Two paths: from calf to dinner plate

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cows looking
(Rachel Wagoner photo)

Christian Hoffman likes to keep things simple when it comes to his cattle. Feed, water and low stress. They live in basic, but clean, open-air barns. Straw bedding. Pens are cleaned once a week.

He’s also a bit of a control freak. He creates all of his cattle’s feed. Most of it comes from what the Hoffmans grow on the farm. The only thing they bring in is shredded beet pulp with molasses and spent brewers grains, a byproduct of brewing beer they source from BrewDog, a craft brewery in Columbus.

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Hoffman runs a feedlot and grain farming operation, in Fairfield County, Ohio. He’s raising about 750 head of cattle, as well as growing corn, soybeans, wheat, barley and sorghum with his father, Bob.

Like many farm operations in the state, the Hoffman farm is an amalgam of farm practices and marketing techniques.

The Hoffmans lean heavily on no-till for its conservation benefits, but they haven’t completely abandoned tillage. It has its place. And Christian Hoffman can tell you the benefits of genetically modified seeds, personally. It’s not just about weed control and better yields. It’s about time saved and better used.

“The only reason I got to see my dad at night growing up was because of Round-Up Ready corn,” he said.

Agriculture in Ohio is remarkably diverse, especially the beef industry. If you traveled the state, you could see almost every way to raise a calf to market weight and get it to customers. The Hoffmans’ feedyard is just one of those ways.

All the independent decisions along the way, made by each farmer, using various methods, add up to the same result for the consumer, generally: a roast on the dinner table. But the impact of those decisions stretch out far beyond people’s plates.

cows looking over fence
Two cows look over a guard rail in a barn at Christian Hoffman’s farm, in Fairfield, County, Ohio, June 19, 2020. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

Going to grass

A calf born on the Short Cattle farm, in Archbold, Ohio, will be raised on pasture and sold in bulk as a whole, half or quarter to local customers.

The Shorts have just over 100 acres on their Henry County farm, mostly in pasture now. Their fenced fields full of blooming clover and birdsfoot trefoil look different from their neighbors’ fields.

This flat, northwest corner of Ohio is row crop country, and it’s the start of the Corn Belt that stretches out across the Midwest.

“If there weren’t woods, you could see for miles and miles,” Ethan Short said.

Not so long ago, much of their acreage was in crops too. Mostly soybeans and wheat, but some corn too. That was until father-and-son team, Sam and Ethan Short, say they started listening to the land, instead of trying to impose their will on it.

Their soil is heavy clay. It can be as hard as concrete. The weather has to be perfect to get a good crop from it, and even then the yield will be far below other farmers’ in the area, Sam Short said.

“Every year, before it was time to go into the field, I’d be asking myself, why am I doing this, what’s the point?” he said. “I’d see a friend north of me doing the same thing getting way better yields than me … I started thinking, we need to use our resources for what they are.”

It started as an economical thing. They wanted to cut their costs. They always grazed the cows. Now they wanted to eliminate grain finishing and get all their stock on grass all the time.

They started converting acreage into pasture and grazing the whole herd of beef cattle in a management intensive system — smaller paddocks, frequent moves to new grazing areas.

The grain farming equipment went first. They sold it about four years ago. Two years later, the hay equipment left, “so we wouldn’t be tempted,” Ethan Short said. They were all in on forages.

“At that point, I couldn’t wait to get the rest of it into grass,” Sam Short said. “It was too much stress, trying to get crop in the ground, praying for good weather and then hoping the market would be good.”

guy reeling in fence
Sam Short reels up wire so his herd of cattle can move into a new section of pasture, at their farm near Archbold, Ohio, June 17, 2020. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

Make it better

For the Hoffman family, horses were the gateway to production agriculture. Christian Hoffman’s grandfather was a carpenter. Horses were a hobby.

His father was the first generation to farm the land. They made hay for the horses. That didn’t go too badly. So he tried his hands at corn. It escalated into grain farming and, eventually, a small cow-calf herd.

When Hoffman got out of college in 2008, they had a decision to make. If Hoffman wanted to come back to the farm after college, they’d need to expand and rent more land. They own 300 acres. A nearby aunt and uncle own another 100, and they rent about 900 acres.

Instead, Hoffman wanted something he could control using the land they had. For him, that was cattle.

“I realized that for both of us to stay here, I’m going to have to do something different or make it better,” Hoffman said.

