We have had a lot of people asking how we know when an animal is ready for the processor. I’ll be honest, a lot of it has to do with intuition. But there is a foundation for everything. So, the real question is how we go from a live animal to a palatable product?
Let’s start with how an animal grows. Our calves have access to as much grain, hay / grass, and water as they want. They eat when they are hungry, they graze when they are curious, and they drink when they are thirsty. They also have the ability to listen to their body’s demands and get some extra vitamins and minerals when they need them. For this, we use a salt tub.
These are beef cattle, they need protein. Think of a bodybuilder. How do they get all that muscle? They eat the right stuff. We work with our local feed mill and the nutritionist they have on staff to give our calves the right amount of nutrients they need to grow big and strong. This feed is nothing fancy. There are all kinds of propaganda out there that try to tell you that animals need this filler or this new synthesised protein. We just use corn, soybean, and vitamins and minerals, mixed with a little molasses because who doesn’t love a sweet treat??
Then, the calves can go graze for as long as they want. Each animal is different, some eat more grain than others and vise versa. We make sure they have plenty of hay during times that the grasses aren’t growing. When grasses are growing, we rotate the calves through our pastures. This helps to concentrate their manure in specific areas and to make sure the grasses aren’t overgrazed and damaged before summer is even over.
Okay, so that’s what they eat. But how does that food turn into muscle?
Animals put on weight from front to back, top to bottom. Energy goes to muscle first, then to intramuscular fat (the fat inside the muscle, what we call “marbling” in steaks), and finally to intermuscular fat (this is the fat you typically cut off of your steaks that is around the outside of the steak). You can tell they are almost done gaining weight when they start getting fat deposits on their loin (the back) and at their trailhead (what I refer to as their butt cheeks, ha). This ensures that all the fat that can be put into muscle has been put there so now the animal is storing extra fat to save for later.
Because every animal is different sometimes you may think an animal is finished but when you take them to the processor you find they may have had a month or two left on them. This is where practice makes perfect and you can start to develop an intuition. For us, it takes about 14 to 16 months to get to the weight we want; which is about 1400 pounds.
Some say that is too heavy, but we have found that by letting them get a little fatter, we have a high quality product at the end. I would rather trim off some fat and have great steaks, than be wishing we didn’t have to chew our steaks for an hour before we could swallow them.
There are also a few other things that can affect muscle development and subsequently meat quality.
Genetics and Environment.
It’s pretty easy to see how a big, tall, lanky animal probably isn’t going to give you a thick juicy steak and also that short stubby animal isn’t going to give you enough meat to feed many people. So there is an in between that we like to look for when choosing our genetics. We also believe that breed can show those qualities effectively. That is why we chose Herefords. Every cattle farmer has their favorite breed. But I believe that it comes down to how your breed can utilize your farm, and for us, our Herefords have treated us very well.
Keeping the animals at low stress their entire lives is of utmost importance. Mainly, it’s the most humane thing to do. But also, stress releases adrenaline and adrenaline causes the meat to be very tough and chewy, as opposed to a calm animal giving tender and palatable meat. At any time, a stranger could come to our farm and hand feed our calves along with our cows. This may tie into genetics but we do not keep rough and rowdy breeding stock. It has been proven that there is a stress gene that causes animals to be more flighty and untrusting to humans. We have no business having those kinds of animals around our farm. It’s bad for the animals, but also dangerous for us handling them.
After we know what animal is ready to be processed, we typically have the same cuts made off each animal. This is for a few reasons. Our customers are accustomed to our line of products and we don’t like telling people we do not have a certain product if we have had it before. There are some things that are just plain hard to sell in our market, so we listen to that feedback. If they aren’t being bought, it’s probably time to try something new. Lastly, it makes it easier on our processor. They see Schoentrup Farms coming through and they know what we need. This reduces errors, miscommunication, and confusion.
Every animal may be different, but we think we have something dialed in here to give pretty consistent, even products to our customers!
I talk more about all this in the video link at the top. If I missed something or you have a question, feel free to comment in the box below. If you want to sign up for our freezer update email list, you can do so here; or if you want to be a part of a larger conversation about why we are here and how we are shaping our future, click here.