Today I brought home our order of one-quarter of a beef animal to fill our deep freeze for the winter. We have a medium sized freezer, perfect for my husband and me. It holds a year’s worth of beef along with fruits and vegetables I gather during the summer and great deals I happen to find at the grocery store.
I once raised all our beef here on the farm. For many years I would purchase a newborn jersey bull calf, grow him for eighteen months then take him to the slaughterhouse. It’s been ten years since I raised a baby calf. Once an old dairy veterinarian told me I was a miracle worker to grow a baby jersey by hand. Apparently, they succumb easily to scours. I never had a problem and raised many. My secret to healthy baby calves was to purchase a gallon of colostrum milk from the dairy when I got the calf. The first feeding would be just that milk. The next feeding would be three-quarters milk and one-quarter milk replacer. Then down to half and half, then one quarter milk and the rest replacer until the milk was gone. The abrupt change to milk replacer is what shocks the calf’s system and causes problems.
And oh, the joys of teaching a tiny bull calf to drink from a bucket. They are hungry little critters, eager and impatient for their food. If they can’t get food fast enough they butt their heads very hard and can send the milk bucket flying. Nature gives calves a strong nursing reflex, but I want them to learn to drink from a bucket. Much easier than dealing with big calf bottles and nipples. So the first few feedings until the little one gets the hang of the bucket can be a real challenge.
The milk is warm to appeal to the baby. I restrain the tiny calf between my knees, let it get to sucking on my finger, then slowly lower my finger into the bucket. If all goes well and the calf has a few brains, soon the baby learns to suck the milk from the bucket without the finger. Some calves are much faster learners than others. After a month, grain, hay and grazing are added to the baby’s diet until by about six months the calf can be weaned off the expensive milk replacer.
The joys of being covered with milk, sweat ( baby calves are usually started in the late spring when the weather is quite warm) and calf smell are now a thing of the past for me. As are putting up an additional one hundred bales of hay to see the beefer through the winter, buying and hauling bags of cow grain and shoveling cow manure. Other things I do not miss are placing elastrator bands to steer the little bull and applying caustic paste to their tiny horn buds to dehorn them. The necessity of both these operations cannot be stressed enough, yet they were always a struggle. The steer also needs to have good pasture during the summer and a nice little shelter with attached paddock for exercise. I always taught my beef animals to lead and would stake them out on long ropes in good grazing each day then bring them into their paddock for the evening.
At slaughter time it was often hard to say good bye. I always gave my steers names like Ground Round, or Porterhouse , or the last one: Sirloin, to make the parting a little easier for me. Some I was glad to load in the wagon and haul to the slaughterhouse because young steers are very energetic and constantly searching for ways to break out of the fence to get into the garden. The slaughterhouse would cut, wrap and freeze the meat usually in trade for half the carcass. This yielded us 300-400 pounds of meat, enough to get through until the next steer was ready for the freezer.
After many years of this beef calf circus, I figured out that we could get grass fed, free range, all natural beef locally for about the same cost as raising a steer. And, with a lot less effort on my part. The growers don’t use hormones or excessive antibiotics. The animals have good lives with other cattle and lots of pasture. They are not jammed into stinking feed lots where they stand in liquid waste and are stuffed with corn to “finish” them before slaughter, as are most of the cattle used to produce the meat on grocery shelves.
In the past ten years I’ve found several people here in Maine who raise a few grass-fed beef animals every year and sell a whole steer, a half or a quarter. You place your order with the grower and when fall slaughter comes you get a call to tell the butcher what cuts you want, when to pick up the blast-frozen, packaged meat and how much to pay. The last three years we’ve used a grower very nearby, we can even drive to his house and watch our steaks growing. The price after all the expenses is about $5-$6 per pound for delicious, tender, high quality ribeye, tenderloin, NY sirloin, ground round hamburg, and excellent roasts. This year our beef critter was an angus cross. We’ll be sampling him soon. And I did not have to teach him how to drink from a bucket or chase him out of my corn patch!