Well, our cows aren’t holy. They were just a little skinny when we got them.
I’ve done a lot of research and thinking about cows over the past year. I’ve read a lot of books about grass fed beef production, cattle breeds, and rotational grazing practices. I’ve visited websites good and bad and farms large and small to check out different breeds and practices.
As listed in a post from before we even bought the farm (click here to read the whole thing) the breeds I have been researching and thinking about all along were: Belted Galloways, Red Polls, Pineywoods, Longhorns, Highlands, Murray Greys, Charolais, and Brahman. I also considered Angus, but Angus have become so popular that they are like Dalmations after a Disney movie – you can’t find good ones because lots of people are just breeding black cows together and calling them Angus.
I finally decided that Red Polls would be the best breed for us.
The Red Poll is a dual purpose breed from England that once enjoyed a prominent role in the dairy industry because of the large amount of quality milk they could produce. Prior to the advent of the modern Holstein, the Red Poll held many all-breed records for milk production. Since the introduction of the Holstein, the Red Poll has almost gone extinct – especially in North America. The few remaining proponents of the breed started to improve the Red Poll’s already strong meat characteristics in an effort to save the breed. They have been successful at creating an ideal grass-fed beef animal, but the breed still teeters towards extinction. Red Polls are listed as Threatened by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy with fewer than 1,000 head in the US and less than 5,000 head worldwide.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any breed of livestock – you just have to find the breed that you think will perform best under your management in your environment. The Red Polls had a combination of traits that matched up well with our desire to produce beef on grass and hay only without feed, antibiotics, hormones, and other props and crutches. The Red Poll breed are very fertile – which is the most important trait of all because without a new calf to work with every year all of the other traits become moot. They are easy calving because their calves are small at birth. The calves grow very quickly and in several studies I read Red Polls led all breeds in 205-day calf weight per cow bred. The cows are able to do this because their breed history in the dairy industry means that they can produce large quantities of milk. The breed is known for being docile, which is an important characteristic for us since we move our cattle every day. We want protective mothers, but not aggressive cattle. We get that with the Red Poll breed. The breed is also moderate in size (cows around 1200 lbs and bulls around 1800 lbs), giving them the ability to fatten and marble on grass alone. They are one of only a handful of breeds that can finish to Choice on grass. Red Polls are reknowned for the tenderness and quality of the beef they produce.
Having decided that Red Polls were the breed for us, we now had to find a breeder around us for this threatened breed of cattle. There are 3 or 4 Red Poll breeders in Kentucky, but our golden opportunity came when I discovered that the National Red Poll Sale was happening in early September in Danville (only 45 minutes from us). So I downloaded the sales catalog and studied all of the lots for sale. This meant I had to learn a whole new code for cattlemen. BWs, EPDs, YWs, WWs, MWs, MM – all with numbers to go along with them. I also looked at the sale prices of all of the lots from the previous national sales and examined the average sales price for bulls, heifers, bred cows, cow-calf pairs, etc. After a few days of research, examination, and thought, I picked out about 6 lots that I thought we should be interested in.
All of the lots I picked out were young bred cows (under 5 years old) with heifer calves at their sides. That means for each “lot” we buy we are getting a mature cow, a young heifer who can breed in a year, and an unborn cow of an unknown gender. Basically 3 cows in 1 lot. From looking at the sales figures from the previous couple of years, I thought that if we could get a bred cow-calf pair for $1700 or less, then we should go for it.
So I took $3500 out of the bank, borrowed a livestock trailer from our neighbors the Beachys, and Lindsey and I hit the road for Danville.
Since Lindsey is a much better writer than I am, what follows is her account of a first-time visit to a cattle auction:
Before I retell the glory of the cattle auction let me first announce that it was at the cattle auction where some foreign particle lodged itself in my eye resulting in a unique condition called pingueculitis. Several weeks and a round of steroids later, my eyes are fine. I don’t blame the cows.
For those of you who have never been to a cattle auction, imagine sitting in a primitive movie theater made of concrete and wood. In the front where the screen should be instead is a stage covered in hay. On either side of the stage are gates, and behind and above the stage, like a judges bench, stands the place where the auctioneer sits. Because cattle auctions are glamorous there is a teenaged crown princess of the particular breed of bovine you are shopping for, in this case Red Polls, who circulates through the crowd in jeans, ropers, and a tiara. Everyone else is pretty casual. You know it is time to begin when the auctioneer gets up on his post and starts introducing people. In order to bid you need a number which a nice lady gives you if you ask her. Once the auction starts everything goes by in a blur. Like an episode of “King of the Hill” it is very hard to understand the important people. The auctioneer sounds like Boomhauer and makes humorous cow related jokes at lightning speed. To bid you nod at, yelp at, or wave your number at a man standing in front of the stage near the section where you are sitting. He yelps real loud and that counts as your bid. If someone else yelps loud then you have to bid again, if no one else yelps then you won. Geoff did an expert job of jumping in and nodding appropriately. We walked away with the exact cow/calf pairs that we wanted. I will have to go to two or three more auctions before I feel comfortable throwing my yelp into the ring. Cattle auctions are definitely a feast for the senses.
Okay, Geoff’s back.
We ended up getting the two bred cow-calf pairs that were #1 and #2 on my wish list for $1500 and $1550. The first cow is a 3-year-old and the second cow is a 2-year-old, so both have many productive years ahead of them. Yes, expensive but well below the threshold I had established before bidding started. A pretty good deal, too, judging from current cattle prices and previous sales figures from this very sale. One bit of advice though – go into an auction with a set limit in mind. It is designed to feed on people’s competitive nature and some people were going all “Storage Wars” in there and ended up paying far more than they wanted to.
Coincidentally, we were sitting behind the rancher and his wife who owned the cattle pairs that we bought. Simpson M. Calhoun from Ohio. He is a super nice man and seems to have very good Red Polls. Highly recommend him if anyone in the Ohio area is looking for Red Polls.
After the auction we loaded up our 4 new charges into the livestock trailer and drove them back home. We backed the trailer up to the portable electric fencing defining the current goat paddock, moved the fence slightly, and opened the trailer gate for the cattle to exit. After a moment’s hesitation and disorientation, all four cows began grazing the lush grass. The goats appeared to be more stressed than the cattle. If a goat could exclaim, then ours all did when they saw the size of their new paddock-mates.
Since they are registered, our cattle do have fancy schmancy registered names like SMC B Vella’s 130 and WW670 Babe’s 904. That’s too much of a mouthful for Lindsey and I, so we tried to think of another way to name them. I suggested that we could name them after Kentucky counties. That strategy would keep us in names for a long time. So we named the 3-year-old cow Laurel and her calf Larue. The 2-year-old cow is Marion and her calf is Magoffin. They are damned glad to meet you.