When I am a farmer responsible for animals of my own, I will try to the best of my ability to give them the life they’d prefer to live if they were wild. Putting beef and dairy cows on pasture is the most important move towards this, a move away from the unnatural crowding and containment of feedlots and the unnatural feed that goes with it. Keeping my own breeding bull would be another step in this direction; allowing the bull to live with the herd a further step still.* There is one more practice, however, which is not widely questioned but may deserve to be. Castration.
We castrated a couple weeks ago, It shook me more than I expected. Granted, I have a new baby boy, so I may be particularly sensitive at the moment. Still, the truth is I found castration more disconcerting than slaughter. There is something honest about slaughter — predators kill, and as farmers we fulfill the role of predators, a role which has an analog in nature — but castration, on the other hand, is mutilation. No farmer wants to call it that, but that’s what it is. Predators may mutilate their prey, but only because they’re not perfect hunters. Can we aspire to be more perfect farmers?
In Biodynamic terms, a bull which is castrated cannot fully express his bullness. He becomes a steer. Maybe he can fully express his steerness, but it seems to me a steer is just a bull with no balls, which, by definition, is a bull not fully expressed.
This morning, with work cancelled due to flooding, I jumped down a research rabbit hole and spent hours investigating dual-purpose cattle breeds or the possibility of raising dairy boys for beef, and in the process I discovered that raising young bulls to slaughter is not only possible, but eminently justifiable. It’s not even a fringe idea. They do it in Europe.
I’ll back up a step. I was researching dual-purpose breeds and dairy beef because I am designing a herd as the core part of a farm that will provide both meat and dairy for 25 members. The subscription would run for 40 weeks, providing a quarter cow per member (2 lbs. beef per week), a half-gallon or gallon of milk, and 1 lb. of cheese weekly. I wanted to figure out if it would be better to raise separate beef and milk herds, or a single dual-purpose herd. Either way, I was designing the ultimate integrated herd.
Three objectives for the efficient biodynamic herd
- Balance milk production with meat production for 25 members
- Keep the herd in as “natural” a state as possible
- Avoid castrating
Mind the bollocks
“Bollocks” /ˈbɒləks/ is a word of Anglo-Saxon origin, meaning “testicles”.
Apparently, there is little to no difference in flavor if bulls, or bullocks as they’re technically called between 12-24 months of age, are slaughtered when a little bit younger than usual. This is 24 months at the oldest, though most experts advise between 16-20 months. Not only does the meat taste the same — if a bit leaner — but bulls put on weight 15% faster than steers. They convert feed more efficiently. On the management side, you’d think a bunch of bulls penned together would be dangerous to each other or the farmers, but apparently behavior problems are minimal if young bulls are kept apart from the cows and their pens aren’t too small.
You don’t want the young bulls with the cows once they approach sexual maturity, anyway, or they might mate with their moms. So, then I got curious — what do young bulls do in a “natural” environment? I looked into their wild relatives.
As it turns out, a feral herd of once-domesticated cattle live on the grounds of Chillingham Castle, in England. The young bulls live with the herd of cows and calves until they approach sexual maturity, at which point they split off into small bands of two or three young bulls. The herd will occasionally tolerate an older male among them year-round. The American bison behave in a very similar way. The takeaway from this is that it is perfectly natural to isolate young bulls from the herd, as long as they have the company of each other.
This is beginning to seem like a win-win.
As for the dual-purpose breeds, I think the primary argument for using a milk breed and raising the calves for meat is that you don’t have to milk as many cows. Dual-purpose breeds, producing less, would take longer to milk. That said, I only need 3-4 milk cows for the dairy needs of 25 members, and I’ll need 7 heads of beef per year to produce a quarter cow per member as well as a couple of quarters for the farmers. That means we’ll keep 3-4 cows in addition to the milk cows to produce the requisite beef. They don’t have to be a milk breed.
So, here’s my idea for an efficient, Biodynamic herd
First of all, I want Jersey’s (or Guernsey’s or Brown Swiss) for milk, but, recall, I only need 3-4 milking cows, which includes at least one at any given time that’s not lactating.
My other 3-4 cows will be Angus or another beef breed that puts weight on quick on pasture.
I will keep a Jersey bull with the herd, and he will sire calves with all 7 cows. 3-4 of them will be pure Jersey calves, and the others will be Jersey-Angus. Angsey. They will have the ol’ hybrid vigor, and probably put on weight quite a bit better than pure Jersey. However, they will have the Jersey’s propensity for marbling, which is another apparent win-win: Jersey’s rank higher than any other breed for the quality of the marbling in their meat. They just don’t produce very big cows.
My goal, however, is good meat. The quarter cows don’t have to be huge.
The efficiency in this herd comes from the fact that I only need one breeding bull, a Jersey, rather than a Jersey and Angus bull. That saves me 3 acres, and I can keep the whole herd together as one, except for the bullocks, but I’ll get to that in a moment. This compromises some on efficiency because we will be managing two herds for some of each year, but if we had separate beef and dairy herds, too, that would give us a total of three.
And an extra boon: Jersey’s are small, Angus are big, which means we can keep the bull as long as he lives because he won’t get too heavy for the Angus girls.
The herd as a whole will be about 30 animals — 7 mama cows, 7 calves, 7 yearlings, 7 beef (or replacement heifers), and 1 bull. This amounts to a little over 20 Animal Units (1 A.U. = 1000 lbs.), which will require about 40 acres of pasture.
As for the bullocks
I will remove the boys from the herd at 12-15 months of age, before they exhibit any serious sexual behavior. They will be walked away in pairs to a separate pasture area of about 8 acres which is fenced with heavy, bull-proof fencing material. There they will live, going around in their separate rotation in their little band of 3-4 young dudes until the fateful day they meet their maker, balls and all.
* I have worked with a farmer who kept his breeding bull with his herd year-round. Many would advise against this on the grounds that it’s better to keep him apart except for a month each year, to ensure calves are born in spring. This farmer’s calves are born when they are born, and everything works fine. For my purposes, I think I would keep the breeding bull apart, with the bullocks while they’re around, and by himself when they’re not. This is not ideal, but in a system where I’m not castrating, it’s essential that the bullocks be slaughtered at a precise time, and if they’re going to keep them together, we need to make sure they are born at the same time and slaughtered at the time. We also need to compromise with reality here — a slaughter unit can only come to the farm so often, and you want them to do more than one animal when they’re there.