On any beef operation, there is one clear and absolute rule – all cows must raise a calf to weaning.  That’s her job.  That’s why she exists.  If she “comes up open” or “doesn’t settle”, meaning, she’s not pregnant, she needs to go some place else.  Same if her calf dies.  It costs quite a bit of money to carry an “open” cow or one that lost her calf, and you won’t stay in the cattle business for very long if you don’t get those girls off the payroll quick.

For some cows, particularly show cows, there’s a loophole.  They rule says they have to raise a calf – the rule doesn’t say that it has to be their own calf.


Here’s Marlaina’s first show cow, Dixie, showing off her Holstein bull calf, in 2012.  She’s obviously very proud of her calf, in spite of the fact that the cow behind her is snickering at the whole thing.  Dixie’s own calf was born dead, and the neighbors at the dairy supplied us with this calf, who was “grafted” onto Dixie.

A few weeks ago, Emma’s calf was born dead.  And here’s Emma, with her Simmental-Angus heifer calf, a twin that came from another neighbor.


Grafting calves isn’t easy – in fact there are few things in farming that are more frustrating – but it sometimes works.  Details tomorrow in Legal Loopholes – Part 2.


We just got the message that Wordless Wednesday means that we are supposed to post a picture, and not use it as an excuse to not post anything at all.  So here’s a picture of Emma, and her new baby.

Doing the freezer inventory consists of two parts – 1) figuring out what’s in the freezers and 2) letting people know the results of part one. I’m pretty good with the first, but as some of you have figured out, I’m not as good as I should be with the second. But after quite a delay, here’s what’s in the freezer.

The prices listed are our 2013 prices. There’s a chance (okay, likelihood) that our prices will increase for 2014. They’re listed as price per pound, number of pounds in stock and the typical packaged weight. For instance, the Filets Mignon are $21.00 per pound, but since they’re in .3 pound packages, they’re about $6.30 each.

Ground Beef – $5.50 lb. – 50 lb. – Our 1 lb packs make meal planning simple.
Ground Beef Patties – $6.25 pkg. – 7 pkgs. – Each 1 lb. package contains 4 ground beef patties. These are great if your cooking for one or two people, because you can thaw the packeges just slightly, pop off the number of patties you need, and then put th remaining patties back in the freezer.

Premium Steaks
Filet Mignon – $21.00/lb – 22 ea. – Most are about .3 lb.- This cut often intimidates people, but it’s the quickest cut to cook and the hardest to mess up – really.
Delmonico or Rib Eye Steak – $18.00/lb. – 7 ea. – Typically about .6 lb. each – No matter which name you prefer, lots of people will tell you this is their favorite cut. It combines tenderness and great flavor, along with a healthy portion size. Of course you can always split it. Or maybe not.
Porterhouse – $16.00/lb. – 3 ea. – About 1 lb. ea. – The eighties called. Your dinner is ready. Seriously, this is the New York Strip and the Filet in one cut, popular way back when, in the days when a steak was supposed to cover the entire plate. These steaks are as delicious as they are enormous! And yes, they really are 16 oz. each.
Rib steak – $16.00/lb. – 16 ea. – Most are about .8 lb. ea. – When these are connected, they’re called a standing rib roast. Packaged like these are, they’re called rib steaks. It’s the rib eye with the bone in.

These two are our favorites for Fajitas and Steak Salads, and if I’m trying out a new recipe. It’s a steak in that it’s a relatively thin cut of meat, but don’t think this is something for just slapping on the grill – you’ll be disappointed. These steaks rewards the patient cook, who is willing to marinate it for a few hours.
Sirloin Strip Steak – $10.00/lb. – 25 in stock – average about 1 lb. each
Sirloin Steak – $10.00/lb. – 10 in stock, about 2 lb. ea. – This is the same as the Sirloin Strip Steak, except these have a bone.

Eye Round Roast – $6.50/lb. – 2 ea. – about 4.5 lb. a piece – Compared to other roasts, it’s more symmetrical and attractive. Almost too pretty for the slow cooker, it’s a great Sunday dinner roast.

The following two cuts cook up like a flank steak. Put them in marinate in the morning, they’ll be ready to go on the grill (or in the frying pan) when you get home in the evening. They’re a hard-working cut, but their bold flavor comes out with soy or Worcestershire sauce.

Hanging tender – $10.00/lb. – 4 ea. – about 1 lb. ea.

Skirt Steak – $10.00 /lb.- 3 ea. – about .75 lb. ea.

In a class by itself, we have:

Brisket – $10.00/lb.- I’m forever trying to resolve both my Irish and my German ancestry with this one cut (lucky I’m not from Texas!) But smoked, corned or (gasp!) cooked in a slow cooker, this is one rewarding cut of beef. To further confuse matters, we have small, medium and large ones available – 5 ea. at 5.5 lb ea., one that’s about 3 lb. and 6 that are roughly 1 lb. ea.

