The Making of a Steer

January 25
A bull calf stands behind a row of mother cows enjoying dinner in the sun. 

It’s calving season on our farm. The three months of each year we welcome hundreds of new, fun and furry calves to our farm. We typically average half female and half male calves – but they tend to arrive in spurts. Six of the last seven calves born have been males but soon enough the numbers will even out and the females will get their revenge.

For beef cattle, both males and females play a role in the continuation of the herd and beef production. The females grow the cow herd and the bulls make the babies (seriously, they have the easy job). But every farm and ranch is home to a group of animals that aren’t females but aren’t true males – the steers.

We love our male (bull) calves but too many males can be a problem. Therefore, we limit the number of bulls through castration and create males without the ability to reproduce, aka steers.

Whenever possible we castrate our male calves at birth through a technique called banding. A band is placed around the testicles as soon as possible to restrict blood flow. Within a week the testicles will dry up and by two weeks the testicles will have completely fallen off.

(Side note: The process of catching the calf, safely separating it from its very protective mother and getting it in position to get the band on takes speed and nerves of steel – those mommas don’t like us messing with their calves. See mean muggin momma cow below.)

derek banding calf
The bander (the blue took Farmer Derek is holding) is used to apply bands to calves at birth
The bands – small but mighty and all over my house during calving season

Steers are still considered “boys” but have lower testosterone levels than non-castrated males – or bulls. A steer can still produce an impressive, muscular frame but the meat is often more tender and desirable to consumers. And with less testosterone on the farm, everyone and everything is calmer (bulls just like to fight).


The Only Option is to Help

Antibiotic use in animals has again made headlines as another national restaurant chain announces plans to move to serving only antibiotic-free animal products.

The change was the result of pressure from outside lobbyist organizations with a mission to discontinue the use of all antibiotics in animals. What’s disappointing is the restaurant chain’s lack of attention to facts, science and the people who actually raise the animals. Fear and misinformation again won, leaving farm animals as the ultimate victims.

My husband and I raise Angus cattle on our fourth-generation family farm in Central Kansas. We believe in the humane treatment of all of our animals and therefore use antibiotics in our animals on an as-needed basis to cure an illness and help the animal return to full health.

Antibiotics are not our first line of defense against sickness in our animals but they do allow us a resource to help the animal overcome illness, fatigue and stress. Without the ability to use antibiotics, we would be forced to watch innocent animals die from basic, treatable conditions.

We keep records of all uses of antibiotics to ensure the withdraw period has passed before the animal enters the food system. However, most of our animals remain on our farm long after the antibiotics are administered.

What most consumers don’t realize is that all beef sold in grocery stores and used in restaurants is antibiotic free and tested, by the USDA, for antibiotic residue before leaving the processing plant. The standards are strict and farmers and ranchers do everything they can to ensure the beef enjoyed by consumers is healthy and safe.

Everything we do is to protect and support the health and welfare of our animals. We don’t want to have to doctor sick animals so we do everything we can to ensure their health and wellbeing. But when we do find one of our animals is not feeling well, it is our duty to return them to health. That’s part of being good stewards of our animals and your food.

Beware The Comment Section

I did it to myself. I clicked a link for an article bad-mouthing agriculture authored by a publication that has never been friendly to farmers But as a livestock owner, mother and concerned citizen, I wanted and needed to see what this group was saying about antibiotic use in livestock.

Turns out it was nothing new. The same old finger-pointing and miss-representation of the issue and the fact. And I could have stopped there. Opting to move on and keep my opinions to myself. But I did it. I kept scrolling . . . right down to the comment section.

I hadn’t commented on an article in a while. And I quickly remembered why. The section should come with a warning: “Enter at your own risk. Reading comments can lead to high blood pressure, headaches and anxiety.”

In today’s digital world, the comment section of any online article has become a digital playground dominated by a pack of demeaning and malicious activists with no intentions of learning from the other side.

