Cattle Farming at Miles Smith Farm in Loudon
An inside look at life - and death - on a local New Hampshire cattle farm
Beef certainly is delicious — it’s not easy to resist a nice juicy burger or a buttery, tender filet mignon. It seems man was designed to consume and enjoy bovines. Our teeth are shaped to tear and grind, and beef contains vital proteins, amino acids and even B vitamins essential to our health.
Some people choose not to eat beef for either health or moral reasons — several religious sects abstain from beef for a combination of both. Christians look to the Bible and find both reasons to eat animals and not to eat animals. Muslims are enjoined not to eat pork or camel, but beef is OK. Hindus and Buddhists abstain, mostly because all life is held sacred, especially cows. Core values run deep, as they should. Maybe all beef eaters should at least pause to consider the life that gave its life for that prime rib.
A farm animal must be fed, cared for and finally put to rest. But there is a vast difference in the nature of the feeding, overall health and end game between large-scale operations and local beef farms.
Bovines are designed by nature to eat grass and convert that plant protein into animal protein and they do so like a well-oiled machine. The process is the backbone of small-scale farming. Yet all beef cattle, even on larger farms, typically start their lives leisurely grazing on the range, feeding on grasses and hay. But young steers are weaned from their mothers around six months of age by physical separation on larger farms. They are put into backgrounding pens and start to feed on corn to get them used to the idea of grain instead of grass. They grow quickly at this point and in four or five months they are up to 600 and 700 pounds and are ready for transport to a centralized feedlot, a trip that could be 500 miles long. There they wade in their own manure for 60 to 120 days until they are ready to be processed — all the while eating corn-based feed designed to add a few pounds a day.
This is where the antibiotics become a necessity and, potentially, a tragedy for all. It’s frighteningly possibly that when we have antibiotics in our meat, our diseases may become antibiotic-resistant. Slaughterhouse rules have helped to keep meat free from contamination, but centralization is difficult on the animals and the probability of a disastrous spread of infected meat still lingers.
Cattle’s life on a local farm is vastly different. Most farmers raise their herd from birth to finale. Carole Soule and Bruce Dawson have raised Scottish Highlanders on Miles Smith Farm in Loudon for nearly 15 years.
Their cattle have a bucolic existence on the pasture with vistas south and west toward Concord. Steers are born and raised on the farm for beef while the cows are used for breeding. Carole, a smart and funny woman, always tries to look on the bright side, but during an interview she said over and over again … “It’s always difficult.” We are talking about when the time comes to “process” the steers. When Carole wants beef for her own use, she hires someone to come to the farm and shoot the animal squarely between the eyes. “It’s the most humane way, “ she says. “Then they take the carcass to be processed.” To sell her beef under USDA regulations, she trucks the animals to The Local Butcher in Barnstead, about 25 miles away. They come back nicely packaged for retail.
Bruce and Carole are really invested in the animals, not totally as profit margins, but as creatures with needs and abilities. They give each newborn calf a name — Carole even attempts to train them by calling them by name and giving them simple commands. She used to call them Hamburger and Chuck, just to wrap her own head around the business and the end game, but more recently has resolved in her own mind the life cycle of beef cattle. But yet, she finds them somewhat like people; some are just nicer than others. Carole has a few favorites that she claims will live out their lives on the farm and others are given “jobs” that enable them to earn their keep. Those that are downright ornery are a little easier to ship out, she says. But the whole business is distasteful to some. “I’ve been called a murderer,” she adds. “But this is our business. I can’t just afford to pasture beef for their lifetime. We give them a stressless environment where they can be happy cattle under our care.”
Indeed, I visited the farm on a sunny summer day a few years ago and the animals are not in tiny pens, but in large fields where they grow fat on wildflowers, weeds and tall grasses. It’s what beef cattle are designed to do.
Are we doing them a disservice by raising them for food? That’s a tough question. But as noted food system writer Michael Pollan says, “It’s very hard to speculate about what animal happiness is. But one definition is, an animal doing what it’s evolved to do. And what cows have evolved to do is be out on grass, eating grass. And they sure look happy when they’re doing it.” Aside from the fact that happier animals are healthier animals and need less intervention, the whole small-farm model is a beautiful circle of life. Instead of generating piles of manure to shovel, hoof action works the by-products into the soil and it enriches the grasses that become feed. It’s really simple and it works well on small-scale farms.
What doesn’t work so well are the costs involved. In the summer, the food is basically free; in the winter, hay must be purchased. Hay costs about $173.98 per ton. The average cow/steer needs about 26 pounds of hay a day for feed. A little math reveals that hay for 150 days off pasture would be about two tons or $348. It takes two years to raise a steer. Add in fees for overhead, the butcher, hauling and refrigeration, and it rounds out close to $2,000. The average steer yields roughly 38 percent of its body weight in product for about 420 pounds of meat — most of it hamburger with a smaller return. The highly prized filet mignon is only one percent of the animal. Carole’s animals are a smaller breed with the same costs and smaller yields, but she chose them for their hardiness in winter — and flavor.
