Angus Cows

The Rain Gauge

Jolie Vue Farms - Cows Eating.

So what’s happening now? We broke the dry spell that I noted last time. 3.3 inches in a day and a half, followed 10 days later by 5.5 inches over 2 days. This of course was welcome as it popped our rye and oat grasses. But what is impressing us since the drought went away and the rains returned is that the new pattern is large rains followed by dry spells followed by large rains, followed by... That’s different than the pre-2011 pattern which consisted of 6/10ths here, 1 inch there, spread over the given month. Never too wet, never too dry. It is very much the other way now. So successful farmers have to do what they have always done –  adjust on the fly. What does that mean on a day to day basis under these changing conditions? It means you keep some stored grass on hand. You don’t move to the next pasture in the rotation when that pasture has not had sufficient rest and re-growth. So you go to your stored hay supply to feed your livestock, buying time for your next pasture to mature. Otherwise, you are in a downward spiral, damaging the recoverability of each successive pasture. While our creatures always prefer grazing the green stuff, stored grass is insurance for us. The most important thing in pasture management is recovery time. If you hit a pasture too soon after it was clipped, the recovery is handicapped. Can’t do it. Bring on the hay! 

Farmers survive by dancing to Mother Nature’s orchestra. We lose if we are waltzing when she is doing the 2-step. So figure out the music and get with the dance. Stepping on her toes will eventually put you on the sideline.

The Red Herd at JVF

Recall that half of our mother herd resides at JVF and the other half at Clay’s Mayfair Ranch. We sent the JVF herd to “vacation” at the Mayfair in August while we rested JVF and planted winter pasture. While the two herds were together, we re-mixed them so that the JVF herd is now all red in color – Red Angus and Hereford - and the Mayfair herd is more varied, consisting of everything from black to red to striped. Why the change? We are taking advantage of the added vigor that cross-breeding provides. The red herd will be sired by the Hereford bull, with his girlfriends being Red Angus and a couple of Herefords, while the Mayfair herd will be sired by the Red Angus bull, and his girlfriends will be a very mixed lot. Think of cross-breeding as mimicking the American experience; that turned out pretty well. We’re hoping for similarly successful results.

Animal Husbandry 101

Do you remember our discussion of a few months ago explaining that you bring on a young heifer and a new bull this year, then wait 4 years before you know if your selections were good ones? While that second calf remains the litmus test, you do get some earlier indications about your choices, and I find those signs positive at JVF. A first calf heifer is best bred to a small bull to ease the initial calving process for the inexperienced mother. Instead of focusing on the small beginning, I look at how the calf grows from its small beginning and I am seeing good vigor in that respect. That is a sign of good genetics kicking in. We seem to have a kindergarten class of quick gainers. They are short but stocky little rascals. The early signs are positive.

The Improved Herd

Recall that earlier this year, as the spring cattle sales started lining up, I told you of our efforts to bring more heat-hardiness into our beef herd. Adding some red-hided cattle or some with a bit of Brahman influence has kept some fat on the mommas this summer. If momma has some fat, baby will follow. And daddy is our new Red Angus top of the sale bull (“Meatwagon”), so we hope to see even better results in years to come. But it will be years before we know for sure - see our next section.

Following the Yellow Brick Road

Jolie Vue packed it up and pointed the truck’s nose to Kansas in late March, searching for our version of the Wizard of Oz of fine grass-adapted cattle, the Red Angus. We were not disappointed. In fact, we were overwhelmed by beautiful, thick, moderate-framed Angus, so much so that we over-spent our intended budget (The Theeck’s Buckhorn Cattle Company was a buyer too). I kid you not when I say I found the cattle of my dreams in the Merry Merry Land of Oz. We bought a lot of cattle, starting with the best bull they had, now known as “Meat Wagon”, who will be our herd sire for a long time, health permitting and accidents avoided. Many nice heifers, some with little calves already at their side, are also headed to Brenham as I write. You are probably 15 months away from actually sampling some of this beef but I expect it to be another leap forward in great-tasting grass-fat beef from JVF. We’ll make sure that these cattle are on display at the Open Farm this year. You will love these beautiful creatures.

A Transition Begins

As our mother herd begins to reach late middle age, we are in the process of deciding what we will do to replace them as they pass beyond their productive lives.

While we love our Black Irish Angus, their black hide causes them to suffer in the summer heat. Texas stockmen fix that problem in a couple of ways — go to a red or white-hided animal and/or add some Brahman blood to their herd. We are moving in both of those directions.

One of those options we are sold on has the very same DNA as the Black Angus but tolerates the heat much better. That is the Red Angus. So we picked up 5 red heifers at the Houston Livestock heifer sale and are headed to Wichita, Kansas in late March to attend sales of what are reputed to be the finest Red Angus in the country. (We ordered steaks from their producers and they were delicious.) In addition to the Kansas Red Angus we picked up some Brangus/Angus, Herefords and Angus Brahman heifers. When we put a Red Angus bull over them, we should have a steer that is heavily influenced with Angus genetics but also enough Brahman and Hereford in them to supply the heat tolerance we need. We are excited about this transition; while it is not a radical change from what we have done the past 8 years, it does incorporate what we have learned in the process and we believe it will be a step forward in our beef quality and harvest weight.

