The journey of raising beef is among the most complex of any food. Due in part to their changing nutritional needs throughout their lifetime, beef cattle often times will change hands and ownership up to three or four times, over the course of one and a half to three years, as they move through their various life stages.
Across this process, however, one important thing remains constant – and that’s the beef community’s shared commitment to raising cattle in a safe, humane and environmentally sustainable way. Working together, each segment of the beef lifecycle aims to make the best use of vital natural resources like land, water and energy – not just for today, but also for the future. The result is a delicious and nutritious food you can feel good about serving your family and friends.
Let’s explore how beef gets from pasture to plate in Arizona.
Raising beef begins with ranchers who maintain a herd of cows that give birth to calves once a year. When a calf is born, it typically weighs 60 to 100 pounds. Over the next few months, each calf will live off its mother’s milk and graze on forages from the rangeland. Ranches in Arizona are typically large in land area because of our dry, arid climate. Ranchers are committed to caring for their animals and the land on which they are raised.
Calves are weaned from their mother’s milk at 6 to 10 months of age when they weigh between 450 and 700 pounds. This can be done several ways with one option called fence line weaning. This means the cows are on one side of the fence and the mother cows are on the other side. They aren’t able to nurse but can still be closer to the cow, making it a less stressful situation. These calves continue to graze on pastures and may begin receiving a small amount of supplemental plant-based feed for extra energy and protein to help them grow and thrive.
Stocking and Backgrounders:
After weaning, cattle continue to grow and thrive by grazing on grass, forage and other plants with ranchers providing supplemental feed including vitamins and minerals to meet all of their nutritional needs.
Livestock Auction Markets:
After weaning and/or during the stocker and backgrounder phase, cattle may be sold at livestock auction markets.
Mature cattle are often moved to feedyards. Here cattle typically spend 4 to 6 months. They are free to graze at feed bunks containing a carefully balanced diet made up of roughage (such as hay and grass), grain (such as corn, wheat and soybean meal) and local renewable feed sources. Veterinarians, nutritionists and pen riders work together to provide individual care for each animal.
Once cattle reach market weight (typically 1,200 to 1,400 pounds at 18 to 22 months of age), they are sent to a packing plant (also called a processing facility). United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors oversee the implementation of safety, animal welfare and quality standards from the time animals enter the plant until the final beef products are shipped to grocery stores and restaurants.
I consider myself fortunate to have been raised in the farming and ranching community. Growing up, I’ve watched this group of people that grow and raise our country’s food do so with dedication and passion for the land they care for, the animals they are raising, and the people they are feeding.
My family runs an agritourism farm and cattle ranch called Mortimer Farms and Ranches in Dewey, Arizona. I get to call myself the Marketing Manager for our family’s farm which means I write blog posts, post lots of exciting news, events, and stories on our social media channels, design flyers, billboards, and signs, and handle all public relation topics. I also get to drive tractors, teach kiddos how to pick veggies, plant crops, take pictures, watch baby cows walk for the first time, and work cattle. I seriously have the best job ever! After I graduate from the University of Arizona in December, I hope to work for a non-profit agriculture organization in their marketing and public relations department as well as continuing to work on my family’s farm and ranch. Now let’s talk about the good stuff… cattle!
The past months have been the driest on record for many Northern areas of Arizona. Yavapai County, the area we call home, has received less than 30% of the normal rainfall this year. At one-point, homes in Prescott Valley were even asked to cut water usage, do laundry on scheduled days, and water their lawns and plants on others. The decrease in the rain doesn’t only affect homeowners. The drought has greatly impacted farmers, ranchers and can potentially affect our food supply.
Our farm and ranch are greatly affected by the drought. Our water pumping costs have gone up drastically and our cattle just about ran out of grass to eat.
I remember a Sunday afternoon not too long ago when we went out to check cows. Everything looked dead and the grass was just about all eaten down. It is at this point, in a normal year, we would move the cattle to the next pasture – a pasture filled with tall grasses, new growth, and a filled stock tank from which the cattle could drink. Unfortunately, mother nature foiled our plans and that next pasture, the one we had planned to move cattle to since the beginning of the year, had no water. The stock tank was dry. And the pasture which was next in the rotation for our cattle to graze didn’t look any better.
