Tag Archives: Cattle

Raising Food Builds Character…

I remember as a child when my parents would tell me that certain tasks “build character”.  It generally applied to things that I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do, and I recall mentally rolling my eyes every time that I heard the expression as a teenager.  As often occurs, the cycle continues over generations and I find myself telling my own girls the same thing.  There are many things that happen on a farm that build character, and one of the best parts of being a mom/farmer is using those tasks to help my girls learn both good work ethic and a humble empathy.

My favorite blonde cowgirl announced after the blizzard last February, “I have enough character, I don’t need to scoop any more bunks!”  I replied, “Yes, you do because the cattle need for you to clean the snow off their plates so that they can have fresh breakfast.”  We scooped bunks for two days during the storm, and I may have to admit that Megan’s Mama also thought at some point on the second day that her “character cup” was full.  However, we persevered through the task because it was important to the livelihood of our animals.

Earlier this week, I talked about information that cattlemen need to know to properly care for cattle during the heat of the summer.  If you recall, one of the major mitigators of heat stress is a constant supply of cool and clean water.  In Nebraska, we are blessed to live above the deepest part of the Ogallala Aquifer and it provides us with fresh 58 degree water despite hot air temperatures.  My cowboy has the responsibility of cleaning all home pen water tanks weekly, and the water tanks in our hospital pens 2X per week.  When he goes on vacation, someone else must do the job.megwatertank5a

I decided that Megan was the perfect girl for the task!

There are life lessons to be learned everywhere that we look.  In fact, Megan’s weekly quote on the crew board in the office this week reads “Everyone can teach you something.”  Physically washing the water tanks at the feed yard reinforces the critical animal care lesson of always providing the basics of life.  Our cattle deserve fresh feed and clean water each and every day, and there is no better way to understand that then to be a part of the process.  Washing water tanks is one of the most menial and yet the most important tasks that happen every day at the feed yard.  The person who cleans tanks is undeniably the unsung hero.

Growing food is a naturally dirty job.  You never truly realize that until you go to work as a farmer.  Megan may choose a life path outside of agriculture, but she will never fail to appreciate the food on her plate or the hard work of the person who put forth the effort to grow it.  She will never forget because she lived it.  The character that she steadily builds with the scoop shovel and the tank cleaning brush permanently changes the way that she looks at the world.  She intrinsically knows that each effort that she puts forth each day creates sustainability — no matter how menial the task may be.

There are two words that provide one of my favorite mantras:  Life Matters.  Learning to respect life, to positively contribute to its sustainability, and to give of yourself to help those in need are all consequences of building character.  It isn’t usually romantic, often it involves dirt and sweat, and it is rarely easy; however, having the humility to recognize what it takes and the work ethic to take on the challenge creates a successful contributor.

MegCattleMarch16.jpgNo matter what I accomplish in my professional life, my true report card is the character of my children.  It is awesome when instilling those values in my girls fits seamlessly with the work of growing food.

 

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Filed under Animal Welfare, Family, General

Managing Heat Stress…

annecattlebunk.jpgA combination of events provided motivation for the writing of this post.  I received a number of requests for information regarding dealing with heat stress over the past seven days from fellow cattlemen and blog followers.  In addition, I spent the latter part of the week and the weekend trying to effectively care for newly received fall calves experiencing severe heat stress due to grazing toxic fescue grass prior to shipment off of the ranch to my feed yard.

The threat of heat stress to animals is very real and, while it cannot be truly abated by anything other than a reprieve from Mother Nature, there are things that we can do as animal caregivers to help our cattle to more effectively deal with it.  Below is a list of facts that every cattlemen should know about cattle and their tolerance to heat.  The information comes from Dr. Dee Griffin and Dr. Terry Madar.

