Raising Your Own Beef for Food

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Brad and Ann with their backyard beef on their Wyandot Country, Ohio, farm.
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Raising your own beef for food on the homestead.
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Raising grassfed beef for the homestead.
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Brad Billock raises two head of cattle each year, one for his family and one for friends, which enables him to earn enough money to cover the costs of raising and processing.
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How to raise grass-fed beef.

Learn the advantage of raising your own beef for food.

You don’t need a ranch when raising your own beef for food. Just a little patch of grass and some fencing will do
the trick just fine.

In the tiny village of Vanlue, Ohio, Pat and
Sheila Kinley operate Sunny Side Meats, a sort of
mom-and-pop butchering business that serves small-scale
farmers, gardeners and homesteaders who raise a calf, lamb
or pig for their own meat. Although there’s not much public
hoopla about this kind of meat production, the number of
people involved is surprisingly large and growing. Sunny
Side is overwhelmed with work.

“We have to turn people away,” says Pat, as if he barely
believes it himself. Sunny Side, like thousands of similar
shops, is regularly inspected and is as clean as any
commercial meat processing plant. But its meat can’t be
sold commercially. Each package of meat must be stamped a
“not for sale,” a mysterious turn of the bureaucratic mind,
which seems explainable only as a form of protection for
big meat packers who don’t like people providing for
themselves.

Sunny Side butchers for people who raise their own meat,
mostly pasture enthusiasts who avoid antibiotics and
hormones. I understand the attraction. As a producer of
homegrown meat raised on pasture grasses, I believe mine is
healthier than the commercial stuff—and I know it
tastes better. As Brad Billock, whose trailer I use to haul
my beef to Sunny Side and who raises two steers every year
says: “When we first raised our own meat, I could hardly
believe how much better it tasted compared to what we were
buying in the grocery stores.”

And all you really need is a little grass.

Raising Your Own Beef for Food

On our 20-acre farm our focus is on the rotational grazing
method, which is gaining interest now because of its cost,
health and environmental benefits. (See “Pasture Perfect,” page 46 of this issue.) We wanted to raise our beef like we raise our
lambs, entirely on pasture and mother’s milk, producing
what is called baby beef. Our calves are born in the spring
and weigh about 650 pounds when we butcher them in late
fall. Not having to keep them over winter is a savings,
although somewhat canceled out because we do have to
maintain the mother cow over winter. But all our feed is
homegrown.

Our operation starts with a beef cow or beef-dairy cross.
We used to breed our cows artificially, but in recent years
we have just turned them in with our neighbor’s bull (with
the neighbor’s permission, of course). In our experience
calves raised on pasture, nursing their mothers and never
weaned, require no antibiotics, since they never get scours
or any other disease connected with early weaning stress.
We never administer hormones, since we are not interested
in speed-fattening the calf for profit. We try to breed our
cow so the calf comes when spring pasture season is getting
underway, so the cow has plenty of good forage to make
ample milk for the calf.

The secret of raising delectable beef on
grass—avoiding the expense and tallowy taste of
commercially fed beef — is to maintain lush pasture
through the growing season. For raising backyard beef, a
simplified version of the grass-fed method can suffice. If
your soil is fairly rich and rainfall exceeds 35 inches per
year, you need about an acre per calf or at least two acres
for a cow and calf. (Two is better for one, also, if your
goal is to avoid supplemental hay or grain.) In a drier
climate, you’d need to at least double these acreage
requirements. Many homesteads have an acre or more that’s
wasted as lawn. According to research at Stockholm
University in Sweden, the air pollution from cutting grass
with a gasoline-powered lawn mower for an hour is the same
as driving a car for 93 tees. Americans use 800 million
gallons of gas per year to mow their lawns. Why not produce
delicious, healthful meat and spend less time mowing?

Fencing Your Cattle

Backyard beef begins with a solid fence around the pasture.
Building a durable cattle fence costs about 35 cents per
foot minimum, expensive for fencing large fields but not so
much for a couple of acres. Built well, it will last 30
years. I strongly advise a woven-wire cattle fence 47
inches high, with the top and bottom strands made of
9-gauge wire and the others at least 11 gauge. Thinner wire
isn’t strong enough and won’t last long enough. You also
can use five strands of barbed wire or a five-strand New
Zealand fence with two strands electrified. But a good
woven-wire fence will repay the work put into it many times
over, specially if you have close neighbors. It keeps out
large dogs and small children.

