We maintain records for all our animals, which identify their breeding lineage, health history, weight gain, pasture rotations, progeny production for cows and bulls, and carcass merit for harvested steers and heifers. Records are updated daily and are maintained throughout the animals lifetime. Historical data is maintained after the animal is harvested or otherwise leaves the herd in order to have generational history to track lineage and provide us with the knowledge to continuously improve herd genetics and performance.
We use this information to sort cows into breeding herds of 30-35 head based upon their genetic match with the herd bull selected for breeding. Cattle are similar to humans with an estrus period of just under 28 days and a gestation of just under 9 months. We turn the bull in with his assigned herd for 60 days, thereby giving cows 2-3 estrus cycles to get bred. We pregnancy check the cows 45 days after removing the bull. As a result of solid herd genetics and general health, we typically achieve 95% pregnancy rates, with 70% of these occurring on the first estrus and 30% on the second. We leave the prior year's calves on their dam until weaning at 8-9 months of age. This "late" weaning is more natural and thus results in less stress to both dam and calf. Because the dam is pregnant with her next calf, she needs to dry off and focus her energies on the growing fetus and thus her current calf is naturally weaning itself. At weaning time, we also remove any "open" cows (ie those that did not breed back pregnant), retaining only those cows that became pregnant. This has the effect of culling infertile cows and increasing the average fertility of the herd over time. The remaining "dry" cows then focus their energies on regaining their body condition after nursing and on providing nutrients to their growing fetus. We adjust available nutrients by rotating the cows onto appropriate pasture swards and providing an appropriate free choice mineral blend. As a result of our husbandry practices, the typical cow calves every year at roughly the same time and produces 12 or more calves over her lifetime.
Calves are given an ear tag at birth to ensure we can maintain accurate records of every event in their lives. They enter a disciplined double vaccination regimen that ensures each animal and the entire closed herd remains healthy throughout the seasons. We utilize no artificial growth hormones and do not provide routine antibiotics through feed. All animals are checked at least once daily and more frequently during calving season and other times of natural stress. If an animal does become ill or injured, we immediately remove it from the herd for treatment. We administer antibiotics only when absolutely required and then disqualify that animal from our grass-finishing program. All treatments are recorded in complete medical records for each animal. Thus, our animals remain healthy and our customers are assured their meat is free from artificial hormones and antibiotics. Calves are weaned at 8-9 months old and we keep the steers and heifers together to reduce stress until they are Yearlings. At that point, we separate the Yearlings into a herd of Steers and a herd of Heifers. Steers will be ready for harvest (ie sufficiently "finished" to provide the intramuscular fat to produce tender and tasty beef and with sufficient carcass fat cover to allow us to hang the carcass to dry age traditionally) at approximately 20-24 months of age, depending upon the individual animal. Heifers will be sufficiently mature to breed at 18-20 months of age, so they are having their first calf at approximately 28 months of age. We sort through the Heifer herd at 16 months old and select the very best, based upon expected progeny differentials from their sire and dam as well as measurements and visual assessment of the heifer. We will retain these Replacements and breed them to a bull selected for his propensity towards low birth weights. The remaining heifers will then be harvested. Heifers typically mature (ie finish) faster than steers, and thus while they are typically smaller, many butchers and chefs prefer them due to the tenderness of their beef.
With 2 months of differential in birth dates and 4 months differential in harvest dates, we are able to provide animals to harvest for a 6 month period from each cowherd. In order to provide customers with beef year-round, we maintain both a spring calving cowherd and a fall calving cowherd. This means the bulls are breeding twice a year, 60 days with cows followed by 120 days rest and then back with a different group of cows. It also means we are birthing calves twice a year, weaning twice a year, and sorting a yearling herd twice a year. As a result, we are often managing 15 or more different herds of animals of different classes (ages, sexes, purposes, etc.) This enables us to adjust our pasture rotations and mineral supplements to address the needs of each different class of animal, thereby optimizing health across our entire population. Hence why many refer to this form of animal husbandry as "Management Intensive" and why it requires a skilled herdsman and cannot be replicated in an industrial cattle operation.
We observe each animal every day (as frequently as multiple times per day in the case of first time heifers during calving season) which enables us to spot potential issues and take appropriate action before they evolve into problems. We handle our herd on foot, without the use of dogs, prods, or loud noises. They are moved to fresh pasture every few days, ensuring they enjoy the most tender shoots of grass and are not forced to remain in a single pasture with an increasing presence of flies and other parasites. We weigh our animals frequently to monitor their average daily gains, which are a key determinant of the ultimate intra-muscular marbeling and tenderness of their beef. As a result, our animals remain calm, lead healthy and enjoyable lives, and reward us with tender beef.
All aspects of our animal husbandry are interrelated to ensure that the animals are treated humanely, remain healthy, enjoy a stress free life from birth through harvest, and therefore produce nutrient dense healthful beef. Perhaps the single organization that best understands all elements of our operation is the Animal Welfare Approved certifying organization of the A Greener World organization. They visit the farm every year and conduct a thorough audit of all animal husbandry practices, reviewing our extensive records on cattle health and pasture management. We are very proud to be the first cattle farm in Virginia to be certified Animal Welfare Approved and also the first to receive their additional certification for being 100% grassfed. Customers rely upon the Animal Welfare Approved label as being the best way to distinguish between farms that are managed in the true spirit of ethical and sustainable animal husbandry vs. those that are part of a less desirable industrial farming model.