As a agriculture advocate, it is my job and passion to work with others to explain the other side of the issue and exchange thoughts, ideas and concerns. I aim for a dialogue and honest, respectable conversation focused on the issue, not the person.

It didn’t take long for the hate to find me. After commenting on a few errors in the article, I found myself bombarded by two brash and vile readers with no limits and no filter.

A self-described 51-year-old vegan triathlete expressed her delight in the idea of my drinking myself to death. “We would all be happier,” she wrote. What?!? Hiding behind a screen name and avatar, she asked no questions and quickly moved to name calling and insulting. Apparently she’s not a fan of meat-eaters and livestock producers. It was spectacular how childish an adult could act when protected by a computer screen and anonymity.

A second gentleman asked if he could eat my child if he got hungry – because that was akin to me raising cattle for beef. I simply had not words. It was obvious they were looking for a fight – not a conversation.

So with elevated blood pressure and a new opinion of humanity, I shut my computer and crawled into bed wondering how we got to this.

When did it become acceptable for adults to name call and belittle people with opposing views? I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, I follow politics and sports. But I never realized the level of hatred, immaturity and loathsome behavior some people are willing to stoop to over a simple disagreement in dietary choices.

There are many things in this world I don’t agree with but I would never and could never use the language I witnessed in the comment section. This world is dealing with major, complex issues. Wars are raging in the Middle East, displacing millions. African nations are killing their own people and human trafficking is rampant around the globe. Ask a victim of any of those situations and they’ll tell you they don’t care what they eat – they just hope to live to see their next meal.

The growth and efficiency of American agriculture has allowed for a huge diversity in products available to consumers. The ability to choose should be heralded as a benefit of living in America, the land of the free. But choice is instead the catalyst for online, verbal warfare. Americans have the freedom to consume a plant-only or gluten-free diet. They can opt for grass-fed over grain-finished beef and choose locally sourced over imported produce. It’s the result of farmers and ranchers working hard to meet growing consumer demands. Most countries and people have only one choice and sometimes that choice is whether to eat or allow someone else to have the meal. We are blessed beyond belief and we should be thankful.

So to the lady who wishes death upon me and to the gentleman who thinks I’m an idiot a**hole, I hope you enjoy your next meal and I hope you give thanks for the ability to eat three meals a day. It something we should never take for granted. And if you ever have questions or concerns about your food. Ask a farmer or come visit. I’ll be happy to show you around. And I pray you find a more constructive use of your time, energy and passion.

A Little Down Time

For those farming only crops, the end is in sight. Most rushed to get the last fields cut before the season’s first snowfall. Those that didn’t make it have only days – maybe hours – left in the field before a slowdown for the holidays and winter chill.

But farmers who raise crops and cattle aren’t winding down for the winter. They’re simply taking a break and catching their breath before winter moves in for good.

My husband and his father manage not only our crops but our growing Angus cow herd. Our cows have returned home from a summer of grazing and will be delivering calves starting in January. A calving season typically lasts three months so the men will be on calf watch until nearly April.

Between now and New Years Day, my husband will keep himself busy hauling water to our cows grazing in our picked corn and milo fields, vaccinating and tagging heifers and steers as they arrive to our farm and organizing feed sources for the long winter ahead.

The mother cows are in their final months of pregnancy with their calves so nutrition and proper medical care – if necessary – is essential. As 2015 approaches, all of our animals will be moved to more secure calving areas that provide protection from the wind and snow. The guys will make daily trips to the fields and facilities to check on each animal and when calves start arriving those trips will become hourly visits to ensure each new calf is up, active and nursing.

The work of a cattle farmer is never done and as some farmers settle in for a winter of maintenance and meetings, my husband and others will be busy battling the cold to care for our cows and their newborn calves.

The TRUTH about HSUS

We as farmers and ranchers are under constant attack by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). The organization – which many people wrongfully believe is associated with their local animal shelters – spends millions of dollars annually to end animal agriculture and consequently our way of life.

