Cattle Breeding Strategy
Since the middle of the last century, American beef cattle have been genetically adapted to produce large-framed cattle, capable of finishing quickly in feedlots on a high energy diet fueled by corn. Concerns with the quality of our food have led to considerable interest in the “old fashioned” cattle – short legs and wide bodies, with deep guts capable of digesting large quantities of grass, legumes, and forbs. Our search for beef cattle that will finish on grass led us to Red Devon cattle, an ancient blood line that was first brought by the English Pilgrims to the United States in 1623.
The Red Devon herd at Hillside Pastures was started in 2009 with the purchase of seven heifers with pedigrees that go back to the American Devon herd book that was started in Massachusetts in 1855. Using a strategic artificial breeding program and careful selection of replacement heifers and bulls, we are committed to constantly improving the quality of our Devon to supply the herd of registered seed stock for producers of grass finished beef.
Selection of replacement heifers
After six years of purchasing cows and heifers from Devon herds around the county, we closed our herd in 2015 with the intention of improving from within. Our goal is to have a Devon herd consisting entirely of cows that are capable of producing a flush-quality daughter or a major herd sire. To meet those standards a candidate must be a highly fertile, wide bodied, cow of moderate frame with a good udder and feet.
The senior herd sired was purchased in 2015 from Brookview Farm in Kentucky, just before we closed the herd. Although this bull has sired most the calves for the past several years, we have also used Devon semen from Australia to introduce new genetics into the herd and to produce potential candidates to replace him.
Young bulls are evaluated and placed in one of three classes:
- A bull that came from a cow with an unacceptable udder, or a bull that has inferior testicular development will end up a stocker steer that we finish as grassfed beef.
- A bull that has all the characteristics we desire, but that fails to meet Red Devon breed standards (too light in color, a white spot, etc.) is kept to sell to grass farmers using commercial cows. The bulls in the second class are not registered with the Red Devon USA breed association.
- Our third category for young bulls is reserved for those bulls that show considerable evidence of breeding potential, that represent all of the characteristics of a Red Devon——bulls that we are proud to offer as representatives of Hillside Pastures. Only bulls in this third category will be registered with Red Devon USA.
Soil, Forage, and Grass Grazing
If the axiom “you are what you eat” is true for humans, it stands to reason that it is true for our livestock. We conscientiously and consistently improve the quality of the soil on the farm and the forages consumed by our cattle. The goal is to develop highly fertile soil with balanced minerals, soil that is rich in organic matter and biologically active– and to achieve this without the use of pesticides and chemical or petroleum-based fertilizers.
Forages at Hillside Pastures are complex mixes of grasses (orchard grass, tall fescue, perennial ryegrass, timothy, etc.) and legumes such as alfalfa and several clovers.
Grass farming in Wisconsin presents some challenges. Half of the year the farm produces massive quantities of forages and the other half of the year the grass is dormant. We have adjusted the size of our herd to insure that all of the forages produced on our farm during the growing season are grazed by the cattle. To accomplish this harvest we have divided the farm into paddocks, each defined by a permanent electric fence. When cattle are moved into a paddock, they are restricted to a relatively small portion of the paddock by the placement of a temporary electric fence which is moved often – typically once per day. This controlled movement of cattle through the paddock – called rotational grazing – is the primary management tool used to maximize the health of the soil, the diversity of forage crop, the production of milk in cows that are nursing calves, and, of course, the growth of the nursing calves.
We intentionally set aside paddocks in the late summer to grow to maturity until they are hit by frost, usually in early October. The cattle are introduced to those now dormant paddocks and they graze those stockpiled forages through the early winter, even after the grass is buried in snow.
After grazing all the available forage on the farm the cows are fed stored forage in the form of dry hay which we purchase from our neighbors who produce high quality hay and sell at commodity prices. This purchased hay is typically fed out in the pasture by rolling out large round bales on the ground.
This method has multiple advantages: it liberates us from the burden of owning, maintaining, and operating equipment; it transfers nutrients from our neighbor’s farm to Hillside Pastures; it places seed heads where they can germinate in the Spring; it distributes the animal urine and manure where it does some good; and it keeps the animals out in the fresh air where they stay cleaner and healthier.
Spring on a Wisconsin cattle farm can be characterized by extended periods with freeze/thaw cycles, sleet and lots of mud. Since feeding cattle out in these wet fields with heavy equipment can do great damage to the paddocks, we have invested in a few feeding facilities that allow us to keep the cattle, the equipment, and the farmer out of the mud.
Managing cattle in a low stress manner requires that farmers work with their natural instincts and personalities. Toward that end we have implemented practices developed by cattle luminaries such as Temple Grandin and Bud Williams to keep cattle calm and relaxed at all times.
The calving season at Hillside Pastures is in the Spring so that calves can be on clean pastures and the cows have access to abundant and fresh Spring forages. The calves typically stay with their moms until mid-winter – late January or February – at which time they are nursing for fun and comfort, not the milk, and some of the cows have already adopted their own approach to weaning. We wean calves in the least stressful way, by placing a simple fence between them and their moms.