Category Archives: Cows

Everything that moos on the farm

We killed a cow, by accident! Part 2 #37

So our patient is in the head gate in record time. I have all the gear I need to go to work and I shaved down an area to work on and I”m injecting Lidocain. The cow looks fine and this should only take a few minutes and we’ll be done. He breathing is a bit labored (that’s why bloat kills them, they can’t breathe) but give me 10 minutes and this will all be over.

Then our patient decides he doesn’t like being in the headgate and start bucking and thrashing. I’m holding a needle in my hand so I immediately pull back so nobody gets jabbed. Thrashing about isn’t abnormal and usually it’s just a test to see if this thing really holds. Once they figure out it does, they usually settle right down and stand still. 99% of the time things are very calm. This is just that few seconds of the 1%. No big deal. A few thrashes and the cow slumps. I hear a huuugh of a big exhale and look at his head. His mouth is open, tongue hanging out, and there is no intake of breath. I’m not sure what foul language I used, but as my nephew said later, “I stuck to the classics.”

This cow had just stopped breathing and was laying, effectively dead, in the head gate. His heart didn’t know it yet, and his brain didn’t know it yet, but in the next 45 seconds he’d be dead and there was nothing I could do at that point.

I grew up watching M.A.S.H.  I always remember Hawkeye Pearce as being funny, drunk, and basically against doing anything until the patient needed attention NOW. Then he jumped in and did what no one else could with blinding speed and intense focus. I was always in awe of his (and any surgeons) knowledge and ability. I knew I’d never be a surgeon, and never in his situations as depicted on the small screen.

Except here I was standing there with a cow that had seconds to live suddenly. I called Vicente back over and had him start handing me things that I needed (kind of like Margaret Houlihan). I assembled a scalpel quickly, then made my incision in a quick second. By that point Vicente was handing me a trocar. I inserted it, made sure it was in correctly, and pulled the plug to release the air and take the pressure off of the cows diaphragm. Once that was clearing correctly, I released the head gate to get the pressure off of the cow’s head, relaxing the airway. Then I waited. It felt like an hour but it could only have been a few seconds.


And nothing…..

Then one big breath again, and another. And another.

A quick thank you to the man upstairs and then it was back to attending to our cow. His eyes were unfocused and he was drooling at this point. The gas from the bloat was long gone and he was breathing if not normal, at least normal enough. I stayed with him for a good 5 minutes just making sure he came back around. At this point he was laying in the head gate, on the ground, and had no interest in getting up. He was reactive to stimulus but not your normal cow, confused and groggy but alert. Eventually I went and got him a bucket of water which he looked at but didn’t want.

#37 after dying and then coming back to life from bloat
Our patient #37, after his warm reboot and before we could get his leg out

Vicente suggested we open the escape chute which basically swings open the entire side of the head gate. Even with that open he still laid there about 20 minutes just collecting his thoughts. It was obvious he had had a warm reboot and all the operating systems were still coming online. He looked around at everything as if for the first time. Eventually he stood up and walked out of the head gate. He still looked around as if everything was new but he walked back to the rest of the herd and resumed the rest of his day. He’s now fine and back to normal.

So what happened? Bloat puts pressure on the diaphragm of the cow, making it harder and harder for the lungs to inflate until eventually the cow can no longer breathe and passes out. Death quickly follows. When the cow thrashed in the head gate, one of his legs kicked open a bar and was hung outside of the gate (see picture above). It was on the opposite side of where I was so I didn’t see it. This elevated his rear end, putting additional pressure on his diaphragm. As that pressure took effect (loss of consciousness), his front end dropped while his head was still elevated, making things worse.

It only takes a few seconds for all this lack of breathing to cause loss of consciousness. In a person if this happened, I’d pick him/her up and relieve the pressure, or push the leg back in. When it’s a 1000 pound cow, you can’t just move them around like you want. Afterwards it took us a good 5 minutes to get his leg back in, with Vicente and I both working at it. All we could do in our situation was relieve the bloat and drop his head to clear the airway, which is what we did. We couldn’t have stopped the thrashing and it was just bad luck that his leg popped out.

I did feel a bit like Hawkeye Pearce after it was all over though, minus the drinking of course. It was too hot for that.

We killed a cow, by accident! Part 1

Last week I was in the office trying to get some work done when Vicente texted me and said we had a cow that was beginning to bloat. This isn’t common, but it isn’t unusual either. Kind of like getting a cold. It’s not any fun, but it’s not any reason to freak out.

Usually we have this issue a few times during the summer but we’d already had a case of bloat a few days before and here we go with another one. Oh well, these things happen I guess.

