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.)

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The bander (the blue took Farmer Derek is holding) is used to apply bands to calves at birth
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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 Tale of Two Disasters

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A hole remains where a bridge once stood – destroyed by a wildfire that burned nearly all of the grass acres on this ranch in Clark County, Kan. 

Twelve hours after witnessing, first-hand, the devastation wrought by fire and wind, I turned on the television to reports of sleet, snow and blizzard conditions.

These were two separate natural disasters, one predicted, reported and planned for, the other unforeseen, nearly unimaginable and deadly.

Last week, more than 10 counties in Kansas fell victim to wildfires with Oklahoma and Texas also fighting blazes. The exact causes of the fires are still under investigation but dry conditions, heavy winds and low humidity created an atmosphere ripe for a blaze. Ranchers across southern and western Kansas were caught unaware and largely unprepared. The fire leveled homes, metal buildings, vehicles and animals. Hundreds of thousands of acres of pasture were blackened and thousands of animals were killed or so injured that owners were forced to put them down. The scars of the fire are still visible and daunting and the recovery will take months, if not years.

A week after the fires, the Northeast is experiencing a late winter storm that is dumping cold, wind and snow. Public transportation has slowed, offices and the government are abbreviating operating hours and people are being asked to stay home and stay warm. Meteorologists saw the storm coming and municipalities were able to treat roads, close schools and reschedule events. Some estimates predict 18 million people will be impacted but no fatalities have been reported.

The fires in the Midwest and the blizzard in the east are two separate but not equal disasters. Television reports would lead you to believe the blizzard will handicap and devastate the I-95 corridor when in fact, life will likely return to normal in a matter of days. But the farmers and ranchers still sorting through injured animals, broken fences and piles of ashes that were once homes, have received little to no national attention. No major television networks giving hour-by-hour updates or ticker tape read outs of the economic impact of the fires. Instead volunteers from far and wide, many livestock owners or farmers themselves, have trekked to Clark County and other impacted areas to donate their time, energy and resources to help the rebuilding efforts. There are few federal dollars helping the recovery and municipalities in the region are too small to provide any substantial level of support or service.

Federal dollars will be slow to arrive to the fire victims – as most are funneled through FEMA, which cannot help these types of situations – and what few disaster programs exist will only cover a fraction of the lost income and future revenue sources. The fires will completely change some ranches and force those who have lived off the land for their entire lives to find other sources of employment.

Wildfires
Burnt remains of a metal building lay in a pile to be removed. The wildfire that destroyed pastures and killed livestock also decimated homes, offices and sheds. 

Meanwhile, those living in the Northeast will return to work Wednesday, having had a day to rest, recoup and let the storm pass them by. Federal and state dollars will power snowplows, tree trimmers and salt trucks to lessen the burden on residents.

We often hear about the invisibility of the “fly over states” but the timeliness of these two disasters only proves to illustrate the resilience and determination of Rural America. No warnings to help them prepare and evacuate, no public dollars to clear away the debris and no minute-by-minute updates to inform the nation of the devastation. Just hardworking families and farmers working tirelessly to rebuild their homes, their businesses and their way of life.

If you want to help the victims of the recent fires, please use the link to below to donate online:

http://www.kla.org/donationform.aspx

 

Any and all help will be appreciated.

2017: Adventure Awaits

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As 2016 came to a close, I found myself at my computer several times, attempting to summarize and reflect on the year that was. It was quite a year for the Sawyer family – kicked off with the birth of our second son, Owen, on Jan. 5 and accentuated with tough times on the farm, a second degree for me, two big trips for the hubs and the start of pre-school for our oldest son, Evan.

It was a whirlwind of a year and one I will never forget because it taught me just how much our family can manage and endure. From an early-rising baby to an always-on toddler and a husband who works way too many hours, it was a year of learning and growing.

But 2017 is here and with it comes a host of new opportunities and adventures. On Tuesday I will officially start in my new position as District Director for Congressman-elect Dr. Roger Marshall. I believe in what he stands for and his desire to represent our district, put constituents’ needs first and be a voice for agriculture in Washington D.C. I will remain in the district, acting as the eyes and ears of the Congressman and his D.C. staff. It’s an honor and privilege to have this opportunity and I look forward to the many great Kansans I will have the opportunity to meet and get to know.

