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Washington farmer has a simple, but lofty goal
Mike Hora hopes to achieve 100% prime grade beef from his cattle farm
WASHINGTON — Fourth generation farmer Mike Hora has always been passionate about beef, to say the least.
"I’ve always liked cattle, I like the way they look, I like the way they smell, I like the way they taste,“ he said. ”We sold the dairy cows when I was 14, I missed them. We were still feeding cattle, but I wanted cows. It took a while, but when I was 32, in 1982, I started building a beef cow herd … Farming and cattle are an addiction for me, it’s something in the blood, it’s genetic, it’s almost like a religion.“
The herd has grown considerably since then. Hora’s farm had 210 cows. Because his herd calves in spring instead of winter, that number will likely more than double this month.
“With the cattle on the ground that will be coming here in the next two to three weeks, and the calves left over from last year, we’ll have 500 plus or minus head of cattle at any given time,” Hora said.
Compared to industrial scale feeding operations, Hora’s farm on the eastern outskirts of Washington seems small — a two-person operation that he runs with his wife, although they sometimes hire seasonal help. By Iowa standards, however, Hora said it was a big deal.
“The average cattle herd in the United States is 30 head, because there are so many of them that are backyard operations,” he said. “But as cow herds, I’m one of the bigger ones in Washington County. I don’t know for sure, but I bet I’m probably third or fourth.”
What sets the farm apart is its commitment to quality. The highest-quality USDA classification of red meat is the prime grade. Nationwide, agency data says only around 5% of beef has the marbling to make that cut in an average year. Hora’s operation currently produces at least 66%, with a goal of reaching 100% in the next few years.
“Some people say, ‘I’m selling hay by feeding cattle,’ some people say, ‘I’m selling corn,’ I say that I’m selling beef,” he said. “I do care about grass corn, pasture, et cetera, because they’re all integral parts of the enterprise, but my main goal has always been extremely high quality, very tasty, high-marbled beef. And people are highly satisfied with it.”
The million dollar question then, is how he does it. Hora’s years of experience have taught him several tricks.
The first is an emphasis on genetics.
“I’ve invested so much time in the genetic angle of it, I consider myself an amateur geneticist, I really do,” Hora said. “If cattle do not have the genetics to grade prime, they will never do it. Some people are under the fallacious idea that the longer you feed cattle, the more marbling you’re going to put in them. That is true to an extent, but if they don’t have the genetics for prime, you can feed them all the corn for 15 years, and (they) are not going to grade prime.”
The second big factor is feed: Hora’s cows dine on corn silage and a protein supplement.
“If you get low energy value feed such as straight grass, straight hay, then that holds back their ability to express marbling,” he said. “You need high-energy rations to give them to completely express the ability to add marbling to their meat.
Third is management. Hora said the goal was to make “every day a good day” for the cows he raised.
“From the day they’re born to the day they’re weaned, we manage and try to have every single environmental factor they’re exposed to be positive,” he said. “We vaccinate for all the diseases, we worm the cows, the calves, we pour them with insecticides … If they’re stressed, that greatly inhibits their ability to grade prime. So I know how to handle cattle and I know how to handle them quietly.”
Lastly, Hora has a magnum opus, a “Bull Buyer’s Manifesto” handwritten on printer paper, containing the 11 factors he considers whenever purchasing a new bull. The list ranges from practical, data-driven points like having the DNA testing to prove tenderness to gut-check methods like “prefer breeders who are multigenerational with objectives the same as mine.”
The list is less of an unalterable decree and more of a living document.
“I’ve always had those in the back of the mind, and somewhere along the line … it hit me, ‘Why not write these things down,” he said. “If I come up with something else, I’ll add to it.”
Taken together, Horas’ methods have established a strong reputation for his company, Hora Prime Beef. Hora said the name was “braggadocious ” when he started, but has always been the brand’s goal.
“The packers love my cattle, they buy them sight unseen over the phone,” he said. “They don’t need to come and see ours because they know what the hell they’re getting. I have not met the two buyers that I work with now … but they buy our cattle because they know how they’re going to grade.”
Hora, now 72 years old, said he may slow down soon, but had no plans to commit to retirement.
“I’d like to have some time off,” he said. “We don’t have vacations. The last time I had a week off was in the year 2000. And that’s all right, I like to work, but it’d be nice to slow down a little … but I love it. As long as I’m physically capable, I can continue on.”