From Cow to Counter

Cow to Counter
By Joan Ruskamp
Joan and her husband run a cattle-finishing operation and raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa on their farm in Dodge, Nebraska.

Memorial Day is fast approaching, and you might plan to celebrate the unofficial start to summer with a backyard barbeque. Whether you flip burgers or grill steaks, you can feel confident that a lot of care and hard work has been put into your beef before it hits the barbeque. Like you, I want quality, safe food for my family; but unlike many of you, I have the privilege of seeing firsthand how beef cattle are raised.

Calves spend the first months of their lives with their mothers in a pasture. There are many places in our country that are best suited for growing grass due to hilly terrain and climate. While the calves are nursing they are also learning to eat grass and other forages. Just like humans, they are eventually weaned off their mother’s milk.  At this point, the calves move into a growing phase. The growing phase gives the calves a chance to continue growing their body without putting on a lot of muscle. The growing phase can happen using grass only or using a grass and grain mixed ration. We can grow calves in our feedlot and gradually adjust their ration (mixture of ingredients) to put on muscle when the time is right. Whether the calves grow on grass or in a feedlot a nutritionist is involved to makes sure the calves are getting the needed nutrients to help them grow.


From growth to finish

Once cattle reach the desired weight – typically around 700-900 pounds – they are put on a finishing ration. In our feedyard, steers (neutered male calves) are “finished,” or precisely fed and cared for until processing. The steers spend four to six months in this phase where they continue to receive a nutritionally balanced diet. Have you ever ordered a steak on a menu that’s designated “grass-fed?” Just as it sounds, some cattle are finished on pastures, where they graze on grass. In our feedlot, we provide a feed mix of some type of grass hay, corn, distiller’s grain, and a supplement with vitamins and minerals to balance out the nutrient needs of the cattle.

Veterinary care is continuous from the nursing calf to the finishing phase. One of my jobs in our feedlot includes walking through all of the cattle each day to make sure they are healthy. Moms often know if their children are sick just by looking at them because they know what normal looks like. I know what normal looks like in healthy cattle so I look for signs that a steer might be ill – droopy ears, a faster respiration rate, nasal discharge, coughing or a change in bowel consistency. If a steer exhibits illness, we remove him from his pen and walk him up to our doctoring barn. We record the date, the tag number he has, the pen he came from and his weight. We continue our assessment by taking his temperature and other procedures like listening to his lungs. If the illness indicates the need for an antibiotic we use protocols that have been predetermined from our veterinarian. The amount of the antibiotic given is recorded. The steer than spends time in our hospital barn. This barn allows us to separate sick cattle from their pen mates.  Steers in the sick barn might get a little more hay and some extra TLC, too. The steer is evaluated each day until he is recovered and then he is returned to his pen.

Cattle have a natural ability to adjust to weather. Cattle can withstand some cold weather, but we have planted trees and designed steel structures to break the wind during really cold, Nebraska winters. During the summer it can get very hot in Nebraska. We utilize shade trees and water misters to help the cattle stay comfortable on those days when it gets very hot with no wind movement. We do our best to make them comfortable despite anything Mother Nature throws at us.

From feedyard to food

From the feedyard, cattle are transported to packing plants. The process to provide final beef products is clean and humane, which not only eliminates stress on the animals but also produces a better beef product that is shipped to grocery stores. Besides the meat cattle provide they also give us numerous by-products, including leather from the hide for footballs and shoes.

I’m a farmer, but I’m also a consumer and I expect great quality beef for my family. I hope I have given you some confidence in the process to create that quality beef. If you have questions, please add your note below in the comment section of this blog.

Happy Memorial Day and Bon appetit!


Bernie Williams

Nicely written article. Thank you for taking time to describe the process.

Karolina Q

Yes, great article. I am very much interested in how our animals are treated


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