When we purchased the farm, it came with four cows. We never individually named them, but collectively they are known as Bolognaise, Lasagne, Rendang, and Ragu.
They are a breed called ‘Murray Grey’. Apparently, they’re very good beef. When we took over ownership, they were 18 months old. Now, they are 2 and a half years old.
For the last year, they’ve been grazing around 9ha of pasture to themselves. The drought last year has really hit grass growth. But because we had such a tiny number of cattle on such a huge amount of land, Bolognaise, Lasagne, Rendang, and Ragu are currently some very prime beef.
They are in great condition when many cattle ready for market are not in very good condition. While chatting to the farmer who grazes the property next to us earlier this week, he advised us that now would be a very opportune time to send them off. Prices fluctuate throughout the year, but right now, they are high for good cattle.
It’s something we knew would need to happen soon. So he put us in touch with his stock agent, and we got a visit on Thursday. The agent agreed: we have some tasty looking beef. So we’ve made the call to sell them off, and begin the process of replacing them.
The grass is greener
We want to do this for a couple of reasons. The main reason being we have a lot of grass. If we let our grass get too high, it starts to cause problems with our fences, and becomes a fire risk in the height of summer. While my overall plan for this place is to replace the majority of the grass with trees, what we have right now is a lot of grass. Our land is very steep in places, so it’s not safe to mow it, so we need the livestock.
Because of our fences, we pretty much have to go with cows. We have excellent fences, but they aren’t up to the standard required for sheep, goats, or pigs (not to mention, I don’t want to farm goats or pigs). I’m hesitant in invest too heavily in the fences before we have our final paddock layout designed. So for now, cattle is what we need.
However, we don’t currently have enough cattle. Last summer, they barely stayed on top of the grass. It worried me for a while. But then we were hit by drought, and the pasture growth dropped back. Despite heavy rains over the last 3 months, there are still ongoing effects for the winter growth. At this point in time, the fences and gorse levels need some work, but our pasture height is pretty good. And our cattle look choice as at a moment in time when not many cows do. This time it turned out OK, however I’m expecting next summer to be a bit different.
NIWA are picking La Niña weather patterns this year. For years, this stuff baffled me. But at this point I understand that for Northland, we should see more rain over summer in the form of tropical hurricanes dropping down from the north-east. The last one was summer 2017-18 when all my tomatoes kept falling over in intense easterly storms.
Here, our place is sheltered from the worst of the winds that come with these storms, meaning it will probably be wet, fairly warm, and humid. Those conditions would boost pasture growth, meaning we’re gonna need a higher number of cows to eat it.
We don’t really have the cash to buy additional cows outright. So selling the older cows means we’ll have the liquidity to double our herd and bring in (hopefully) 8 younger cows to raise over the next 18-24 months. I think we could have had 6 cows comfortably through the drought, so 8 is probably still understocking to a degree. But it’s unlikely to be overstocking, and it shouldn’t cost too much in extra feed if I have my calculations wrong.
I’m still figuring out the right number of stock for this land. My thinking could be flawed and I don’t really know what the future holds. I’m still learning the ins and outs of farming. Understocking may mean more weed and fence management for us, but it’s kinder to the animals and the environment. I will always choose to have not-enough cows over too-many cows. Plus, if next year looks like another good one, we can always get more cows. There’s no shortage of cattle in this country.
While I am quite interested in raising calves ourselves, we’re not set up to do that (yet). So we’ll be looking for weaned calves ready for pasture. We’re hoping we’ll be able to develop a bond that we don’t really have with the older cows. Bonding and working with animals is one of Richard’s secret talents, and it helps if they’re young. Overall, this will help a lot with control and herding. Right now, the older cows kind of do whatever they want. They aren’t too bad, but they know where the weaknesses in our fences are and that’s not helpful.
Aside from some more cows, we’d also like a new trough. Like most farm infrastructure, a trough is a decent investment when you include all the pipes, hoses, and fittings. But we have a spot at the top of the hill that I’d like to develop into an area for calf-raising in the longer-term. Shorter term, I’d like to be able to split the paddock in half during the spring and summer for some more control of the grazing. It would also make a good ‘quarantine’ space. But I can’t do any of that without making sure there is fresh water available up there.
I think we would be really good at raising calves. We could take them from dairy farms at 4 days old instead of the bobby calf truck. We’ll feed them up, keep a couple to grow on, and sell the rest back off as weaners. I bet we could produce some very friendly cows for lifestyle blocks. Calf rearing is a pretty common practice, but it’s going to require some development before we’re ready to do it ourselves.
Calf-raising means we’d need a shelter, new fencing, better gates, and, of course, a new trough. There’s a fair bit of equipment and food that will need storing in a container or shed. We probably need to do a little earth-moving. It would pay to have a small stockyard setup to administer drenches and vaccines. A water tank would be a good idea as well. All of that will cost a bit of money to set up.
So the plan is to take a portion from every cattle payout and invest it into something that gets us closer to that goal. This year (when most of our cow money needs to go towards buying new cows) it’s a new trough at the top of our main paddock.
The ethical questions
I’m starting to see that farming is basically the trade of life itself. As I learn and experience it more, I realise how hard that is on a day-to-day level. I’ve got to know our animals, and seeing them leave today is going to suck. I don’t enjoy the way the meat market works in New Zealand, but there’s only three legal choices here: hold onto these cows until they die of old age, and pay to have the carcass taken away (a legal requirement); sell to a farmer within the ‘homekill market’ (or homekill ourselves); or sell them to the freezing works.
Homekilling ourselves isn’t the best plan right now. We don’t have a freezer for it, and leaving one cow out in the paddock without her friends while we sort that out is just mean. Personally, I’d rather have a way to sell this meat directly to you, my readers. You’re my family and my friends. I’d much rather supply top-quality meat to New Zealanders who want to know exactly where their steak came from, and that it lived a good life.
It’s about as sustainable as beef can be. They do us more of a service than we do them. But the layers of legislation to butcher and sell meat ourselves are quite overwhelming. Maybe I’ll figure it out by the time our new cows are coming of age, but I’ve got enough to think about right now. And the right time for these cows is now.
Bolognaise, Lasagne, Rendang, and Ragu have had pretty good lives here at The Outpost. They have friends, they have fun, they have lots to eat. Over the last year, we’ve learned their personalities and cared for them by managing pasture, setting fences, cleaning troughs, and supplying supplements. They’ve had minimal impact on the land as there are so few of them. Within the current system, I think we’ve done our best.
So later today, they will be leaving us. And then the stock agent will help sort us with a new herd. Our farm will get a small but significant improvement, and we’ll be stocked at a rate that will hopefully be appropriate for the coming seasons.
This whole thing is new to me, but we’re going with it and learning. We know we are doing a thing farmers all over the country do every day, and we know we’ve done a good job. But it will still be sad to say goodbye.