Friday, March 20, 2020

Beef or milk?

The purpose of livestock under austere conditions is to expand the resource-net that humans can cast.

That is different than modern, "efficient" animal husbandry.

Modern husbandry often involves feeding livestock human-quality food to maximize rates of weight gain, egg production or milk production. That results in animal husbandry being a net protein and energy sink...less protein and calories are available for humans.

Consider a pig, an animal much like humans in its food needs. A 240 pound hog (pigs become hogs when they pass 180 pounds of weight) can easily eat as much as four people. If human-quality food is limited, than fattening that one hog deprives (starves) four humans. That is part of what makes the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son so haunting. The prodigal son is feeding hogs human-quality food while he, himself is starving.

There are some ecosystems where hogs make sense. An environment that produces large amounts of acorns, for instance. It is not particularly energy efficient for humans to gather acorns especially when there are other agricultural tasks competing for their time. However, it often makes sense let hogs free-range and fatten on acorns. The key is to time the growth-curve for the majority of the hogs hit peak food consumption so it coincides with acorn drop.

In general, animals that produce milk or eggs are more efficient converters of protein supplying the eggs/milk than slaughtered to supply meat.

Cows are ruminants. They have enormous stomachs (four of them!) that ferment cellulose (which humans cannot digest) into short-fatty acids that provide energy. They can eat non-human quality food and turn it into delicious food that is very dense in the nutrients needed by hard-working humans, that is, protein and fat.

Consider raising cattle for meat.

Let us say, for instance, that you have a mama beef cow. You have an accommodating neighbor who supplies the services of a bull so you don't have to feed one.

Under austere conditions, you are not feeding grain and you decide to go "seasonal" to maximize the availability of grass.

Your cow drops one calf on March 15 of every year and you slaughter that calf on November 15 of the following year as a 1350 steer or 1000 pound cow.

The hanging-weight will be about 700 pounds and the lean, boned meat will be about 550 pounds or about a pound-and-a-half of beef per day assuming you have enough power to run a freezer and can meter it out over the following year. That assumes you will eat the liver, heart and tongue. 550lbs of beef is about 140 pounds of protein.

But what did it take to make that happen? You had to overwinter 1600 pounds of beef-on-the-hoof. You had to have enough hay or stockpiled pasture to provide 4% of body weight of feed a day. That is a very honest bale-and-a-half of small square bales of hay a day or three, 800lb round bales a month.

Another consideration is that you had a 1100 pound mama cow, a 1200lb 18 month old calf and a 500lb 8 month calf grazing on November 1. That is 2800 pounds of cattle on pasture and that really cuts into your ability to "stockpile" pasture.

In 2010, New Zealand averaged 250 pounds* of milk protein per cow and they do it all on pasture. As a secondary data point, a typical American Holstein that is fed large amounts of human-quality food produces about 750 pounds of protein per year.

For the most part, the New Zealand milk was produced by Jerseys, a smaller (900 pounds) dairy-breed well suited for production of milk on pasture. It should also be noted that New Zealand is blessed with an extremely clement climate and absolutely world-class farmers. The American Holstein weighs about 1400 pounds.

Suppose for the moment that our austere farmer is milking a cow that is 3/4 Holstein and 1/4 any beef breed. In general, beef breeds are better at foraging and the genetic diversity adds hybrid vigor. That is, the cows won't die if you look at them cross-eyed.

Your milk cow might weigh 1200 pounds and produce 60% of what a New Zealand cow produces in a year. I am trying to be realistic and not paint pie-in-the-sky fantasies. You might do much, much better than the 60% number.

Your cow produced 150 pounds of protein (pretty much a wash for the meat cow) and 180 pounds of butterfat and she ate 3/4 as much hay/stockpile through the winter as the beef cow and calf.

And with your milch cow, you have a much greater ability to "stockpile" pasture. Instead of having 2500 pounds of cattle grazing the pasture in September and October, you only have 1200lbs so the grass can take advantage of the autumn rains and get ahead of the animal's consumption.

Stockpiling is where you don't cut-and-dry the grass into hay. You leave it standing and let the cows harvest it. 

An additional consideration is that your milk cow will produce milk from mid-March until mid-October. That is seven months of protein that does not rely on refrigeration. And, if you make cheese, it converts to a form that is available for the rest of the year.