If you don’t know how to build a fence, talk to someone who
does. A fragile electric fence is no good to maintain
property lines. Invariably (like while you are away), your
animals will either stumble the electric wire or it will
short out and your calves will escape. I once had 20 calves
break out and race through our village, my own version of
the Running of the Bulls.

Paddocks and Pasture

In rotational grazing the pasture is divided into paddocks
and the livestock moved from paddock to paddock. By the
time the animals have grazed through the last one, the
first is ready to be grazed again. Electric fencing that is
easily movable is usually used to divide a pasture, although you can build permanent fences after you learn the
best way to divide your pasture in your climate. I’d
suggest dividing a two-acre pasture into four paddocks of
1/2 acre each. As you see how your pasture grasses and
clovers grow, or realize other possibilities, you may want
to increase or decrease the number of paddocks. The more
paddocks, the more often you can move your beef to fresh
pasture. When grass is growing fast in spring and early
summer, you don’t have to move as often. In June you may
want to do what professional graziers do: Make hay from the
grass and clover surplus in one or more of the paddocks and
stack it for supplemental feed for drought or winter. You
could use your lawn mower to cut small amounts of hay, but
a sickle bar mower is better because you can allow the
pasture to grow taller before harvesting. Many garden
tillers have sickle bar mower attachments available. If you
don’t want hay, just mow the early summer surplus grass and
let it decay into the soil for more fertility.
You shouldn’t have to mow a paddock more than twice a year, and sometimes not at all.

Keep Your Cattle Moving, Moving Moving

Pen your cow and calf in a paddock until they’ve eaten the
grass down, then turn them into the next paddock. The
proper amount of time varies with rainfall and land
fertility, but you’ll learn. For one thing, your animals
will start complaining when they notice the grass is
greener across the fence. You want the animals to eat most
of the weeds and less desirable grass before you move them.
The few weeds they don’t like, like bull thistles, you can
mow or hoe after you move the animals to the next paddock.
You shouldn’t have to mow a paddock more than once or twice
a year, and sometimes not at all.

Since the animals will spend a week or more in each
paddock, you have to provide water to each area. Often a
water trough can be placed where the corners of several
paddocks come together to serve them all. If you have two
acres divided into four paddocks, you can place one waterer
in the middle of the pasture where all four paddocks
converge.

Plant each paddock with different grasses and clovers to
ensure good pasture through the whole growing season.
Bluegrass and white clover make a good combination for
spring and fall, but an improved rye grass and Alice big
leaf clover combination is better. Timothy and red clover
make a good combination for summer and early winter in our
climate.

You might find alfalfa and ryegrass or alfalfa and brome
excellent for a drier climate and well-drained soil. There
are many other forages you can try, especially in the
South. Some graziers are planting paddocks with kale or
turnips for winter forage in the North. Combining a grass
with a legume is always a good idea, since the legume,
especially red clover and alfalfa, will continue to grow
lushly when dry weather turns grasses brown. Legumes also
provide nitrogen to the soil. Along with the animals’
manure, no other fertilizer should be necessary.

To prevent bloat, take care to introduce livestock slowly
to a lush stand of clover and then only when the animals
have eaten fully of other grass or hay. Bloat seldom occurs
on a mixed grass and clover pasture.

Seeding the paddocks can be done by broadcasting in winter
or early spring when the soil is somewhat bared by grazing
and cold weather. For small paddocks, you can run a garden
tiller lightly over the sod after it has been grazed down
and more bare earth is exposed. The freezing and thawing of
the soil surface in late winter and early spring allows the
seeds to come into good contact with the earth to sprout
and grow.

New seedings are liable to be weedy, but after one year of
grazing and a mowing, the clovers and grasses will
dominate. A few weeds in a grazing regimen are not bad:
They’re often a better source of minerals than the grasses
and clovers.

