Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Casper, the Hereford Calf
That is my cousin Stephen in the middle, Casper the calf on the left, and yours truly on the right. For reasons I cannot recall at this time (seems like I've slept since then), Casper's mother died. He became my responsibility, and a pet. He became a "bucket calf" which is our term for a calf that has to be fed milk and is too young for solid feed. I had to mix his milk a couple times a day, and naturally, he was tame and had the run of the yard. When he got older and too big to be a pet, Dad turned him out with his contemporaries, and he eventually ended up in my college fund (and on someone's plate, but I tried not to think about that too much).
Yep, I was actually that thin at one time. Would that I could be that thin now!
At any rate, thinking about Herefords and cattle breeds in general reminds me of a pet peeve of mine, "Angus" beef in particular. These two breeds and mixes thereof comprise the majority of beef cattle in the US. Most beef cattle are mixed breeds. When you see a black baldy - it is a black animal with a white face. It has elements of Black Angus and Hereford in it's ancestry to arrive at that coloring. Sometimes, you'll see an animal with the characteristic shoulders of a Brahma, or the light yellow, tan or white coloring of Charolais. Polled cattle are without horns - some by genetics, and some by removal. The old Longhorns aren't much for beef production anymore.
Most of these breeds were crossed looking for certain characteristics for good beef production. Dad liked long frames on his calves. Some shorter cattle could really pack on the weight, but Dad felt like a larger framed calf would put on more weight far more economically. He looked for wider hips in his cows, for easier birthing. Most of the time when you buy cattle, you don't get to pick and choose out of a herd. You get a lot, and some will have culls. So, you look to buy cattle that need to gain weight, but aren't sickly, and with the majority having the characteristics you desire.
In later years, Dad got away from the cow/calf pairs and went to "backgrounding." This practice is where the cattle rancher buys calves weaned off the cows, pasture them during the good weather, and feed them during the winter, until they reach feeder weight. That is the weight that feedlots want to buy for their operations, because at that age, cattle can really put on the pounds in a feedlot. The average farmer doesn't have the equipment necessary to take advantage of that point in their cattle's development. Dad preferred buying heifers, because they were more docile than steers. When purchasing a load of male calves, they haven't been "cut" yet, so that must be done as well. Steers tear up more fencing than heifers, and are just generally more onery. They cost more, and brought more at selling time as well, but Dad felt he made the same money without as much headache. We had less Rocky Mountain Oysters as a result, but oh well. When the calves arrived, we had to process them. This meant branding, removal of any horn nubbins, castrating any little bulls, and giving them a variety of drugs. Some, like the sulfa pills, were shoved down their throats with a "balling gun" where the sulfa pill was placed in the bell end, shoved down their throat, and a pushrod ejected the pill. Other drugs were injected. Most were broad spectrum antibiotics. Now, most cattle are marked with ear tags, which have an annoying tendency to fall off. Branding was truly an art, because you had to seat the hot iron properly. If you smeared the brand, the calf would have to be rebranded and cause it more pain, plus it might get infected. If the brand was done properly, it healed better and was permanent.
Anyways, a cattleman is always checking his charges, sometimes several times a day. They mostly monitor their health, looking for various problems. We don't get as close to our animals as a dairy farmer does, but you do see them as individuals. "Yeah, that's the one that we had to unwind the barb wire from - she isn't happy unless she's trying to get out." "That's the one that was snakebit and had the huge pus blister on her right shoulder."
So, the reality of cattle and breeds are that they are a huge mishmash. Purebreeds exist, of course, but mostly for breeding purposes. It's pretty hard to tell just what breed or most of a breed an animal is after the hide is removed. So, when I see someone advertising "Angus" beef, I have to laugh. I really doubt that Burger King is buying purebred Angus cattle to make hamburger. I also don't understand the power that "Angus" apparently has on the American consumer, either. Hereford tastes just the same, and it's probably what they are eating, anyhow.