Virtual Farm Tour: Beef-on-dairy is one component of whole-farm success at Four Cubs Farm LLC

Posted on October 27, 2023 in Starting Strong - Calf Care

The Peterson family has farmed in Grantsburg, Wisconsin, since the land was homesteaded nearly 150 years ago.  The family and farm team are proud of the farm’s rich legacy and its role in the community, and they’re focused on innovation to support the farm’s future.

Four Cubs Farm LLC is owned by Gary and Cris Peterson and their son, Ben.  Nathan Brandt has worked as the farm’s herd manager since 2014.  Like many dairy farms, Four Cubs Farm gradually grew and expanded as new generations joined the farming business.

The past decade has been especially marked by change and diversification.  The dairy milks 1,000 Holstein cows with 16 robotic milking units, which were installed following a 2017 fire that destroyed the original dairy barn and the farm’s milking parlor.

With a passion for revitalizing the local downtown, Ben and his wife, Nicki, opened Brickfield Brewing in Grantsburg in 2018.  The brewery operates on a “grain-to-glass” concept; beer is brewed from grains grown at the home farm and spent grains return to the farm as feed for the herd.

In March 2020, Ben and Nathan recognized the major market upsets they would soon face due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  Nathan quickly connected with a local butcher to book appointments for cull cows.  That connection turned out to be immensely valuable – far beyond the reach of the pandemic.

Nathan, who grew up on a livestock farm and worked in the genetics industry before joining the Four Cubs Farm team, saw opportunity in implementing beef-on-dairy as part of the farm’s breeding and genetics program.  Instead of selling the beef calves, the team decided to finish and direct-market their own beef.  In 2022, Gary, Cris, Ben, Nicki, Nathan, and Gary and Cris’ daughter, Caroline Snodgrass, partnered to create a new business – Brickfield Market.

Four Cubs Farm finished 42 beef steers in 2022 and will finish 34 in 2023, according to Nathan.  The meat is dry-aged for a minimum of 14 days, processed into ground beef, steaks, and more, and sold through Brickfield Market.

Nathan, Gary, and Cris said their relationship with the local butcher is critical in being able to offer the products their customers want.  The homegrown beef can be purchased online and picked up at Brickfield Brewing or purchased from the brewery’s storefront cooler.  Brickfield Market also operates a food truck; smash burgers are the signature entrée.

A dairy farm first
Nathan pointed out that, amidst all the business ventures, Four Cubs Farm is first and foremost a dairy farm.  Thus, everything they do needs to support the health and longevity of the dairy herd as well as farm efficiency.

He said 65% of the herd is bred to beef semen.  Initially, Nathan selected Limousin bulls for the beef-on-dairy crosses, but long gestations led to calving-related issues and lower milk production in the subsequent lactation.  Nathan said he switched to using Simmental-Angus bulls and calving issues have declined.

“At the end of the day, we’re a dairy farm,” he said.  “We want pregnancies and to promote the next lactation.”

Investing in quality beef
Nathan is strategic in his choices of beef genetics.  Not only does he want to promote the health and production of the dairy herd, but he also selects bulls for their rate of gain and carcass quality.

“It’s not about being cheap, it’s about making economical decisions,” he said.  “I invest in genetics because it’s going to pay down the road.  If you’re going to sell meat, you need to look at carcass and growth.”

He also pointed out that margins are slim when direct-marketing beef and it’s not guaranteed profit.  Losing a beef animal – especially an older animal – can quickly diminish margins.  Nathan advised fellow producers to invest a lot of time into planning and strategy before launching a beef program.

Gary emphasized that point.

“It’s not just something you pick up and do,” he said.  “You need someone who really understands all the numbers and can make them work.”

Youngstock management
All newborn calves – whether they are Holsteins or beef crosses – receive the same care.

“You have to keep it simple,” Nathan said.  “If you make it complicated by having different protocols for the different groups of animals, it won’t be done right.”

Holstein bull calves and beef-cross heifer calves are sold within the first couple of days of life.  The farm previously raised its preweaned dairy heifers in hutches near the freestall barn, but started sending them to a custom calf raiser this past year.

The farm is now nearing completion of a feed center – located where the hutches had been – that will reduce feed shrink and improve feeding efficiency.

“We needed to relocate our heifer calves as we were building the feed center, so we decided to take the opportunity to learn how we could do a better job of raising them,” Nathan said, noting that the team was frustrated with respiratory challenges in preweaned heifer calves.

The preweaned beef calves continue to be raised at the home farm in individual pens in a calf barn.  Nathan said respiratory challenges in the Holstein heifer calves have decreased and he attributes that to the custom raiser’s vaccination protocols.  He has now adopted the same protocols for the beef calves.

After weaning, the beef calves are grouped and then moved to a barn about 10 minutes away from the home farm.  Holstein heifers leave the custom raiser and are placed in this same barn at five months of age.  The heifers will stay in that barn for two months, move to a heifer raiser in Minnesota, and return prior to calving.

The beef calves receive the same starter they had at the home farm until 12 weeks of age when they transition to grower feed and then to a TMR.  Nathan noted that they receive the same TMR as the heifers until about 650 pounds.  This TMR has a higher forage content than a typical beef diet, but they achieve a favorable cost per pound of gain and greater efficiency by mixing only one TMR.

When they weigh about 650 pounds, the beef steers move onto a pasture where they remain through finishing.  They are supplemented with the milk cow refusals, which has decreased the farm’s feed shrink, as well as a beef TMR.

Building a brand
In its second year of operation, Brickfield Market is gradually building a reputation for quality beef in the local area.  Cris, who has authored several agricultural-themed children’s books, is well-versed in educating consumers about the food on their tables.

Cris said, “I get it.  They look at us and say, ‘That’s a dairy farm, why would we go there for quality beef?’  So, part of the process is explaining how beef cattle are a part of our dairy farm.”

Nathan said they are fortunate that Ben’s wife, Nicki, also owns a marketing firm and can apply her expertise to the business.  He said demand for their beef is growing and that the farm has capacity to further expand its beef production.  However, he said they won’t make that move until they are certain it will continue to support whole-farm profitability.

The team also explained that diversification comes with a steep learning curve.  For example, the owners realized their greatest opportunity is in local sales as shipping meat is costly.  They also learned that the food truck required more time and effort than expected.

“It was fun and exciting in the beginning when we were learning,” Gary said.  “But it got exhausting pretty quickly.”

To ensure they can still focus on the dairy farm, the team hired an employee to take the lead on food preparation and cleaning, which has helped them immensely.  They also decided to limit travel with the food truck and primarily use it to serve food at Brickfield Brewing on summer weekends.  This has proven to work better both financially and in terms of time invested.

Focused on slow growth and making wise long-term decisions, the team at Four Cubs Farm is optimistic about how diversification will allow the farm – and the families involved – to thrive into the future while bringing business into the local community and offering quality products to local consumers.

“I like it.  I like the whole concept of it,” Cris said and noted that they proudly open their doors to the community and share the Four Cubs Farm story at the brewery, at the dairy breakfast the farm hosts annually, and through their quality beef products.

“If you want to be here in the future, invest in it,” Nathan said, smiling.  “We take it as an opportunity to help build the community where we live and keep doing what we love.”

Category: Animal handling
Dairy beef production
Starting Strong - Calf Care