What is the first thing you thought of when you saw that title? My guess is any number of thoughts may pop into different people’s minds; maybe seasoning, lighting a grill, a special cut of steak, or even what to have with it.
Today, I want to help you understand how a rancher or cattle feeder makes steak; what does it take to accomplish that delicious, protein packed meal we all love to enjoy? Grab your boots and gloves – we have to step out of the kitchen for a whole lotta this process!
Next, there has to be a bull to put with those cows. Ranchers study bull pedigrees for weeks and even months, deciding which ones would work best for their situation. They study things such as carcass traits, growth tendencies maternal traits (in case they want to keep heifers out of him), and of course, structural soundness. One mature bull can cover approximately 30 to 40 cows, depending on the environment. In areas where it takes significantly more acres to sustain a cow, more bulls may be needed to make sure all cows are bred in a timely manner. Many ranchers strive for a 45 day “calving window.” We like to have as many calves born as close together as possible, so we have a nice uniform group to market later.
Cows and bulls get to hang out together for 45 to 60 days during the summer. I am timing all of this for a spring calving time. Some people prefer to have their cows calve in the fall – which is good for you consumers because that means there is great beef available all through the year!
During the summer while cows are on the grass, we have to make sure they always have salt and mineral available. They must have access to water for drinking. We also have to make sure fences are in good condition and thistles do not get out of control. Thistles can be sprayed or dug. I definitely prefer spraying if I am the one doing the work!
During the summer we also have to check the cattle regularly to be sure their feet and eyes are not injured. Cattle tend to like to stand in ponds, which can soften their hooves and allow injury to happen more easily, potentially causing a condition called footrot. They can also get pinkeye from flies. Either of those conditions must be treated immediately so the animal does not suffer.
In the very late summer to early fall, the calves are weaned from the cows. The calves receive vaccination boosters and are put on a very nutrient dense diet. They may either be kept at our place to be “backgrounded” (introduced to feed from a bunk) or they may be sold and go directly to a feedyard. At this point, they are no longer small and cute. They are very much growing animals that want to be fed well, lay around, and grow.
In the fall, in our area, we move the entire herd of cows, calves no longer with them, to a stalk field after the crops have been harvested. The cows love it, and it is feed we can offer them that is low cost.
If we get significant snows during the winter grazing months, we may have to take hay to where the cows are, or if it is bad enough, we may have to bring them in to the lots and calving pastures early and start feeding them hay and supplement. While on the stalks, we have to run water everyday, make sure they have plenty of salt and mineral, and provide a protein supplement. Again, they get checked regularly to make sure they are o.k. Often, deer will run through the fence (which is a temporary electric fence that has to be put up before taking the cows there and removed once they leave) and it has to be repaired.
Are you still with me here? I promise – we really are making steak in this whole process!
Now, when calving time is getting close, the cows are brought to an area to be watched more closely and fed hay and distillers grains (or whatever a producer has and buys to make a nutritionally balanced ration) daily. Some areas of the country are very fortunate to have winter range and the cows can graze for much of their nutrients. We are not so blessed and we get to deliver feed to them every afternoon.
Once it is time for calves to start arriving, someone checks the cattle every 2 to 3 hours. Even through the night. And yes – when one member of a couple has been out in the cold to check and all is well so they get to crawl back into bed, their body is cold and now both members of the couple are awake! Another reason 45 days is long enough…sleepless nights!
Before we turn them out, however, calves are vaccinated, the bull calves are castrated, and we mend fence all the way around the pastures. And once again – we are timing our “turn out” date to put bulls with cows.
Another spring time event – the afore-mentioned weaned calves are ready to send to the packing plant. The way the particular ones shown below were managed and fed, they were harvested at approximately 14 months of age. I do know that the beef that came from them was very high quality, as we received the carcass data on each one individually. They graded 97% USDA Choice or better – that is amazing!
So, as you can see, there is a significant amount of time, work, and dedication into making steak. As one group or calf crop is going to harvest, the next has just been born and and we are getting ready to breed the cows again for the next one.
Whew! – that took a bit longer to explain than I thought! Of course, there were many daily details that got left out as I wrote this, but I really wanted you to get the jist of what goes on around our outfit…
Please – enjoy beef often, it is good for you and it tastes amazing! And also – our family and many others like ours really and truly love our life of being ranchers and beef producers. Thank you for enjoying what we raise!