SCOTT COUNTY — You could hardly blame a cow for feeling resentment at being raised in Central Kentucky, where horses get all the glory. It's Thoroughbred this, equestrian that, despite the fact that there are at least as many cows in the region, and they vastly outnumber horses in the state.
What's a heifer have to do around here to get a little love?
As it happens, the area's cow/calf producers are feeling quite warmly toward their herd these days. Several factors, including a shrinking national herd and bumper corn crops, have brought cattle prices to all-time highs.
But ask cattle farmer Charles "Pokey" Graves what he likes about the work, and he doesn't quote the latest sales receipts. Instead, he talks about the interaction with the animals, about hand-feeding newborns, about always learning something new and being his own boss.
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What about the money? "That's not it," he says. At least that sounds like what he says through the laughter. Apparently the idea of being a farmer for the money is pretty hilarious.
Graves' family has raised cattle in Scott County for generations. He starts to count and loses track at five. Before that they raised cattle in Owen County.
After getting a taste of city life in Atlanta while working for Delta, Graves, 50, came back for good in the mid 1990s. He and his wife, a Liberty native, knew it was where they wanted to raise kids.
"I was born here and I like it," he says. They bought 150 acres with a little house close to his family's farm.
His cattle — Graves also raises and sells lamb — are split among several parcels: his own farm, his father's 126 acres nearby, and about 600 rented acres across the road. The size of the herd fluctuates.
"At certain times we may have as many as 300 head, counting all the little babies." But "herd" usually refers to the mama cows, and he keeps about 100 of those. They produce the calves that Graves then raises to a target weight before selling.
This Friday, he will load up 30 young steers and heifers (females that haven't given birth) and drive them to Bluegrass Stockyard. There, the yearlings will be sold at auction and shipped off to feedlots farther west for "finishing" — packing on the pounds until they're the right weight for, let's just say, the inevitable.
It's one of the biggest single paydays in Graves' year and just in time for Christmas.
Many farmers have already done all their selling for the year, cashing in on calf prices that are up 50 percent. It takes extra resources and adequate pasture space to bring weaned calves to the yearling stage. But because Graves has the acreage, he's able to hold onto them until they reach a weight of about 800 pounds. For him it makes good business sense.
"Somebody else would buy those 6-8 month calves and take them to another farm until they get to 750-800 pounds," he says of a practice called "backgrounding."
Rather than subject the calves to the extra move and the extra trip to the sales ring, which can be detrimental to their health, he backgrounds them himself. "Then we can make that money, too," he says.
Beneath his camouflage ballcap, it turns out, lurks a mind with an advanced degree. Besides working for Delta, he also got an MBA in Atlanta from Georgia State. So he knows all about vertical integration, or controlling each stage of production — Henry Ford's Model A plant is a classic example.
"The more people I can cut out the better," Graves says, then laughs. "That sounds kind of brutal."
Somehow it seems unlikely that a ruthless businessman would go through life as "Pokey."
A breed apart
Graves' "mama cows" are a subgroup of the European breed Simmental called Fleckvieh, a large-frame "dual purpose" strain bred to produce both milk and beef. In this respect he's a little out of the mainstream.
"My end purpose in all of this is to raise pounds of beef. Dual purpose helps because if you produce more milk, the calf will get more milk and grow faster and bigger."
Some experts might question his approach. UK extension professor Darrh Bullock and others will tell you a moderate cow size generally seems to work best in this region. But Graves says Fleckviehs work for him.
If you buy beef in stores or restaurants, you've probably seen the word "Angus" on more and more labels. That, Graves says, is thanks to intense marketing by the American Angus Association.
"It's paid off for them. Other breeds have gone to making theirs look like Angus"
Angus is black, and black cattle generally bring a premium, no matter how much Angus they actually have in them. In Scott County, farmers will cross-breed for the color, but also because cross-breeding creates a more vigorous animal.
As to whether Angus is inherently superior in terms of taste, Graves says, "Any breed of at least average genetic quality, if fed properly, will produce good meat."
Graves has started selling some of his beef and lamb directly to consumers. It's guaranteed all-natural, with no hormones or antibiotics. And if a customer is interested, Graves says, he can tell them who its grandmother and great-grandmother was.
"The meat has amazing flavor," says Kore Donnelly, co-owner of Blue Stallion Brewing, which gives Graves all their spent grain for use as feed. Donnelly and several other owners went in together last summer to buy one of Graves' cows.
The owners of Gastro Gnomes, a food truck that often parks at the Blue Stallion and other places around town, rave about Graves' service and his product.
"The minute we switched to his meat we noticed a difference. If it's beef or lamb we're serving, 90 percent of the time it comes from Pokey," says chef and co-owner Andrew Suthers.
The cattle are lowing
In the past year, Graves has relied on a helper, Craig Wright, for the day-to-day feeding. Graves' father's poor health has kept him at the family's lumber yard in Oxford during the week. But on a recent Saturday afternoon he locks the doors on that operation and drives out to his herd a few miles away. The truck pulls into a field, and cows swarm like flies around the back, which holds a couple of feed bags.
What is it about cows that appeals to him?
"Cows just suit my temperament," he says. He tried goats but they didn't want to stay home.
Does he have favorites? "You've always got to have favorites," he says. He has a soft spot in particular for No. 128.
"When she had twins she took good care of them, and she's nice to me, too," he says. Those are the ones it's hardest to let go of when the time comes that they're no longer productive. "But you have to. It's got to be a business to keep it running," he says.
Graves is surrounded by cows as soon as he steps out of the truck. He gives a few a friendly rub.
"Every farmer will tell you something a little different. I'm just one version." But speaking for himself and for others he knows, he says, "We do it because we like it, the way we like it. Not for the money."