by ALANA LINDEROTH
I had the property, I already had the horse and understood the responsibility of caring for a one-ton animal, so naturally I thought to myself, “Why not raise a cow?”
Well, here’s an insight into my first month as a “cattle rancher”: I can’t say I’m quite deserving of that title yet — or perhaps ever — but I am going to use it anyway.
I like hamburgers, I like spaghetti with a savory meat sauce, I like prime rib, beef stew and I really like a good steak, but I don’t like the idea of feedlots. My solution: raise a cow and eat it.
Though raising a cow seemed like a pretty good idea to me, it’s something I’ve never done. I have horses and grew up with them. I’d like to think I understand horses and I know what it’s like to slog through ankle-deep mud in the wind and rain to feed them multiple times a day and break ice off the water trough throughout the winter.
But after doing a few preliminary Google searches on “raising your own beef,” I quickly realized beyond having four legs, cows and horses are far different and not just in the number of stomaches they have.
Excited at the idea of rearing a cow, but unsure, I mentioned the thought to my boyfriend, Ralph, who knows even less about large, warmblooded creatures. Instead his area of expertise is on the smaller, slower, sea-dwelling critters as a shellfish biologist.
Despite his lack of knowledge on what it takes to raise a cow, his positive response and enthusiasm was all I needed.
Step 1: Research … a little more than just Google and YouTube.
Step 2: Find a cow and buy it.
Step 3: Successfully raise the cow.
Step 4: Eat the cow.
Step 5: Reflect and perhaps do it all over again.
In the coming weeks I found myself at Clark Farms, a Sequim farm run by fifth-generation farmer Tom Clark and his wife Holly. The farm is operated with the intention to “provide nutritional, humane and environmentally conscious meat for their community,” according the website, and my observations have been nothing but consistent with that.
Tom and Holly were supportive and entertained the idea of me raising a cow for consumption and were kind enough to allow me and Ralph into their home to discuss the “must knows” of doing just that.
By the end of the Q&A sessions with the Clarks, Tom mentioned a young, pregnant cow he would be willing to sell. The plan had shifted from not only raising a cow (or more accurately a steer) for beef, but instead to owning a cow to produce calves for annual or biannual butcher.
Tom took us out to see his herd of cattle. They came flocking behind the truck that pulled a mountain of hay. We stopped and perched atop a towering stack of hay bales as Tom pointed out a little, red and very pregnant cow.
Everyone has heard of love at first sight, well I’ve heard of it, too. I realize this wasn’t a tall, dark and handsome man walking my way, but instead a burping, drooling, methane-producing beast, but I loved her. I instantly dubbed her “Little Red.”
Jumping ahead, skipping a few details and weeks of readying my horse pasture to also contain a cow, Tom delivered Little Red, who was no longer alone, but with a newly born dark brown bull calf glued to her side.
After months of talking, thinking and preparing, Little Red was all mine and quickly adjusted to her new home. As for her calf, he was and continues to be a walking definition of cute.
Ralph and I were warned by everyone we talked to about raising beef to not name the calf intended for butchering. But, of course we couldn’t help but name him. Although Ralph nicknamed him “Meatball,” his true name, and the one I prefer to use, is Hobart.
Interestingly enough, the majority of the work (thus far) in owning a cow and calf was in the preparation. Since Little Red and Hobart arrived, they really haven’t demanded much. Granted we haven’t had to attempt to wrangle them back into the pasture (knock on wood) or catch them for veterinary care, etc.
Because Little Red isn’t halter-broke, meaning I can’t lead her around, I’ve been working on taming her and getting her used to my presence. She isn’t afraid and doesn’t mind you being close, but she isn’t keen on the idea of being petted either – which is all I want to do. Everyday I fight the urge to pet my cow.
My logic is if I continue to attach myself to Little Red instead of Hobart, it will make the deed of butchering Hobart in the coming years a bit easier.
A month into owning cows, Ralph and I are still confident we’ll be able to butcher Hobart, but I have no doubt it will be an emotional time. Until then however, I’ll just keep chanting “be practical, be practical, be practical …”
Ralph’s and my first “calf catching” abilities were put to the test a couple of weeks ago in preparation for banding Hobart. Without going into detail, banding is one method of castrating a bull calf and involves a special Cheerio-sized, strong, thick rubber band. Before having a friend of mine with cattle experience come out and actually do the task of banding Hobart, Ralph and I wanted to be sure we could catch the seemingly little guy.
Luckily, within the first two weeks of owning the cows, Ralph and I have practiced the art of herding them. Calmly we walk behind them, talk to them and in response, (often to our surprise) they do pretty well with going where we want. There was of course a learning curve and a lot of “backseat” herding from either Ralph or myself, but we’ve seemed to have established a system.
After successfully herding Little Red and Hobart into a small, enclosed area, I let Little Red out, but kept Hobart in the enclosure for the ease of catching. Just missing a swift kick from the calf, Ralph lunged at him and was able to grab him. Little Red made moo-noises and paced around the fence looking in at her calf now being tackled by both Ralph and myself. At two weeks old, Hobart was strong … shockingly strong. His strength was enough that some of my fears of a coyote that I spotted days prior faded.
We managed to get a halter on Hobart and he somewhat calmed down while Little Red paced, called out and nervously drooled. Within a few minutes Ralph and I felt assured that we can in fact catch the calf when the time comes and we reunited mom and baby.
To say the least, having the cows is a true learning experience. My bedside book has been replaced with the third edition of “Storey’s Guide to Raising Beef Cattle” and I can’t help but notice every pasture I drive by if there’s a cow.
Regardless of the challenges, and the ones yet to come, my first time at attempting cow ownership has been all but disappointing. Instead, it’s been rewarding, fun and already an experience I’ll treasure for years to come.
Reach Alana Linderoth at email@example.com.