Most cows in Virginia are black – Black Angus to be exact. There is a long tradition of running Black Angus cattle here, mainly because of what is referred to as the “white tablecloth” market that we serve here on the east coast. Though they’re smaller in size than many other cattle breeds, the value of their higher quality meat more than made up for it. Our black steers end up on the feedlots in Pennsylvania, then to the restaurants in New York.
And while the “black-hide premium” is still real here in Virginia, we’ve always thought that there is a place for other cattle who can produce a quality product without the liability of the dark color. Because the summer heat can really take its toll on a cow.
We run Red Angus and Murray Greys. Most people don’t realize that there is such a thing as Red Angus, but they originate from the same Scottish herds as the Black Angus, and only in the United States are they a separate breed. In Great Britain, Canada and Australia, they’re all the same.
Most of our other cows are Murray Greys, and Australian composite breed with Angus and Shorthorn beginnings. (A composite breed is not the same as a cross-bred, but that a topic for another time.) Not only do they produce quality beef, they’re docile and have great mothering ability. And ours are white. So when our black cows (we do have a few of them) are hanging out in the shade to escape the heat, our Murray Grey cattle are out grazing, producing just a few more pounds of meat and milk, and making up for what they miss on the black-hide premium.

hero_under_porch

Here’s one of bulls, Hero, back when he was a little bitty Hero.

Today, for the first time in months, I didn’t set my alarm. We went to church last night and this morning there absolutely nothing scheduled. No horse shows, no kids to get to work, no races, no nothing. I had planned a peaceful morning of coffee, sausage gravy and biscuits
The cows under the front porch had different ideas.
For whatever reason, whenever the cows get out, anything that has ever been a show cow goes under the porch. They could easily go into the barn and inspect feed tubs for errant feed, bust open bags of minerals, and crap all over the alley-way. But for some reason one or two will go under the porch, and the rest will just hang out in the yard.
There are obvious inconveniences with all this but it is a pretty effective means of letting you know you have a problem.

The rest of my morning looked something like this.

cows_out1

For whatever reason, November is a big month for writers, and lots of my online friends are doing some pretty remarkable things. One just released a kids book. One is working on a novel. And several of them are joining Holly Spangler of farmprogress.com, for the “Thirty Days of Agriculture” blog series. They’ve created special graphics to honor the event, and most of them have been working on their posts for weeks. They have wonderful themes and grand plans and they’ve filled their blog calenders with topics and draft posts.

I’m joining them. It’s November first. It’s 9:00 at night. I’m just getting started with my first post.

I started this last year and got through the first week or so, and then missed a day, and then two and then the rest of the month. Maybe things will turn out better this year.

Part of it all is that I figure that the things I do are just so incredibly boring and that there is no way anyone could possibly be interested in what happens on a farm in central Virginia. And the stuff we do is the sort of thing everyone else does.

But then again, maybe it’s not what other people do. Maybe someone will be interested. And maybe somebody would like to hear about our cows. Our grey cows.

Presenting, 30 Shades of Grey.

grey_heifers

Lamb Fitting Clinic - No Parents Allowed

Lamb Fitting Clinic – No Parents Allowed

It’s not too hard to find cultural observers, management analysts and employment consultants lamenting our current crop of teenagers and young adults. An opinion piece in Psychology Today article suggests that they are “cynical, unaccustomed to hard work and having fragile egos because their childhoods filled with trophies and adulation didn’t prepare them for the cold realities of work.” The wired generation. Generation Y-Bother. The Go-Nowhere Generation. Self-serving. Entitled. Risk-averse.

And it’s pretty obvious to me that these people have never spent any time around 4Hers.

The 4H slogan is “Learning by Doing”, and there are endless opportunities for learning and doing in 4H. And no matter where you go and what you do, so many 4Hers, particularly those that show animals, have similar experiences.

The early mornings, hot afternoons, late evenings. The pouring down rain. The bitter cold. The hundreds of hours spent with an animal. And the disappointments. When you’re dealing with animals, there will always be disappointments.

We have schools to recognize academic talent and athletic prowess. What about other attributes, perhaps even more important? Is there room in our culture for the kid who starts their own business, with their own money? The kid who can fix anything? The kid who can wisely and calmly respond to a crisis?

There’s room in my world for kids like these. In fact, as a 4H parent and a 4H adviser, I’m surrounded by kids like these. Kids who know when to take orders, and when to take charge. Kids who don’t stand idle.