Unfortunately, hubs will endure the lions share of the challenges as grain and cattle prices continue to lag. Crop prices sank in 2016 but record yields allowed many farms, including ours, to make it. If the rains don’t come and yields fall, 2017 could be disastrous for many in the farming community. To add insult to injury, many necessary inputs continue to rise, meaning our costs will again outpace our revenues. We have invested in the various crop insurance and farm management programs available to us but nothing replaces strong exports, rising commodity prices and continued demand for our products. (See chart below for illustration of farm income.)

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Owen will continue to grow, change and learn each day. Evan will continue with pre-school, moving to a pre-K program in the fall. We’ll figure out a new normal with my new job and Derek’s continued demand of the farm, Farm Bureau and other organizations he’s involved with.

We all look forward to a happy, successful and productive 2017. It won’t be without headaches, heartache and hard times but we’ll endure and continue farming, laughing and growing.

Cheers to 2017 and happy new year to all!

There is no Plan B

Three generations enjoy lunch together before officially beginning Day 1 of #WheatHarvest2016.
Three generations enjoy lunch together before officially beginning Day 1 of #WheatHarvest2016.
When Times Get Tough, Farmers Keep Going My farmer husband started the day vaccinating calves that recently came home from a summer in the Kansas Flint Hills. He takes great pride in his animals and loves watching calves grow into great mommas and strong, lean steers. Today’s group of calves are big, beautiful animals that will, most likely, end up losing us money by the time all is said and done. When he finished with the calves, he moved onto surveying soybean fields that have yet to be cut. We finally got all of the corn out of the ground but fall harvest is far from complete. Over the next two weeks, my husband and his crew will spend hours, days even, in the combine cutting soybeans and grain sorghum. But yet, like the calves, harvest will be a disappointing venture. Crop prices keep falling while input costs remain unchanged. Profits are a thing of the past. Today’s goal is to simply break even and pay the bills. (Read more about the slumping farm economy HERE) In our part of the world, you can find farms that have been in a family for more than a century. Those 100 years have seen droughts, floods, interest rate booms and market busts. Farmers have and continue to thrive despite the adverse conditions and seemingly insurmountable odds. They do it for the love of the land and a hope of another generation returning to keep the family farm alive. So many aspects of farming – from the weather to crop prices to worldwide production – remain outside farmers’ control. They are at the mercy of variables that can make or break a crop, a year or an entire farm. Every year hardworking farm families are forced to close shop because they simply cannot make it all work. Watching equipment, land and cattle be sold off to neighbors and strangers alike is enough to break anyone’s spirit. Farming is hard but quitting is worse. Programs like crop insurance provide valuable and necessary tools to farmers to allow them some recovery from economic hardship. These are not handouts or props for wealthy landowners, they are life jackets that allow farmers, like us, to make it to the next harvest and the next paycheck. Farmers must provide the premiums for the insurance programs and often times the insurance check barely covers the next payment for seed or mortgage for the land. The last decade has been relatively prosperous for farmers across the U.S. But the good times have officially ended and many are predicting a series of bad years and continued low crop prices. For most business owners, this would be the catalyst to close shop or find new inventory. But farmers aren’t so lucky. There is no Columbus Day sale or “new special” to tease consumers and bring in new revenue. There is simply the hope of better days to come. Just like he did today, my farmer will wake up again tomorrow, put on his boots, head to the farm, tend to his cattle and watch his crops. It’s what he does; it’s what he was born to do. There is no Plan B when things don’t go as planned there is only the memory of past rough years and the good times that followed. My husband’s father and grandfather worked this land and one day he wants to watch his sons do the same. So he’ll keep on farming, keep watching his calves grow and putting in 80-hour weeks to pay the bills, put food on the table and hold onto the dream of another generation tending to this land.

Ulster Project Pays a Visit

Combine
Ulster Project participants check out a combine and corn field during their visit to our farm Thursday afternoon.

We had a group of young people visit the farm Thursday. This was a unique group as it was comprised of local and Northern Ireland teens, all participants in the Ulster Project and all excited to see a farm up close, although some enthusiasm as dampened by the 100-plus-degree heat. (It rarely gets above 80 degrees F in Northern Ireland, leaving the visits unprepared for the heat and humidity!)

The Ulster Project brings Northern Ireland teens from both Protestant and Catholic homes to the U.S. to see families of both religious faiths live, work and worship side-by-side. Northern Ireland has experienced violence and tension between Catholic and Protestant families and communities for decades and continues to suffer from divisive policies and politics. The teens come to the U.S. for the month of July and live with host families in and around McPherson. Learn more about the Ulster Project HERE.