Due to the drought and lack of grass and water, we were forced to sell 95% of our calf crop from the last 2 years, move a 10,000-gallon portable water storage tank and trough system to the pasture with no water, buy an Army water truck, and found ourselves hauling water day in and day out to the cattle.
The Army water truck driving job was passed from one member of the family to the next. At one point my dad and I were driving down the road and we saw the big truck driving past us, but there was no driver to be seen. We soon realized Kolten, my little brother, was driving the truck and was just short enough that we couldn’t see him over the steering wheel.
It was a daily team effort hauling water and hay, pushing cows into new areas with more feed, and finding the baby calves that were left behind, usually in the dense brush.
I never had much time to plan if I am needed to help move these calves and I somehow always seem to be wearing shorts when I got the call. My job (with the help of my cattle dog – Stella) is to run through the thick bush and push the calves out and back with the herd. Now picture me running through, under, and jumping over dense, pokey, dead brush with shorts on. For weeks my legs looked like I was attacked by a feral cat.
Hauling water, hay, and moving cattle was only a short-term solution to a long-term problem. As each day passed, we watched the grass quality deteriorate and eventually get close to depletion in the pasture the cattle were grazing. Each pasture lasted less time and just when we moved the cattle into a new one it was time to move them somewhere else again. We either needed to figure out a way to provide food and water to our cattle in a more sustainable fashion or we needed to sell them.
My dad, Gary, is a big proponent of using the latest technology and practices in his job as a farmer and a rancher. The challenges the drought brought to our business were no different. He used technology and modern practices to combat the effects the drought had on our cattle and on the bottom line. We implemented a grazing technique, very uncommon in Arizona, called intensive grazing.
This practice puts cattle on small sections of land. The cattle eat all the forages in a short amount of time and then are moved to the next section. We decided to utilize the farmland we were going to grow hay on to implement this type of grazing. We began by planting and growing 30 acres of sorghum-sudangrass. We then, through trial and error, sectioned off one-acre areas by taking a small tractor diagonally across the field with the bucket of the tractor scraping the ground. The tractor pushes down the 15 feet tall grass to make room for a 2-strand temporary electric fence to be put up.
After this is done, it is time for the cattle to eat all this grass! 300 cattle are put on this one-acre section of farm-grown sorghum-sudangrass. The cattle enter the section and in one day the entire acre of 15-foot-tall grass is gone. It is like a buffet for cows! At this point, 15 minutes is taken to move the 2-strand electric fence to make a new one-acre section, the gate is opened, 300 cattle move into the next section, and the process starts all over again.
The cattle know the system now and wait by the gate as we move the fencing around. The whole herd of cattle runs into the next section and for a few hours disappear in the very tall grass. It is really is a site to see!
I asked my dad about the benefits of this type of grazing for the farm and the cattle.
Why did you decide to do this type of grazing, besides the drought impact? We are able to grow a crop and not have to use labor, resources, or money to harvest this crop. If we had grown hay in these same fields we would have spent lots of resources cutting, baling, hauling, storing, and then ultimately feeding it to the same cattle that are eating it straight from the field now.
Is sorghum sudangrass good for the cattle? Sorghum-sudangrass is a protein-rich grass for the cattle to eat. It also adds nutrients back into the soil.
Will you only use this grazing practice on sorghum sudangrass? High-intensity grazing can be done in corn fields, sorghum-sudangrass fields, ditches, sorghum alfalfa blend fields, in native grass pastures, and pretty much everywhere else grasses and grains grow.