Different looks like seven barns full of cattle. He buys them from auction barns after they’re weaned and raises them up to market weight.

Feedlots usually take in calves when they’re about 500 pounds. Hoffman takes the smaller ones, usually around 300 pounds. They’re more vulnerable — more of a risk — but also cost less than larger calves. So the return on investment is better in the end, and Hoffman has figured out how to care for them. About 90% of what he raises are heifers.

The calves eat mostly hay for the first three weeks they’re at the Hoffman farm. After that, they’ll go on to a custom feed ration — something like corn silage, spent brewers grains and barley.

He uses hormone implants on his cattle because it gives them a 10% boost in efficiency in growth. Might not seem like much, but 10% adds up when it’s a semi-load of cattle.

Cattle get fed first thing in the morning. Next on the list is any crop work that needs to be done. The Hoffmans double crop, so there’s always something in the ground.

While they’re proponents of no-till now, it wasn’t always that way. They didn’t see the benefit in it before, Hoffman said. They felt tillage gave them an additional yield. Then seed technology improved, as did equipment, and the financial and environmental benefits of no-till began to outweigh that of tillage.

Hoffman would love to graze his cattle, but it’s too costly. Where their farm is, just south of Columbus, land is expensive to rent and to buy.  They have issues with suburban sprawl.

To raise his cattle on pasture would leave no profit margin. That’s why he opted for a confined feeding operation, fueled by crops they were already growing on land they already had.

They use about 25% of the grain they grow to feed the cattle. It added another layer of diversity to their farm and enhanced profitability, he said.

He wants to keep doing things better, more efficiently, but never at the expense of care.

“You’ve got to get the job done, and got to get it done right,” Hoffman said. “But on the animal side of it, it needs to be done compassionately. Just because something is more efficient, if it’s not good for the animals, it’s not better.”

Selling it

Although it looks different, the Shorts and Hoffman are both in the business of putting pounds on cattle with the end goal of selling them to become someone’s meal.

The Shorts sell beef directly to customers, usually in bulk, although they also sell smaller packages of ground beef that come from older cows.

They usually sell bull calves to another farmer to feed out, keeping heifers to build the herd. If a yearling heifer doesn’t get bred, then she’ll be put on the path for the freezer when she’s around 2 years old.

Hoffman sells his cattle three different ways. He doesn’t want to put all of his eggs in one basket.

About half of it is through contracts with major packers — like Cargill, Tyson or National Beef.

About 40% is cash sales, still through the big packers. Sometimes, the forward contract pays out well, and other times, the cash deals work out better in their favor. It is a gamble, but it keeps the money flowing in from different areas.

The last 10% is freezer beef sold straight to local customers. His cattle finish out around 16 months.

Taking care

The Shorts have thought about selling their beef online and fetching a higher price per pound. But that would require them to get their cattle processed at a federally inspected facility. Those are few and far between in their area.

Right now, they’re just focused on building things up: soil health, genetics, infrastructure and their customer base.

“We farmed the ground to death,” Sam Short said, of how they ran things before. “So there was nothing there left to give to us. We just take, take, take.”

Going to a forage-based system has eliminated a lot of costs. They’re close to being able to graze year-round, without needing hay in the winter, Ethan Short said. When they do feed hay, they roll it out on the ground. That practice has improved poor pasture areas.

They move their herd of about 35 cattle every 12 hours during peak pasture season. Once before work, and once after. Sam drives a truck for a local feed company. Ethan works at a nearby meat processor. Mom, Janna, and Ethan’s wife, Michal, help out as needed, as does Ethan’s younger sister, Rachel, who still lives at home.

Grazing this way is less labor intensive, but there’s more mental labor involved with planning how to manage the grazing across the land. Still less stressful than crop farming though, Sam Short said.

One of the big hurdles to overcome was how they thought about waste, Sam Short said. They try to graze only the top third of the grass, leaving the rest to get trampled into the ground to fertilize the soil. They sold their round bale feeders, in favor of using extra hay left on the ground to build up their pastures.

“Our former mentality would have been, we’re wasting too much,” Sam Short said. “But really, you’re helping yourself out.”

The thought is that if they take care of the land, it will, in turn, take care of them down the road. Doing it this way takes time to see results, but the patience is paying off. The healthier their soil, the better forage quality. The better forage quality, the more efficiently their cattle put on pounds. It’ll all pay off in the end.

“Because we’re taking care of our soil first, the rest takes care of itself,” Sam Short said.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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