On a Sunday in late February, I joined my friends Carol and Stu in their morning cow-feeding ritual at their ranch, Hemphill Angus. I’ve written about Carol and Stu’s operation before, and I would encourage you to read this post and this post to learn more about their practices and philosophy when it comes to raising exclusively grass-fed cows.
Every single day from late fall until mid spring, cows on the ranch must be fed their ration of hay and clover (or alfalfa), and every single morning, Carol is out there pitching bales, driving the truck, and observing her cows. On weekdays, Carol gets help from her long-time employee, but on weekends, Stu helps with the chores.
The morning started off with Stu feeding and letting his chickens out of the coop. Stu sells (and sometimes gifts away) a few dozen eggs per week in the spring and summer.
Up at the big hay barn, the spring-calving cows anxiously anticipated our arrival. These ladies will start calving in a few weeks, so they’re stationed in the pasture closest to the house with plenty of room to roam. This area does have a significant amount of winter grass for grazing, but their fresh diet is supplemented with dry feed as well.
Feed bunks are lined up at the edge of the hay stack, so Carol and Stu climb to the top of the pile and pitch bales off the edge into the feeders.
These cows definitely know the routine, so they wait patiently for their breakfast. They are fed grass hay first and then more-desirable clover hay. Red clover, like alfalfa, has more protein and carbohydrates and less non-digestible cellulose in it than grass hay, so the cows prefer it. Feeding clover or alfalfa over the winter allows cows to grow at a faster rate while sticking to a grain-free diet. Carol buys red clover from Loren Smith Farms in Corvallis.
Even though it looks quite muddy here (and it IS), the muck is actually on top of a gravel pad, which allows the cows, people, and trucks to keep from sinking in too deep.
Back when I worked for Carol and Stu in 2006, I occasionally helped feed cows on weekends. I was pretty familiar with the system back then that involved heaving dozens of hay bales (and 100-pound alfalfa bales) around, loading and unloading them into the pickup and then weaving the pickup through a maze of feed bunks while the cows all crowded around, looking for their next meal.
The system now is such a dramatic improvement over the old ritual. Stu can load ten bales at a time onto the flatbed truck (new since I worked on the ranch) with a hay grapple on a tractor, and strategically placed feedbunks next to hay storage areas mean that very few bales are moved by hand. This saves human energy as well as gas because the truck isn’t idling as much or covering quite as many miles. Stu also showed me their newish cow-proof water-tank floats that assure cow’s access to water at all times. After forty years in the business, the morning chores are actually pretty streamlined, and though Carol and Stu are no strangers to hard manual labor, they’re able to put their energy toward more fulfilling projects instead of straining back muscles unnecessarily.
When cows have plenty of food and plenty of access to it, they remain surprisingly calm at feeding time.
Carol sells beef wholes, halves, and quarters to local families. Even though the cost of farm inputs has been steadily rising in the past few years, Carol does her best to price her meat so that it remains affordable for “regular folks” while also being profitable for the farm. In the past, she’s asked a higher price for her grass-fed beef compared to beef sold on the open market, but as the going rate for beef rises, Carol has simply matched the prices of run-of-the-mill beef. While she truly appreciates building relationships with her customers, it also makes it difficult for her to raise prices year after year as the market rate goes up.
As the number of cattle and cattle ranchers decreases in Oregon and nationwide, Carol has seen more demand for live animals, especially replacement heifers. Selling young animals as opposed to feeding and caring for them until butchering age, takes a good amount of risk out of the farming equation, and she’s been able to negotiate fair sale prices.
At our next stop, we visited the fall calving cows and their calves.
Stu tossed bales of hay into feedbunks. This feeding area also has a rocked pad that allows animals to congregate without sinking in the mud. Though the grass in the surrounding area will be pretty trashed by the end of mud season, keeping the animals off of premium pastures in the winter preserves spring and summer forage and haying grounds. (Read more about this here.)
Carol: “I love the sound of cows eating.”
The hay harvested off the ranch is composed of many different forage grasses along with clover, native plants, and other species.