  • 55 degrees is “short sleeve” weather for cattle — 82 degrees is upper critical temperature.
  • It takes a calf 30 days to acclimate to warm temperatures (approximately 1 degree per day).
  • Heifers are more susceptible to heat than steers due to natural female cycling.
  • Air flow and wind are critical as they decrease the heat index temperatures according to wind speed ( 1 degree = 1 MPH drop in index temperature).
  • Humidity exacerbates heat stress:  cattle are much more comfortable in dry heat.
  • Black hided cattle are more susceptible to heat stress than lighter colored animals as their internal temperature will be 1-1.5 degrees higher.
  • High performing animals often have a faster metabolism and as a result can be affected the most by heat.
  • Stable flies (and other flies and gnats) increase total stress on animals so it is important to maintain the farm to limit insect pests.
  • Water requirements of cattle increase from 10% to 20% per hundred weight of body weight during times of heat stress.  An ample source of cool and clean water provides your best mitigator against heat stress.
  • Hot days combined with nights where the temperature does not fall below 70 degrees are the most problematic, especially if humidity is significant and wind speed is low.
  • There is a two hour lag between the highest heat of the day and when a calf has the highest level of heat stress — after the peak, it takes approximately 6 hours for the calf to cool down.

Below are a list of practices that I employ on my farm to help my animals get through the heat of the summer:

  • I manage the business part of the feed yard such that the majority of our larger animals ship to harvest prior to the high onset of heat in July and early August.
  • I reduce the total number of head of cattle in each pen so that there is more room for air flow across the pen as well as more access to the cool water that the water tank provides for drinking.
  • I maintain my pens such that tall mounds allow for cattle to better take advantage of wind speed.
  • I move in portable shades to the pens of cattle closest to harvest dates, as well as cattle that are more susceptible to heat stress as a result of another challenge (like toxicity from fescue grass on the ranch prior to shipment to the feed yard).
  • Any cattle handling (acclimating, processing or shipping) occurs during the early morning hours during cooler temperatures.
  • Breakfast is delivered early (between 6-8:00am) so that all cattle can eat prior to the onset of heat.  We feed “linner” (my girls’ expression for the combination of lunch and dinner) later in the afternoon so that cattle can eat again at night.
  • Our daily cattle health check is performed early in the morning prior to the onset of heat so that if an animal requires individual attention, it can be provided during the cooler hours of the day.
  • I feed MGA to heifers in the feed yard to prevent the natural female cycling that raises her internal body temperature.
  • My crew and I take special care to not “over feed” our animals during times of heat stress.  Careful feed bunk management is critical to animal health and comfort — especially in the hot summer months.

MegShade1.jpgAs mentioned above, ample cool drinking water (in Nebraska our water comes out of the Ogallala Aquifer in the summer at a temperature of 58 degrees which gives our animals a nice cool drink) and access to air flow (wind) are the two most critical components for alleviating severe heat stress.

It takes a “team effort” to help our cattle, and I am proud of my crew’s dedication to caring.  I am also thankful to have a team of dedicated veterinarians and nutritionists to help us make the best decisions for our animals.

 

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Making Lemonade Out Of Lemons…

My favorite farmer gave me a diamond ring on my 20th birthday — a beautiful single solitaire with a thin gold band.  I loved that ring.  I loved it because Matt chose it for me.  I loved it because it represented the promise of tomorrow while verifying the love of today.

I wore the ring all of the time – for 21 years.  I remember being heartsick when the hospital made me take it off when my first two daughters were born.  I remember laughing when my finger was so swollen when Karyn was born that they had to leave it on and just put tape around it…

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Matt and I will celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary in a few days.  About a month ago, he asked me if I wanted “something pretty” to commemorate the two decades of marriage.  I told him “no”, that I had everything that I needed.

About a week after our conversation, an accident happened while I was shipping cattle to Tyson.  As my cowboy and I brought the 1400# steers up the alleyway to load on the semi-truck, one of them kicked a gate into my left hand.  I reacted quickly, but my engagement ring was bent beyond repair.  I’m still not really sure of the details – I tend to get into a “zone” while shipping cattle – but we successfully got all of the boys onto the bus with my engagement ring being the only casualty.

My heart hurt a bit when I showed Matt the annihilated ring.  His response was classic

“Anne, at least it was the ring and not your finger.”

