From Our Farm to Your Table

Oxen should be beefy, but not porky

Mon, 2018-12-31 06:16 -- Carole Soule

 “When is that cow going to give birth?” asked dairyman Bob as he pointed to my black Scottish Highlander. “Uh, probably never,” I replied, disconcerted. “Stash is a boy. I guess he needs to go on a diet,” I added, looking at Stash's bulging belly.  

    Stash, a 6-year-old steer, is an “easy keeper,” which means he doesn't need a lot of food to gain weight. He is fat. Very fat. Obese really. Some lucky humans can eat candy, ice cream and pie with impunity, while others can gain weight at the salad bar. Stash is like one of the latter. He seems to gain weight by just breathing air, while other bovines struggle to keep the pounds on – especially cows with nursing babies. 

    Mom might look gaunt, but her calf will be chunky. That's because her energy goes into producing milk for the baby. When that rich diet of mother's milk brings the calf's weight 400 to 500 pounds, the calf is weaned, and the mother's own weight will come back. 

     A skinny calf usually stays slight as he grows; a fat baby grows up to be a fat bovine. Conventionally raised beef cattle are fed grain to plump them up. But cows' stomachs aren't built to process lots of grain. It's not always good for them so Miles Smith Farm cattle only eat grass and hay, as well as apples, carrots, pineapple, pumpkins, cantaloupe rinds, and other fruit and vegetable scraps kindly provided by Shaw's in Gilford, or Grappone Conference Center in Concord. 

    Stash started life as an average-size calf and grew up to be one of a pair of oxen that competes at county fairs, dragging loads upon command. Cattle are heavy, but at 1,400 pounds Stash is too hefty by about 150 pounds. And just like an obese person, he has to work hard to carry those extra pounds. That kind of weight causes fatigue and puts stress on a creature's joints and heart.  

    Among beef-cattle farmers, the notion of a steer that's overweight is like a joke that's too funny. For obvious reasons, beef farmers celebrate meatiness. (Two years in a row Topper and Stash have won the Best Fat Cattle Championship at the Hopkinton State Fair with trophies displayed in our farm store.) Steers are generally bound for the dinner table, but working oxen like Stash and Topper are really more like athletes.

    So when time permits, we'll fortify the farm's internal fences so we can sequester Stash and control his access to food. When summer rolls around, visitors will be admiring his powerful physique instead of wondering when Stash Jr. is due.

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