Weighing the Cattle
Part of what we do at Sweet Judy Blues Farm is finishing beef cattle. That means we buy cattle after they've been weaned from their mothers and raise them on grass until they've reached the proper weight to go to the slaughterhouse.
A quick explanation: Black Angus cattle are usually considered "finished" when they reach somewhere between 900 and 1100 pounds. This is called the "live weight." After slaughter, that number reduces to a "hanging weight," which is approximately 60% of the live weight. Then, when the carcass is butchered, we arrive at a "boxed" or "retail" weight, which is about 60% of the hanging weight. So ultimately, if a cattle is slaughtered when it weighs 1000 pounds, after the slaughtering and butchering process, we'll end up with approximately 360 pounds of meat.
That said, our aim is for them to gain weight quickly--though always within the bounds of our holistic, grass-fed methodology. To help them gain, we simply provide the most nutrient-rich forage we can. We follow a management-intensive grazing plan, which means during warm months when forage is growing, we rotate the cattle to a new section of pasture every day. That way they have access to the most nutritious forage available on the farm. During the winter, we give them plenty of hay made from grass grown on our property. And to monitor their progress, we weigh them once a month.
Weighing a cow requires strategy. You can't just lead one away from the others and ask it to step on a scale. For one thing, they're herd animals, so they don't like to be alone. Plus, they're huge: as I mentioned, their weight can reach more than a thousand pounds. They're not aggressive, but you definitely don't want to get in their way. Fortunately, there's an established system to weigh them safely. It requires a device called a cattle chute.
Last summer, Tim Cunningham, who built our fence, introduced us to Phil Trowbridge, owner of Trowbridge Farms in Columbia County. We visited Phil at his farm, and he showed us how a cattle chute (also called a squeeze chute) works. Basically, it creates a corridor to guide cattle single-file through sections where you can individually weigh them, inspect them, and, if necessary, give them medical attention. (Temple Grandin made huge developments in this system in the 20th century. Henry and I learned a lot from the 2010 film about her starring Claire Danes. If you're interested, we highly recommend it.)
So we had our barn measured for a cattle chute by Frey Brothers, and it was installed earlier this year. There's been a learning curve with figuring out the best way to lead the cattle through, but it goes more smoothly each time we do it. We love seeing the numbers to show the progress our steers and heifers are making and learning from the variations we see month to month.
When we received our cattle in March, they ranged from almost ten to almost eleven months old, and their average weight was 380 pounds. In the first month, they gained an average of .42 pounds per day. We learned that you can expect a slower start, because there's an adjustment period when cattle move from one farm to another. Their gains also tend to be lower when they're eating hay than when they have fresh, green grass, and we had a long winter, so there was still snow on the ground until late April.
At that point, halfway through the second measuring period, we started to rotate them. From April to May, they gained an average of 1.65 pounds per day.
From May to June, they ate only fresh forage and rotated to a new section of pasture every day. We were excited to see their average gain jump to 2.4 pounds per day. The highest gainer, our oldest heifer, gained 76 pounds in those four weeks.
But last week when we weighed them, the average daily gain had dropped to 1.5 pounds. The reasoning for this is simple: we had a massive heat wave. Apparently, like us, cattle don't feel like chowing down in the extreme heat. We often found them lying in shady areas beneath trees instead of standing under the sun eating. Still, they gained well considering, and now that the temperature has dropped, we're hoping for them to be back to the higher numbers we saw in the first week of summer when we weigh them next.