He has always had a knack for putting things into perspective.  It is one of the many reasons that I love him. Over the last twenty years, we laughed together, cried together, lost our tempers together, and found peace together.  Through it all, we have learned that the secret to success is the ability to make lemonade out of lemons.

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  • I have a beautiful new gold ring to showcase the gorgeous diamond that Matt gave to me 21 years ago.
  • I have a functional finger to put the ring on.
  • I have a loving husband who inspires me to see the beauty in life each and every day.
  • Together we have built a meaningful life on the farm to share with our three greatest blessings.

Keeping things in perspective is likely one of the most important life skills. It takes effort and faith, patience and time.  Lucky for you all, Emily had just begun her visit when the cattle shipment incident occurred.  Her role as “guest blogger” provided just enough time for me to make that lemon into lemonade…

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Filed under Family, Farming, General

An Aggie’s Time in Cozad…

In the just three short weeks that I spent with the Foodie Family, I was able to learn more than I ever expected. Anne was such an amazing mentor to me and her family’s hospitality made it seem like home. I’d like to take this last blogging opportunity to thank them for hosting me and reflect on my time spent in Cozad and the experiences I had.

As I mentioned briefly in my first post, An Aggie in Nebraska… , the main goal of my visit was to take full advantage of a learning opportunity. Having spent the past 4 years at Texas A&M University earning a degree in Animal Science, I felt that I was well equipped with knowledge to enter into the cattle industry. I had a toolbox full of practical skills and knowledge acquired through a diverse array of classes and hands on learning opportunities but one key aspect was missing… real world experience.

Like any traditional student graduating from a 4-year university after high school, I didn’t exactly have a lot of down time to experience the ins and outs of the industry firsthand.

You never truly understand something until you are fully submerged in it, and that’s what I hoped this trip would bring about.

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While my three weeks doesn’t come close to Anne’s 20 years in the business, I think she did a great job including me in every aspect of the operation. We spent many mornings at the office, something she wouldn’t necessarily say she enjoys compared to working with the cattle, but it’s all part of the job.

While there she used everything as a teaching opportunity as she went about her daily tasks, sharing her own personal experiences and lessons she’s learned over the years. She always worked hard to directly apply it to my future career desires of running a cow-calf operation.

From budgeting and planning to understanding where the industry is headed as a whole, to government regulations, audits, and taxation — she certainly covered all the bases. She even offered advice on juggling work and family as well as the importance of playing a role in your community, and how she’s able to make it all work.

On the feedyard side of things, I had the opportunity to take part in reading bunks every morning, receiving, processing, and exercising new cattle, shipping fat cattle, moving calves to pasture, operating the feed truck and much more.

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Most importantly though, I was able to witness a well run business. In my mind, a successful business is not only measured by their bottom-line but also their integrity and the way they treat their employees. It was evident that every employee loved their job at Will Feed. Regardless of the situation, I repeatedly saw everyone work together as a team each day all while treating the cattle with the utmost respect.

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I cannot thank Anne and her Foodie Family (including those at the feedyard) enough for all that they have taught me while I was here. From farming to feedyard and everything in between, my time in Cozad was full of new experiences!

A few of the big take-home messages:

  1. “Two wrongs don’t make a right”
  2. Always stay humble
  3. Listen to your animals
  4. There are many ‘practical applications of math’ throughout the day
  5. Nothing smells quite as good as the alfalfa dehy plant on a long run

 

-Emily

*The photos throughout this post are a few of my favorites taken while receiving weaned calves earlier this week.

 

BarnQuilt

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Going to Grass, An Aggie in Nebraska, Summer weather on the prairie, Swim Team!

About ten years ago, our farm purchased about 600 acres of grass pasture south and west of the feed yard.  We use this grass pasture to graze lighter weight animals in the summer months as well as to harvest prairie hay to feed during the winter months.  After a cold and wet spring, the grass has finally grown enough to start grazing so we spent last Thursday going to grass with 134 fall calves.

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While I truly enjoying caring for cattle in a feed yard, I also love to utilize the unique resources on our pasture ground to grow calves on grass.  These animals will spend the summer season grazing and then will head back to the feed yard when Mother Nature begins to shut down for the year.  The animals typically weigh 600# when they go to grass and hopefully will weigh about 750# when they come home in August.

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In addition to going to grass, the Feed Yard Foodie family welcomed Emily, a graduate student at Texas A & M University, this week on the farm.  Emily hosted Megan and I when we traveled down to Aggieland last fall, and will spend three weeks in Nebraska with us this summer.  She arrived on the 16th and we spent the week learning to read bunks, shipping cattle, processing calves, and then taking these fall calves to grassEmily took most of the pictures included in this post as I am trying to inspire her to take up blogging during her remaining two years in the ruminant nutrition department at Texas A & M.

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Emily thinks that her sweatshirt is her best friend in Nebraska, and we are all hoping that she brought some of the Texas warmth with her :)  While the prolific moisture received in April and May helped to turn the grass green, the cold temperatures that accompanied it made the start of our growing season tardy according to the calendar.  My favorite farmer is antsy for a few heat units and drying days so that seeds will germinate and his alfalfa will grow.

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I am hoping to get Emily to write a “guest blog post” or two over the next couple of weeks — giving a glimpse into the Feed Yard Foodie farm from a different perspective.  We are laughing that she is very brave to join the general mayhem at our house which is likely to be more challenging than working at the feed yard…

On the home front over the past week, the girls finished up the spring track and soccer seasons.  Ashley Grace’s 4 X 800 relay team competed in the Nebraska State High School Championships, Megan garnered 3rd place finishes in Pole Vault and the 4 X 100 relay at the Nebraska State Junior High Championships, and Karyn earned gold medals in the 400 and 800 at a couple of local track meets as well as finishing up her spring soccer season.

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After 12 years, I hung up my soccer coaching hat last weekend.  Today, I put on my swim team coaching hat to kick off the start of the swim team season. Emily seems to be game to do anything as long as I don’t ask her to jump in the pool when it is 50 degrees outside…

The entire Haymaker Swim Team is hopeful that each of you will send warm weather out to the prairie as they have a really mean coach who makes them swim regardless of the temperature!

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Making Beef…

Virginia, Rachel and I spend roughly 15 months raising each calf that originates from the Evert Ranch.  During those months, the calf will grow from 70# to 1300# — gaining the first half of those pounds from a combination of mama’s milk and grass at the ranch and the second half of those pounds on a grain and forage casserole at the feed yard.  It amazes me to think that good nutrition, planning and care can be so effective, but each year the Evert calves get better and better.

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We measure performance on the cattle at each level of the production chain.  Virginia is well-known for the “clipboard” that she carries around — making notes on the calves during their time on the ranch.  Each calf receives a visual tag at birth that correlates to its parents so that genetics can be measured.  Things like disposition (how the calf acts around its human caregivers), phenotype, frame scoring, and general health are all combined to determine the total quality of the animal.

When the calf changes address and comes to the feed yard, I tie the visual ranch tag with an EID (electronic identification tag) that allows us to trace performance at the feed yard as well as at the packing plant.  I track three main things: overall health, total pounds gained, and dry matter feed conversion.Evertfeedyard2.jpg

When the calf leaves my farm, it travels about 20 miles to the Tyson packing plant in Lexington, Nebraska having spent its entire lifetime within a 50 mile radius.  At that point, the EID tag allows the transmission of carcass data which provides over-all beef quality scoring for the animal.  This data collection includes carcass weight, meat tenderness score, steak measurements, and total leanness of the animal.  The carcass data is the final piece of our report card as beef producers, giving Virginia, Rachel and me information that we can use in the future to continuously improve quality.

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Because animal welfare, food safety, and sustainability are important to me, I look to my packing plant partner to share both my passion and my dedication to excellence on these topics.  In addition to supplying cattle to Tyson, I have the unique opportunity of serving on their Farm Check Animal Well-Being Advisory committee.  As a member of this board, I work to understand and improve animal welfare throughout the entire production chain.

