Monday, September 12, 2005

Things We Never Knew About Cows Until We Talked With Wayne Bley



Ever wonder how much a cow costs? Me neither, but the question arose yesterday and today we found ourselves at the meat counter at Bley’s Grocery Store to get a pair of Porthouse steaks. Wayne Bley, the butcher and co-proprietor, with wife Paula, has been operating the tiny grocery story in Jacksonport, WI since the beginning of time. I didn’t see any porthouse steaks in the refrigerated display case, but I knew from past experience to ask. He offered to cut us the steaks and disappeared into the walk-in cooler. He emerged with a large piece of a cow. Technically, a steer, which is a castrated bull. I don’t know what this part of the steer he hauled out of the walk-in cooler is called, and forgot to ask because I was mesmerized as we watched him lay the four foot section of beef on a bandsaw. He cut off a large portion and then sliced four, inch-think slabs off the remaining three foot piece. The steaks had large sections of pure fat attached, which he trimmed away. A moment later he slapped the steaks onto a large piece of butcher’s paper, expertly wrapped them and secured the package with two pieces of tape. After weighing the package, he scribbled the price on the package and handed it over with a smile.


We were curious and Wayne obliged us. Young steers cost between $200 and $500. A slaughtered steer, dressed, weighs about 700 lbs. He described that in commercial operations, a steer is ready for market in about a year. Wayne noted that he does not give his cattle any hormones and waits until the steer is a year and a half old before he brings it in to have slaughtered. He keeps anywhere from sixty to ninety head and butchers only one steer a week. That seems to be the right amount of meat for the demand at his small store. He described that he has to take the chosen steer all the way to Brussels for slaughter because that’s the closest place that has an inspector.


I asked him, finally, how much a cow costs. A dairy cow, that is. I had guessed about $1,000. Wayne reported that the price ranges from $1,200 to $2,500 for a mature beast. More than I expected. He pointed out that farmers generally buy calves, not mature cows. The going price for a calf is $500 to $800. We were surprised to learn that the calves are separated from their mothers after only a day or two. How long do they . . . “last,” I asked? About ten years, more or less. Wayne confirmed that all cows, not just bulls, have horns, but that farmers burn them off when they are calves so that they don’t harm each other. Evidently, cows with horns can get rather mean.

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