient profile and palatability of forage might well suffer waiting for your turn.
I just had a thought, along different lines. We could theoretically put up pasture hay all summer, then buy livestock in fall (when the yearly price is lowest - no one wants to keep and feed them all winter), wintering them on what we baled. I have NO IDEA if this would be remotely economically feasible, wise, doable or not. I need to meet someone with experience in this sort of thing, who might be able to tell me what to expect by way of costs and time and other things about which I'm clueless.

I wonder if half my interest in farming is because it's such a wide plain of knowledge to acquire. :)


Fatima said...

Here's my take on it all...
First, you may not come out ahead financially especially when you compare the beef to the cost of hamburger. The input in a bottle fed calf is fairly high. First you'll have to buy the calf, then milk replacer, then feed, perhaps some fencing if you don't already have it, and don't forget the cost of hauling and processing the beef.
You can go to (shudder) Walmart and purchase hamburger for a pretty low cost.
The thing is, you aren't comparing apples to apples. At Walmart, you are buying beef from a feed lot where they are eating stuff that isn't natural to them and being fed a bunch of antibiotics.
There are black angus calves out there in need of bottle feeding. It's not unheard of for the cows to die during birth or for them to be bad mothers. My folks' herd of 60 cows doesn't have a bottle calf each year, but I can remember quite a few. Farmers are busy. Caring for a calf isn't always worth it to them. I'd list my name at the local feed store, farm stores, and the local tractor sales store as looking for bottle calves to feed.
As far as making money selling beef... There's a guy one town over from us who does just that at farmer's markets and a little roadside stand. My folks have never had any trouble finding people who want a beef or a half or even a quarter of beef. The processing plant will split it up for you, you know.
Raising your own herd can be quite fun. It's also risky and requires knowledge. If you choose to go this route, make friends with local farmers. Get the kids into 4H so you can make good contacts with folks who know lots of stuff. My mom's cows were going blind and falling down, leaving us stumped. Turned out to be a mineral deficiency. It's amazing how much you need to know. We've lost cows who were dumb enough to walk over the frozen pond and fall in.. also rescued a few of those critters. We've lost cows due to birth defects, one with a deformed heart that lived for a year or two.
Plain and simple, farming is risky. It is rewarding, but risky. You are dealing with weather and live creatures. So much can go wrong.
All this said, and I have a bottle fed calf growing in my back yard. ;)
I'll be glad to have beef that I know where it came from. I'm glad that my grass is coming to something better than the diesel needed to drive the tractor to mow it.
Oh, and on the hay question... I bet there are tons of old square balers out there, somewhere. Nobody puts up square bales anymore. Too labor intensive. But, for a small operation they are perfect.
And every person would be a better person if they just had to spend a summer pitching hay bales up onto a wagon with their family while a storm is brewing in the west. There's no better way to learn teamwork and work ethic in this world. :)

EllaJac said...

Fatima, wow, thank you! You have some excellent points. I didn't consider that my neighbor was comparing to walmart hamburger.. sometimes I end up thinking everyone grinds and uses whole wheat and operates like I do. not so!

And my butcher is mobile. He comes to the cow. :) Of course, he's not USDA inspected, so I can't legally sell anything by the pound (nearest usda plant is 2.5 hours away. I don't even have a horse trailer or whatever), but I have no doubt there are plenty who would buy a half- or whole beef locally grown.

I saw a baler for $850 in craigslist the other day. I have no idea if it is still available, or if that's a good price. Says it works fine, has some new parts. They're still in use around here. Not on every farm, but many.

>"It's amazing how much you need to know."< Isn't that the truth! I started reading Joel Salatin's books, including the beef one, 4.5 years ago. Off and on I go back to this kind of reading (depending on pregnancy/motherhood issues usually!), and learn more. I know where I can buy Thorvin kelp, but not 'free choice' minerals (most use a mix). Heel fly warbles FREAK ME OUT and I don't have a headgate through which to put cattle for inspection. SO MUCh to know!

Thank you for your advice!!!

Fatima said...

I hear that congratulations are in order! ;)
Enjoy! I can't wait to see pictures.