Ranch Diaries: Is it worth it to raise our calves 'naturally'?

The logistics of raising natural beef at Triangle P.

 

Ranch Diaries is an hcn.org series highlighting the experiences of Laura Jean Schneider, who gives us a peek into daily life during the first year of Triangle P Cattle Company, a new LLC in southcentral New Mexico. Installments are every other Tuesday.

The past few weeks we’ve been weaning our calves. If we had neighbors close enough to complain, that’s what they’d be doing right now. The days and nights are filled with bovine music only ranchers appreciate: separated by a woven wire fence, the cows and calves call for each other for days. It’s a bit earlier than we normally wean, but we’re getting a head start for several reasons. Weaning can trigger estrus in our yet-unbred cows, and provide one more opportunity for breeding before we sort off the bulls. Once the bred cows stop lactating, the nutrients each cow consumes go directly back to her and her new fetus’ body, boosting her own condition for the cold months ahead. And the milder weather now means it’s unlikely that cooler weather sicknesses, like pneumonia, will show up in our weaned calves. While we often ship calves directly off the cow, they’re worth more if they’re sold as weaned calves. They need 45 weaned days in order to qualify.

  • Sorting in the new corrals.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Here the crew has finished gathering about 200 animals and prepares to start sorting.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Weaning, as seen through the corral fence.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • The riders in the rear bring a small bunch to the rider in the front, who sorts off cows into one pen and places and calves into another.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Cows on one side, calves on the other.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • We use this squeeze chute to tag and vaccinate the calves.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • An EID tag.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • If you look closely, you can spot the EID tag in this heifer's left ear.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Weaned calves about to go out on pasture.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Although these cows are bawling for their calves, in a week they'll be more concerned with grass.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Weaned calves on pasture.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • A Triangle P weened steer calf.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • After the work day.

    Laura Jean Schneider

By the time the paperwork is complete, the electronic ID tags (EID) are fitted in each calf’s ear, and we’ve passed an on-site audit, our 2015 calf crop will be eligible for the natural beef market, which should bring us a higher return. In order to earn that status, we comply with the Department of Agriculture’s Non-Hormone Treated Cattle program, which means Triangle P cattle never receive hormones or growth regulators. The USDA Neverever 3 certification prohibits the use animal byproducts and antibiotics. The third step is enrolling in the Global Animal Partnership (GAP4) animal welfare program.

These certifications sound appealing — we have the potential to make up to an extra $300 per calf — but it’s costly. We’re paying a total of $2,000 for this year, and if we want to keep our certification, it will cost $500 for following years, plus a fee of $4 per head. These extra steps also take some special effort up front. Weaning earlier means getting up earlier each morning to gather cattle to beat the August heat. (And if you think cattle are slow and dull, I’d challenge your fleetest mount to get around a healthy calf running full-tilt for where it last saw its mother.) We gather the cattle, drive them to our headquarters and separate the cows and calves in the corrals. Then we run each calf through the squeeze chute to be vaccinated and fitted with an EID. When we turn the calves out, most of them are returning to the pastures where they were born.

Their special certifications won’t mean much, though, if we can’t sell the calves for a premium price. Weaning early means the calves weigh less, so we need to sell them for more per pound. Without milk to supplement them, they need to get their muscle-building protein from grazing good-quality feed. Plus, the stock market is down; the cattle market has followed. The record high prices from earlier in the year have dropped ten percent in the last few months.

When our partners gather to help Sam and me with this intensive work, like they did this weekend, we’re an upbeat crew. It’s pretty easy to feel that way around a bed of mesquite coals hissing as steaks drip fat into the fire, beer or whiskey in hand. But the reality is that we don’t know if the extra hours we have put in will pay off — if that corral dust that settles in our lungs and the sore seat bones from hours in the saddle will have been worth it. For now, we can follow our values of treating livestock humanely while producing healthy beef, and making smart business decisions.

Until we sell the calves, that’s what we have to go on.