Going Easy on The Cows, Hard on the Future

Are my cows bred? I dunno. Some of them are really starting to show. Others? Well, I dunno. 19 bellows and stands at regular intervals. She’s not going to make the team. 27 and 70? Dunno. I have never seen any sign of heat from 70. Ever. At all. But she’s not showing. At all. I don’t think she’s a freemartin so I don’t know what’s up. I guess I should just invite the vet to preg check them for us.

So what if some aren’t pregnant? Well, then they don’t get to stay on the team. I bought these cows off of hot feed, not from a grazing herd. The odds are against them genetically. That’s why every grazing expert you talk to says to buy cows from an established grazing herd. It is expensive to return cows to eating grass. Isn’t that an odd thing to say?

I am not in the business of providing cow retirement. I don’t need cows to eat grass. I need cows that can reproduce while eating grass. I need to increase beef production per acre while reducing the amount of fuel that goes into each pound of beef. That’s what I need. Rather than spending money on tractors, balers, rakes, conditioners, barns, hay elevators, wagons, (this list could go on for a while so let’s just sum up and say “iron”) I am investing in cows. Some investments turn out great. Some investments don’t. But over time I can breed toward a greater tendency for success.

“But”, asks my father, “what do the cows need? Surely a little oats to warm them on cold nights wouldn’t be a bad thing.”

It wouldn’t. Not if these were pet cattle. But I’m not raising pets.

What does a cow need? Boil it down to the absolute essentials. Forage, water and a little salt. Barns are not for cows. Barns are for storing feed and for feelings…as in “I feel better that my cows don’t have to stand in the rain.” Or barns are for status…as in, “Look at those nice buildings. That’s a successful farmer!” That’s what you see from the road. What you don’t see from the road is the amount of time and resources used to build and maintain the buildings, the debt gained to have the buildings and the vacation days burned to repair the buildings after a wind storm.


I’m not interested in status. My kids think I’m cool. Good enough. The more stuff I own the more stuff I have to fix. I don’t want to fix stuff. I want to play with my kids, read books and sell cows. But I do store a little feed. To some degree, I regret having hay in the barn. Who works for who in this deal? Do I work for the cows or do the cows work for me? I sweat, sneeze and cough in May, July, August and sometimes September to put hay up there. Then meter it out as winter passes, a little at a time, to …well, to do what exactly? My cows are still grazing grass we grew last summer. I guess I give them a small portion of their daily feed in hay as a treat. Same as my dad suggesting that they would like a little oats.


Let’s be completely fair about hay though. I don’t think anyone would argue that I should own zero hay. I would like to go years without feeding any hay though. We are expecting a serious ice storm this weekend. With events like that coming it makes sense to have a little hay on hand (and the barn roof repaired). But feeding hay every day when I have acres of fescue out there doesn’t make sense, except that my pastures currently need a little help. They were overgrazed and under-rested for decades. But they’ll come around. Will I come around? Or will I continue feeding a little hay in the winter out of habit?

Fencing is another example of my needs vs. cow needs. I have several neighbors with 7-wire high-tensile fences. Those are dang-near deer proof! Oh, how I would love to rip out my fencing and start fresh…properly follow keylines, get rid of the barbed wire and make the farm look nicer! But do I need that? My cows are rarely against the perimeter fence anyway. The perimeter fence is really just insurance. I bought several rolls of high-tensile fence a few years back but haven’t built the fence. I would rather have the cash…so I could have more cows. Cause this is a cow business. Not a fence business.

Will all of my cows respect a lesser fence? Will all of my cows thrive on pasture stockpile? Will all of my cows reproduce without supplemental grain? Nope. They won’t. But the ones that don’t are not a good fit for our program…obviously.

What kind of cows do I want? Do I want infertile cows? Nope. Do I want to haul in grain? Nope. Do I want to put up (or even buy in) hay? No more than I have to. Not every cow can make it without grain. Not every heifer will breed early and often. Those who don’t make the cut won’t stick around to drag down the herd of the future.

From today’s Pharo Cattle Company update (I realize it’s an ad. But it’s also right on.):

When you need a bull, who are you gonna call? There are hundreds of seedstock producers who would love to sell you a bull, so how do you decide where to go? Do you look for a place with pretty white fences, big buildings and busy feed trucks? Do you look for someone who places expensive four-color ads in all the beef magazines? Do you look for a producer who displays over-fat cattle at the stock show? Or… do you simply look for the cheapest bull that meets your basic color requirements?

If you’re in this business for the long haul… you need to purchase your bulls from a seedstock producer who demands more from his cattle than you demand from yours. If they don’t demand more from their cattle, they will NEVER be able to improve the genetics of your cattle. Unfortunately, nearly all seedstock producers have a pampered herd of high-maintenance cows.

The goal is to capture solar energy and convert it into beef and increased soil fertility. The goal is not to own big barns and big tractors. Will a little grain and hay hurt? Well…yes. It will cost me money (that I could use to buy better cows) and it will cost me time and storage resources and, worst of all, it will cost me the chance to find cows that will thrive without. We are seeking solar power. That means some cows won’t make the cut. And good riddance.

Now, how can I figure out which cows are pregnant without getting elbow-deep in the question?

6 thoughts on “Going Easy on The Cows, Hard on the Future

    • That’s a nice benediction: “May all your cows be bred and the ice storms miss your farm.”

      Well, thanks man. Same to you! The ice storm thing should have been included in Deut. 28…but that might have been confusing when it was written…

  1. Ice storm, oh no. I hope it scoots right by you, too. Been a seriously hard winter for a lot of folks. I’m asking the same questions here; too cheap and didn’t plan the corral rotation for a vet visit to preg check, so I’ll assume they all are and hope for a few calves at least in June. You may remember we brought in the AI guy this time, and I’m already bracing myself for the disappointment. Seen too many cycling cows this winter for all the money spent. Oh well, another lesson learned. Kept the bull calf from my most feminine, well-doing cow and have a neighbor who will pasture him so we can both use his breeding skills, so next year should be better. And once all the calving’s done there will be several ladies holding very, very short straws. I confess I have been slow to cull as I wanted to see them all through several grazing and breeding seasons, but this will be the summer of the pink slips – I am done with carrying the freeloaders!

  2. I hear you on the upkeep on the bldgs. When I bought my farm the roofs needed doing and I thought I would bite the bullet and tin everything and never have to worry about shingles blowing off and rotting and thought with tin I would never have to do anything with it again for 50 + yrs. Apparently I forgot to consult with Mother Nature on this decision and a few yrs later a windstorm took off about 40 ft of roof on my 90’ barn and planted the 20’ sheets in my neighbors hay field with some fence damage on its way. Two yrs later hail damage – having bldgs can be a full time job!

    In my day job accounting world you are losing money when you are in the red. I am sure it is no coincidence that my barns & outbldgs are red it is a reminder I am losing money on every one of them in case I ever forget when I drive around the yard admiring my pretty red bldgs with white roofs!

    Tomorrows forecast on the Cdn prairies is –47.2 F with the wind chill and winds up to 43 mph – yet another opportunity to worry about losing roofs – sigh! And despite the weather we get none of the animals around my parts live in barns (except for a day or two of calving) – they just get windbreaks.

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