Bones, shanks – $3.00 – If you’re serious about beef stock, we’ve got you covered. Most recipes call for meaty bones and bony bones and we have plenty of both.
Liver – $3.00/lb. – 50 ea. – in 1 lb. pkg. – It seems like every household has at least one liver fan. Here’s your chance to make them happy without alienating the rest of the household. .
Fat – $3.00/lb. – If you’re grinding venison, or trying to avoid hydrogenated fats, we can help you out.

If you say “plain old grass” to anyone in the forage business, we have a tendency to get a little sensitive.  For us, there’s no such thing as “plain old grass”.  Every grass, forb and legume has a purpose, a value and a need. And the more you do this sort of work, the more questions you have and the more you realize you don’t know.  Hence the winter conference season, where forage producers get together and talk about a lot of the stuff that they wish they knew more about.  We’re constantly learning about the interconnection between soil, pastures, our cattle and human health.  And since mid-winter is our “slow” time, we try to cram all that learning into the months of January and February – between Christmas and the Spring Flush. Last week was the American Forage and Council’s annual conference, in Memphis.  I was fortunate enough to attend, and I have lots of pictures of the backs of people’s heads, with Power Point images in the background, but I’ll spare you.  Unless you really want me to go into detail about, say, the BMR – brown mid-rib – trait in sorghum grasses.  I can do that if you like, but you’re probably not that interested. The next big one for us is the Virginia Forage and Grassland Council Winter Conference Series, where our focus this year is soil health. For most of us, the idea of soil health isn’t new at all, but advances in testing and measuring are introducing us to a new world that we knew existed, but let’s face it, it’s pretty small and hard to see.  There are constant discoveries being made about the universe of organisms beneath our feet. They sort of serve to remind us one again, that the more questions we ask, the more we realize we don’t know.

Georgia gets all the credit in story and song about their clay, and I have to admit, I’m a little bit jealous.  Because here in Virginia, we’re no slackers in the clay department.  We’re famous for a few things – peanuts, ham and Dave Matthews for instance – but I don’t think we get enough credit for our mud.

I think we do mud better than anyone.  Our geological clayey soils, combined with our management practices make for a wintertime tradition here in Virginia, feeding hay in the mud.

As grass-finishers and active grassland managers, we would never participate in this ritual.  Except this year.

We brought all our animals back to the house for their fall health checks, and it rained.  And it sleeted.  And it snowed.  Followed by more rain.

The cows are stuck here at the house until the ground dries up enough to get them hauled back out.  We can easily get them loaded here at the house, but we don’t have graveled loading and off-loading facilities at our rental farms.  And as annoying as it is to be feeding hay in knee-deep mud, it’s nothing compared to getting a truckload of cattle stuck in the mud.

So the girls are here at the house, and they’re pretty unhappy.  And we’re not too happy about it.  But until the ground either dries, or freezes solid, we’re stuck with it.


With the increasing availability of computers in the 70’s some of that technology was applied to an age old question – why are some bulls better than others at producing quality offspring?  Land grant universities and breed associations had been collecting data on cattle for years – birth weights, weaning weights and yearling weights were easy to measure and record, but until computer technology became more readily available, analyzing that data was a challenge.  In the early 1980’s Colorado State spent $12 million for a CDC Cyber 205 that was used to process the 200,000 Red Angus records they had.

These records are now known throughout the industry as EPDs – Expected Progeny Differences. They help to numerically describe the physical and genetic qualities of an animal.  These numbers are part of what makes it easier to buy bulls we have never seen before.  By talking to sellers, watching videos, and analyzing the data that quantifies the characteristics of these bulls, we can take a lot of the risk out of buying a bull “on eBay.”



Losing your high-dollar herd bull to lightning is a big setback. You’re not just out the cost of the bull, you’re out that bulls genetic contribution. Plus Murray Grey bulls are really hard to get in Virginia.
Rain King stepped up to the challenge. He bred one group of cows for spring calving, and the other group for fall calving, and we made it through the year.
But using the same bull on all your cows presents a problem when you put the daughters back into the herd. Without a second bull, you end up breeding a bull back to his daughters. It’s not a problem if you know what you’re doing, so it obviously not an option for us. The saying “If it works it’s line-breeding, if it doesn’t it’s inbreeding” didn’t just pop up by accident. Line-breeding is great, but you can get yourself into trouble pretty quickly.
So in the fall of 2008 we bought our first Red Angus bull. With the Red Angus, we had the heat tolerance and feed efficiency we needed, and there are enough Reds in the country that if we needed a truckload, we could buy one. Having decent cattle available where you are is important, and as is having a broad genetic base. When you’re dealing with a major breed, and you want to change something in your herd – say you think your cows are too small – you can select a bull to help increase the size of your animals without introducing any problems.
Again we were buying a bull on eBay.

