Raising cattle was one of the best parts of farming for me. In particular I enjoyed producing and contributing to high quality beef animals in our registered Simmental herd for quite a few years, but not for as many years as I would have liked.
Although producing breeding stock was profitable and fun, the need to improve the behavioral health of people engaged in agriculture was more urgent than raising cattle. Taking care of my fellow farmers felt like my life’s calling; I had to step up.
For several years, starting in the late 1990s, I traveled 218 miles each way to Iowa City weekly where I had an appointment in the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health. It seemed like the cows got out of their enclosures only when I was gone from home and the “hired man” wasn’t around.
Marilyn had to get our cattle back into their pastures/pens and fix the fences when no else was around. These tasks weren’t her calling. I had to make choices.
So here I am without the cattle I still dream about once a week some 15 years later. My appreciation of good cattle still pervades my pleasures and hasn’t diminished.
I can drive down a highway and spot high-quality bovines in a field a quarter mile away, but I can’t tell the model or year of the vehicle ahead of me on the highway, as my wife and any acquaintances who ride with me know.
The cattle we raised usually didn’t win livestock shows and fairs, although my son and I enjoyed plenty of blue ribbons and breed championships when the best entrants in the contests were based more on performance than looking good. Our herd excelled at rapid growth, cut-out value when butchered, and conversion of feed into meat.
We entered a lot of competitive trials, sometimes called beef futurities, throughout the Midwest to compare our cattle with those of other producers. The contests helped us refine what to concentrate on in our breeding program.
The cattle-feeding futurities focused on retail value per day on feed and retail value per day of age. Our cattle won best individual or pen in almost every cattle-feeding comparison we entered.
Our animals weren’t the preferred color (black), but our red and white cattle excelled in the most practical and sought-after traits in the beef industry: marbling, tenderness, unnecessary fat on the exterior of the carcass and cuts, overall yield of marketable products and rate of gain per pound of feed consumed.
I thought our efficient and hardy cattle would achieve producer acceptance because of their performance. Our lighter-colored and spotted cattle even tolerated hot sunny days better than black cattle, but black was the preferred color.
The beef industry, like many industries, is influenced by fads and marketing techniques as well as by efficiency of production. The color of livestock skin should have little to do with contributing to an animal’s worth. Some of the best cattle currently are black but there are good cattle of different colors in most popular breeds.
Two people who taught me a lot about raising good cattle, mostly from reading but also from viewing their respective operations, are Evan Rayl, a retired Angus breeder in central Iowa, and Dave Nichols, a well-known producer of several breeds, but mostly Angus, in western Iowa.
Mr. Rayl focused on traits most producers don’t consider adequately: How much feed it takes an animal to produce a pound of meat, sound locomotion and milk-producing anatomy, and survivability over time. Feed efficiency is a key economic, and mostly under-appreciated, factor to consider in breeding any livestock.
Mr. Nichols helped teach me how to stringently compare animals for desirable traits to select the best animals as sires and dams. I attended a seminar he gave decades ago.
Besides these formative principles, I already leaned in the direction of–and learned from experience–that selecting females for our herd with large pelvises (we measured them) and who vigorously attended to their newborn calves had much to contribute to the survival of the next generation. I also favored polled animals.
We selected for the disposition of the animals, and had to eliminate several otherwise high-quality animals because they were overprotective. A young cow who came from a long line of docile cattle turned mean after she birthed her second calf; she seriously hurt a person I care about much; she left our herd shortly thereafter.
For a long time I have been contemplating writing this article to share my observations with livestock breeders and with people who don’t raise cattle about what goes into producing our abundant beef supply. I don’t regret in any way focusing on helping agriculturalists with behavioral health matters, but I surely miss my cattle.