Beef or milk?
Milk production should be the default under austere conditions because it produces the same amount of protein per mama cow on less forage-per-year than beef production. Milk production is also less sensitive to lack of refrigeration especially when paired with cheese production or fermented milk products like yogurt or viili.

It is not a total slam-dunk. Milk is more labor intensive and does not tolerate "vacations".

If conditions are exceptionally dry and forage is scarce, then beef adapts better to "extensive" agriculture.

*Milk solids are approximately 30% protein, 30% fat and 40% lactose.


  1. My Granpa an Gamma raised Guernseys as dairy all their lives an said to do dairy with the heifers and raise the bull calves as steers for the meat. It woorked and kept us all fed and healthy.

  2. A few thoughts from some one who spent twenty years milking commercial dairy cows plus subsistence raising various other livestock. When I was in the business in the 70's and 80's I subscribed to some alternative journals like " New Farm" a few points from them were that four to the of the world's Ag land is suitable only for grazing and that you raising Chinese style involved systems that used waste products from both sides to produce human food . One example I remember was raising the hogs On the bank of a read a carp pond. The manure fed the grass in the pond and the entrails from butchering the fish plus all kinds of other processing waste provided much of the hogs feed.
    Also you can not have dairy or egg production with out making provision for excess males. Traditionally in many systems spring born calves were feed surplus spring milk, allowed to graze until cold weather and butchered as "baby beaf" or if grazing was short butchered early as milk veal.
    As far as vacation for the homestead dairyman: our neighbor used to walk his cow over the hill of he had to go away and I killed it with our heard.
    As far as the bull is concerned: many areas have artificial insemination as an option. Just some thougjts.

    1. Our spelling and grammar checker went nuts. That's 4/5s of the Ag land. I milked her with our herd.

    2. Thanks for commenting. Your insights are much appreciated.

      It comes down to local resources. A good neighbor is a blessing. Is there enough pasture to raise baby beef as a sideline? Is there enough labor to covert grass to hay or is it smarter to rely on stockpiling? Are ponds available? Does multi-species make sense from a worms perspective (it usually does) and the increased management demands?

      I liked the Stockman Grass Farmer magazine.

  3. My addled brain read the last paragraph header as "Beer or Milk". Didn't that send me on a different path across the internet! Cereal grains and hops!

  4. Interesting choices, and most should have already been made long before now. Much like the drought a couple of years ago, cattle were thin on the ground due to the lack of feed and water. Ranchers did what they could to get through it and a bunch went under.

  5. I really hate to ask because either I missed something or... Isn't the person with the bull going to want something in return for the use of his bull? If he takes the calf then he is in the same position you were trying to avoid minus having to feed mama cow. I realize there are a boat load of variables. Do you have freezer possibilities, more land than the average bear, is your bull servicing more than one cow.Do you have the possibility to trade somehow for an unrelated cow and transition to cutting out the middleman(you).

    1. To address your first question "Isn't the person with the bull going to want something in return for the use of his bull?"

      That depends on your relationship. The bull does not mind covering one more cow. Out of a sense of fairness, you should pay for however many day's feed while she is there and pay either the farmer or his kid for the amount of time it took to see the cow in and get her separated to take her back home.

      The handling is not trivial. For example, if the way in is through a shed and your cow puts a hoof through the rear spokes of the farmer's daughter's mountain bike and craps all over his riding mower...well, it will take a little more to make that right than if the cow waltzes through a gate. Don't ask me how I know.

    2. Since I am uninformed about this you're saying that it isn't like with a horse or dog?

    3. I realize that to the male it's all fun and games but I was under the impression that people pay the big bucks to get the best bull they can and that that is part of their expected roi

    4. Artificial Insemination changes the game. You don't need to buy a share to get the best genetics in the world.

      Some farmers keep a bull because the bull is very generous and breeds the cow before she is prime, while she is prime and after she is prime...just to be sure. Also, the farmer/rancher doesn't need to keep track of when the cow comes into heat and doesn't need to contain her in a stantion.

      What the breeder loses in absolute genetics is made up for in ease of management.

      Suppose that the farmer with the bull also has equipment and cuts hay. He might recover the cost of letting his bull breed your cow(s) when you pay him to custom cut your hayfield. If you don't have a cow then you are much less likely to need hay.

      Lots of dynamics.


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