As our cow numbers increased, so did our land base.  We got an opportunity to rent a farm about 7 miles from our home, well-fenced, well-waterered, and with a great landowner.  We got a second group of cows for the rental farm.  Of course to have all our calves born at the same time, something we do for easier management and marketing, we had to get a second bull.  One of Rain King’s half brothers became available, and we quickly added him to the herd.  As hard as it was to believe, Big Iron, our new bull, was more impressive than Rain King and Scott and I were amazed that such an incredible bull was ours.

One evening, a fast moving thunderstorm came through our farm, complete with blinding rain, and a lightning strike so close to the house we couldn’t tell exactly what direction it came from.  I ran out to the ponies rattled, but safe.  The kids and I made plans to go out into the woodlot to find the tree that had been hit.

The following morning, as he does every morning, Scott looked out one of the upstairs windows to admire his vast domain.

I didn’t even need to ask what “Oh.  Sh*t” meant, just how much.

Lightning strikes are a fairly common reality in the cattle business.  If it’s warm, cattle don’t seek shelter from storms.  And if there is a lightning strike, you consider yourself lucky if only one animal get hit.  And literally, before the check was cashed, we were out one fancy high-dollar bull.

We switched the newer group of cows to fall-calving.  As good as Rain King was, he just couldn’t be in two places at once.

And we were once again, we were in the market for a bull.

Veteran’s Day gets a lot of notice and airplay these days, but with memories of Viet Nam clearly in people’s minds, it was mostly an invisible holiday, mainly devoted to yard work and maybe a few sales.
With 9/11, Veteran’s day became more visible, and a little weirder. People have certain expectations as to what a veteran, a soldier, a warrior or hero looks like. It might be the elderly gentleman with the WWII hat. Maybe the biker. Or the 18-year-old kid with the confident bearing, and the short haircut.
Certainly not a Starbucks-sipping mom in a minivan.
But I found that our at church when the priest asked all the veterans to stand, and half a dozen moms awkwardly stood up and exchanged looks of embarrassment and surprise. I was one of those moms.
I was stationed at the Pentagon, and worked rotating shifts in the communications center, and was assured that I would have no roommates. I came back from a 2-month TDY in San Antonio (defending our nation by learning to repair a new type of communications equipment) (drinking Margaritas and learning to two-step) and found that in my absence, I had been issued a roommate. She wasn’t there when I arrived, but on her night stand was a picture of red-haired girl with her dad and a 10-point buck. Needless to say, we got along.
The military has always attracted all sorts, including at least two mid-western farm girls, looking for freedom, adventure, and paid college tuition. And I’d like to thank everyone out there for that opportunity.

Rotational grazing is the practice of rationing out grass to animals.  Instead of cows having access to a big huge field, portable electric fence is used to ration out a small section of it.  And there are a lot of good reasons to so it.  Cows will eat what’s in front of them.  They won’t spend as much time walking around, trampling perfectly good stuff, looking for something they might like better.
Moving to fresh pasture on a regular basis helps minimize the parasite load.  Cows aren’t in an area long enough to make big mud-holes, where flies and other bugs congregate and breed.
Cows that are frequently moved learn to move quietly and calmly.  Health issues tend to be caught earlier because cows are checked more often.
From the grasses’ perspective, rotational grazing sort of copies the world that existed when animals migrated.  It gets eaten, stomped on and pooped on for a day, and then gets a long time to recover.
Leaving a cover of grass after the cows leave the field means that rainfall has time to soak into the ground instead of washing off of bare fields, and into our waterways.  And keeping the cows themselves out of the waterways is important for water quality.

And it all sounds like a great idea and pretty simple and all that – until you’re the one doing it.  And it’s May.  And it’s 85 degrees.  And the black cows who thought that thought they were supposed to spend their days standing in the pond are all of a sudden fenced out.  We were ready to provide shade in August, but May?

Black Angus cows work well for lots of producers in Virginia, but they obviously weren’t going to work for us.

In 2004 we bought a bull on an on-line auction.  Buying bulls on-line isn’t such a big deal now, but “buying a bull on e-Bay” in 2004 was.  We bought a bull we never saw, from people we never met, and worst of all, he wasn’t a Black Angus.  He was white – a total recipe for disaster.

Here’s our trajectory of a disaster:


Even though we didn’t actually buy this bull on e-Bay, that’s what people said.

"Disastrous" white bull - OK Rain King

“Disastrous” white bull – OK Rain King

Steers like this helped convince us that "buying a bull on eBay" wasn't such a bad idea after all.

Steers like this helped convince us that “buying a bull on eBay” wasn’t such a bad idea after all.