“What do you do?” Sometimes I identify myself with a lengthy description of my career in Ag finance, but often I just leave it at, “We farm!”
I also find myself using “We farm” as an explanation as to why I am alone so often at gatherings. But the more people I talk to, the more I realize that not everyone knows what I mean when I say, “We farm”. So I am going to explain exactly what “farming” means to my family.
Our farm consists of our cows, our sheep, and our row crops. I will cover each of these over the next few posts, but will start with our cows.
One of my favorite parts of our farm is our cattle herd. We have what is commonly called a “Cow/Calf operation” – meaning we maintain a group of cows who will raise a baby calf each year, and then sell the baby at weaning time.
When Matt decided he wanted to come back to farm with his dad that meant he was going to have to find additional sources of income. For most farm families it simply isn’t feasible to take a farming operation that supported one family and suddenly expect the same income to support two families.
So for us, the decision was pretty easy to purchase cows! We both love livestock, we actually met at a sheep show! A cow is a fully mature female who has already had babies. We started with 20 older cows, which was considered a little safer investment because of their experience delivering and raising calves, or babies.
Once we became more experienced with our cows, we started adding heifers. A heifer is a young female who has never calved before. We like to purchase heifers because a younger animal can stay with us on our farm for a longer time and we will know more of her complete health history. But the risk is higher and labor greater, because heifers need more assistance in the beginning.
When we first started, we did not own any of our land so we had to rent the land our cows used. We have since been able to purchase a farm, but still have to rent some pasture to make sure we have enough for all of our cows.
The first step is to breed the cows and heifers. On our farm we live breed – meaning we use live bulls, or intact male cattle, that naturally breed the cows. Many farmers are taking advantage of other breeding methods like artificial insemination.
You might hear people refer to “spring calvers” and “fall calvers”. These terms describe the time of year the cow will have her baby. We actually have some of each, so we are typically having babies, or “calving”, in September and October and then again in February and March.
Our cows, like nearly all beef cattle in the United States, have their calves on pasture. They rarely need any help, but we do have to watch the heifers much more closely – remember heifers are the ones who have never had babies before. Usually after one or two calving seasons they have it figured out and will no longer need any help from us!
Once the calves are born, they graze and roam pastures right alongside their mamma for about 8 months. After the group reaches the point they no longer need milk as source of nutrition, they are ready to wean. Because we are a cow/calf operation, this is the time we sell our baby calves, who now weight about 550 pounds!
When our calves are ready, we sell them for the current market price. Prices fluctuate daily on cattle and it’s something we have no control over. Price changes is one of the greatest challenges for any farmer!
Our calves are purchased by other farm families that will “background” them. They will keep the calves, most often on pasture, until they reach 12-16 months of age. We typically separate our calves and sell the heifers (females) to a local farmer who will background them until they are ready to breed, and then sell them as bred heifers to other cow/calf farmers.
The steers (neutered males) then go onto yet another farm family who will finish them at a feedlot. A majority of feedlots are considered small feedlots, with 95% of them having less than 1000 head.
Regardless of size, the families that run feedlots are extremely dedicated to finishing out a high quality and safe product! Once the cattle reach market weight, they will be harvested with their beef sold in stores across the country.
Nearly all beef cattle in the US start on farms just like mine and spend a majority of their lives grazing pastures. The next time you purchase beef from the supermarket, know that you are supporting family farmers just like us!
The next time you purchase beef from the supermarket, know that you are supporting family farmers just like us!
Kate Lambert grew up in northern Illinois, not on a farm but active in FFA and showing livestock.
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