How One Okie Cattlemen Raises Beef

One of the most exciting things about agriculture is how vastly different every farmer and ranchers runs their operation.  A beef cattle farmer in Vermont raises their cattle very differently than a rancher in Wyoming or Florida, neither are right and neither are wrong, they’re simply different.  There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to raising cattle (or raising or growing anything else in agriculture for that matter).  Essentially it all boils down to the resources available to the farm/ranch and the market they have for their product. 

This past weekend my husband and I had the opportunity to visit Burtrum Cattle Company in Stillwater, Oklahoma.  We brought with us our familiar knowledge of cattle farming in PA and the Northeast region and anxiously dug into how ranchers raise cattle in Oklahoma and how similar and different that is from what we are used to.

Burtrum Cattle Company is home to about 600 mother cows and their calves residing on roughly 6,000 acres.  J. Clay Burtrum is the owner/manager of the ranch and he was kind enough to spend his Saturday morning showing us around the property.

Let’s start with the brood cows (mother cows).  Burtrum calves out most of their cows in the winter (January-March) with a smaller herd calving in the fall (about now).   The pregnant mother cows graze on pasture until they are a few weeks out from calving, at which point they are moved to pastures closer to the home farmhouse for more frequent checking.

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After a 9 month gestation period, the calves are born and remain alongside their mother for roughly 6 months at which point they are self-sufficient on their own to continue growing without the need to nurse.  Burtrum’s practice ‘fence-line weaning.’  (Below) These 500-600 pound wean calves recently began the process of fence-line weaning and as you can see, they’re still keeping their eyes peeled for their mothers in the neighboring pasture.  The cows/calves still have contact through the fence but the fence prevents them from nursing and within time, the calves basically give up trying to nurse and are fully weaned.  Once weaned, the calves are run through a handling facility for their necessary round of vaccinations and castration, if necessary.  The calves are also given ‘creep’ feed or a basic calf starter ration to supplement their grazing.

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Below is an older group of calves that have been off on their own for several months as they continue to graze on pasture and grow.  Cattle will continue to graze on pasture like this until they are about 10-12 months of age at which point they either continue to ‘finish’ on grass (grass finished beef) or finish on grain (grain finished beef).  Typically the calves at Burtrum’s are sold to feedlots to be grain finished in the neighboring states in the Midwest.

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Ok, so far, everything has been VERY similar to raising cattle in Pennsylvania vs. Oklahoma.  We raise cows/calves the same way.  Depending on the time of year, the cows are either grazing on grass or eating stockpiled forages (haylage/baylage) to carry them through the cold winter months, but either way, still fed grass/forage.  Same with the Burtrum cattle, they are either grazing or eating stockpiled forage for winter feeding (or if there is a drought and the pastures are poor and the cattle need supplemental feed).  One thing they do differently is graze on dual-purpose winter wheat in the fall/winter months.

The recently planted field below is a 2 week old stand of winter wheat.  The wheat was planted in early September and as you can see, it will continue to grow into the early fall months.  When it is mature, the weaned calves (and/or older stocker calves as shown above) are turned out to graze the wheat stand (mid-November).  In the winter, the wheat goes dormant and stops growing but is still used as a nutritious source of feed for the growing calves.  In late winter, the cattle are removed from the wheat right before the wheat emerges from winter dormancy and the wheat crop is then able to resume growth for later harvest in the mid-summer.  It’s called ‘dual-purpose’ winter wheat.  The crop is a source of winter forage for grazing stocker cattle and is also used to yield wheat grain/straw chaff at harvest.  Pretty cool, hugh?  I thought so.  We don’t do this in PA.

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Check out this boy below.  He’s an Angus bull from Pharro Cattle Company in Cheyenne Wells, CO.  Burtrum specifically selects bulls to match their ranch resource and herd goals.  Pharro’s philosophy on breeding cattle (specifically to sell bulls) is built on the basis that the cattle need to fit the environment in which they live.  For the Burtrum ranch, the cattle are on a relatively low input diet, they’re grazing, not being fed many additional feedstuffs.  The Pharro bulls that breed the cows at Burtrum’s need to produce calves that can gain weigh adequately on a low input diet; they need to be efficient at converting range land into lean muscle and ultimately, produce a quality beef carcass for the end consumer.  The bulls also need to have the genetic tendency to sire lower birth weight calves, making them good ‘calving ease’ bulls.  Clay and his family have a BIG herd of cattle to keep an eye on and when several hundred start calving near the first of the year, they don’t want to have a lot of issues to deal with.

Careful selection of herd bulls is done by all cattlemen & women, regardless the state.  Resources vary, of course, but some things remain similar across the board.  If you’re raising cattle and breeding females, you specifically look for bull breeders than are raising cattle with the genetic potential you need to match the resources of your environment and goals of your cow herd.  In general, that’s going to be ‘easing doing’ and low-input, moderate frame size bulls with a decent calving easy potential.  My father-in-law selects bulls for this as does our neighbor cattlemen down the road.

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Our quick trip to Oklahoma was short and sweet (our primary purpose for the trip was to celebrate the marriage of our friends who happen to be neighbors to Burtrum’s.)  Ranch visited, wedding rehersal, ceremony and reception attended and a final day of random sight-seeing and exploring of Cental/Southern OK accomplished.  Back to life in Pennsylvania where the air is cooler, the fall leaves are more colorful and the cattle are still grazing.  Farewell Oklahoma, it was a real pleasure!



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