I keep a separate bag setup just for bloat. Despite my previous statement that it’s not an big deal, it is the leading cause of death in adult cattle and it needs to be dealt with pretty much right away or the cow will die. The site I linked to indicates that the treatment is a tube to the stomach along with some surfactant. Over the years I’ve found that this treatment rarely works, and it’s a pain in the rear for the farmer/vet and the cow. Plus it takes forever. A trocar, which they say is a terrible idea, is what we use routinely. I’ve yet to have a problem with one and it allows for the cow to go back to pasture and still have the benefits of the trocar for several days to two weeks, before it falls out on its own. We order trocars about a dozen at a time and they last us for several years.

So when Vicente texted that we had a cow bloating, I immediately replied OTW which for you folks that don’t text routinely means on the way. I hopped up and grabbed my bloat medical bag and walked down to the barn yard. A quick Gator ride over to the cows revealed a cow that was showing bloat on his belly, but otherwise appeared fine. Alert, no foam or drool from his mouth. No signs of distress. Just a cow that looked like he ate a watermelon whole and was pretending he didn’t. I rode back and started setting up a temporary corral while Vicente took the tractor back. He then helped me finish. I explained to Vicente that we’d take both Gators and use them to walk this cow down the paddock he was in, through the temporary corral, and into the barnyard where he would go into the permanent corral.

I went to close all the barnyard gates (it’s not always as smooth as I just said, sometimes they escape) and get my Gator. I came back to find the cow already in the permanent corral, waiting on me. Score one for Vicente, he’d already gotten the cow single handed and was done. Sweet!

So into the chute and into the headgate our patient goes. Once inside, it’s time to go to work. The normal procedure is to shave an area about 2″x5″ on the left side. I then inject Lidocain to numb the skin and make an incision about 3″ long. This incision goes through the skin and tissue until the rumen is revealed below.

Inserting and sewing up a trocar
Inserting a trocar. This is a different cow that was done last year.

Once that is exposed, you manually insert the trocar which quite literally screws in. Once it’s in and secure, you pull a center plug on the trocar and if it’s done correctly, you are rewarded with a big hiss of gas and a cow that deflates like a basketball. (Pro tip – If for some reason you happen to be standing there with us when we do one of these procedures, pay attention to the farmer. You’ll note that he stands upwind and out of the way. That’s experience showing folks.)

Once that is done, all we do is monitor the cow for a few minutes to see if everything appears normal. If so, he/she is returned to the pasture and we clean all the gear up. From first call to done and back in the office usually takes about an hour. Maybe less if we have extra help.

This day we were at the 20 minute mark and I was starting to shave. That means we’d probably be done in another 10 minutes. I said to myself, “Self, we are getting really good at this.”

Little did I know this one wouldn’t be routine. But that part of the story will have to wait till tomorrow.

#47 goes to the big green pasture in the sky

Yesterday I took one of our cows to the processor. This is usually a once per month occurrence, but in July we were able to squeeze in two trips due to the demand from you good folks.

I know what some of you are thinking. Aww, it’s so sad, this poor guy. Yes, yes it is. #47 was born here and has been a good cow (steer actually) all his life. Never caused any trouble, never been sick, never escaped. But if we weren’t going to eat the cows, they’d never live at all. We aren’t running a cattle rescue, we are running a cattle farm. This is the final step of a very important process, one that is handled with respect and care. Our cows only have one bad day in their life. The rest are filled with sunshine and seas of grass. I wish I could say I only had one bad day in my life.

For the rest of you folks that are instead thinking, RIBEYES! That is true, we’ll have steak in the freezer on Saturday so plan on stopping by and picking up your beefy goodness. If you’d like to get your name the pre-order list, shoot me an email and we’ll hold your steaks for you.

Finally, someone talking sense about grass fed beef part 4

So what does production first, last, and most important mean to us?

It means we chase production at the expense of quality. And unless you were born in the 40s you simply don’t know what beef used to taste like. All you know is mass produced, juvenile cows. That’s right, juvenile. A cow at 24 months old is the equivalent of a person in their 20s. As we get down to 18 months, we are talking a 16 year old. 16 months? A 13 year old. But how can that be? We aren’t eating veal!

Spork sitting in a Carbon Cub
Spork sitting in a Carbon Cub

Spork just turned 13. He’s 5’9 1/2″ tall. He’s lean and strong but as tall as an average adult man. If I’d put him on a diet of Twinkies (the human equivalent of a grain diet) instead of weighing 130lbs he’d weigh 180 lbs. He’d be fat and sickly, but he’d be the size and weight of the average adult male. Success! I’ve raised him to full size. But is he full size? Hardly.

