The beef cattle industry and us

by Farmer Liz
When we bought Cheslyn Rise we decided to start with raising beef cattle as we were fairly confident that we knew how to look after cattle, after raising a few steers for our own consumption and keep our milking cow, Bella, and the property was set up with fencing, dams and stock yards, so it was low cost for us to start our farm with beef.  Before this, I hadn't really thought about how the beef cattle industry worked, especially since we've been eating our own beef steers for the past 3 years!  It turns out to be kind of complicated and we are slowly figuring out what kind of beef cattle farmers we want to be.

Generally most farmers either breed cattle or fatten cattle.  If you breed cattle you keep as many cows as your property will support, and a bull.  You expect one calf from each cow each year, you raise them to weaning age (around 6-9 months) and then you sell them at the sale yards.  If you fatten cattle, you buy a mob from the sale yards, either weaner or stocker steers or heifers, and fatten them, usually over spring/summer, until they are big enough for the abbatoir or to go to feedlots to be fattened further on grain.  Not all beef cattle in Australia are grain finished, and I couldn't find any figures to give you on the ratio of pasture or grain fed.  According to Nourishing Traditions (and common sense) grass fed beef, being a more natural diet for cattle, is more nutritious, and the cattle can also be raised with less reliance on chemicals and antibiotics to keep them alive.

here's our first mob of steers at the sale yard

Very few farmers breed AND fatten cattle as it adds too much complexity to the business.  You have to keep the older calves away from their mothers, and you have to make sure the bull doesn't try to fight any of them, you also have to manage your pasture very carefully to have enough feed for all animals under changing conditions (pregnant cows, lactating cows, growing weaners etc).  Unless you have a very large property, most farmers find it easier to either breed or fatten.  We chose to fatten steers at first because its a quick way to get into the industry.  At the same time we'd like to start establishing breeders, as we figure out how many cattle we can keep.  Breeding makes handling the cattle easier, because they're used to you and the property, but you have the extra risks of birthing and the stress of weaning.  Buying a mob of steers to fatten is also risky though, you don't know their temperament or their background, but it does allow for greater flexibility, you can have no animals on your property for a few months and go on holiday!

One day we hope to raise chemical-free beef (not sure if we'll get all the way to organic certification).  This means that we will have to have breeders AND fatten the steers/heifers, as every time we buy and sell steers at the sale yard nearest to us they need to go through the "dip" and swim through pesticides to kill ticks, not to mention chemicals used on them since they were born!  We can buy from tick-free yards, but they are further away (our property is tick-free, so all cattle that we buy from tick areas must be treated), and we would have to try to buy from an organic property.  That's just too complicated, so eventually we'll need to breed our own.

We would also like to follow Joel Salatin's example (and probably many other less famous farmers) and manage to both breed and fatten on a relatively small property, without using grain.  Joel keeps the weaner calves on his property and fattens them to slaughter weight on pasture, selling beef directly to the public.  This system means that you can't produce as many calves per year, however as they are heavier when sold, they are worth more.  This is a very delicate balance to get the right number of animals and keep them until they are ready to eat, with just the right amount of pasture.  Joel also buys steers if he has excess feed, so I suppose that's one reason he doesn't bother with organic certification - it just makes buying steers more difficult!  We would also like to follow Joel's example and sell directly to the public, rather than our beef ending up in the conventional beef feedlot system, this seems like a better system for the farmers, the cattle and the consumers.

Our first mob leaving our yards....
With all this in mind........we have bought our first bull, Donald the Dexter!  We're not ready to breed beef full-time, and little Donald will be an easy way for us to get used to having a bull around without actually having to be scared off the bull.  At first, Donald will work with our little Jersey cows.  We did use AI for Bella this time, and it was about a third of the cost of Donald, so he will earn his keep quite quickly if he's up to it, this should guarantee some small calves (and safe births!).  He is quite tame and has worked out the grain and hay routine very quickly.  Donald is probably a little bit shorter than ideal, he is shorter than  both the cows, but I felt so sorry for him when we went to see him.  He wasn't being mistreated, its just that he was with lots of larger cattle and he seemed so out of place.  He fits in so much better at our place, being tame and small like the rest of our cattle!

little Donald lying down....

and standing up - doesn't make much difference, his legs are very short!
Do you raise beef cattle?  Any thoughts?  How cute is Donald?

If you want to know more about house cows, my eBook is available for purchase on Scribd.  Its only $4.99, and it includes lots of information about keeping a house cow in Australia.  There's more details about the eBook on my house cow eBook blog.  If you don't want to go through all the Scribd/paypal effort, just send me an email on eight.acres.liz at and I can arrange to email it to you instead.

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