4H isn’t about banners or belt buckles. It’s about expectations. It’s about undiscovered talents. It’s about ambition and curiosity, tempered by often harsh reality. It’s about knowing that every kid has a capability and a contribution. But now I’ve come to believe that most of all, it’s about knowing when we, as adults, need to get out of the way.

From birth, dairy cattle – milk cows — are raised with constant and consistent human contact. Their handling from the day they are born is based on the fact that when they grow up, they’ll be milked two or three times per day.

Beef cattle are handled very differently. Other than the occasional show cow that’s in the herd, beef cows are raised with very little physical contact from humans. Beef cows view us as some sort of benevolent aliens, but they think we have cooties, and for the most part, they really don’t want us to touch them.

So how do we safely, effectively and humanely handle our cows and their calves so we can keep them healthy, treat injuries and monitor their growth?

We use special handling facilities – working pens – to help provide an environment that’s safe and comfortable for both the cattle and the handlers.

Handling facilities are designed and built to (hopefully) meet the requirements of the producer and their herd. Some are pretty basic, some are elaborate. Some are fixed, some are portable. Some are indoors, some are not. But while the designs are different, the overall concept is the same – a series of pens, leading to an alley, where animals line up in single file, leading to a squeeze chute, where individual animals are treated.

Most working facilities start with a series of pens and gate, sometimes leading to "tubs" or "sweeps" depending on their configuration. These shadows can cause problems with some cattle though, so you have to take that into account.

Most working facilities start with a series of pens and gate, sometimes leading to “tubs” or “sweeps” depending on their configuration. These shadows can cause problems with some cattle though, so you have to take that into account.

 

I had to go to the neighbor's to get pictures of a squeeze chute. Ours is at another farm. Sometimes "portable" means "I left it the last place I used it."

I had to go to the neighbor’s to get pictures of a squeeze chute. Ours is at another farm. Sometimes “portable” means “I left it the last place I used it.”

 

Here's what a cow sees when she is heading down the alley. She's focused on that gap right in front. She thinks she's thin enough to get through there.

Here’s what a cow sees when she is heading down the alley. She’s focused on that gap right in front. She thinks she’s thin enough to get through there.

I'm not sure by what mental prowess a thousand lb. cow thinks she can get through this hole, but she does. We just let them.

I’m not sure by what mental prowess a thousand lb. cow thinks she can get through this hole, but she does. We just let them.

Here's an old picture of Dixie in the squeeze chute, with Scott grafting a new calf to her. She doesn't look too stressed.

Here’s an old picture of Dixie in the squeeze chute, with Scott grafting a new calf to her. She doesn’t look too stressed.

Our facilities are pretty basic, but they work well for us. Our cows know the routine, and the calves just follow. And part of the reason this works is that we try very hard to make sure that a trip through the working pen isn’t an unpleasant experience. It seems a bit odd to say that, since some calves enter the squeeze chute as bulls, and emerge as steers, but they never seem to notice the transition. Weird.

Our cows come through the facilities a couple or three times a year. They get their vaccines, fly treatments and pregnancy checks. We get their weights, clean or replace their ear tags, check their feet.

Calves get weighed, tagged, and vaccinated. The males get castrated. And we make sure that it all gets recorded in CattleMax, a cattle tracking program. Keeping track of an animal’s medical history is the single most important thing we do on the farm to ensure the safety of your food.

While this all fairly straight-forward, there are a lot of individuals involved, some of them two-legged, some of them four-legged. Some of them are in a good mood. Some of them aren’t. Some are in a hurry. Some are not. It’s too hot. It’s too cold. It’s too windy. Somebody can’t find her calf. That’s where the drama begins.

Within the next couple of weeks we’ll be bringing cows and calves up for the fall herd check. I’ll keep you updated!

staged_choppers

It’s no co-incidence that Farm Safety Week is at the beginning of harvest season. This is the time of year when so many of us are moving equipment and products, sharing the road with travelers trying to enjoy the last few week of beautiful weather. We try to avoid peak travel times when we can. but it doesn’t always work out like that.

So when you’re stuck behind some slow-moving farm equipment, stay safe and enjoy the Virginia countryside. And take comfort in the fact that your probably only going to be there for a few minutes.

This web page is sort of like our house. It’s been under construction for the last 7 years, and we’ve just sort of gotten used to it as it is. Please don’t tell me everything you find wrong, I probably already know about it. Save us both some time. I already know that you can’t always be sure what door to come in. There’s no trim up. There’s a hideous spot on the dining room carpet. And there’s a chicken on the porch. And probably a goat.

