Friday, February 28, 2014

"Cowmunes" and the difference between a small farm and an industrialized one

Perspective is everything. Growing up it didn’t seem weird to me that we left our cows alone and only medicated them if they were sick or injured. I didn’t realize that on other farms people would feed them things other than hay, grass, and trace minerals. Okay, and sweet feed to the bull that one time when I was eight and my mom had a heart attack because I was petting him and hand feeding him his “treat”  and I never did it again because she yelled so much. Of course, that was also the year that I learned I shouldn’t share my bologna sandwich and sugar cookies with my horse, despite her love of them. But that is a whole other story. Growing up our cattle operation went something like: check them, count them, and leave them be until round up day.

Apparently that is progressive. I’ve been reading a lot about the benefits of grass fed beef. Not only is it more nutritionally sound than what you would buy at the store, but it also is better for the cows. Go figure. That’s the way we have been doing it my entire life.
We joke amongst ourselves that we have a “cowmune.” The momma’s share calves. Any calf can walk up to any cow with milk and nurse at their pleasure. Heifers “babysit” groups of five or seven little ones while the mothers go for a swim in the lake. I have to walk up and poke the cows to get them to move out of my way when I am bringing them their round bales. The old gals live out their lives surrounded by generations of their daughters and sisters. Most of them have never been vaccinated, eaten anything other than a grass derivative, or required medical treatment. They wander at their will through woods and fields munching on whatever tidbit that takes their fancy. They come to the barn and moo their displeasure with the grass hay until dad or I go up in the barn loft to throw them a few bales of alfalfa hay, or let them in the yard so that they can munch on the grass on the other side of the fence.

Seriously, if cows could play drums, there would be a circle going. Someone would have found their spirit guide by now.

Even our two bulls don’t fight much. Instead they bellow back and forth like two little old men discussing the news over their coffee cups. Give them some tie dye, because this is not what a “farm” is supposed to look like.
At least not the industrialized monsters that raise most of the cows that wind up on super market shelves. Line those babies up and run them through a squeeze chute because when you are being finished in a feed lot you’re going to get sick without a bunch of vaccines and antibiotics. Preventative medicine is where it is at when you are cramming everyone on top of each other. I get that. Cows eating candy instead of grass? (If you don’t believe me check out this article on CNN. This practice has been happening for awhile. I have even heard of them being fed leftover tacos!) That I have a harder time with, but I guess even the big time farmers have to have their margins so that they can eat too. Right? Where is the balance between doing what is right for your animals and land, and making a profit? Land prices are outrageous, and the taxes on them aren’t cheap. Even with the subsidies that the new farm bill gives to large scale farmers. It lays out plenty of hoops that are expensive to jump through too.

That’s one of the reasons why grass fed is so much higher in the grocery store. Not only are grass fed animals slower growing, usually, you are paying more to help a small scale farmer survive without selling out to one of the big boys. After reading about everything that happens to cows in industrialized feed lots I started looking into grass fed operations where we could sell our cows. I found that all of the local operations operate on less than 500 acres. Which is pretty freaking cool. Small scale farms are slowly disappearing from the United States, and with them the other “cowmunes” of the world. I love our hippie cows. I’m pretty psyched about doing my part to help them survive. Are you?

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