Fall-Calving, Grass-Finished Beef

November 12, 2013

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Bruce King asks, “why fall  calving?”  The short answer is “serendipity”.  The long answer is the rest of this post.

When I split my farm from my parents’ farm, I had to figure out how I was going to farm and keep the beef and pork markets I had built up with Jordandal Farms supplied.  With a much smaller land base I realized I would need to purchase more of my inputs.  So I started purchasing spring-born feeder steers in October when they were weaned from their moms.

I take the steers through the winter on stored feed, shooting for a pound and a half gain per head per day.  They then go onto the lush spring pastures, gaining three pounds per day in May and June.  I start butchering the biggest steers at the end of June weighing around 1000 lbs.  As the summer pastures fade I start to graze hay fields to keep high-quality feed available at all times.  I continue butchering the biggest steers at a rate of eight per month and they’re all gone by October.

But back to the fall-calving herd.  Even though I realized I needed to buy feeder steers to keep my market supplied, I was a little sad I wouldn’t have any cows or calves.  The breeding through birth process is always fun to experience.

But the fall before our farms split up saw many cows returning to estrus, after the herd bulls had been removed.  This is a bad sign because it means the cows are “open” and will not have a calf the next spring.  We sell almost all of the open cows for beef, as it doesn’t pay to feed a cow for a nonproductive year.

But in a bit of serendipity, the neighbor’s bull jumped the fence and spent a month with our cows.  When the veterinarian pregnancy-checked our cows, sure enough many were open, more than usual.  Some of the cows we considered best in the herd.  I realized some of these cows may be short-bred by the neighbor’s bull, (less than a month and the vet wouldn’t be able to determine).

So I decided to start a fall-calving herd.  I picked out the best cows, ones the vet said were reproductively sound even though they were open.  And I moved them to my farm and borrowed one of my parents’ bulls to breed any cows which weren’t bred by the neighbor’s bull.  The neighbor’s bull was black and he sired the black calves last year.  I had 8 black calves and 4 red ones.

I wasn’t sure where this herd would be, as I didn’t think I had room for them on my farm during the grazing months.  Luckily I was able to rent a neighbor’s wooded pasture from May 1st to November 1st.  After November 1st I bring them home and turn the bull out with them.

I wasn’t sure how the small calves would handle the winter, but last winter they did fine, nursing their mothers and eating some hay.  I weaned the calves from their moms at the end of April.  The weaned calves really took off on the spring pastures.  They spent the summer grazing with the feeder steers.  And now I’ve started butchering them weighing around 1000 lbs.

I think the economics of the fall-born calves is better than purchasing feeder steers, because although the cow and calf eat more hay than a feeder steer, I don’t have to spend the money purchasing the weaned calf.  Furthermore, the cow will have a salvage value at the end of her productive life.

If I didn’t need to keep a consistent supply of beef, and could just sell quarters to customers at one time in the fall, I think I would only have a fall-calving herd and market all the fall-born calves the following November.

What makes both systems economical is taking the animals through only one winter.  Feed is a huge cost in beef production, and the cost of winter feed dwarfs the cost of summer pasture.

The photos were taken recently and show two, fifteen month old fall-born calves above and below, from a different angle.  They weigh about a  thousand lbs and will be butchered in a few weeks.

The top photo also shows one of my fall-calving cows on the right.  She is eight years old and had something wrong with her udder so I took her calf away from her.  She is one of the biggest cows, I’m sure weighing over 1500 lbs.  She also will be butchered soon.

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Wood Chips from Menards

October 9, 2013

DSCF1484Menards is a home remodel retailer similar to Home Depot.  They have a facility in Illinois which takes all the old wooden pallets used in their business and grinds them up and runs it by a large magnet which removes the nails and metal.  They then give the finished wood chips away if you will haul them.

My uncle has a large straight truck which is used mostly to take mulch and potting soil into Chicago in places a semi tractor trailer can’t access.  He brought me a load for $450, which covers his gas, but not much for his time.  The photo above shows about 60% of the load, as I had him dump it in front of two hoop buildings.

I’m able to use my loader and put it about a foot deep in two hoop buildings.  It makes a great base onto which I spread straw weekly, or as the pigs need it.  When I haul the manure onto the fields I can still see some of the wood chips, but it appears they break down rapidly in the field because I have never seen any intact later.

In the bottom photo you may be able to see a sow eating at the large feeder.  Since I’m using more pasture for my hogs I’m using some of my hoop buildings differently.  In the warm months when they can be out, I have shelters in the pasture, but I let the hogs come into the hoop building for water and feed, fencing off the rest of the hoop building and using that part for machinery storage.  In the cold, wet months I’ll give the hogs access to the rest of the building.