Pasture Variations

The pure pasture method can be adjusted to include some
supplemental feed. Brad Billock and his wife, Ann, have
extra acreage and a barn on their property, which is why
they decided to start producing their own meat in the first
place. Every year they raise one beef for themselves and
one for friends. This way they earn enough money to cover
most of the cost of both steers. Animals are happier if
they have company, so two together thrive better than one.

Brad buys calves at about 300 pounds from local farmers.
(The county fair is a good place to go livestock shopping.)
He then feeds them out to about 1,000 pounds. In addition
to an acre of grass for grazing, Brad feeds shelled corn
and soybean meal, which he figures provides a little more
than a third of the calves’ food.
(A growing body of research shows that feeding cattle corn and soy may lead to an unhealthy balance of fats in the meat. Consider this as you weigh options for supplemental feed. — MOTHER)

Brad also watches for free feed opportunities to supplement
what he has to buy. For example, after sweet corn harvest
he gathers the stalks and any ears left from all the
gardens in the neighborhood to feed as silage. The calves
will also eat pumpkins, squash and other garden surplus.

He keeps a salt-mineral block in the feed box for the
calves to lick. They get their water from a big trough
replenished by rainwater from the roof gutter on the barn.

Processing costs vary around the country, but in general,
figure about $150 per steer. A calf purchased at 300 pounds
costs around $300. If you want to play the proper
accountant, you have to add costs for labor, land and
hauling. A 1,000-pound steer will make about 600 pounds of
meat. If you figure its value on what you’d pay at the
supermarket, you come out well. If you figure value on what
a steer sells for in the regular farm market, you make only
a little profit beyond the superior taste of homegrown meat
and your assurance of what drugs were administered, if any,
while in your care.

Butchering Your Beef

Butchering a beef is a daunting home enterprise if you
don’t have the proper tools and know-how, so Brad bought a
horse trailer to haul the steers to the slaughterhouse. (In
some areas there are slaughter-and-butchering operations
that will do it all at your place.) He figured he would
help pay for the trailer by renting it out to others in the
neighborhood who raise backyard beef, but so far he has
been too kindhearted to take any money.

The trailer makes loading cattle much easier than a truck
because the floor can be lowered down almost to ground
level and the animals can walk on without fear. My cow,
sniffing at the bucket of corn in my hand, followed me
right into the trailer. In the old days we used to have to
force animals up a slanted ramp into high-bed trucks,
always a frantic and difficult job.

Even with a modern trailer, it pays to pen your beef in the
barn and back the trailer to the door a day before you
attempt to load. Keep the trailer door and barn door open
so the animal can peer inside the trailer and get used to
it before loading. Put a little corn or good hay in the
trailer. The animal may walk in of its own accord or be
more inclined to board when you urge it.

Raising Beef for Food Comes Full Circle

Advanced grass farming is really only in its infancy, but
many books and farm magazines are available to keep you
informed of progress. (The Stockman GrassFarmer is
one of my favorites.) But even the most progressive
commercial grazing programs don’t consider ideas the
backyard beef devotee can try. For example, you could use
one of your paddocks each year for a combination vegetable
garden and sweet corn patch. The calves can eat what corn
you don’t harvest, along with the surplus vegetables. Just
turn them into the garden paddock after the season is over.
They’ll eat late weeds, too. You can lightly till that plot
and broadcast grass and clover seeds in winter or early
spring to re-establish your grasses and clovers.

There’s much art and science in managing a rotational
grazing system, and there are more possibilities than first
meet the eye. If you make vegetable gardens and grain plots
part of your backyard pasture rotation and grow your own
supply of fish in the pond or tank that provides your
animals with water, you will have created a complete,
small-scale food-production system. You will have attained
what some professional graziers are beginning to accomplish
on larger acreages: a low-cost, environmentally intelligent
husbandry where most of the work of food production is done
by grazing animals and what you do is mostly brainwork.

It doesn’t cost a bit to use your head.

Veteran homesteader, farmer and journalist Gene Logsdon has
written many fine books, including
The Contrary Farmer and
Living at Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream.