Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Organic Calves Do Not Grow On Trees


Recently a customer of ours expressed concern over the increase in our price per pound for the beef she had ordered awhile back. At the time she called we were selling it for $4.75 a pound hanging weight.

Who could blame her?

We all have to keep track of what we are paying for our food, but more importantly WHY we pay what we do. Being good stewards of whatever funds we have available to feed ourselves and our families is an important task.

So, in order to help her and others I thought I would dedicate this post to the cost of certified organic beef.

Yesterday for example Keith and I took a leisurely road trip up to Blanchardville, Wisc. for two Red Wattle gilts (I'll post on them later) and then back through Ridott, IL to pick up calves. The calves are needed to meet our ever increasing customer demand for organic grass fed beef and because our dairy is small, ( just 10-12 milking heifers at any one time) and because cows only give birth to one calf per year (multiple births are very rare) we needed to purchase more calves.

These 10 calves we bought cost us $1.25 per pound live weight and they averaged 200 pounds each. Some were a couple weeks old  and some were up to three months old.

We would love to be able to buy them closer to home but JKB farms is the closest source of certified organic calves we have found. Plus we really like their farm practices. Round trip it is 400 miles which equates to about 7 hours of road time since 60 mph is the average speed when you are pulling a heavy livestock trailer.

Add to that, time to eat and get gas.

Add to that the cost of gas. Mileage on our 12 year old Ford F-150 is less than 15mpg especially when you are hauling over 2000 pounds of live calves plus those 2 big gilts !  Then of course was the time to load, unload, put on calf collars, tag ears, and settle into hutches at 10:30 at night. Although we did pay our hired hand $40 to do chores the morning we left we had to do chores that evening after getting calves home. Please note I did not include our meal costs because if I'd gotten my act together I would've packed up food from home.

And so just 24 hours into owning these 10 calves we have invested:

Calf price   10 at $1.25 per pound....$2025
Hired labor to do chores in am............$40
Fuel for truck round trip...................$ 205
Organic Bedding for truck.................$ 20
Organic bedding for hutches ..............$30
3 new milk buckets..............................$15
Calf 180 supplement for travel stress.  $5
First two Bottle Feeds (14 gallons)     $28
Our time.............................         Priceless

Total for first 24 hrs........................$2368

Now, to make things even more fun, another non-customer but a visitor to our farm last summer wondered about our beef prices since "grass is free isn't it?"

Oh people, how you make me chuckle. No, indeed, grass is not free on our farm. Cows need certain types of grasses in order to provide the right kind of nutrition they need to produce healthy beef. This means we often have to re-seed our pastures and those seed companies, those certified organic seed companies, because we cannot just plant any old seed, actually have the nerve to charge us for that seed. And here's the real kicker, grass does not grow in winter :) This means we must feed hay that we either have grown at a cost (machines to cut and bale hay. Labor to store it in barn. Labor to feed to beef animals) or purchased from another farmer (trucking costs now adding to hay cost.)

And as often as we have just left those bags of seed sitting in the yard, they have yet to plant themselves. That means the cost of the machines  and or labor and or these farmers time to do just that, plus the spreading of our well rotted manure over those fields in order to return to the soil the nutrients it needs to produce the grass needed to produce the beef.

Such a vicious cycle is it not?

To complicate even more...we only own 10 acres. We rent another 40 acres surrounding us in order to have lots of room for our animals. To protect our landlord's privacy I won't tell you the exact amount we pay but the average land rental in this area is $250 per acre per year.

Additionally of course is the year to year and 1/2 of care those animals require until they are butchering age. Lots more bedding and bottle feeding, those babies think they have to eat twice a day! Then it's into the pastures where we have to maintain fences and electric fence charges and shelters and waterers. Along the way we must continue with all the paperwork required by the National Organic Program and the fees that must be paid for all the meat we sell and the annual inspection which comes to about $1300 year.

Finally about 18 months after the little guys are born we can load them up into the livestock trailer again (think more bedding, gas and time) and take them to meet their (chuck roast) maker.

The cost of slaughtering and processing beef isn't free either.

I do hope I am not sounding defensive but rather providing education about what it really takes in time, labor and cash to raise a calf from cute stage to cube steak. I also hope it will make it a bit easier for you consumers to justify why you would prefer to pay your hard earned money for our hard earned beef. Sure you can buy cheaper beef at the grocery store if you choose but you might want to investigate how that animal is birthed, fed, raised, transported, slaughtered, packaged and kept in a frozen state on the back of a truck.

In the get what you pay for.


  1. A great explanation. I sometimes think that farming has more to do with education than we realize. I also wonder what the response your customers queries would have at the local superstore. That might be educational too- but in an entirely different way...

    1. Thanks Art! Most folks just want to think about the romantic, touchy feeling part of farming "oh look a tiny little baby cow" but the reality is, it is a business. And businesses do require work but even with that said, on the good days it can still be quite dreamy.

  2. A great explanation. I sometimes think that farming has more to do with education than we realize. I also wonder what the response your customers queries would have at the local superstore. That might be educational too- but in an entirely different way...

    1. Now since you commented twice do I respond twice? :)

  3. I was recently buying legs of New Zealand frozen Lamb for about 15 Euros a go. The same thing produced just down the road was costing about 28 Euros. I know I should have bought the locally produced Lamb, but.....

    1. It's not like we buy all local and all organic Cro, I mean no one around here makes homemade black licorice the way I adore, but we do make choices and its just good to be aware. But seriously don't get between me and my totally high sugared, completely bad for me licorice.

  4. Excellent article!! So many people give lip service to the need for humanely and sustainably produced meat, but then won't pay for it. They need to know it is more expensive to do things right!

  5. Thanks Janet. It is "popular" to eat local eat fresh but you are right in that people still want to eat cheap as well. So strange how they will not spend $10 for a really fresh yummy salad but will spend $100 for designer flip flops.

    1. Donna, I shared your post on my facebook page, and a reader posted this, which might interest you:

      When I read you get some hay from off-farm, a warning light went on. I got to believe you're buying organic, but just in case you hadn't heard... There are persistant herbicides that some hay suppliers use that can stunt or kill broadleaf plants. They have such a long half life, they can go thru the cows, thru the composting process, and still kill broadleaf plants. Especially if you're fertilizing your own fields with the compost. Here's a link to Joe Lampl's blog from Growing a Greener World: he discovered this problem the hard way, but we can all learn from it.

    2. Thank you Janet, appreciate the link very much. We do buy only certified organic feed, hay for cows, hay and grain for hogs and all from just one farmer. We have purchased from this farmer alone for the last 6 years. It is not that we believe organic is the only way to go but whatever you feed your livestock must be thoroughly investigated.

  6. thanks so much for posting this. We raise a herd of red angus cattle and recently sold a mom/baby pair (she was devil possessed I swear!) for $2100.00 I could not believe that she brought that much, but somebody really wanted her. We calved out 30 heifers this year and have been lucky enough to save all the babies. The crazies get sold...we don't have the patience for non-friendly stock!

    1. Saska, nor do we! If a mamma sows gets mean she becomes sausage and usually some fine tasting sausage at that! And the "value" of our livestock is about so much more than feed and labor. Good Temperament is priceless.

  7. This was a great read, Donna! It's such a shame that factory farms exist, and we as a nation have gotten so used to cheap meat from unhealthy animals that lived terrible lives. That makes it so much harder for people like yourselves, who are trying to make an honest living and do what's right for our agricultural system. If the people who balk at prices for organic, free range meat actually did the work and paid the expenses to get that meat, they would totally understand.


    1. Thank you Meredith. Fortunately for every customer who might verbalize their disbelief in our prices (which are actually still lower than other farms who raise animals like we do) we have another 30 customers who are very appreciative and supportive.

  8. Not many people can appreciate the cost, let alone the time, to bringing a hog or cow to slaughter size. Now I have learned much about the cost of organic farming.

    1. Well you know Susan, that's me. Just here to enlighten the world :)

  9. We only raise meat for our own use, but each time I think it could be a money maker and I put pen to paper, I realize there's a lot more to it.

    I know costs vary by region, but I'd totally jump at the chance to rent 40 acres of land for just $250 per acre per year. It'd be more than that per month here!

  10. As my grandfather once told me...people do not care about the Swans feet paddling feverishly beneath the water...they are only concerned with its beautiful white appearance on the surface.

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