Our Little Irish Angus

We chose the Irish Angus as our sire and dame because it was the only breed we could find that had original Angus grass-fed and finished genetics. We were almost too late, since the British Isles as well as Europe had generally followed the American standard of large, long and lean Angus breeding for size.

The American cattle industry in the modern era has bred cattle for size, believing the bigger the better because the mothers would raise larger calves for market. Of course that is true - big mommas and dads make big offspring as a general rule. And in a auction market where price is paid by the pound with less emphasis on the quality, and no one piece of beef or pork can be traced from the consumer back to the rancher, weight is the thing that matters. Ranchers did the right “survival” thing; they bred for size.

The bigger question looks behind the assumption and asks whether it is really more rewarding to do so. So the University of Georgia did a study on the efficiency of cows by size. In short, they were trying to determine how the weight of the mother correlated with the weight of her calf when weaned. Is it really better to upsize your herd? Georgia’s approach to the study was this: what percent of the mother’s body weight would the calf achieve at weaning time? And did that percent vary depending on the weight classes of cattle? The results favored the small and medium sized mother cow over the large in terms of the weight of the calf as a percentage of its mother’s weight. The largest mother cows at 1600 pounds weaned calves that were only 37% of their mother’s weight while the smallest at 900 pounds (like the Irish Angus) weaned calves at 53% of their mother’s weight. Converted to pounds, the large mother weaned a 592 pound calf while the small mother weaned a 477 pound calf.  Wait, you say, you still get an extra 115 pounds from the large mother. True. But assuming that the relationship between size is approximately proportionate to the amount of pasture consumed by each, then you see the efficiency of the small mother cow. You can feed 3 small cows for every 2 large cows. You will gain 1,670 pounds of calf weight from the 3 small cows while you are gaining 1,154 pounds of calf from the 2 large cows, a 516 pound advantage from the more efficient 900 pound mothers.

At Jolie Vue, we have a herd of 24 small and medium frame mother cows — an annual 3,538 pound advantage over a large frame herd assuming that 3 small cows will consume no more grass than two large ones. That ain’t chopped liver, folks. 

The Irish Angus

Clay and I returned to Jolie Vue’s beef roots recently, the Woodstone Ranch, looking for a replacement bull. The owner, Bill Woods is a retired orthopedic surgeon and founder of the Texas Orthopedic Hospital but was raised on his Dad’s ranch — ranching is in his blood as they say. Bill is the Texas visionary who brought original Angus genetics back to Texas, to his Woodstone Ranch, New Ulm, Texas.

Why are these original genetics Angus cattle referred to as Irish Angus when the Angus heard came out of Scotland? It’s an interesting story.

Bill is a bit older than me, so old enough to remember when the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo began in the Sam Houston Coliseum in downtown Houston. I had the same memory, and we both recalled the short stocky Angus steers, so husky that their bellies almost drug the ground, who seemed to win the blue ribbon each year that original stock Herefords didn’t. Since then, the misplaced hysteria over fat (which by the way was all wrong from a health and nutrition standpoint, but don’t get me started on that tirade) caused the Angus to be bred to a longer, taller, leaner breed, now known more properly as American Angus. Bill, like me, wanted to bring original Angus genetics back into the U.S. So he and his wife, Yvonne, flew to Aberdeen, Scotland and showed up at the Angus registry office where the breed was first declared a separate breed, assuming he would find his desired genetics there. Instead, he was told that the Scots, as well as all Europeans, had followed the American model and bred the short, stocky Angus out of their herds.

What am I to do? he asked. He was told to go to Ireland for original Angus genetics. Ireland? The Irish are farmers, not ranchers! True enough, but as a result, the Irish never followed the U.S. or European lead, keeping their small, stocky, and well-mannered Angus cattle, a few head at most per farm, for milk and their annual beef calf for the family kitchen. So Bill and Yvonne hopped over to Ireland, rented a convertible, and spent the next 6 weeks driving all over Ireland, watching for short, stocky, black cattle. When they spotted same, they pulled in and asked the Irish farmer if he would sell any or all of his small herd. If yes, they then checked out the cow’s history and when they verified that it was original stock Angus, they paid whatever price the farmer asked (Yvonne says she never saw so many happy Irishmen, accepting their British Pound at well above beef market rates.) In six weeks time, the Woods had purchased some 30 mother cows and three bulls. All of their cattle’s genetic history was traceable back to 2 pair of dams and sires on the first page of the Aberdeen Angus registry — the real thing.

And that’s the story behind the story of the Irish Angus residents of Jolie Vue Farms.