During their time in Kansas, Ulster teens keep busy touring sites throughout Central Kansas. This was the first time for the group to visit a farm and we were happy to welcome new visitors. This was our opportunity to not only educate local teens but Europeans who have grown up around a different size and type of agriculture. We talked about GMO corn, cow herds and machinery. The Irish students were awed by the size and scale of the farm and took advantage of the opportunity to climb into a combine and walk through a corn field.

I think my three-year-old son, Evan, quit possibly had the most fun of all, showing all of his new “friends” his cows, crops and combines. We sent everyone home with mini John Deere tractors, cow-shaped cookies and beef jerky produced from our cattle. We hope the teens will remember their time on the farm and understand just how hard American farm families work to feed the world.

 

Generations of Good Genes

June Calf Max for Beef Empire Show
Max is one of my son’s steers. He’s a good looking young man and will represent our farm in the Beef Empire Day steer contest.

When Derek and I were newly married, I accompanied him to the sale barn. He was selling some cow-calf pairs and then a lone calf that has lost its mother. I hated to see the calf sold so I made a deal with Derek that if it didn’t bring more than $200, I was going to buy it from him.

Two hours later, we were headed home with a calf in tow 🙂 Fast forward a few years and this bottle calf is now a mother cow named Jo. She’s a great cow and has produced three calves: two heifers and a steer.

Jo happened to have her first heifer calf the year our oldest son, Evan, was born. We decided this lady would become Evan’s first cow – in what we hoped would become a growing cow herd. The cow, which I named June grew to become another great cow and gave birth to a steer last spring that my son named Max. Max is a good looking young man who is now a full grown steer.

This spring, after my husband and I welcomed our second son, Owen, Jo had another heifer calf. We named her Daisy. Meanwhile Evan welcomed a second heifer to his herd, we settled on the name Sally – after Lightening McQueen’s girlfriend in the movie Cars.

Not only are we teaching our sons about animal car and the responsibility of ownership, we are building them a cow herd that will pay dividends for years to come. Ask Evan about his cows and he’s happy to tell you all about them. Owen’s a little young to understand but we hope that he too will grow to love our cows and way of life.

This year, Derek decided to enter Max in the Beef Empire Days steer show. It’s pretty cool to see one calf make such an impact on our farm and family. Jo will be in our herd for many more years and will, fingers crossed, continue to mother great calves. And with any luck June and Daisy will follow in Jo’s footsteps and help our sons continue to grow their herds.

Farming and ranching is a family business and we doing what we can to make sure our way of life continues onto the 5th generation.

 

Beef is Always in Style

Sliders (small burgers) are seen backstage before the Herve Leger by Max Azria Fall/Winter 2011 collection show during New York Fashion Week February 15, 2011. REUTERS/Eric Thayer
Sliders (small burgers) are seen backstage before the Herve Leger by Max Azria Fall/Winter 2011 collection show during New York Fashion Week February 15, 2011. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

Recent reporting from Reuters (find the complete article HERE) finds that Americans’ passion for burgers and beef isn’t dwinding – good news for us cattle ranchers – but is shifting from the frozen patties of a Big Mac to the fresh, greasy, finger-lickin beef of a Five Guys cheeseburger (I can almost taste the goodness!) Many, especially millennials, believe that they are eating a healthy version of beef but truth be told, beef is beef is beef, no matter how you slice it.

Let me take a moment to explain how this all works:

  • We raise cattle on our farm – starting from birth. When the steers (male cattle) or cows (female cattle) reach about 900 pounds, they are moved from pasture to the feedlot where they stay for about 100 days and dine on a diet of high-end grains.
  • Representatives from beef packers (Cargill, Tyson, etc) visit the feedlot, personally inspect the cattle and purchase the animals. My husband prides himself on growing really good looking cattle.
  • From there the cattle are processed and given a grade (Premium, Choice, Select) and that determines both the quality grade of the beef (think Applebee’s recent marketing of Choice steaks), and the price cattle owners like us are paid for our animals. The grade only speaks for the marbling and thickness of the steaks. No matter the grade, all steaks and beef processed is antibiotic free and inspected and certified by the USDA before being sold.
  • The grade applies only to the steak cuts not to the hamburger, which is marketed by its fat content or its percent lean but if a steer produces Premium steaks then you better believe the hamburger is going to be extra tasty.
  • From there customers (McDonalds, Shake Shack, Burger King, Ruth’s Chris and everything in between) purchases the beef to prep to their specifications.

