It’s been awhile since we talked any farmin’ around here. In truth, not a whole lot of farming happens in the Michigan winter. But every January, our beef steers head to the butcher. Next week, my freezer will be full again. There is a little family-run, USDA-approved butcher about 15 miles from us, and they actually come pick up our boys for us each year. Yes. Yes, it is sad to see them go. But I take a huge amount of satisfaction in the fact they they were raised well, under zero stress, and will go on to feed many families because of our effort.
So, maybe, let’s talk about that a little bit.
You know we’re not full-time farmers. Curt works in an office all day and I chase children. As a break from everyday life, our family decided to work the land a bit, raise a small herd of Texas Longhorn cattle, and keep a few chickens for eggs. There are also 4 barn cats and a Labrador retriever running around. I really want a donkey. We’ve talked about this. Curt still says no. It’s very nice to meet you.
So, we have a small herd of longhorns- 12 mammas cows. Each year, the mammas have a baby (one a year until they’re about 25!). It takes 9 months to have a baby longhorn… just like humans. Up here, where winters can be harsh, we limit the breeding to summer so babies come in the spring. It’s absolutely my favorite time of year… all those sweet little babies running around! If the mamma has a girl (a heifer), we keep the calf for future breeding and show. It’s the free way of increasing our herd and genetics. If it’s a boy (a bull calf), we watch him for a few months. If he looks exceptional… like a champion that others might want to use for breeding… we keep him. If it’s a boy and he’s awesome but not super-amazing-going-to-change-the-cattle-world, well, then… he moves over to the steer pen.
Our farm has an UNBELIEVABLE record for having bull calves. In 4 seasons of breeding, we’ve only had 7 heifer calves. CRAZY. Since you only need one bull for every 20 cattle or so… and you can’t use the same bull all the time if you want your herd to be genetically diverse… bulls are not highly prized. They’re lovely and spirited and super cute, but they don’t have babies. We didn’t get into longhorns to raise beef, but it is a beautiful option to be sure all our animals live purposeful lives.
Longhorns grow a bit slower than commercial beef cattle. It takes longer for them to put on pounds. For about 20 months, our steers feed on 40 acres of pasture grass AND receive corn, grain, & a protein supplement. Our cows do not receive chemicals, preservatives, or growth hormones. Never. They do receive apples from our children.
Why does TexasNorth add corn & grain? Longhorns are exceptionally lean cattle naturally- like, 95% lean. God made them able to survive under very harsh conditions. Michigan has fantastic grass, so that’s a bonus to their diet. Adding protein and a little corn and grain to their pasture-feeding for the last two months introduces a little fat into their system which helps with flavor. They are not 100% grass-fed beef. But they aren’t traditionally grain-only, force-fed ‘finished’ either. They’re on a TexasNorth custom program. The corn we use was grown across the street from one of our 3 neighbors who grow their own corn crop each year.
Here’s the thing: grocery store meat likely comes from steers that have growth-hormone implants to increase weight and quicken maturity, are fed little to no grass or hay, and get minimal exercise (again, to encourage fat). Stores are also able to pay less-per-pound because of their buying volume. TexasNorth handles less than 10 beef cattle a year. Feedlots work in the hundreds to hundreds of thousands. This kind of production and operation makes food cheaper for the farmer, cheaper for the market, and cheaper for the consumer. It’s efficient.
Here’s another thing: when you buy beef from the store (overwhelmingly Black Angus or Hereford breeds), you are probably the 8th handler. Cattle are bought, sold, hauled, medicated, fed and moved all over the nation before consumption. The average steer is hauled over 3000 miles during his less than 15-month career.
We are all unknowingly accustomed to meat that’s been systematically bred for taste to the detriment of the animal’s natural life. Calves are now so big that they cannot be born with- out human assistance. There is little exercise, and they are fed on 100% grain to make them grow as quickly as possible. The less time the spend on the farm and the more they weigh on the scale, the more money they bring. These aren’t bad farms with evil people, folks… but it IS the norm. Awareness can be a bit painful.
Longhorn cattle remain a smaller (500 pounds to a Hereford’s 700 pounds of hanging-weight), more versatile breed that still birth alone, are naturally disease-resistant, and are remarkably unchanged from their days as the original beef cattle in the famous cattle drives of the Old West. They’re old-school. Perfectly lovely, if less efficient, beef cattle. They’re super friendly, gorgeous, interesting animals to have roaming our fields.
We’re fortunate to not be doing this for income. We’d simply never make a living. Our boys take too long to grow up and we don’t have enough of them to be cost-effective. We’re just raising Longhorns for the love of history, and we don’t have the space to double our herd every year. Therefore, we have a surplus of healthy and happy animals, and we’re thrilled to be able to share that with friends.
TexasNorth is not certified anything. We’re just a small, homestead farm that breeds registered Longhorn cattle and keeps a few chickens. We have no special stamps or papers to show visitors. We do, however, take very good care of our animals and our land. We eat what you eat. Ours is simply a friend-to-friend operation… local folks sharing food. We’re learning as we go and making the best decisions we can for our family, our time, and our resources. It’s harder than we thought. It’s certainly messier than we thought, but we’re having a great time.
And my husband looks great on a tractor.
So, that’s the overview. Sometime later, we can chat about price comparisons and beef cuts.