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Pig Feed: Mix-your-own vs. Bulk-delivered

August 5, 2013

I used all the corn I grew last year and have been purchasing corn from my parents, but it looks like I may use up that supply before fall harvest.  It’s going to be close, though.  So instead of purchasing a small amount of corn which would be a pain to auger into a bin only to shovel back out, I priced a complete feed delivered right into my pig feeders.

The price Big Gain has right now for 16% protein pig feed is $825 for two ton, delivered into my feeder.  If I were to mix my own ration, I could do two ton for $510, not counting the cost of my time and machinery.

Breaking it down for a two ton batch:

80 lbs of vitamin/mineral/amino acid premix for $30

550 lbs of soybean meal for $143

3370 lbs of corn for $337

The cost of the bulk feed is $.21 per lb and the cost of the mix-my-own feed is $.13 per lb.  This seems like a hefty premium to pay for convenience, but I may buy some if I’m cutting it very close.


Solar Fence Charger

April 9, 2013

Solar Fence Charger

I purchased a Parmak solar fence charger to power the electric fence around my farrowing pasture.  This is my first experience with a solar charger and it’s working fine.  I paid $200 at my local hardware store.

I hung it on the electric pole and grounded it to the ground running down the pole.  Does anyone know if this is a bad idea?


Trouble-Spring Farrowing 2013

March 10, 2013

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17 of the first 22 piglets born to my spring litters.  I guess labeling them as spring litters alludes you to my delusions, which the past six days have exposed.

I thought farrowing in a hoop building in January would be the most difficult farrowing I would ever experience.  Farrowing in huts in 30ish F weather in a blizzard followed by over an inch of rain has proven more difficult.  I guess Jude Becker purchased insulated farrowing huts for a reason.

I put one bag of wood shavings in each shelter along with a couple slices of straw.  I thought I could add straw for warmth as needed.  What I didn’t think about was the frozen ground underneath.  Last year farrowing in the hoop building I had the advantage of a bedding pack for warmth, not frozen ground.

On Tuesday a couple of sows acted like they were ready to farrow.  A blizzard was forecast for that night.  I locked one sow up in a shelter and for some reason I can’t remember did not lock up the other one.  At first light I checked on the sows.  The sow who was locked up had four out of twelve piglets alive.  The other sow had one out of ten alive.  The problem was moisture along with cold.  Snow had blown into the shelters, especially the open-door one.  I transferred the lone piglet to the litter with four.  All five piglets are still alive.

I realized I needed more bedding and it needed to be absorbent.  So I started buying wood shavings and have probably put at least four bags of wood shavings in each shelter over the past five days.  I knew the piglets needed to get dry if they were going to resist the cold.

It has been raining the past two days.  Below is a picture of a shelter I abandoned because I didn’t need it.  The rain is not soaking into the frozen ground so instead is pooling.

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So I keep adding wood shavings trying to build a little dry hill for the sow and piglets.  It seems to be working.  If a piglet lives the first day, really the first couple of hours, it is staying alive.

This has been another learning experience for me.  Yesterday as the rain fell I despaired, but today I’m back to my optimistic self.  Below is probably the best litter so far.  I’ll let you know how many piglets are weaned from this difficult farrowing group.

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Daily Winter Cattle Watering

January 14, 2013

Cattle Tank Waterer

I wanted to house my fall-calving cows with calves on the south side of my farm this winter.  I couldn’t figure out a good way to walk them back over to where the heated Ritchie waterer is, so I purchased the 110 gallon tank, pictured above.

465 is the cow in the photo.  She is my oldest cow at nine years old.  Coincidentally, she was the model cow in last year’s post about the Ritchie waterer.

I needed a way to keep the water thawed.  So I purchased a sinking tank de-icer.  The first cold night it blew a 15 amp fuse.  I thought I was in for trouble, but I replaced it with a 20 amp fuse and it has worked flawlessly since.

Sinking Tank De-Icer

One drawback is I fill the tank with a hose at least twice per day, draining the hose well after each fill.  I figure each cow is drinking between 15 and 20 gallons per day.  I don’t notice the calves drinking much because they are still nursing their mothers.

In the photo below you can see the herd eating hay out of a feeder.  13 cows, 12 calves, and 1 bull are eating a half of a round bale of hay per day.  If similar quality hay is valued at $200 per ton, and a round bale is 1500 lbs, then the herd is eating $75 worth of hay per day.

