Long before we moved to the farm, I told John I did not want to be in the livestock business. Specifically, the cattle business. It felt like wrangling 1200-pound living beings was a weird thing to do with one's life. Plus, John and I both have talked a lot about how people need to eat a whole lot less meat in the US. So, selling beef was not on the top of my “to-do” list when we began our farming careers.
“But raising cattle is what makes sense on the farm,” John would argue. The rolling hills of south-central Iowa are not ideal for row crops like corn and soybeans (grown in long, straight rows), like the flat fields of much of the state, where they reign supreme. And if we were not going to grow row crops or raise livestock, what did I think we were going to “farm” on a 540-acre piece of land? A whole lot of carrots?
Plus, the cows were already there, John would add. It was an easy route into being on the land, to buy the cows from his dad and to start raising “grass-fed beef.”
But first a quick primer on how raising cattle mostly works in the US. People all over the country run “cow/calf operations” where they “background” cows. John’s dad was one of these. Like most of his neighbors, he kept a herd of anywhere from 25-50 cows (females) and one or two bulls (males). Together, when the time is right, the cows and bulls produce calves. On our farm the calves are born in the spring – anywhere from March to June – and then the whole herd of cows, calves and bulls mill around and eat.
In late October, John’s dad would bring the mess of cows into the barn lot and separate out the calves, who at that point weighed about 600 pounds. The calves were then weened. By January they were brought to the sale barn, where they were purchased by someone who “finishes” cattle, usually in a feedlot. A feedlot, where cattle no longer roam the pastures but stand around in a pen (in their own manure) and eat a grain mix full of the aforementioned corn and soybeans to fatten them up as quickly as possible. In another 6ish months, they arrive as hamburger on a plate.
This process holds no appeal to me whatsoever. I don’t like the idea of the cows leaving the farm at only 9 months old. I don’t like the concept or the reality of feedlots, where animals do nothing but stand around on their own shit, bored, getting fat, waiting for their end to arrive. Even if cows are a purely human conception at this point, raised solely for our consumption, the least we can do is allow them to live life each day as they might in a more wild situation. I want my cows to walk around, find food, and have the kind of space to move that behooves a 1200 pound animal.
But despite my reservations, here we are, raising cows because as John had said, it just makes sense. It makes sense to raise cattle in a place like this where the land rolls and the hills are so green – even now in fall – that it almost glows. Where grasses grow without any irrigation whatsoever, but a place that without bison ranging, is missing a key element of the prairie’s life cycle.
We have thus far changed one key element of the process on the farm – we have implemented “rotational grazing,” a system where the cattle are moved each day. This ensures that not only are the cattle hanging out eating grass, but they are doing so on only a small sliver of the farm each day, allowing the plants they eat to also flourish. The grasses develop longer roots because they are not eaten down to stubs, sinking more carbon deeper into the soil. By having cattle then, we can also improve the soil of the farm.
Yet the problem of where and when to sell them is now looming. How do we avoid the sale barn, feedlot situation when there is no other channel into which to sell them? Selling direct to consumers takes time – and a lot of energy – to find each individual person or group who might want a whole lot of meat to store in a freezer in their own home. Sadly we have not yet been able to locate a “grass-fed” company operating in the Midwest who might buy the cattle to bring them to consumers en masse.
So are they headed to a feedlot - the very thing I did not want to be involved in - simply because we have no other choice?
Keeping the cattle around with no buyer is a very costly experiment - each calf at 600 pounds is worth about $800 at the sale barn. To us, they might be worth nothing at all if we can't find anyone to buy them. And selling food is what distinguishes a farm from a hobby. A very expensive hobby at that.