The latest Tyson effort to ensure good animal welfare on the farm...Tyson plays a critical role making beef.  As the last stop for the animals that Virginia, Rachel and I raise, their cooperation and hard work finishes the circle in the production of responsible beef.

  • Their impressive food safety and animal welfare auditing practices provide a fitting end to the hard work that goes into raising a healthy food animal.
  • Their commitment to transparency allows for the sharing of information both back to the farmer in the form of carcass data, and forward to the beef consumer who wants to understand the company’s commitment to sustainably raised food.

I believe that the future of food production lies in the building of strong partner relationships.  It is a complicated and difficult task to grow safe, healthy, and great tasting beef.  As a team, we are able to put the pieces of the puzzle together in the ever important journey of continuous improvement.

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Our next blog post takes us into the world of retail and food service – the last critical step of bring beef to your plate:)

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The Feed Yard: Unraveling the Myth…

When Virginia and Rachel’s cattle leave the home ranch, they travel approximately thirty miles to my farm.  The cattle make the trip in large stock trailers pulled by pick up trucks driven by the family.  Shipment day is a busy one, and the cattle arrive at the feed yard about noon.  The goal is to minimize the total stress on the calves so we all work together to make the logistics flow seamlessly.

Karyn silly and calves Sept. 2012 011

The calves are unloaded as soon as they arrive and the process of acclimation begins.  I am the team member at the feed yard who is in charge of the acclimation process, and I lead the calves through a 4-7 day transition to help them become familiar to their new surroundings.  This includes:

  • Learning to become comfortable with a new set of human caregivers.
  • Learning to exit the home pen in an organized fashion and move confidently down to the corral.
  • Learning to attribute comfort to the home pen — understanding that fresh feed, water, and a comfortable place to both play and rest can be found there.

I believe that this process is a critical component to reducing stress on newly arrived cattle and allows them to settle in quickly and seamlessly to their new home.  We run the feed yard to set our animals up for success — recognizing that it is our job as caregivers to strive to attain the 5 Freedoms of Cattle Care while also working to be sustainable environmental stewards to the resources on our farm.

As a member of the Beef Marketing Group Cooperative, my feed yard is certified under the QSA of Progressive Beef.  As such, we have Cattle Care Guidelines and Standard Operating Producers that dictate the daily care practices for our animals.  We work with our veterinarian and bovine nutritionist to ensure that our care is appropriate and effective.  We are audited twice a year to ensure that we follow through on the details relative to this care.

One of our two Progressive Beef audits in 2016 is an “unscheduled” audit — this means that we do not know what day the auditor will arrive to check both the physical aspects of our feed yard care and our supporting paperwork.  Tuesday morning, I left the feed yard and headed to the dentist at 8:00am.  I was on the road headed back to town when I got a text message saying that the Progressive Beef auditor was 45 minutes away from the feed yard.

The auditor checking the water tank with the Evert calves watching curiously from behind...

The auditor preparing to check the water tank with the Evert calves watching curiously from behind…

Although an audit disrupts the daily routine at the feed yard, I view it as both a learning process and a way that I can assure the folks who purchase my beef that it was raised responsibly.  An audit is very much like a report card, and the metrics involved play a key role in our path of continuous improvement.

In an effort to ensure that the Progressive Beef standards for animal welfare, food safety and sustainability are met daily on the farm, the auditor assesses:

  • Cattle handling and daily care
  • Cattle home pen living conditions
  • Cattle water tank cleanliness
  • Cattle feed nutrition, handling and delivery which follows developed HACCP principles for safety
  • Antibiotic use on the farm (volume of use as well as animal withdrawal records to ensure that meat is residue free)
  • Food safety practices used on the farm to ensure that the meat that our animals provide meets high safety standards
  • Feed yard employee safety guidelines
  • Farm sustainability practices which ensure responsible resource utilization
Ever curious, an Evert steer poses for a picture...