How does this gazing affect the farmland? Intensive grazing not only combats the lack of range grasses my family’s ranch has but it also helps the farmland. Each crop grown in a field takes specific nutrients out of the field and puts specific nutrients back into the soil. Due to this, farmers rotate where they grow certain things (i.e. corn, pumpkin, grasses, etc.). The grass grown for the intensive grazing practice not only added a crop to our rotation but also adds more nutrients back into the soil. It also helps with the fertilization of our farmland. The higher density of cattle paired with short grazing periods allows for even manure distribution and an increase of nitrogen back on the land. The cattle act as a living fertilizing system!
How does this grazing affect the ranch lands? Higher intensity grazing for a shorter duration allows for a longer rest period for the plant to recover fully which promotes the regrowth and in turn, is beneficial for the environment and for the cattle.
Is there anything negative about this type of grazing method? Anyone would see this type of grazing method as a different management system. This scares some people away from change because there is so much to learn and implement. Overall, the benefits of this program for the land and the animals outweigh the efforts that would need to be taken to implement the program.
Do you see yourself using this practice after the drought is over and the grasses have grown back on the ranch? Many ranches in the cattle belt use this type of grazing to increase their herd size which in turn positively affects their bottom line. This type of grazing is definitely something we will continue to work with and add to our long-term plan for our native range grazing and our crop grazing.
Intensive grazing saved our cattle herd and our ranch’s bottom line! This way of grazing and feeding our cattle has allowed us to keep ranching through the drought and continue our efforts to care for and protect our animals and the land we raise them on. This is a job that my family and I love very much, and we consider ourselves extremely fortunate to be able to raise cattle and care for the land.
In June, sixteen culinary experts from across the country got a taste of the beef industry during the Pasture to Plate Beef Tour, sponsored by beef councils in California, Colorado, Arizona, Oklahoma and Texas. Invited to the checkoff-funded event were the culinary chairs responsible for the 28 International Culinary Schools at the Art Institutes across the country. The non-profit Art Institutes operate the largest system of culinary schools in the United States.
The tour featured a visit to a cow-calf ranch, feedlot and the JBS beef processing facility in northern Colorado, along with presentations from beef experts that helped the culinary leaders understand beef’s role in a sustainable food system, and ideas for incorporating sensory and beef umami exercises into their classrooms. Attendees also had an opportunity to participate in a beef cooking competition that demonstrated their culinary talents.The spark for development of this tour was generated last fall during the California Beef Council’s Beef Leadership Summit, according to the CBC’s Christie Van Egmond, director of retail and foodservice marketing, who helped organize the tour. At that time Dave Hendricksen, the national culinary director for the Art Institutes, expressed interest in giving the Institutes’ culinary leaders more backgrounding in the beef industry.
“This is a great way to connect the next generation of chefs with those who produce the food,” Hendricksen said. He said it was “critical” that information this type of event provides gets carried down from the participating culinary leaders to the students in culinary schools studying to be chefs or operation managers.Standing out to those attending the tour was the well-being of animals throughout the process, Hendricksen said. “The constant theme of this event was animal welfare and the care for the environment,” he said. “It was amazing.”
Arizona is home to the Arts Institute of Phoenix that includes a large culinary program. The Arizona Beef Council sponsored Chef Noel Ridsdale, culinary program chair, to attend the national tour. Here is Chef Noel’s feedback about his experience.
I want to express my deepest gratitude to the Arizona Beef Council for sponsorship of my attendance at the beef checkoff-funded Pasture to Plate Beef Tour for the Art Institutes (AI). This experience was very educational and collaborative in the ways that we were able to connect with the beef council professionals, as well as with each of the AI national directors individually.The tour started on a high note with a tour of a Colorado ranch, with some great knowledge shared by the breeders on how the cattle are treated, the process for the birthing and production management. The aspects of feed analysis and herd health were very interesting. We had dinner on the ranch, and the chef turned out to be an alum of AI, and his selection of items and ways to use beef was very good.
The trip to the packing plant was very interesting. I have been in Certified Angus Beef processing facilities before but never in a mainline producer. This was one of the highlights of the tour for me. I was very interested in the sanitation, inspection process and the zero waste production aspects of the tour. I cut meat myself, but my skills do not match the speed and accuracy of the cutters on the floor there. Watching the entire process enlightened me to the accuracy and technical aspects of production but at the same time still marveled at the human element that is still involved in the process.The science of the feedlot was interesting, and it was great to see that the industry is using green technology by utilizing byproducts of other industries, such as the beer industry. This use of their byproducts as opposed to just corn would add more flavor to the beef.