Many of the fences on the ranch are simple electrified wires. Calves learn early on not to mess with hot fences.
The day prior to my visit, something had spooked the one group of cows enough that they had crashed through several fences, and Carol and Stu found them scattered across three different parcels of pasture. Unexpected cattle roundups add extra time to what is a generally straightforward and efficient morning routine.
Carol tossed grass hay off the pile into feed bunks.
Last spring was an exceptionally good hay season, and last fall’s weather allowed grass to grow into November. The combination of more hay in stock and a late start to hay-feeding season means that Carol will have leftover hay at the end of the winter for the first time in many years. This will significantly cut costs for the operation because they usually have to buy several semitruck loads of hay hauled in from Eastern Oregon over the course of a winter. Carol likes to import hay from distant territories because the different soil gives the feed a complementary mineral content, but it’s expensive and uses extra natural resources She’d rather avoid buying grass hay if at all possible and supplement with free-choice minerals.
We’ve been having particularly bad weather lately, days of slushy snow mixed with hail and very cold rain. During the winter, cows need food to grow and assist all their bodily functions, but they also eat to stay warm. A cow’s large rumen acts as a little furnace, and each animal must stoke the fire by consuming enough calories daily. On a clear, cool winter day, a cow might gain as much as a pound and a half from eating hay and clover, but on a wet, cold day when her hair is matted down by precipitation and the damp winds are blowing, cows eat only to maintain their body weight and to stay warm.
Cows always have free-choice access to an array of minerals. Depending on the time of year and characteristics of the feed they’re eating, cows will pick out different supplements they need to stay healthy.
This little barn was already in place when Carol and Stu bought the property a couple decades ago. It’s not only a nice looking structure, but it’s highly functional as well.
The barn isn’t big like the other two major hay storage shelters on the ranch, but it keeps things relatively dry. It also has a couple of openings out to the lean-to area where cows can get out of the weather and eat from several feedbunks.
Our last “stop” of the morning rounds was in a pasture that didn’t have any feedbunks. Carol slowly drove the truck in a zig zaggy fashion while Stu tossed flakes of grass hay and clover on the ground. This feeding system is less efficient in that cows won’t eat hay that gets dirty or sits too long out in the rain. Fortunately in a closed system, the “waste” hay that doesn’t get eaten simply composts back into the soil, adding back organic material for fertility and grass seed to the pasture.
Liz the dog is out every day doing chores, too. She runs the whole way, never riding in the truck. She’s in incredibly good shape.
In the course of the morning feeding cows, Carol received several cell phone calls from her brother, also a small-scale cattle rancher, who was at a bull sale in Klamath Falls. He was supposed to be buying and bringing home a new bull to share. Carol debated with her brother about which bull should join the herd. In the end, they were able to agree on one select bull on which to focus bidding.
The American Angus Association publishes statistics on bulls, quantifying every possible characteristic of each one’s conformation and breeding. While some get high marks for size and virility, Carol consistently rates ‘ease of calving’ as her first priority. She’s had to assist in many births in her years on the ranch, but she’d really rather not get involved. Problem-free calving leads to healthier moms and healthier calves, and though Carol tries to be present during or shortly after every birth, she’s much happier if all goes smoothly. That’s more likely to happen if the bull has the genetics for smooth birthing.
Her other priority in a bull is what’s called “efficiency”, meaning the conversion rate from forage food into pounds of animal. Some cows simply gain more than others on the same amount of feed, and that translates to better returns on smaller investments of time and energy for individual animals.
(Carol’s new bull of choice now lives at the ranch.)
Overall, the last year has been good for cattle ranchers like Carol and Stu. Even though fuel and other farm necessities are more expensive, the price of both beef and live animals is way up, too. Combined with last year’s bumper crop of hay, the farm’s finances are squarely in the black. That said, one or two good years don’t make up for all the lean years in the past or the uncertainty of the future. Also most of the extra income from a good year goes straight toward improvements around the ranch, better water tank floats, new fence chargers, gravel for the roads, machinery repairs, and on and on…
If any locals are interested in buying beef or live animals from Carol and Stu, email firstname.lastname@example.org.