When we first started building this house I said that we would never invite anyone over until it was done. Same with the web page. It’s just that now I realized that neither of them will ever really be done to my satisfaction, and I just may as well invite people over anyway. With the house, I just overwhelm guests with fine cooking, candlelight and brilliant conversation. And alcohol. Lots of alcohol. Too bad that doesn’t work as well on the web page.

So until I get all this stuff done come on in. Make yourself comfortable. Have a look around. If you get lost just holler. Someone will eventually find you. Don’t go out the back door. The deck isn’t there yet and it’s a long way to the bottom.

And don’t trip over the goat.

mcbarf_edited

We raise grassfed beef. “Grassfed” as in meeting the USDA standard for “Grassfed” as in no grain ever. We’ve spend years focusing on feed-efficient cows, the bovine equivalent of the girl who gets fat just looking at a Twinkie. We’re always working to improve our forages and provide our cattle with not just lots of grass, but lots of quality grass, year round. And we sell a lot of beef.

I’m not a beef snob by any means, but I do confess to having become a bit of a beef connoisseur over the years, appreciating the subtleties of beef – the appearance, the texture, the flavor. I’m aware of the potential negative impact cattle can have, particularly on our waterways. And I’m fortunate enough to be able to tie these two things together, traveling all over Virginia discussing the environmental and economic benefits of pasture management.

I’m on the road at least a couple days out of the month, attending cattle related events throughout the Commonwealth. Most of these sessions start in the morning with doughnuts and coffee, and end in the afternoon, somewhere after a lunch of barbeque, leaving me with the prospect of a quick dinner on the road home. So where does a purveyor of sustainable beef go to eat when traveling and it’s late and time is short?

Yeah. I head straight for the Golden Arches.

As you roll your eyes and make faux vomit sounds, consider this. Consumer activism of the eighties looks pretty quaint by today’s standards, but McDonald’s has a long history of assessing the validity of consumer complaints and responding to them. In the late eighties, McDonald’s was accused of purchasing “rainforest” beef from South America, incurring the wrath of American cattle producers and environmentalists alike. Whether or not McDonald’s knowingly or willingly purchased beef that was raised on recently deforested land isn’t really clear, and it’s not really the point. They got drug into a messy lawsuit and as one of the outcomes of the suit, they ended up working with environmental and cattleman’s groups to invoke policies limiting the use of deforested lands in beef production.

It was a rather painful and embarrassing lesson for them, but McDonald’s quickly recognized the value and impact of public perception, as well as their lack of control over their supply chain. If people got that worked up over what was essentially an animal feed issue, what would happen if consumers started focusing on the animals themselves?

Rather than waiting for yet another series of law suits and counter suits, McDonald’s initiated a voluntary system of audits – third-party verification – for their beef suppliers (and eventually all meat suppliers). By combining changes in physical plant design with employee training, McDonald’s suppliers realized an increase in throughput, decreased animal anxiety, decreased injuries among employees, and increased food safety. And most of us now recognize the name of Dr. Temple Grandin, who is credited with developing these strategies.

Since then, McDonald’s has collaborated with environmental groups, governments, trade associations and labor representatives, addressing issues such as waste management, water use, crop production and employee relations.

And in 2016 they intend to start sourcing Sustainable Beef, whatever that is. (Even McDonald’s doesn’t know what it is, so we’re all in good company.)

As beef producers, we need to be able to look at our production methods and respond rationally to criticisms. As beef consumers, we need to be able to clearly, respectfully and logically state our concerns, and we need to be willing to share in the cost of implementing any changes we ask for.

So if you’re in Virginia and you’re looking for a great steak or other cut of beef to highlight an evening meal, call me. I can hook you up.

And if you’re really tired or you’re on the road, or it’s 6:00 and everyone is starving, go ahead and whip on into McDonald’s. Without the added burden of guilt, those calories just count as regular calories.

Just please quit with the gaggy noises.

Buying beef in bulk can be an excellent deal, but it’s not for everyone. Buying one of our eighths is a great option for many of our customers who want the convenience and savings of bulk purchasing without some of the surprises that can accompany the purchase of a whole animal.  You get recognizable and easy to use cuts – no fat, bones or organ meats unless you want them – and you know the full price up front.

Right now we have 4 of our eighths ready to go from our freezer to yours. They’re each slightly different, but here’s what’s in one of them.

Brisket 0.78 lb.
Delmonico 0.66 lb.
Delmonico 0.6 lb.
Delmonico 0.68 lb.
Ground beef 25 lb.
Flat Iron Steak 0.28 lb.
Flat Iron Steak 0.34 lb.
Filet Mignon 0.17 lb.
Filet Mignon 0.49 lb.
Filet Mignon 0.29 lb.
Sirloin Strip Steak 1.14 lb.
New York Strip Steak 0.49 lb.
New York Strip Steak 0.52 lb.
New York Strip Steak 0.54 lb.
Fajita meat 1.17 lb.
Fajita meat 1.13 lb.
Fajita meat 1.18 lb.
Sirloin Tip Steak 1.65 lb.
Soup Bones 1.23 lb.
Rib Steak 0.88 lb.
Sirloin Steak 1.02
40.24 lb.

The great thing about these is that they can fit into a standard refrigerator freezer.  Leave us a message here for more details.

Here’s my list of Top 10 annoying things I hear about Grassfed beef.  And one really good thing.

1. All beef in the US is grassfed.

This isn’t necessarily a myth, but it’s misleading. It’s probably safe to say that 100% of the cattle raised in the US have forage as the single largest component of their diet. In that regard, they’re all grassfed. Unfortunately the USDA has chosen that same word – grassfed – to denote an animal that has been fed a 100% forage diet. It’s what is called an Animal Raising Claim, administered by the Agricultural Marketing Service. It’s a voluntary program that ensures customers that what is on the label is accurate. Certified Angus is the most widely recognized claim. Two things about animal raising claims – First, they’re voluntary and second, they don’t denote any health benefit. We submit an affidavit with every animal we have processed, stating that it has never been fed grain.
2. It’s free-range. No. It’s not free-range. Free-range means it’s over at my neighbors.
3. It’s leaner. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. If it’s leaner, it means that the animal either didn’t get fed as long, or maybe it’s a breed that tends to just be leaner. If customers want lean beef, they shouldn’t be buying from us. Our steers are very fat.
4. It tastes gamey. This one really torques me off. It should never taste gamey, and if it does, somebody screwed up, and somebody got ripped off.
5. It’s tougher because the animals walk around more.

Maybe someplace else, but not on most farms. Most of the time, animals are limited in their grazing areas. It’s a practice called rotational grazing and it keeps animals from wandering all over the place. Cows are highly selective grazers, and given the opportunity, they will walk all over the place in search of their favored grasses, while walking all over (and rendering inedible) quality grasses that are on their “B list”. The point of rotational grazing is to make them eat everything on their plates, and not just dessert.
6. Cows just eat plain old grass.

Um… Where to begin with that one. There is no such grass as “plain old grass”. There are predominant grasses that are found in different regions, different growing conditions and in different seasons. If you see grass around here in spring and fall, chances are it’s Kentucky 31 tall fescue. It’s highly competitive and available in every home improvement store. It’s probably what’s growing in your yard. Unfortunately, it’s mildly toxic (that’s why it’s such a successful grass), so in spite of its prevalence, it’s not the best for cows. And it goes dormant in the summer. Providing quality forage to cattle doesn’t happen on its own.
7. All cattle need just grass. People feed grain because they’re ignorant or lazy. No. Some cattle can do quite well on grass alone. Some cattle need the added energy that grain provides.  It’s all about meeting the animal’s nutritional requirements.
8. It’s more humane.

It’s not any more or less humane than any other means of beef production. How can anyone suggest that the type of feed available has anything to do with how human handlers treat animals? There is absolutely no connection
9. It’s more environmentally friendly.

It can be, but if I let my grassfed steers get into the pond, which eventually flows into the Chesapeake Bay, how does that compare to someone who feeds grain, but keeps his steers out of the waterways?
10. It’s healthier.

There isn’t an answer to this one yet. There just isn’t enough research to say one way or another, and, as with any human health research, solid evidence is hard to come by. We know that there are differences in the meat from grassfed vs. grain-fed animals. But human health impacts are harder to pin down because we don’t do feed trial on humans.  Our farm is involved in some of the research on the animal side, and we really believe that the evidence is pointing to human health benefits, but no one can say for sure yet.

And One Really Awesome Thing!

So with all that, why would anyone bother with grassfed beef?  Even if there are human health benefits, that’s not reason enough to go to the extra effort to buy it.  Fact is, most of our customers buy it based on flavor alone.  That’s right.  Our beef is tender and juicy, with a bright, bold, complex flavor.  Every time.  It’s that simple!