The most reputable ranchers always put a great deal of thought and care into their breeding programs. We have been carefully cultivating the genetics in our herd since the brothers originally began ranching twenty years ago. From selecting animals with desirable physical & temperamental traits to breed, to culling those animals with negative characteristics (for example, the fence jumpers or those overly defensive cows), every season requires attentiveness to continually improve the genetics of the herd. Quality breeding impacts so many aspects of the final beef product, but it also can impact the quality of life of both the ranchers and their animals.
Three-way vigour, or heterosis, is essentially the best result of animals bred to incorporate the best characteristics of three chosen breeds- ours being Black Angus, Red Angus and Charolais. Achieving this three-way vigour can improve fertility, longevity, maternal instincts, temperament and survivability of the calf, which are just a few of the traits we select for. Clearly the other piece of the genetic puzzle is improving the quality of the beef at the end of the day- improving marbling, red meat yield and consistency. This just means that building the genetics of a herd isn't something that can happen in a season or two. It is a long-range project- so take a moment to relish the fact that we have been cultivating our herd genetics for around two good decades now!
For the moment, though, we are right in the midst of calving season and they are coming at us fast! One of the most enjoyable parts of this hybridization is seeing the way those genetics play out on the physical side. It never fails to delight me to see such variety between cow and calf- but no more so than to see a little mini-me at a new mama's side.
We've also seen a surprising number of twins this year and there is no better way to see the evidence of the solid mix of genetics than to see a black white face cow give birth to both gray white face and red white face calves!
I must say that I personally fully appreciate the genetic progress so far as temperament is concerned. I am out working new calves with our team daily, which has us holding those new calves down to tag them, spray the umbilicus with iodine to prevent infection and give them a shot of vitamins and minerals to help prevent deficiency.
Mamas don't generally like whatever comes between them and their babies- some can get vocal or agitated, but most are just concerned and curious. Some stand patiently back, lowing gently for their baby to come. Many will step forward to sniff their calf while we work, sniff our coats or hands and just evaluate what intentions we have with their little ones. Although we are always on alert for any signs of agitation or aggression, we have yet to come across a cow that can't be calmed with a quiet, firm voice to bring her back down. I have heard enough stories from other ranchers to know to appreciate this characteristic whole-heartedly. These are big animals and it is so much easier to work with a large animal than to fight against one!
From beginning to end, both nurture and nature have a powerful impact on the life, productivity, workability and quality of the beef cattle a rancher produces- which in turn, I might add, impacts the life, productivity, workability and quality of the rancher as well. Ranching is not simply a job- it is a way of life. As always, it is our goal to continually improve the quality of every life in our care.
We keep saying our beef is hand-finished, but what do we mean by that exactly?
There are two main elements in our definition. The first is that we walk among our herds daily- our cattle know us and are comfortable with our presence among them. The second is that our finishing expert knows precisely what to look for to ensure a steer is finished and he finds that information with his hands.
Docility in cattle is a measure of temperament, or how calm a given animal is in a new or stressful environment, specifically in handling by humans. It is a trait that can be inherited- which of course means that it can be improved through breeding. It is also highly influenced by their environment, mainly the manner in which they are handled by humans. Low docility, flightiness or wildness, is expected when cattle are raised in the wild as it is required for survival- an approachable cow will not last long with natural predators about. However, our herds are pastured and protected, so high docility scores are desirable, both for the safety of our team and for more highly graded meat.
Our standard practice is to work each and every animal and the herd at large as quietly and calmly as possible. We work in slow, steady movements and speak in low, quiet voices, always focusing on using the least amount of pressure required to move or work them. This is always best practice from a practical standpoint as a stressed animal is an unpredictable animal. Further, we are solidly dedicated to raising them in as peaceful and humane an environment as we can foster. We may be raising them as a food source, but we have every responsibility to ensure they live naturally and free from fear and pain where we can manage it.
The second aspect of hand-finishing requires this docility in our cattle- and not only are our steers approachable, they love getting the daily hands-on attention of our crew! They know that when their people are around that means good things- and we want to keep it that way.
Our Finishing Manager has years of experience under his belt and knows exactly what to look for visually in a finished beef and especially what to feel for and where. The feel of the animal at the tail, rib and loin, weight gain tapering off and the overall look of the animal all inform on when a steer is finished. Each animal is unique, of course, which means they finish out at different times and different weights.
We take our responsibility in our stewardship over these animals quite seriously and are thoughtful at every level of their care and keeping. Our entire focus and intent is to give them full, happy lives in wide, green pastures and we work hard every year to improve our knowledge, skills, resources and systems to better provide for their well-being.
This is what we mean when we say our beef is hand-finished.