It’s a difficult business. Carole sells to only a very few restaurants, and mostly to institutions and retail from her onsite solar-powered farm store. She has found a few hospitals, including Lakes Region General Hospital, willing to pay a premium for healthier ground beef and maintains a loyal following of home cooks. But many restaurant chefs have not been able to make the leap of faith — a belief that customers would be willing to pay a higher cost for humanely treated and healthier beef. But there is hope.
Recently, Evan Mallett of the Black Trumpet Bistro in Portsmouth purchased a steer from Carole and Bruce. His name was George and he summered on the meadows of Emery Farm in Durham for most of his life. Mallett even may have given his rear end a loving slap when, after last year’s Farm-a-Q event, he volunteered to round up the cattle so they could be moved via truck to another pasture.
Carole is continually rounding up cattle and moving them to other remote pastures for two reasons. She is able to extend her pasturing acreage by working out deals with other land owners and the shuffling gets the animals used to riding in a truck.
Yes, their last ride is to the abattoir. It’s all about limiting stress — its just more humane. Also, animals with less cortisol in their blood stream when the lights go out are just tastier. It’s hard to think about this, but as Mallett says, “I believe that it is an important part of a chef’s job to understand his or her ingredients from their source to the final plate presentation. When it comes to meat, this means visiting farm animals and seeing first-hand the pastures where they graze and the conditions in which they live. It also means witnessing the slaughter because if a chef can’t handle the sacred conversion from live animal to human food, I believe that chef has no business serving meat on their menu.” Yes, giving witness is the ultimate thank-you.
Mallett offered George on his menu for about seven weeks as a nightly special. By using all the cuts he was able to keep the costs down. Mallett says, “George has been a surprise smash hit. We have done flap steaks, sirloin tips, bottom round roast, chuck pot roast and tonight we move on to blade steaks. Feedback has been phenomenal — mostly high praise with only two comments about chewiness. The biggest surprise has been the number of people who are coming in because they wanted to meet George. The second biggest surprise is that I don’t have to charge as much as I thought I would.”
Yes, George went from steer to steak, but his life was not unpleasant and his sacrifice was appreciated. There was no waste and that is the ultimate thank-you. The price/cost analysis is just a small part of the story.
Yes, it costs more to be humane to animals, but its the right thing to do for the environment, our diets and our consciences.
Last Stop — the Abattoir
Life and death on a small cattle farm
By Susan Laughlin
Many of us have one or two pets — they are simply great companions, just asking for food, a warm bed and a little love. Carole Soule, of Miles Smith Farm in Loudon, has about 80 — 80 head of cattle. Not all are her dearest companions, but one in particular wriggled her way into Carole’s heart.
Cocoa was born on the farm 11 years ago. Like all Scottish Highlanders, she had long horns and a beautiful shaggy coat, tuffs of which hung over her eyes like unkempt bangs. Those horns of hers were distinctive. One was in a normal position, turned up, while the other one was turned down. Highlanders’ horns are not so much for protection or aggression, but are handy tools nonetheless. I have observed them using the boney extensions to scratch a stubborn itch on their hindquarter.
A few years ago, I came up to Miles Smith Farm for a photo shoot. I happily stepped through the manure-studded pasture to grab shots of Carole and her cattle, but mostly I took shots of Carole and Cocoa, now about 1,200 pounds. As Cocoa ripped grasses and ever-so-sweet wild flowers from the ground, Carole rubbed the cow’s neck and nuzzled with her large head — pretty in a bovine kind of way. It was a good day to be a cattle farmer. It’s an age-old business and the business Carole and her husband Bruce Dawson choose for their livelihood on a rocky 36-acre parcel of New Hampshire farmland.
Bruce says that 20 percent of farming is actually quite pleasant — building ones’ own business, watching animals thrive and making a meaningful living with your hands. On the other hand, the remaining 80-percent can be downright awful, he admits. Equipment breaks down, animals get sick and die and animals are finally taken to slaughter and die. Ugh. With careful management, a head of cattle, carved into manageable portions, can be sold for about $5,000. It’s the nature of the beast and it’s always about the bottom line.
It’s just never a good day when the cattle are taken to the slaughterhouse. It was an especially bad day when Carole took Cocoa to The Local Butcher. It was time. Cocoa’s udders were getting too long. Carole in her ever upbeat manner suggested she could get her a bra, but in the end she also needed to fill the freezer with hamburger meat — grass-fed beef earns a few more dollars a pound. Still, this whole dilemma tore at Carole. I had come up to the farm the night before the slaughterhouse appointment to serve as witness to the process.
That cold winter evening Carole gave me a tour of the animals sheltered nearest the house. I gave Cocoa a few strokes. Carole stayed a bit longer to say her goodbyes. There is just something too complicated for words about taking your pet to the slaughterhouse. To make it even more pointed, my pet cat is named Cocoa. Would I take him to the slaughterhouse? No. But would I have had him seen by a cat cardiologist as was suggested at my last vet visit? Nope. There just comes a time.