Tank Waterer and Cows Eating Hay


Corn Silage

November 1, 2012

We finished corn harvest.  The drought and high temperatures resulted in yields a third to a half of normal.  That was on the best acres.  We custom-hired a neighbor to chop the whole corn plant on the worst acres and make silage to feed to the cattle.  Above you can see the machine which blows and packs the silage into a bag.

Silage is any forage which is harvested wet and stored in an anaerobic condition.  After ensiling, the crop goes through a fermentation process resulting in the sugars being converted to lactic and acetic acid.  This results in good feed for cattle.

Most of the time there is enough natural bacteria present to ensure good fermentation.  This year, because of concerns from the drought, we put an inoculate of bacteria on the silage.

One bad aspect of harvesting corn silage, because you remove the whole plant, the soil is left exposed.  Exposed soil is prone to erosion.

The next day I planted oats and rape with my grain drill.  With a little rain, these vigorous crops germinated.  Below you can see the oats on October 1st, next to standing corn waiting to be harvested for grain.

Oats continue growing well in cool weather.  Below is a photo taken November 1st.  When the temperature falls to 20 F, the oats will die.  They will not be a problem when it’s time to plant another crop next spring.


New Truck, New Haybine

May 6, 2012

I made a couple of new purchases recently.  The truck is a 98 Dodge with 4-wheel drive.  I bought it specifically for hauling my animals to the butcher.  It does have a cassette player though, so I found my old cassette tapes and have been rerocking the 90′s.

The haybine is a New Holland 488, made in the 80′s.  A friend found it for me on Craig’s List.  It’s in great shape.

I paid $8000 for the truck and $2400 for the haybine.  The truck gets terrible mileage, less than ten miles per gallon when pulling the stock trailer.

Sixty miles round-trip to the butcher with about one load per week equals 3,000 miles, and maybe another 1,000 miles picking up supplies, means I may only drive it 4,000 miles per year.  If I get eight miles per gallon, I’ll use 500 gallons of gas.  At $4 per gallon I’ll spend $2000 annually on gas.

As much as I think grazing animals are part of the solution to global-warming, using this much fuel to get my animals to the butcher leads me to believe I’m not part of the solution.  But alas, I’m part of a system.

I would love to keep all my animals in one herd, schedule a kill date at my butcher, then sort all the animals I want to cull and walk them to the butcher once per year.  This isn’t the world I live in, though.


New Ritchie Waterer

February 19, 2012

I put a new waterer in this past fall.  One disadvantage to my farm is I don’t have a dependable, natural source of water.  I do have a waterway in my pasture which always flows with water in the spring, dries up during the summer, and is frozen during the winter.

As I wrote in “Sow Housing,” I’m housing different species of livestock together, so it’s convenient to have a heated combination waterer to water both cattle and hogs.  I also have some cows which I wanted to keep separate from their calves after weaning, so it’s also convenient that the waterer has two sides.

What did I pay for all this heated convenience?  $1300 installed.

I put up a temporary fence for the winter so the cows could access the waterer from the yard.  They are being fed hay on the cornstalks.  Unfortunately, the winter has been so mild, the ground hasn’t stayed frozen, so they are damaging a hay field they need to walk across.

Below is a picture of the inside.  The water pipes and heating elements are easily visible.  The thermostat is the round knob towards the top.


2012 Price of Hog Feed

February 6, 2012

I did some figurin’ on hog feed prices.  I like to do this every year.  The current prices I’m using include: corn $.10/lb, soybean meal $.17/lb, pig premix $.40/lb, sow premix $.49/lb.  This is using $5.60 per bushel corn and $340/ton soybean meal.

I put 150 lbs. of sow premix in every ton of sow feed and 100 lbs. of pig premix in every ton of pig feed.

The sow gestation ration uses 250 lbs of soybean meal per ton.  The sow lactation ration uses 540 lbs of soybean meal per ton.  So if you do all the math, gestation ration is $.14/lb and lactation ration is $.15/lb.

The pig rations use anywhere from 250 lbs of soybean meal per ton for the largest pigs to 600 lbs of soybean meal per ton for the smallest pigs.  I adjust the amount of soybean meal based on my feed budget and the size of the pigs.

After all the math, the cheapest ration for the largest pigs is $.12/lb and the most expensive ration for the smallest pigs is $.15/lb, with the in between rations falling in between.

There are more expensive rations for smaller pigs, but with my new farrowing system I plan to let the piglets nurse longer, thereby eliminating the need for the more expensive starter pig diets.

These rations are near the historical highs, but not quite as high as last year.  I think these prices are the new normal and we will learn to live with them.

I plan on experimenting with more grazing and feeding forages and alternative feedstuffs this year.  I’ll have feed and production records to analyze next year at this time.


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