The Winter That Won’t End

Keeping our cows and calves safe and healthy in the cold and snow

IMG_1027

It’s snowing AGAIN here at Sawyer Land & Cattle in Central Kansas. It’s been years since we’ve dealt with this much snow in one winter, but Mother Nature has decided that we need to live like Canadians (no insult to those north of the border).

The cold wouldn’t be so alarming but winter is also the time we welcome new baby calves to the farm. Between the first of January and end of March, our mother cows will deliver a couple hundred baby calves, and it’s our job to make sure they are safe, healthy and, most importantly, warm and dry. Cows have, for centuries, endured the cold and snow so they are built to endure this weather, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help make winter a little more bearable.

img_1316.jpg

A cow’s instincts work well in this weather. As soon as a mother delivers a new calf she begins licking the calf dry and encouraging it to get up and suck. If all of that happens within the first few hours of birth, the calf’s chances of survival are good. If the calf fails to get up or the mother never gets the calf dry and fed then the cold can quickly take over. It’s our job to ensure our mother cows are doing their job – and thankfully we have a herd of great moms.

This year we created a fully enclosed space in our barn for our first-time mothers to deliver. This is an extra step to further protect our novice moms and keep them out of the elements while they figure out this new thing called motherhood.

IMG_1094
Two new momma cows and a baby calf enjoy the comforts of our enclosed calving barn.

For cows in our pastures, we provide windbreaks (in the form of trees or buildings) and dry straw to help protect the cows from the wind, moisture and cold ground.

The final piece of keeping our ladies and babies safe and healthy during winter weather is proper nutrition. Cows – like people- produce their own body heat to keep warm – fun fact, a cow with snow on her back is warmer than a cow with melted snow – but that takes a lot of energy and calories. We feed our cows a grain-based, energy-rich diet that provides them the calories to grow a baby calf and keep themselves warm. That means we’re on meal duty 7-days a week, rain or shine!

The farmer hubs and his father make the rounds and check on every cow on the farm at least once a day. Those momma cows we know are due to deliver anytime are checked on multiple times a day. We aim to interfere in the natural birthing process as little as possible but are always ready and willing to step in when needed. Winter is busy on our farm, but a few inches of snow or ice means extra work and attention for our cows is necessary – but most definitely worth it.

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
bands
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).

 

Taking Care of our Farmers

IMG_8739
We have three farmers (and two farmers-in-training) on our farm right now. It’s a tough time for anyone in agriculture right now.

To say it’s a bad time to be a farmer would be an understatement the size of the grain piles dotting the Kansas landscape. During the past few years farming has become a losing proposition. Grain prices are down, international rhetoric and negotiations have killed export opportunities and a drought has made it nearly impossible to grow much of anything in many parts of Kansas. Add to that marginal profits, already tight lines of credit and a consumer base that thinks you are doing it all wrong and its enough to make anyone want to throw in the towel.

My husband recently conducted an interview with a local television station on farmer suicide and mental health. I have heard the statistics before – farming has the highest suicide rate of any profession, double that of veterans – but had never really stopped to think about the situation and its contributing factors. It’s a scary statistic and one that has only been made worse given the current political and economic climate.

(See his full interview here: http://www.ksn.com/news/local/kansas-farmer-talks-about-alarming-suicide-rate/1191543047)

When people experience thoughts of suicide or depression they are encouraged to seek help. But my guess is my farmer is a lot like other farmers, not prone to sharing his feelings or airing his struggles. He is a reflective man and often doesn’t even let me in on some of his concerns and frustrations. That mentality is hard to change but it’s literally killing our farmers.

There is so much in farming that cannot be controlled – the weather, rain, trade opportunities, markets, commodity prices, legislation and regulation and rental rates. It’s an industry that buys retail and sales wholesale. It bends to the whim of Mother Nature and commodity brokers and can be undone in the blink of an eye. Farmers don’t do it for the fame or fortune, but they are often the sole income for a family and are the fourth or fifth (maybe more) generation to farm the same land. That puts farmers in a unique but overwhelming situation when the future isn’t clear. Add to that the fact most farmers have never had another job or entertained the idea of working anywhere but on the family farm and you have professionals believing there is no where to go.

The agriculture community has awaken to the mental health crisis in its midst, and the newest version of the farm bill has funding in place to help create or grow support systems for farmers and rural workers. But nothing can change if farmers don’t start asking for help and recognizing the points of stress that can or will lead to more substantial actions and decisions on their part. These are difficult times by anyone’s standards and we must continue to remind our farmers that asking for help or admitting failure isn’t a sign of weakness but a normal reaction to really difficult times.

Where Can You Turn: Thank you to Kansas Wheat for putting together an exhaustive list of resources for both financial and mental/emotional issues as well as options for spouses and others who are dealing with depression. http://kswheat.com/news/2018/02/19/farmer-suicide-rate-is-concerning-but-resources-for-solutions-are-available

Our farm, like most in Kansas, is still alive and operational. We’re in the middle of planting soybeans and moving cattle to summer pasture. We continue to streamline costs and operations, when possible, and pray for rain every chance we get. But as the drought lingers and the politics of farming only gets more hectic, I hope my farmer and others across the country to remember to ask for help and speak up when it all gets to be too much. We love our farmers, without them we would all go hungry and naked.