The presentations on the science of beef and the practical cooking aspects were very good, and our recipes will be featured on www.BeefItsWhatsForDinner.com soon. Overall, experiencing these aspects of beef production gave me additional knowledge that I am able to utilize in my classrooms.
Thank you very much for the opportunity!
Noel G. Ridsdale, MBA, CEC, CCA, AAC
Program Chair – AI Phoenix
Editor’s Note: The Art Institute of Phoenix is closing December 28, 2018 due to unfortunate circumstances. The Arizona Beef Council is glad to have met Chef Noel and we look forward to working with him in his next ventures.
Amber Morin was raised on her family’s cattle ranch in Southeastern, AZ. This experience sparked her interest and career path in natural resource management, agricultural policy, and agriculture communications. She has worked with the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association, Arizona’s Natural Resource Conservation Districts, and continues to promote agriculture through her current position at the Arizona Farm Bureau. Whenever time permits, she is back at the ranch helping her family run their beef business, running trails in preparation for “fun runs,” or writing.
Here are her thoughts on the urban agriculture divide and why we are all more alike than different.
Agriculture has been taking place for the last 10,000 years, and yet, ranchers and farmers are now the minority? What the heck happened?
With agriculture, humans traded the harsh uncertainty of nomadic life for the somewhat more predictable and controllable agrarian lifestyle. An improvement, for sure. In exchange for their time and dedication to caring for plants and animals, humans were afforded more abundant food supplies, health, wealth, leisure, and the ability to trade for goods that could not be grown in their home climates. In short, agricultural abundance improved lives. It still does.
All of this happened because humans are smart, they experiment, they adapt, and find answers to questions, sometimes out of curiosity and most of the time out of necessity. Agriculture changed the way humans live and it wasn’t long before humans all over the world were adapting to agriculture methods on some level. This took place for 10,000 years, and yet, in a mere two centuries, the same curiosity and/or necessity also brought about another rapid change, the movement away from agrarian lifestyles to industrial lifestyles, and now to what pessimists call virtual lifestyles and optimists call entrepreneurial lifestyles.
To break the rapid change down for the readers who love numbers, in 1790, about 90% of the American workforce was related to agriculture. In 1890, that number had dropped to about 43%. In 1990 about 2.6% of the population’s workforce was related to agriculture. Now that number has dropped to about 2%. As people moved out of rural America to pursue an improved lifestyle in urban areas, agricultural advancements have made it possible for 2% of the population to feed the masses.
Why is this important? While about 2% of the population clothes and feeds us, we can do other things with our lives and pursue other careers, and not worry about where our next meal is going to come from. If it were not for ranchers and farmers, most of us would be struggling like the unfortunate souls on the show Naked and Afraid! Although I must admit, there are some very tough people that participate! But, would anyone really want to live that way? Or, go hungry because their backyard garden failed due to a pest infestation? I know what my answer is: an emphatic, no!
Thanks to the ingenuity of agriculturalists, technological advancements and improvements in the industry, and the dedication and care that agriculturalists have for their businesses, we live great lives without a lot of worries. The few feed the many. And, it takes an insurmountable amount of dedication to thrive in the agricultural industry when things like global markets, local markets, weather, genetics, natural resources, financial constraints, and the unpredictability of caring for crops and livestock are just a few of the challenges. Being an agriculturalist requires a high degree of intelligence, resilience, and faith in oneself, in the future, and in the process.
My own dad knew this when he said to both my sister and me, “You can always come back, but you can’t always leave.” This was a gentle but very blatant way of telling us, this path takes grit and serious dedication, so go and experience life before you make the commitment to come back and manage the ranch. And, when you come back, bring what you have learned to make it better. Like all parents, ours wanted the best for my sister and me. They encouraged us to grow, learn, and improve.
