AMBOY, Minn. – It is hard to imagine, given that it is December, that fieldwork is still going on, but with Christmas around the corner, tractors are still working the ground. The Fox family might be finished with their ground, but they’re taking time to help the neighbors as they deal with an unexpected holiday rush on the beef side of their operation.
“Luke has been busy this week doing some ripping for some neighbor farmers so they can get their stuff done,” said Karen Fox on Dec. 11. “We had a little bit, but with the snowpack we got some insulation and the tillage was able to go.”
With the unexpected conditions this fall, it was tough for everyone to get all their work done.
The Foxes and other farmers in the area have been very good about helping each other out when needed. They often trade work and make use of each other’s equipment to ensure everyone gets done.
Fortunately, the drop-in temperatures have not led to any issues with the beef cattle.
“They're all outside. They're not in a barn and they do really quite well with the cold to be honest,” Karen said. “The biggest thing is when they get excess moisture inside a barn.”
With cattle grouped together inside a barn that is not well sealed from the cold and drafts, the heat from their bodies mixes with the cold air from outside, leading to condensation and excess moisture.
That cold and wet environment can lead to respiratory problems, such as pneumonia.
“They're better off outside. We just have to make sure the cattle waterers stay open,” she said. “We have heaters underneath, so that's the biggest thing.”
As long as the cattle have access to fresh water and plenty of feed, they do not necessarily need shelter in the winter. The rumen will generate all the heat they need as it ferments.
Young calves are a different story, as they’re more susceptible to the cold.
The replacement dairy heifers they raise will come to the farm at about 350 pounds, so they are at a point where they can handle the cold as long as they are healthy. If they are at all immune compromised, then they are at a greater risk.
“We have crews out there every day that are monitoring the pens, and if we see something, we will definitely pull that animal to see if they need treatment or special care,” she said. “That is huge.”
Having enough well-trained employees keeping an eye on the pens goes a long way in keeping herd health up and death loss to a minimum.
The biggest challenge in the cold is the newborn calves. While there are a few beef calves on the ground, they are older, and the Foxes do not have any cows bred to calve anytime soon.
“When we really got back into this, we had an earlier spring calving season, but we've had some really unpredictable springs,” she said. “We had blizzards in April and it turns out brand new beef calves don't do very well in an April blizzard.”
Since then, they have pushed calving into the second half of April and into early May.
Given that they retain ownership of their beef calves and feed them out themselves before direct marketing the beef to consumers, they have that freedom to move the calving season to a time that best suits their operation.
That said, direct marketing meat can sometimes be more difficult than one would expect. For example, there was an unexpected uptick in sales of large primal cuts, specifically whole, boneless ribeye.
“We had people that wanted hand cut steaks,” Karen said. “People wanted a farm fresh prime rib instead of going to the store. Those are things we're learning as we go. We need to have more of those prime ribs ready for the holidays, clearly, and we didn’t have enough, so we were sold out at Thanksgiving.”
Karen ended up making a special delivery just ahead of Thanksgiving for a customer who really wanted a prime rib Thanksgiving dinner for friends.
For Christmas, getting Fox Premium prime rib is going to be difficult, but there are options for people who still want beef on Christmas.
“I've been doing some research on the internet and you can season the strip loins and the tenderloin, because we have some primal cuts of that, like a prime rib,” she said. “I think it is going to be absolutely delicious, so I'm going to try doing that when we host Christmas at our house.”