Friday, January 29, 2010


Growing and Eating Sacred Cows

Think about raising your own pasture-fed beef cattle. How could you do it? How much would it cost?

My old Marine Corps comrade, Gary (not his real name), paid a visit last week to “talk story” about our time together in Viet Nam. I asked him how he was making a living, and among several answers he mentioned that he was raising cattle for his own table and for retail at the local farmers markets. Holy shit! His response really got my attention.

Cattle ranching would seem to be an strange match with which to fire up a vegetarian, but I am interested in all things related to sustainable farming, localism, eating seasonally, and organic food production. Though I have no intention in ever eating beef myself, I understand and applaud well-reasoned agriculture based on pasture and ruminant symbiosis. When Gary pitched his story across my plate, I just had to take a swing

I ask him to break it down for me:

$400 Purchase a feeder or stocker calf of good breeding. Nevada County is mostly agricultural so there are plenty of locally raised calves available. You can buy them from a rancher or at the County Fair from the FFA kids.

$315 Rent pasturage from a local rancher at $17.50 a week for 18 weeks. Gary is a stand-off cattleman. He doesn't own the land or breeding stock himself.

$50 Medications, vaccinations and worming, but not the heavy dose of antibiotics or hormones given to CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operations) cows.

$1320 Cattle feed (mostly corn) to “finish” them off. $11 a day for 120 days. Finishing is the process of introducing high-fat content into the meat, or marbling, which satisfies a taste addiction acquired by most beef-eating Americans. Gary, with pride, boasts that he finishes his cows for 120 days while most other boutique cattlemen finish for only 60 days. Whether grass-fed beef needs to be finished at all is a matter of taste. There is a growing movement that lauds 100% grass-fed beef, but that’s not my friend Gary’s goal.

$576 Butcher. Gary quotes $.80 per pound for butchering a 720 pound steer, but winks that he gets it done for less. Looking into this further, I discovered that butcher costs vary wildly, and that butchering in California costs a lot more than butchering in Arkansas (surprise!).

$3000 This is the total cost when we include incidentals like transportation, cold storage, salt and worm licks, and so on. From his 720 pound steer he receives about 600 pounds of beef. Divide yield into total cost:

$5.00 per pound (average)

Even when we consider that some of the cuts may go for more than $5.00 per pound, it is obvious that there is no big money to be made here by us amateur cowpokes.

Could our costs be cut? Sure, especially if we eliminate the “corn finishing” or reduce it drastically, and we also find a butcher (wink) who will do it for, say $.50 per pound. From time to time we can also purchase a calf for less than $400. In his budget “Gary” did not mention the costs of hay (for over-wintering) and other food supplements and concentrates. So, eliminating the intensive “finishing” process, but keeping the other costs the same, and adding about $300 for hay and food supplements, our total cost for 600 pounds of butchered beef could be as low as


About $2.50 per pound.

Would you pay $2.50 per pound for the healthiest, leanest, safest, most environmentally sensitive, happiest filet mignon you’ve ever eaten? Well, certainly you would (if you eat the sacred filet at all). The point here is that you can not make a lot of money at raising your own beef, but you can feed several people cheaply and safely, rebuild the fertility of the land, quietly sell a little on the off-market, and maybe pay your property taxes with the bit left over.

Quietly sell a little on the off-market? The USDA and other regulatory agencies make it difficult to operate mom-and-pop meat economies, but there are a few small meat packing houses around and there are ways we make obeisance to the USDA rules, policies largely formulated to protect the giant food business, the industrial megalith USDA worships as its own sacred cow.

Or we drive our little herds into outlaw country. We better start remembering how to ride low in the saddle.

Coma ti yi yippee yippee yay, yippee yay
Coma ti yi yippee yippee yYay
Git along little doggie.


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