So, when I asked the question, what the heck happened? How did Americans get so far removed from agriculture? It’s simple and it’s practical. Like the nomadic lifestyle, the agrarian lifestyle was not easy. It is still not easy, so Americans changed, and the industrial revolution which made promises of wealth and lifestyle improvements spurred that change. It was the anticipation of an improved future that moved most people out of rural America and into urban centers. At the end of the day, no one can be blamed for trying to improve one’s life or that of their loved ones.
Today’s “entrepreneurial revolution” coined by Seth Godin promises an even better future for Americans, as the ability to market goods, build wealth, and have more control of our lives is at our fingertips via smartphones.
This same optimism has spurred the technological advancements and environmental improvements in agriculture. We want to improve, be more precise, waste less and have more controlled data-driven outcomes. In the case of food production, doing our best is a necessity because we are not just feeding our families, and yours, with less labor and inputs, we are also feeding the world. Doing less than our best, with so many people who trust us for a safe and reliable food supply, is simply not an option.
Just as the public has always been looking to improve, agriculturalists have too!
The reality is, we are all working toward the same goal – to do our best!
This week we are excited to introduce to you Mark Rovey of Rovey Dairy. Mark is a current board member of the Arizona Beef Council and is the animal manager at his family’s farm in Glendale, Arizona. Enjoy learning about this unique farm!
Arizona Beef Council: Tell us a little bit about yourself, your family and about your dairy:
Mark Rovey: I’ve been managing the animals (this includes dairy cattle, beef cattle, dairy sheep, meat sheep, Watusi cattle, buffalo, llamas, and a donkey named Cinco) for 6 years. I gained experience in this role by helping my dad or other managers in the years prior. Basically, this is my life. I don’t really do anything else. This is what I do. Beef cattle, dairy cattle, sheep, something with the Watusis on the weekend.
Currently, on the dairy, we milk 2,000 Jersey cows. The dairy was started in 1943. It was a Jersey dairy when my grandpa owned and ran it. My father, Paul Rovey, bought the dairy from my grandpa in the 70’s and converted it to Holstein dairy cows. In the early 90s, late 80s, he then started transitioning back to Jerseys. This started as a rogue 4H experiment because my older sister was starting to show animals and he wanted something more manageable for her to handle. He kept a few in the milking herd and liked them so much he just kept buying more and selling the Holsteins. We’ve been back to 100% Jerseys for the last 6 years. We only have one token Holstein left.
Diversification is an important part of our farm which is easily seen as you walk around our property. One our newest projects is running a herd of milking sheep. Our goal is to turn the sheep’s milk into cheese and sell it at our upcoming local store and around the valley.
How does the technology you use now differ from the technology that was passed down to you or that previous generations may have used?
One of the most important technologies is we now use is artificial insemination. This practice allows us to make a better animal by selecting and using the best bulls from across the country versus being limited to the bulls who are nearby.
Another technology we harness is the power of cooling systems. As soon as the sun comes up, we have fans and misters in all pens and those go on. If it’s above 80 degrees, we’re cooling our animals. Genetics help us with this too as we can select for animals who tolerate the heat more efficiently. We can turn cooling on a littler later in the year because the Jerseys can efficiently handle the heat.
Record keeping is another important one. All the cows have an electronic identification tag in their ears which allows us to use a wand to scan each cow which transfers to a hand-held computer. The wand will tell us if we need to do something with that cow if she is in the wrong pen or many other useful bits of information. Once you scan an animal with the wand, a wealth of information appears on the hand-held computer such as when she was born, her mom, how much milk she is giving, how much milk her mom gave, health issues and so much more. This helps us to keep extremely accurate records and eliminates the chance for human error when recording this information.
What are some common misconceptions that you think people may have about the way your raise your cows?