 

Why All the Beef About Beef?

Owen eating cheeseburger
We enjoy beef in all forms – including the $1 cheeseburgers at McDonalds. Don’t be fooled by foodie elites, all beef is safe and nutritious.

I’ve got a beef with today’s view of beef. Too many times – and it happened again yesterday while flipping through a food magazine – I found an article telling me that hamburger from the local butcher is trustworthy and safe, but beef from the grocery story, well, maybe not.

Sure, the local butcher is probably a good guy and takes great care of his cold cuts. But so too are the men and women of Tyson, Cargill, National Beef and others that process millions of pounds of hamburger every year and do so safely and without incident.

We raise beef cows – lots of them actually – and while our end goal is a healthy animal that produces steaks people would pay $1 million for (ok, that may be excessive but we make really, really good steaks), we know that many of our animals will likely end up in your next fast food cheeseburger. And that’s ok. We just want you to enjoy beef.  Our animals are sold to large beef companies that then distribute the beef to restaurants, food service companies and grocery store chains. We keep our animals healthy and trust the companies producing the end products will likewise keep the beef fresh and safe for consumption. How do we know? Because federal inspectors are in processing facilities daily and put their seal of approval on nearly everything that goes out the door to the public.

Likewise, the neighborhood butcher is inspected and overseen by state and/or federal inspectors. What’s the difference? The butcher’s beef stays in house while the other must be transported. But that extra step does not compromise the quality or safety of the beef you pick up from Wal-Mart or Costco or enjoy at Wendy’s and Burger King.

In fact, many fast food restaurants are also getting into the game and keep a close eye on the beef they serve. Yep, even Micky D’s (https://www.mcdonalds.com/us/en-us/about-our-food/quality-food.html) As a whole, the beef industry collectively spends more than $550 million each year on testing, interventions and other safety strategies.

Thousands of ranchers, just like us, take pride in our animals and the beef we produce. We trust the companies that package and deliver that beef to your favorite bar or drive-thru and know that your $1 cheeseburger was created with the same quality beef that can be found in the corner meat market. It’s all antibiotic-free, raised on grass and loaded with 10 essential vitamins and minerals.

 

A Mothers Guide to Calving

Pairs at home
Every year a group of mother cows and their new calves reside in the pasture right outside our front door. It’s pretty neat to wake up and see the mothers eating and babies running and playing with one another.

We are about a month into our 2018 calving season and I am loving all the new faces on the farm. Our first baby calves starting arriving in early January and will continue through March. Everyone understands the basics of pregnancy and birth, but here are a few details on the who calving process I know my fellow mother friends will appreciate.

  1. Cows have the same gestational period as humans. Cows and people carry their unborn for 40 weeks or 9 months. Calves can be born early and easily survive, but if they come too early they will often suffer from undeveloped systems and fragile health. But with a little extra care and a watchful eye, these preemies usually end up just fine. A full-term calf will weigh somewhere around 70 pounds at birth, and that number jumps to about 85 pounds for a calf from a mother who has previously given birth. (Why the increase? Cows usually have their first calf at age two and will continue to grow so that they have a larger frame and more room to carry a larger calf once they hit 3 years of age.)
  2. Calves receive all nutrients from their mother. Be it in the womb or during the first months of their lives, calves subsist exclusively on the nutrients delivered through their mother’s milk. That means we, as the farmers, must provide the mother with a nutrient-dense, well-rounded diet. Because these mothers’ third trimester occurs in the late fall and winter months, when grass is more scarce, we provide supplemental hay, distillers (made from corn during the ethanol production process) and grain pellets to ensure they are receiving enough protein and carbs. We will continue them on this diet through the spring since they will need the extra calories for nursing. Just like humans, a mother cow’s milk is the only food a baby calf needs for the first six months of their life. They can and often do try to eat grass or hay during that time but their digestive systems simply are not mature enough to process those items. By the fall they will have transitioned to a diet of grass supplemented by mother’s milk. P.S. Calves are born with teeth – ouch!
  3. Birthing is a natural process, but a little help is sometimes needed. For centuries humans gave birth with little to no medical assistance. Babies were born at home with a doctor no where to be found. The same is true for cows. However, just like in humans, things don’t always go as planned. Our first time mother cows are called heifers and those ladies require the most oversight. My husband and his father will take turns checking on our heifers every four hours or so around the clock to ensure everyone is doing well. But it’s not uncommon to have to pull a calf from a mother who is struggling or is just worn out, and on the rare occasion a veterinarian will be called out to perform a c-section. A mother cow will then need to begin licking her calf clean and encouraging the calf to stand and drink. This should all happen in the first few hours after birth. If it doesn’t we will intervene.
  4. Daycare is a thing. If you drive by a pasture or field with mother cows and baby calves, you’ll often find one mother with a group of calves. No she didn’t have quadruplets, she’s just the designated babysitter for that day. Mother cows work together to watch over baby calves because the calves will initially spend most of their time sleeping or lounging in the sun. However, just like humans, a baby calf and mother will recognize one another by scent and sound. A baby knows when it’s his or her mother calling for lunch.
  5. Mothers Rock. Most of us humans would earn passing grades on mothering but I’m gonna guess that our mother cows would exceed us in parenting abilities. Remember, mother cows do not have hubbies to lean on when caring for these babies, they are on their own. But they do an amazing job of feeding cleaning and watching over their calves. They will tuck the babies away under shelter or in a hedge row when the weather gets crummy and will stand guard when prey like coyotes or wolves attempt to attack the younger members of the herd. As I noted before, the mother cows work together – that’s where we get the phrase herd mentality – to protect one another and their young. That strong maternal instinct makes our jobs so much easier and allows us to keep watch but not have to be present every moment of the day. In fact, a vast majority of our mother cows will give birth and raise their calf with little to no intervention from us. And that’s the way we prefer it. When selecting bulls and cows for our cow herd, we look for maternal instincts – yes some breeds of cattle are considered more maternal than others – strong udders and well built mother cows.