Ever curious, an Evert steer poses for a picture…

At the end of the video that I put up last week, I asked for trust from you for me as a farmer.  I recognize that this is a big ask on my part, and as a result I open my farm to auditing so that I can verify my actions and reward your trust.

Stay tuned for next’s week post that takes us from the feed yard to the packing plant — among other things, we will learn the importance of the small white button in the above calf’s ear!

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Filed under Beef Cattle Life Cycle: Ranch to Retail, CAFO, General, Progressive Beef QSA Program

From Ranch to Plate: The Beginning of the Cattle Life Cycle…

I remember when my favorite father-in-law first introduced me to the cattle business.  Matt and I were still living in New Hampshire, but we flew to Kansas City to attend the 1996 National Cattlemen’s Beef Association convention.  The *plan* was to move back to Nebraska to the farm the following June, and I was badly in need of a basic cattle education.  As was the case for many city folk, I thought cattle went from the pretty green grass pasture straight to the package of beautifully marbled Certified Angus Beef steak that my dad loved to grill…

It never really occurred to me to even think about everything that went into making that awesome tasting steak until those first few days at the NCBA convention.  Twenty years later, I am well versed on the complicated process of beef production that begins on a cow-calf ranch and ends at the grocery store.  I know that it takes teamwork, a dedication to caring, and a disciplined and respectful use of natural resources.

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Fifteen years ago, I took over the job of procuring cattle for the feed yard.  I set out looking for ranchers who wanted to partner with me — sharing information that allowed for the improvement of both animal welfare and beef quality at the first two levels of beef production: the ranch and the feed yard.  I was finding success personally as a calf caregiver, and I realized how much better the lives of my cattle would be if I could better organize a holistic lifetime care program that included ranchers who shared my vision.  The make up of resources on our farm did not allow for a cow-calf herd, so I set out to find ranchers who wanted to collaborate with me and follow their calves from birth to harvest.

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The majority of cattle in the United States spend the first 8-14 months grazing on grass pastures and growing from about 70 pounds (at birth) to approximately 600-700#.  Grass is a wonderful resource and a critical component to raising beef.  More than half of Nebraska’s landmass (23 million acres) is made up of these grasslands where the soil and topography allows only for the growth of prairie grasses.  Cattle, as ruminant animals, have a digestive tract that is made up of four compartments which allows for them to be tremendously efficient grass converters.  This capability provides a core component in our effort as farmers to convert a non-edible resource (grass) into a nutrient packed and great tasting human protein source (beef).

The list of ranchers that I work with has grown over the years, and my partnership with them allows for better animal care and a smaller environmental footprint in our journey of beef production.  Our animals remain healthier both allowing for a more efficient conversion of feed resources, and a smaller antibiotic use footprint.  Tracing the performance of the animals from birth all of the way into the packing plant allows for genetic changes to improve beef quality, taste, and tenderness.  In short, together we get smarter as farmers, and our animals get more efficient and produce a higher quality beef product.

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The Evert family is one of my cow-calf ranching partners.  I met Virginia Evert when she went to work at Eastside Animal Center as a vet tech in 2002.  Four years ago, she left the vet clinic to work full time ranching with her cousin and raising their families.  I do not often get to work with women, and I consider it one of my greatest pleasures to work with Virginia and Rachel and their families.

Evertcalves9a.jpgIt is easy to work with people who share your values.

Evertcalves12a.jpgIt is easy to partner with those who teach their animals confidence and curiosity.

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It refills my cup to watch the improvement that Virginia, Rachel and I can make each year in our journey helping that great tasting steak get from the grass pasture to the meat case.

You can read more about the Evert Family through this blog series featured in Black Ink with CAB by Miranda Reiman:

http://www.blackinkwithcab.com/2015/10/23/following-the-calves-everything-evert/

http://www.blackinkwithcab.com/2015/10/31/following-the-calves-a-success-story-in-the-making/

http://www.blackinkwithcab.com/2016/01/20/following-the-calves-the-herd-changer/

http://www.blackinkwithcab.com/2016/02/24/following-the-calves-decisions-decisions/

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