A friend of mine who likes to eat once chose to spend his vacation at a Western Dude Ranch. He figured that for once he'd get all the tender juicy steaks and roast beef he could eat.
When he came back I asked, "How were the steaks?"
"Oh, good...good," he answered, but I detected an odd note in his voice.
He explained. "Funny thing about that ranch, even though they had a couple of hundred steers on the place they got their beef from Chicago..."
If a Western Ranch specializing in the production of beef cattle doesn't even raise beef for its own use, then what right has a homesteader to think that he can profitably do so?
On one or two acres you probably won't go very deeply into beef production, but even on two acres if you are keeping a cow you'll find yourself raising beef in the shape of veal (calf meat).
Once a year, your family cow, like all dairy cows, has a calf. In the ordinary dairy, bull calves and heifer calves from low producing cows generally are slaughtered as veal at an early age. Often, before they are two weeks old because the dairyman does not want to bother feeding them or providing the milk they need. This early butchering is one reason why more people don't like veal. Early butchered veal hasn't anywhere near the quality of eight-week veal. The best veal is from milk fed calves about eight weeks old. And this top-quality veal is the kind that the part-time farmer can easily produce because when the family cow freshens and starts producing 12, 14 or 16 quarts of milk a day a few quarts can be fed to the calf and the family still will have enough for drinking, cream, butter and enough for cheese and chickens too.
The calf should either stay with the cow for the first three or four days to suckle the first milk, the colostrum, or the cow should be milked and the milk given to the calf. If the latter procedure is followed, I think you will find that the calf will learn to drink from a pail more easily. We find it very difficult, for instance, to let a young goat kid nurse and then attempt to teach it to drink from a pan.
The weight of the calf will determine how much he should be fed. If allowed to stay with his dam, he will consume small amounts frequently. This is ideal, but you cannot favor him in this way if he is separated from the cow. On the average, feed eight to 10 pounds (4 to 5 quarts) of milk per day, generally one-half in the morning, one-half in the evening. Milk should be at body temperature, and pails kept very clean. Give the calf a dry pen, free from drafts. If he is not hungry, miss a feed rather try to make him eat. As age increases, gradually increase the amount.
If some skim milk is to be used, decrease the amount of whole milk gradually (one pint or less at a feed) and add equal amounts of skim. Warm the skim milk, but do not boil.
During the meat shortage there was a great revival of interest among small farmers, estate owners, and homesteaders in beef for home use.
If your place has enough good pasture (one acre per steer) and enough good quality hay (two acres of clover or alfalfa would be ideal), then you might consider raising a steer. Shelter can be simply a three sided shed; if you don't have to carry water, then a steer won't take much time.
A fellow down the road from me who has just about two acres has a steer project underway with a minimum of trouble and investment. He simply went to a dairy with a herd of Holsteins (Brown Swiss and Ayrshires make good beef too; Jersey and Guernsey not so good), bought himself a young male calf, weaned him, and tethered him out in the orchard. He kept the calf on grass all spring, summer, and fall. In October he started feeding some corn he'd grown and at the end of November he had the fatted calf slaughtered. Naturally, if he were going to sell this young steer (he had the vet castrate it) he'd have had to hold the animal for another nine months or even a year. But for home use this baby steer provided some excellent eating.
A number of people with small country places have an idea that because their place is small "baby" beef would be just the thing. "Baby" beef are young, well-bred, good quality cattle, often Angus, which are slaughtered at the tender weights of 700 to 1,200 pounds. But they are fed grain just as soon as they will take it — the idea being to keep them from losing their baby fat. The part-time farmer who probably doesn't grow much grain, won't find them economical, but of course they do make delicious beef.
Is it practical for the part-time farmer or small farmer to raise an honest-to-goodness beef steer?
From what I've seen in the Northern part of our county I say yes, but he would go at it quite differently than the usual commercial operator.
The whole object in fattening a steer is to make it put on weight. Well-larded beef is the kind that has fine flavor, tenderness, and is good and juicy. Incidentally, the next time a butcher shows you a steak look to see if it has streaks of white running through the red beef. This is fat and the steak should be good and tasty.
Ordinarily, beef cattle are shipped off the ranches in the West to the Corn Belt where they are put in feeding lots and fed corn and other grains until they are fat enough to slaughter.
A Midwest farmer buys beef cattle to fatten for market. You can do the same. Usually, for example, a couple of car-loads of Western steers are brought into our County Seat each spring to be sold to local farmers and estate owners. These "feeder" steers are usually from six to 12 months old and ordinarily sell for 8 dollars to 12 dollars a hundred pounds. Obviously, they're not a cheap investment and you'd do well to fatten a few pigs or some sheep before you try a steer.
In place of the intensive grain feeding program of the Midwest, there is another method that is probably more suitable for the small or part-time farmer. This is the "pasture method." It can be undertaken in two ways:
1. High-quality pasture may furnish the sole feed.
2. Pasture during the grass season and then hay- and grain-fed for six or eight weeks to finish off.
Pasture doesn't make as finished a steer nor is it as fast as dry-lot grain feeding, but it is much cheaper and oftentimes more profitable even though the final beef doesn't bring so high a price. In addition, the steer should have plenty of fresh water and a salt lick.
A new device that has made fattening a steer or two more interesting to the small farmer is the electric fence. A single strand of electric fencing is adequate to hold a steer and it is easy and inexpensive to put up.
Perhaps, however, the quick-freezer is doing still more to stimulate interest in home production of beef. The home freezer and freezer lockers mean that it is entirely possible for a single family to utilize the 500 pounds of dressed meat obtained from a good-sized steer. Five hundred pounds is not nearly as much as it sounds when you remember that the average annual consumption of beef is 65 pounds per person. If freezer space is limited, remember that some cuts can be hung for weeks before cooking. Also, you can make some corned beef, smoked beef, dried beef, or use the chuck in delicious canned stews. Another good plan is to divide your beef 50-50 with a neighbor slaughtering his steer one year and yours the next.
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