We have always had at least a cow, sometimes quite a few. But now we have cows. The ladies and babies that came home to our farm on Friday are the foundation of our carefully planned beef expansion.
Whenever we make moves toward the future we start from three firm guideposts. First, of course, would the proposed idea add value to our operation? We work too hard to waste time on projects that won't reward our efforts in profit or improve the quality of our lives or products. Second, quality quality quality. We want the product to be the best it can possibly be. And third, is the "project" suited for our particular farm?
On adding value, all I have to say is "beef" right? We've been sorely lacking in this product area for a number of years despite our combined 30 years of grazing experience. We are eager to harness the powers of our new pastures into delicious, nutrient dense red meat and share it with you.
How about quality? Searching out the very best beef in the history of history was a surprisingly muddy job. There is no one authority to offer judgement. Instead there is a whole rabbit hole of various meat comparison regional, national, and international competitions. What I found at the bottom of that hole is that the quality of the meat is equally a product of breed, raising techniques, and handling of the carcass. Among the 22 steak competitions I investigated, the breeds were all over the map. None of the listed breeds won more than a handful of American competitions but Corriente (the oldest American cattle breed) won more than any of the others. Internationally, a French breed I had never heard of won several followed closely by....Jerseys! What the winners all had in common was that they were grass finished, the actual animals were older (34-44 months), and the meat had been dry aged for a substantial period of time. Luckily, we already have some killer Jersey genetics, so with some new Corriente we should be winning the beef thing right?
What about suited-ness for our farm? Separate from research on quality, we made up a criteria list of our ideal cattle, with details about our new herd in italics. These ideas pointed us toward a handful of landrace and heritage breeds. Among those adapted well to the humid South we kept coming up with Pineywoods, Florida Cracker, Criollo, and Corriente which all descend from the same Spanish herd originally set loose in Florida in the 1490's. Yes, the 1490's. Those original cattle spread across the south, into Mexico and up the California coast adapting to the environments they encountered along the way. Corriente, Criollo, and "Scrub" can all be used interchangeably to refer to any of true descendants of the original Spanish stock, with "Corriente" being the most common name.
- Good mothers that calve easily and regularly. Our new cows have an almost unreal 100% calving record for the last 6 years and have never needed assistance calving.
- Resilient, especially heat tolerant. One millisecond outside will remind us that we need cattle that handle heat well. Generally speaking smaller animals handle heat better than large ones. There is also a conclusive body of research that says horns equal heat tolerance in ruminants. Like elephants' ears, the horns of a cow are full of blood vessels providing a whole lot more surface area for circulating blood to release body heat. This is why we leave the horns on all of our cows, even the ones we milk. So we want smaller cows with horns. Our new cows are all 700-1000 lbs which is 50-75% the size of common beef cows. They also have long, curving horns.
- Thrifty with feed. This means more animals can perform on the same forages and less hay will have to be cut and put up to help them through the winter, helping to keep costs down. Our new girls are FAT even while supporting big fat babies nursing heavily. This shows that even with their petite mouths they can easily support themselves and super calves from the brush and weeds they've had access to.
So for meat quality? Corriente or Jersey (which we already have). For farm suitability? Corriente.
Now all we had to do was actually find some Corrientes to bring home! We (by which I mean Travis) did a lot of talking to neighbors and working the phone, text, and email circuit via Craigslist over the last 6 months. Eventually we found a grass-fat herd of proven but still young mamas in Western Mississippi and after an afternoon visiting them and their attendant cattleman, we were sold.
Then on Friday, this happened:
Its easy to wax poetic about the satisfaction of watching your stock inhabit your ground, using their innate skills to meld verdant earth and fresh water into food for your own plate, for the plates of people you love. More than a chicken scratching or a hog rooting, cattle watching yields further, special joy. They thrive in open vistas, where sweet grass lays open under bright skies. With cattle we get the pleasure of the heart lifting scenery to further buoy the deep sense of fulfillment. Now we spend every spare second looking out over the horns bobbing around in the grass as the cows graze and we feel rich.