One of the most common misconceptions I hear is there is a chance of antibiotics being in milk. Every single load of milk which leaves our place is sampled not once but up to five times for quality and measuring of antibiotic residue. We take two samples here at our farm before it leaves. Then when it gets to United Dairymen of Arizona (UDA – a milk marketing cooperative owned by Arizona dairy families) before it gets unloaded, there are least two more samples taken. All those samples are tested before it’s taken off the milk truck. Each tank of milk is tested for quality and somatic cell count to ensure the milk is of the highest quality. If there is one cow which was given antibiotics and her milk somehow gets into a milk truck, even if there are 50,000 pounds of milk in that tank, it still flags it which means the entire tank of milk would be dumped and not used. If there is any antibiotic residue in the milk, it will get dumped, and there is no way around it. So many great things have happened with regards to milk quality over the years to ensure it is an incredibly safe product. Milk is tested more than any other food product.
What is the most important thing that you do on your dairy and farm every day to make sure you are raising safe beef for the consumer?
The job I make sure I do every single day is ensuring all the animals we are responsible for having everything they need. If they need shade, feed or water, I make sure they have those things. If our animals are healthy, we’re not spending money to make them healthy. The easiest way to ensure they stay healthy is to give them a healthy, clean environment with good feed. It makes our whole world easier if they just start in a good environment where they are healthy.
Training is another important component. The training helps our employees to know what the medicines and protocols are if they need to use them. It’s only reasonable to understand there will be a few animals who need to be treated but we need to make sure the employees know how to deal with the illness to ensure a quick recovery for our cows. They are trained on how to give the right dosage and how that medicine should be administered.
We train all of our employees using the National Dairy FARM Program which is a quality assurance program to ensure the best possible care and handling of dairy cows. We hold meetings twice a month to keep up on the skills we’ve learned using this program. This is important to ensure everyone knows how to handle cattle in the best way possible.
What is the most important piece of information that you would want people to know about you and the work you do on your dairy every day?
We’re here to have a business and make enough money to live. But to be able to do that we must take care of the animals so they stay healthy, can produce wholesome milk, and stay happy all while still making a living. Sometimes it’s hard work, but it’s worth it. We work to keep the animals healthy, ensure the product is high quality, and to keep doing what we’ve been doing for a long time.
How do you interact with your community?
My cousins started showing cattle back in the 80s and my dad noticed most people had to go out of state to buy their steers. They were spending a lot of money and not making anything back after the fair was over. He started buying beef cows and breeding them for show cattle. My cousins, siblings, and even kids from the surrounding neighborhood and schools benefited from this decision. A lot of the kids from the surrounding neighborhood didn’t have any sort of agriculture background. In fact, many of them lived in apartments and had never even owned a cat or dog. My dad would get them a steer, allow them to raise it here at the dairy, and teach them how to do the work required to prepare a steer for the show ring. Through this process, these kids would get an experience in raising and showing an animal while being surrounded by all sorts of agriculture. Some kids couldn’t afford this project so he would give the kids the steer and let them raise it on the property. Then after the fair, the kids would pay back the price of the steer and feed. They would make a little bit of money and leave with a good experience of agriculture. That was his goal. He figured these kids would end up being doctors, lawyers, politicians, etc., and they would have a good, firsthand experience with agriculture with the hope that they would come back to him with questions in the future instead of just looking it up on the internet.
In 2007, I took over the beef cows. I bred differently and kept more heifers back. In the last ten years, our show cattle program has come a long way. We still work with kids on payment plans and paying after fair, but those kids who also want to be competitive, can still come and buy something they can do well with here. It’s just getting better and better but still with the idea of helping kids out. What really matters to us is they can get a good project and learn something about animal agriculture from that animal.
If you could describe in one word the life of a dairyman, what would it be?
Interesting (he said with a chuckle).
Lastly and of course most importantly, what is your favorite cut of beef and how do you like to prepare it?
My favorite beef is anything directly off the grill. No plate or anything. Just standing next to the grill, grabbing a piece and eating it right there. It doesn’t matter what cut of beef it is as longs as it’s fresh off the grill. Carne Asada directly off the grill is perfect. It’s the whole atmosphere of a cookout with friends and family that makes it even better.