What consumers often don’t realize is its the same cattle owners that produce the beef for Big Macs and Premium, high-end steaks. Cattle produce a wonderfully diverse line of beef products that can be used and served in a variety of ways. My husband prides himself of raising animals that are served at white table cloth restaurants but does so in a way that beef is affordable for those wanting to eat beef on a budget.

So if you think the $10 cheeseburger is healthier or somehow better for you than the $2 Big Mac, think again. It’s all nutrient-rich, protein-packed beef sourced from ranchers like us who invest time, money and a whole lotta energy raising healthy, happy cows. The only difference is the preparation method and the special sauce. So find your favorite burger and enjoy and don’t worry about staying trendy – beef is always in style!

No Bull, It’s All Antibiotic-Free

 

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Check out Kansaslivingmagazine.com for great beef recipes and preparation tips

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 well being. 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.

#AnimalCare

The hubs keeps a group of mother calves and cows together as fire burns in the background.
The hubs keeps a group of mother calves and cows together as fire burns in the background.

Ranchers Work to Keep Livestock Safe As Fire Rips Through Ranches

We have a few hundred cows, calves and steers on our farm and on pastures across the state. My husband is responsible for the well-being of ALL of them, 365 days a year, rain or shine, holiday or weekday. When snow falls or the rains get too intense, it’s up to my husband and his father to ensure the well being of the animals. That often means giving up time with his own family to do so. It isn’t an 8-to-5 job and there is no overtime pay. But it’s what he loves to do and he wouldn’t change places with anyone in the world.

Outside of the normal feeding, water, and general healthcare for our cows, Mother Nature has presented us with a whole new challenge – fire. My hubby was awaked by a phone call at 2 a.m. this morning notifying him that a massive, two-state fire had spread to the ranch where we have cows and baby calves. He was on the road immediately and has been with his animals ever since.

The fire is far from under control and the winds are expected to change directions this evening, which will present a whole new set of challenges. There is no training for this type of work and no lunch break or nap time. There is only the threat of more destruction, more death and more loss. He left his family and his work to be with his animals and will do everything possible to ensure they are safe.

This is the life of a rancher and part of what my husband and all ranchers to do ensure their animals are cared for and safe. It’s part of our definition of #AnimalCare and it’s what we do to continue to raise healthy cows and produce safe and affordable beef.

 

On Being A Farm Wife

I never aspired to be a farm wife. I just wanted to live in the city, raise my 2.5 kids and navigate a successful yet fulfilling career in the public relation industry with a husband that wore a suit and was home at 5:15 every evening. Then I met my farmer — now my husband — and that all went out the window.

I am now a mother of two, a farm wife, a full-time professional and passionate advocate for an industry I knew nothing about a decade ago. I live miles outside of town, have no idea what time my husband will be home from work tonight and have seen a cow give birth.

I was recently asked to speak to a group of livestock owners about the role of women in agriculture and as I pondered what that looked like I realized just how much a farm wife contributes to the success of the industry.

Farm wives must be the cooks (or in my case the fast food picker-up-ers), the laundry attendants, the house cleaners, the nanny, the chauffeur (for the hubby, his farm help and the kids) and the office manager. On top of that, when the hubs is busy — be it a Tuesday evening or a Saturday afternoon — this all must get done with no help or second parent. Farming is more than a full-time job, it’s a full-time lifestyle that doesn’t take weekends, holidays or sick days. That means farm wives must always be at the ready to help out, alter plans and lend a hand on the farm — while taking care of the kids.

For those women, like myself, who work in town, balancing the corporate world with the farm can be a challenge of epic proportions. Schedules clash, the tractor breaks down minutes before a meeting and the hubby might not make it back from the field in time to get the kids from daycare if the wife is away for business. That’s where family and forgiving babysitters come in handy.

Farm wives are strong women, they have to be. They wear a million different hats. They know a paycheck isn’t a guarantee and their date nights, free time and family vacations are at the mercy of mother nature or a few stubborn cows. They might go days without seeing their husbands and can fix a wonderful, wholesome meal only to have to save a plate because her husband can’t make it home in time to eat with her and the kids.

It’s a blessing to be a farm wife but it’s not for the faint of heart.