www.country-enterprise.co.uk. Keeping and rearing calves, cows, beef & steers.
Beef produced slowly, maturing, not being forced: this is what
produces the beautiful marbled meat which is glowingly described
in gastronomic textbooks.
Most of the beef we eat today has been
encouraged to grow at speed. A lot of it was encouraged to grow
by being injected with steroids. The moment the carcass is big
enough to market it is off. Very often the traditional 'finishing'
stage — the stage which produces the rounded carcass, the marbled
meat — is missed out or skimped on. In the 1960s there was a
great fashion for producing and eating baby beef. These small
joints came from animals totally intensively fattened and killed at
under a year. Although the rising price of cereal makes it unlikely
for this to happen again there is clearly a great attraction in
moving the animals as quickly as possible.
In any enterprise where you consider rearing and producing
beef, the first fact to consider is that it is the slowest livestock
enterprise to produce your profit. There are, of course, stages at
which you can get in and out of the market but generally the
major profit goes to the person with the animal at the end of the
process. Using a semi-intensive system, this means at the end of an
eighteen-month period. Or it could mean a two-year animal. Very
rarely does anyone go on for any longer than that.
How you start depends on whether you have bred the calf yourself
or whether you are buying in. With a dairy cow operation
there are surplus calves to put into beef production. You could
run some cows simply for their calves; these run with their dams
and require the least effort of all calves. It is more likely that the
enterprise starts with buying in calves. Calves are beautiful little
creatures but the important thing to bear in mind is that one day
they will be enormous, not so friendly and require space and a
great deal of food.
It is essential that a calf receives colostrum. If
you buy direct from the producer, you can ask for a guarantee
that it has. If you buy from the market, you have no such certainty.
To produce beef easily you require a beef breed. Every bovine
animal will produce some beef when killed; the beef breeds
produce the right amount in the right places. Hereford crosses are
traditionally excellent; also good are Friesian bull calves, and
Aberdeen Angus which thrive on low-grade pasture. The safest
way to get the best animal for your area is to have a look and see
what everyone else is doing. If the fields around you are stocked
with Herefords, have a go with them. There is no point in putting
a Charolais that requires good grazing to fatten on land that
would better accommodate the less fussy Aberdeen Angus.
When the calf first arrives you have to teach it to drink from the
This can be very difficult with awkward calves who dislike
the possibility of being drowned in the bucket. You can make
it very easy by adapting your bucket to take the teat feeders
available at agricultural suppliers. We turned to these in desperation
one cold winter when we had a batch of Charolais crosses.
For some reason they were the most awkward feeders.
thing is to gently lead the calf's muzzle down into the milk with
your fingers. The calf will happily suck your fingers: after all they
are very like Mother's milk dispensers. These calves all grabbed on
to your fingers, bit the backs of them with their sharp-edged teeth,
then butted in furiously to give the signal for the milk to start
flowing. All that did to chapped fingers was to start the blood
The monsters were madly enthusiastic about the teat
system. The problem was to fasten the buckets so that their
butting did not send the milk up into the air. Anyway our hands
recovered and now we feed all the calves this way. The calves are
fed on reconstituted dried milk. This is cheaper than whole milk
even if you produce the milk. You can sell the milk you produce
for more. If you have Channel Island cows and for some reason
have to feed their milk to calves, you must dilute it with water.
About a third as much water as milk is generally sufficient. If you
do not, the calves will scour as the milk is so rich. This is even the
case if you feed Channel Island milk to Channel Island calves.
Naturally Polled Charolais - this could be the
shape of champion beef bulls of the future
The calves are weaned on to a cereal mix. The simplest way to
buy this is pre-mixed from an agricultural merchant.
In the spring, if you bought an Autumn calf, or late Summer if you bought a
Spring one, you can turn the young stock out.
The grass they go
on to should not have been grazed by other livestock for a long
time. If the last livestock was cattle, there should ideally have been
a twelve-month gap. If it was sheep, a few months is sufficient.
These animals are extremely susceptible to infection at this stage
and every effort should be made to minimise worm loads on fields
and flies in the area. If the weather is unkind, they may well
require gradual hardening off, like plants. In any case, they will
still need some concentrate until they get used to their new diet. If
they were put out in the spring, they can stay out well into
September. If you put them out in August, you only have a month
or so before they come back in. Inside, they are fed on silage or
hay and barley to keep them in a growing condition. Depending
on breed, the animals can finish indoors on this ration or go out
on to the spring grass and then finish at the end of the summer.
They are happiest in batches of about ten when they are indoors
and you must always be careful that none of them gets left behind
in growth. If they do, it is best to separate the slow ones off. The
animals that finish on grass always seem to have a better flavour.
However, animals out in fields are exposed to poisoning and other
hazards so they are usually sent off as soon as they reach the
required weight. This is around 500 kg depending on breed. That
just goes to show how much calves grow. A batch of ten tiny
calves grows to a joint weight of around 5,000 kg. That is a lot of