The organization spreads false and misleading information about farming and ranching practices and works to mislead consumers about animal proteins and food products.

But agriculture is not the only industry HSUS has a bulls-eye on. The hunting, fishing and outdoor world also battles HSUS, which opposes hunting and the killing of animals for any reason.

Attempting to spread the message about HSUS’s mislead efforts is a daily, constant efforts and many times it feels as if we in the agriculture world are beating a dead horse. So it was great to read a column in our local paper written by a local outdoorsman who recently learned the truth about the organization and used his column to educate readers.

I enjoyed his column and wanted to share his message and truth about HSUS. Many people wrongfully believe HSUS is associated with their local animal shelter and that is simply not true. If you want to support local animal shelters, send your money directly to the shelter, not to HSUS!

Read Steve Gilliand’s column at–Steve-G-column-HSUS

Knowing Our Animals

Fellow Kansas cattle owner, Jennifer Heim, who owns dairies with her husband, David, in Northeast Kansas, recently blogged about naming the animals on their farm. It’s a question she said she receives a lot – as do we – and believes the real issue behind it is people questioning if they really know and differentiate  their animals from one another. I believe her assumption is spot on!

As Jennifer explains in her blog post ( people associate farmers and ranchers naming their animals with truly knowing their animals. Without names, do we really care for our animals? Absolutely.

Just like the Heims, all of our animals are assigned numbers. We know our animals by their numbers and, I will admit, some demand more of our attention than others. Ask my husband and he can tell you which are the stubborn cows, easy-going ladies and the ones that just seem to go with the flow. He often has stories of a cow that develops a unique routine or trick. Some manage to find any and all gaps in the fence while others learn the routines of the feed truck – and are always the first to arrive for their morning meals.

Now that calving season has started, knowing our animals – by number or name – is more important that ever. With several mother cows delivering newborns on the same day in the same pasture, it’s essential we know which mothers belong to which calves. We also remember which calves seem to have more trouble than others sucking and getting around – which means we try to pay a little closer attention to those little guys.

My husband can’t remember what I told him an hour ago but he can tell you which heifers delivered calves this week. These calves are our lives and business so knowing their behaviors and schedules helps us better care for them – be it by name or number.

The Antibiotics Debate

The use of antibiotics in our cattle has, like the cattle themselves, evolved over the years. Going off prior wisdom that it was best to protect all cattle from disease and infection, my husband and his father provided a low dose of antibiotics to all cattle entering our farm as feeder cattle.

These animals – often called feeder cattle – were about 10 months old, weighed about 500 pounds and had just been weaned from their mothers. They were unhappy, hungry and dealing with declining temperatures and the approach of winter. The method worked but further study of the practice revealed the cost of the antibiotic was not being realized in the final product. Too many animals were still falling sick.

So over the past four years, we have evolved our process of taking in new feeder cattle. Focusing on creating a clean and stable environment, we eliminated the low-dose antibiotic and move to doctoring only animals that showed signs of illness.

The newly weaned cattle now enter our farm and are immediately given a diet of dried distillers grains and brome grass. They take well to this food and a hearty appetite helps keep them full and happy. We ensure the pens are clean and dry and dirt mounds are left to allow the cattle to lay inclined.

We have not found a way to completely eliminate sickness from our farm. We doctor about 5 to 10 percent of our cattle for bacterial infections – pneumonia is one of the most common infections. A large majority of those animals will heal. About 1 percent will perish from their illness. We keep extensive records on all cattle that receive antibiotics and ensure that they have cleared the withdraw period before leaving our farm.

Recently, advocacy ground have begun calling for the repeal of antibiotics in cattle and all livestock.

If left untreated, sick cattle on our farm would likely perish and have a greater chance of infecting other animals. All antibiotics found on our farm are approved by the U.S.  Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and must be purchased from a veterinarian.

Antibiotics are an important too that allow us to have a healthy and productive cattle operation. We believe farmers should have continued access to antibiotics to help improve the health of our herd and continue providing a quality supply of beef products.