Nearly 30 years ago, Dick and Kim Cates started raising grass-fed beef on their scenic Iowa County farm, not far from the Wisconsin River in Spring Green, Wis. At first, they sold their beef to family and friends. Later they began selling to high-end grocery stores, such as Willy Street Co-op and Metcalfe’s in Madison, and to Madison restaurants.
The couple started raising Angus steers because that’s what everyone wanted. But soon they began raising Jersey steers they purchased as weaned calves from former students Dick had taught at University of Wisconsin-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course. Along with selling about 35 head of cattle each year, they custom-raised dairy heifers on their pastures for area farmers.
Next generation on the farm
In 2016, Dick and Kim transitioned their farm to their son Eric and his wife, Kiley. The young couple has a daughter, Sloane Helen, who will be 3 years old in July, and a son, Fischer Lyman, who was born in April.
“We buy the calves when they are weaned and raise them until they are 20 months to 2½ years old,” Eric says. “On average, they are 2 years old when we have them butchered.
“The number of head on the farm is always changing. I purchase weaned calves mainly in the spring, when we have a lot of grass. I buy a few in the summer and fall. I try to have the least number of animals in the winter.
“About half the calves are Jerseys, and half are Angus. We like having a mix. We’ve purchased some Angus crossbreeds in the past.”
Eric works with Straka Meats in Plain, just north of Spring Green, and Prem Meats in Spring Green.
By January of this year, Eric says they were selling most of their steers to Madison grocery stores and restaurants. In February, he began stockpiling some frozen beef for his regular household customers.
“When my parents started selling their beef to restaurants, the number of household customers dwindled over the years,” the 35-year-old says. “At the start of this year, we had 15 or so customers who bought meat from us for their freezers. In March, when the restaurants shut down due to coronavirus, I thought, I have all of these animals — now what?”
In a matter of days, the phone started ringing. “Every other day I was getting an email or a phone call from friends, and friends of friends, who wanted to buy beef,” Eric says. “They knew us, and they knew we had beef. So, every other day, we had somebody new reaching out to us.”
Soon, his stockpile of beef ran out. “A lot of these folks are new customers, and I had to tell them I won’t have anything until the middle of May, and they said, ‘That’s OK.’ It’s convenient for most folks, and they want to buy local,” Eric says.
“Our butchers [Straka Meats and Prem Meats] are old family-run operations, and they are still relatively small. They do a really nice job, and because they are small, they can control the number of cattle that are coming in. Since coronavirus hit, a lot of these smaller meat processors are getting a lot of new customers who want to buy their meat from them.”
Personalized service for buying beef
Consumers are finding out farmers can be very flexible and easy to work with, Eric says.
“I will pack up their order and leave it in the cooler, and they can come and pick it up and leave a check,” he explains. “I also deliver their beef to their porch, and they can pay me through PayPal, and that makes it easy for both parties.”
Eric thinks when the coronavirus crisis is over, some of his customers will return to their old routines and buy meat at grocery stores.
“But I think a lot will continue to support small farmers like ourselves and our friends, or they will work with small butchers that they can source locally. The silver lining in all of this is people are coming to us — they are checking out our website at catesfamilyfarm.com, and they are buying our beef.”
Click through the slideshow to see photos of the Cates operation.