There is so much more cool stuff I could share about our mother cows but I’ll leave it at this for now. Have a question, shoot me an email or leave your questions in the comments section. I’ll be sure to follow up and address it ASAP.

Behind the Company

As a farm wife I so often hear people talk about their love and support for farm families and local farms. The moms and dads, brothers and sisters growing wheat and hogs is exactly who they want to purchase their food from. But mention Tyson, Cargill or any company name and that love dissipates quickly.

It’s hard to love a big corporation. There’s no face, no cute kids and no great story of multiple generations working together and living on the same farmstead. But the truth is that our story is also the story of any corporate food company. The family farms, like ours, are the one responsible for growing and caring for the livestock, produce, corn and other food products that make their way to your plate via a corporate food company.

We raise beef cattle. From the time they are born until they time they are processed for beef, they are under our ownership and care (with the help of feedlot owners). Once the carcass has been processed and different cuts finalized and frozen, it’s off to the store or restaurant for consumers to enjoy.

You won’t see “Sawyer Beef” on the menu anytime soon but my husband still takes great pride in knowing that the steak at the high-end restaurant or the Big Mac you enjoyed for lunch could have come from one of the dozens of animals roaming our backyard or living somewhere on our farm.

Have faith in your food, it comes from farm families like ours. Their farm may be huge or teenier tiny, but it was very likely ran by family members dedicated to producing food and preserving the land.

Calving season is here!

The tractors are safety stored away in the barn and the cows are munching away on veggies and corn stocks but that hasn’t allowed farmer hubs any downtime. The new year marks the official start of calving season for Sawyer Land & Cattle. Like most years, we’ve had a few momma cows jump the gun and deliver before the new year – but the majority will give birth to new calves between now and early March.

Like all expectant parents, the hubs is extra busy setting up the nursery. We have feeding pens that are partially covered, allowing cows the opportunity to escape from the elements. During the winter months, we use these covered areas to create birthing pens for mother cows and their new calves.

This year, the crew has been busy cleaning out the pens, laying fresh straw – harvested from our wheat fields – and ensuring the fence, lights and gates are all in working order.

birthing-pens
This covered area will be broken up into smaller pens that will allow a mother and baby some bonding time and shelter from the elements. 

If we see a cow is in labor, we’ll pull her into a pen so that she delivers in warm, dry conditions. We can also check to be sure the baby is up and nursing after delivery. It’s also important we get each new calf an ear tag bearing the same number and its mother as quickly as possible so that we can be sure mother and baby are sticking together. (This usually happens naturally but is not a guarantee.)

The hubs and his father will take turns checking on the mother cows and calves. Derek often takes the night shift (he’s a night owl by nature) and my father-in-law will take over about 4 p.m. (he’s naturally an early bird). Some nights there’s nothing happening. Other days, we’ll see up to a dozen different babies born – and some very tired farmers.

During this time, the mother cow’s diet is of the up most importance. We create a mix of grains that ensure mothers have the energy and nutrients they need to feed themselves and a growing calf.

Calving season is one of the busiest times on our farm but there is nothing like seeing new babies running, playing and growing. We’ll retain ownership of nearly all of the calves, moving them to fresh, green grass with their mothers in April and returning them to the farm in the fall. By then they will be 500-600 lbs. and full blown teenage cows, ready to leave their mothers. But before we get there, we have to help deliver a couple hundred healthy calves.

Happy 2017! Bring on the babies.

IMG_1748
A mom and baby trek through the snow. With the proper diet and nutrition, cows and calves can stay warm in even the coldest conditions. 

 

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

 

thinkstockphotos-135496010

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.