Spork has years to go, and growing to do. He’s 5’9″ now, but he’ll be well over 6 feet before he’s done growing. He’s gangly and lean right now but as he matures he’ll broaden out, muscle up, and into his 20s maybe even put on some fat. I don’t need to give him a special diet for that, I just need to give him time.

It’s much the same way with cows. Can I get a 1000 lb cow, covered in fat, in 16 or 18 months? Yep, no problem. Is that cow mature, marbled, and muscled? No. This is the first article I’ve ever seen that addresses age as a factor. This is while everything else, and everyone else, is pushing for younger and younger cows in the freezer. Heck, even the USDA has gotten into this and requires that all cows processed for meat are under 30 months of age.

How old are our cows? We target the legal limit, 28-30 months. That is twice what the typical farmer targets which is 15-18 months. Why does your grass fed steak cost more? That’s most of the reason right there.

Except when I got into this, or when I talk to anyone in the beef business, they will tell you that they are finishing at 18 months. Maybe 24. I’ve never met a soul, till I read this article, that targets beyond 24 months. All the advice I’ve ever received, including school, was to push the age down, down, down. But having done it the other way, I’m pushing it up, up, up. Mature cows taste better, period.

So is finishing grass fed, grass finished cows hard? Nah, it just takes twice the time, twice the land, about 1000 other small details we didn’t even address here, and the ability to go left when everyone else is going right. Other than that, it’s a piece of cake.

Thank you Bill for sending me this article. I truly enjoyed reading it. Maybe there is hope for us grass farmers yet.

Finally, someone talking sense about grass fed beef part 3

In the last post we asked if grass fed was worth all the hype. I’ll let the article answer this one.

Anya Fernald of Belcampo in California raises grass-fed beef prized for its deep color and flavor and its buttery fat with a yellow hue said to indicate a high vitamin content. “I wasn’t fully committed to grass-fed and -finished when I started Belcampo,” she said. “Most of it tastes terrible.” But as Ms. Fernald and her partners tested different types of feed, including barley and other grains, they found pure grass-fed cattle had a denser “knitting”—the beautiful, lacy lines of fat distributed throughout a superior cut of meat. “The driver for us is that it tastes great,” she said.

Our grass fed steak (above) beside a store bought grain fed steak (below)
Our grass fed steak (above) beside a store bought grain fed steak (below). Photo courtesy of April McLaughlin, one of our customers. 

It should say “well done” grass fed is the way. When a cow has ample forage, good genetics, a quality job done at the butcher, and is allowed to live well past normal industry finishing times (18 months), the meat is FAR superior to bland, tasteless, conventional meat. Better than “Grade A Prime” beef. There is a flavor and a richness that you cannot get from grain fed cows, period. Not a different flavor, and actual flavor. Grain fed beef is like eating packing peanuts instead of popcorn with butter and salt. The crunch is there, but not the flavor.

The best way to make sure you’re getting genuine—and tasty—grass-fed beef is to buy from a reputable butcher who can provide all the information you want on how the cattle was raised and recommend a cut that’s right for you. (See “Here’s the Beef,” below.) After talking to experts and cooking many pounds of meat, I learned that the tastiest grass-fed beef comes from cattle allowed to graze for 28 months or longer. The beef should have a good marbling of fat, a rich color and a slight smell of the grass on which it’s grazed.

Here is one place where I break away from this article. But in their context, it is correct. This author is talking about being in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. It’s not like you’ll be in Brooklynn and hit your local grass fed farm down the street. But for those of us blessed to be in NC or anywhere that rural farms still exist, it’s better to know your farmer than it is to know your butcher. Go to the source, see how the animals are treated, and buy your products there (yes I am biased.) I also know that butchers will eschew a farmer because they are too small, too far away, or won’t discount enough. Or maybe the butcher is conventional too and doesn’t really care about grass fed. Going to the butcher is no guarantee of what you are getting.

I’d like to come back to the 28 months thing in the previous quote. When I went to grazers school (yes there is such a thing) a lot of the conversation revolved around how to finish cows in as little time as possible. If your farm can only carry 100 cows, and it takes 24 months to finish a cow, then you can produce 50 cows per year. However if you can finish your cows at 18 months,  you’ve increased your production dramatically. What about 16 months? What about 15 months. Folks, this is what beef farmers talk about. How quickly can I go from calf to cash. It lessens the time spent managing, lessens chance of predation, chance for disease or injury, everything. We are ALL about production and efficiency in this country and we are good at it.

So what does all this production cost us? That’s the next post.