In the morning Carole had Cocoa loaded up on the “Cattle Moover” before light lit the pastures surrounding the house. At dawn, Carole, Cocoa and I were headed down the long, winding road to Rte. 106 and then across backcountry roads to Center Barnstead. It was a quiet trip, the countryside was smooth with snow-filled fields and dotted with occasional colonial houses — real ones. Cocoa swayed gently in the back and peered at us through the small barred window of the carrier. Carole says, “I think she knows.” Yikes.
When we arrived at The Local Butcher, owner Russ Atherton was consumed with getting a boxy container attached to his loader. Eventually, he and the loader disappeared. A few minutes later, he reappeared with a load — a steaming load, presumably the unusable parts of a very recently dispatched animal. When he finished, he signaled Carole to back the truck up to a gate. It was time to unload Cocoa.
She didn’t seem to want to go; she kept looking at us. Atherton suggested we step back out of view. Cows are curious, he said. Finally Cocoa took her last step off the truck. Carole transports her cattle to remote pastures on a regular basis and they get comfortable with traveling, loading and unloading. She says the experience makes them easier to handle; they know the procedure and what is expected of them when not just grazing in the grass. Life is good for cows on local farms. There’s just that one bad day.
Cocoa was now in the holding pen that is part of the slaughterhouse facility. There were about six pens and several were occupied. In one pen, two handsome steers peered at us. Talk was of how much quality meat they carried. Though not dead, they were presumed dead, dismantled and packaged. Carole wanted to stay with Cocoa until the end. And she may have if I didn’t need to get back. Anyway, we weren’t going to be allowed to watch any more of the process. Atherton tried to cheer Carole by relating a recent story of a nine-year old steer slipping on the ice right before his appointment with destiny. The animal had to be shot and buried on the farm. Somehow Cocoa was luckier. There would be no waste.
After one last look into Cocoa’s big brown eyes, we skirted around the side of the vinyl clapboard building and re-entered into the office. Not much there, just a desk for transactions and log books for keeping track of deliveries in and out. A poster on the wall displayed a graphic depiction of a steer with lines pointing to photo-realistic images of beef cuts. I tried not to dwell on the concept of an animal being more real when depicted as pieces of hamburger or filet mignon. Through a window in the steel door I could see a tidy butcher shop area. Men dressed in white and wearing blue gloves were shrink-wrapping steaks. So that was it. In one door as a living beast and out the other as a consumable. The indescribable part in-between wasn’t necessary to see. Kill floor operator has to be a bitch of a job.
Carole wept on the way home. The truck’s load was lightened … but not her heart. I wasn’t much comfort either, as we both grabbed for the Kleenex box.
As a diversion we stopped at the Chichester Country Store for a sugared donut, but it was a small consolation. I asked Carole if she would eat the hamburger that was once Cocoa. She nodded yes. In some ways it would be important that the cycle of life be continued. Carole wanted to keep Cocoa’s head, but decided that maybe just her horns would be an adequate keepsake. They would be sawed off and bubble-wrapped for Carole to pick up on a return visit. At Miles Smith Farm, slaughtered animal’s heads are left in the pasture for wild animals to pick clean. It’s important that no part of the animal is wasted.
The next diversion was the feed store. It is a regular stop for Carole in winter with hungry cattle back home. There, a fellow farmer sympathized with Carole. Appointment day was always a bad day for him, too. I gazed over at the plastic bins filled with dried animal ears meant to amuse dogs.
Back at the farm, Carole went to check on Pebbles, Cocoa’s last baby bull. Over the years she bore many bulls and heifers for Miles Smith Farm — she was a great mom, Carole had said again and again. And the heifers were raised and gave birth to yet another generation. Cocoa’s extended family was grazing on hay bales strewn across the snow that winter day. We walked on the upper pasture while Carole stroked their thick coats and made introductions. She had names for them all, saying “I can remember names, but not numbers.” Grommet and Laverne and all the rest have ear tags hand-written with Magic Marker — names are large while their sires and numbers are in smaller print. And the handsome bull, Moser, was just waiting for another opportunity, his nostrils exhausting what looked like steam in the cold air. He walked toward me with determination in his eye. Fortunately, he just wanted to lick my glove.
Pebbles was given extra attention, but he seemed to be adjusting. He had just weaned himself and was ready to run and buck with the other six-month old weanlings. Carole said he would become part of the working animals on the farm; those not sent to slaughter at about 2 1/2 years of age. He was to pull an ox cart or given a saddle and ridden by children. See, farming is fun. Well, that is until he gets too old or shows signs of arthritis. Animals with arthritis are not good eating, I had learned.
Yes, cattle farming is a tough business — but a business, none the less. The collection of bleached skulls with long horns and decomposing heads near the farm store are a constant reminder of the business cycle. And of the cycle of life. Oh, look, Laverne is about to deliver!