My 4-H Beef Experience

By Christopher R. Raines

Recently listed in the “top searches” to reach this blog, I noticed the search: “how do 4-h raise beef.”  Ironically, there’s been a letter circulating that questions the program and what it teaches children.  I am going to comment on my own 4-H experience with beef cattle, inclusive of how those cattle were raised and what other experiences those 4-H projects afforded me.

There are a variety of 4-H beef projects classifications, and all or some may be 4-H project options in your area.  They include: (1) market steers, (2) market heifers, (3) breeding projects, and (4) dairy feeder calves.  My family raised primarily beef breeding stock, so I often had 1 or 2 heifers as my 4-H project.  I think I had my first market steer project when I was about 12.  Our club was actually called:  “Union Township Meat Producers.”  Not many clubs have a name so indicative of the purpose of the livestock being raised.  We all had a clue about why we were raising animals.  Some kids lived on what we might consider a “family farm” (and the livestock herd size might have ranged from 20 beef cows to 300 dairy cows to 3,000 pigs), a “farmette” (think: 5 acres, a barn, 2 steers, 2 horses and maybe a goat), or had no farm at all (they’d keep their animals at someone else’s place, usually a family friend or relative).  As a club we would take educational trips, participate in different practical lessons at our club meetings, and engage in a variety of community service projects.

So, how’d we raise our 4-H beef?  Pretty much like any other beef, in my opinion.  We had cows bred to calve in either Spring or Fall.  Those cows grazed when decent grass was available, and  when not, they were fed baleage and dry hay.  Depending on how certain crops turned out, brood cows would be also receive corn silage.  In any case, they always had fresh water and access to a salt block and free-choice mineral supplement.  In Ohio where March and April are especially pleasant (rephrase: overcast an muddy), cows would stay in the barn.  After all, my grandfather absolutely abhorred the idea of cow feet punching holes in the pasture.  Then, in Spring, the cycle would start all over again.  Those cows were wormed once and sometimes twice annually, and checked for pregnancy relative to their calving season (Spring or Fall).  When a cow was no longer capable of becoming bred (I estimate they were usually between 12 and 15 years old, yet some were much older), they would be sold to market, or “shipped.”  So, there I’d be, working with current and past 4-H projects.  Sometimes putting them on the trailer to go to the fair.  Sometimes putting them on the trailer to go to the stockyards.

When still very young, calves were tattooed in both ears, ear tagged in one ear, and vaccinated.  At birth, the calf’s weight was recorded (and at weaning, and when a yearling).  Most of the calves were born “unassisted,” but when a cow exhibited signs of birthing difficulty, we would assist by “pulling” the calf.  As a 4-H’er, I was able to learn how to do these things.  Since we raised breeding stock, those bulls who looked like they would make good breeding bulls were kept as bulls.  The others were castrated.  All the calves were weaned at about 6 months of age.  Before weaning, calves sometimes had free choice access to grain and mineral supplements (this is called “creep feeding”).

After weaning, heifers, steers and bulls were separated.  Sometimes steers would be sold as “feeder calves,” and sometimes we would “finish” them so we could either fill our freezer or sell freezer beef.  My first 4-H project (and yes this is true) was a heifer born out of season on my birthday in July — I’m not making this up.  Calves were transitioned to a grain and hay diet, steers were fed until they reached about 1,200 pounds then they were slaughtered.  The heifers were bred at about 15 months of age so they would have their first calf when they were 2 years old.  Bulls were sold – at a variety of ages – to people looking for a breeding bull.

Each year I had to complete my “project record book.”  In it I recorded feed costs, whenever some veterinary attention was needed (why it was needed, what was used, and how much it cost), among other records.  Those record books are very similar to the records that any responsible beef producer would keep and are one of the guiding principles of Beef Quality Assurance — keep records!  We would take cattle to the county fair and state fair, as well as other state fairs in Arkansas, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Texas and Wisconsin (although a lot of 4-H’ers don’t have that kind of experience with their project — the long distance travel part).  In Fall and Winter we would take cattle, which were also my projects to shows as far away as Houston, Texas.  Traveling with cattle and exhibiting them at a variety of places exposes you about all sorts of people and challenges, not to mention adapt you to some very screwed up sleep schedules and how to speak “trucker” via CB radio (Mom never really appreciated the latter skill).

In addition to selling cows from the farm when they’re no longer breeding, 4-H’ers do a lot of marketing to make sure they can sell their market project(s) if their fair has a livestock auction.  Others may opt to sell their projects through different kinds of sales (though this is mostly just for breeding stock).

That’s how we raised beef for 4-H — that pretty much sums up my 4-H beef experience.  And for many, that’s how they do it, too.  In summary, the 4-H’er (1) obtains the animal, (2) takes care of the animal, (3) keeps records about the animal, and (4) either sells the animal for market, or returns the animal to the herd — then eventually sells it to market.

This is my account of what a 4-H beef project was.  I was fortunate to have a setting in which my club advisors, parents, and (sometimes) county Extension agent could always teach me something about cattle.  It does happen (as I well remember it happening in our club) that the parent is on as steep of a learning curve as the child.

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