Finally, someone talking sense about grass fed beef part 2

During my five year ordeal trying to learn how to finish cattle properly, I went on the CFSA farm tour several times and made it a point to visit beef farmers. I stood in long lines to get a coveted piece of meat and pay a heavy premium for the opportunity, only to get home and discover all kinds of problems. Off flavors. Unbelievably tough. Much of the meat was inedible and was given to the dog. Nothing was what I’d call good. There is a saying that Grass fed’s biggest problem is grass fed farmers (selling bad meat) and my experience backed that up.

The sub-par grass-fed beef I tried in the past likely came from inexperienced farmers. “I think some of the early stabs at finishing cattle on all grass didn’t go so well,” said Dan Barber, the chef and sustainable-agriculture crusader behind Blue Hill restaurant in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns outside the city.

We did play with out genetics during this time period, thinking maybe we just had the wrong cows. Heck, I didn’t know, we’d had a closed herd of whatever dad thought was good all my life. Black Angus and Hereford mix? It’s called a Baldy Angus. Maybe he picked the wrong cows. Trying to step out and try new breeds is how we ended up with the Ninja Cow, and we all know how that ended.

Belted Galloway and calf
Belted Galloway and calf

In the end, we decided that like almost everything else where I questioned my dad, he was pretty darn smart and that our cows were much better than anything else we could find.

Raising the right breeds matters too—Black Angus cattle, for example, were originally bred to flourish on grass alone. “Those particular breeds have been selected for one particular thing their entire life, how well they eat,” said Mr. Niman. And it’s important to allow herds free movement, the sort grass-fed cattle enjoy throughout their lives. A well-exercised muscle makes flavorful meat.

So is grass fed worth all the hype, even if done correctly? We’ll find out in the next post.


Finally, someone talking sense about grass fed beef part 1

One of our customers (Hi Bill!) sent me this article in, of all places, the Wall Street Journal’s website. It’s all about grass fed beef and what makes it actually not just good, but far superior to grain fed beef. This article isn’t about all the health benefits, but about flavor!

Usually when I see something about grass fed beef in the mainstream press I roll my eyes and prepare to give it little attention. Most articles are either written for mainstream beef production or are woefully misinformed. However it is obvious that the author in this article has been chasing a perfect grass fed steak for some time.

In the U.S., nearly all cattle spend their first months consuming predominantly grass and mother’s milk. It’s during what’s known as finishing that grain-fed and grass-fed cattle part ways. About 97% of our beef cattle consume at least some grain to speed weight gain, allowing them to be slaughtered at 18-20 months. The remaining, grass-fed 3% graze throughout their lives and are typically slaughtered at 20-28 months, and sometimes older.

I’ve been involved with cattle since I was 7 years old. However I’ve been finishing cattle, as discussed above, since I was in my late 30s. The rest of the time we sent off the six month old calves to the market to be grain finished, or we buried the cows here from old age. Those were the two choices.

Cows walking out into the pasture
Cows walking out into the pasture

When I first started finishing cattle, I just took a decent looking cow, kept him till he looked big, and then hauled him to the processor. What’s the big deal? Any fool can do this.

The big deal was when I received back my 380 lbs of meat from my 1100 lb cow that actually only weighed 900 once he hit the scales. the meat tasted like shoe leather. Or it had a metallic taste, or tasted like onions, or any one of 20 different bad tastes you can have with grass fed cattle. Apparently whatever we were doing we were doing WRONG! The old timers, trying to be helpful to a young upstart advised me, “Son, you do all that hippie crap you want. But before you take that cow to the processor you better put him in the corral for a couple of months and put him on grain if you want any decent meat.”  I heard this time and time again. But that’s just a grain fed cow. I wanted grass fed AND grass finished!

The meat tasted goodish, if you could chew it long enough and got over the off tastes that were at the forefront of your palette. The hamburger was good and we frankly ground more of the cow than we cut. We also hosted a lot of parties where beef was on the menu. We gave away a LOT of beef just to clean the freezers and try again.

The sub-par grass-fed beef I tried in the past likely came from inexperienced farmers. “I think some of the early stabs at finishing cattle on all grass didn’t go so well,” said Dan Barber, the chef and sustainable-agriculture crusader behind Blue Hill restaurant in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns outside the city.

We spent five years not selling a single ounce of beef, trying to learn how to finish cattle properly. Most grass farmers would not be able to spend 5 years with no revenue. Luckily I was working full time so the farm was not my source of income. However when I went to other farms, I found young, excited farmers who thought what they were doing was correct. But their way was not our way. We had to improve.

But did it work? That’s part of the next post.