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Approximately 9,000 calves weaned annually

line art of herd of cattleSeldom is heard a discouraging word during TDCJ cattle roundups

Irvin Bruening standing at wooden gate as he watches cattle go through.
Ellis Unit Livestock Supervisor Irvin Bruening directs cows and calves through a sorting chute during a weaning season roundup.

Photo by David Nunnelee

There was no chuck wagon chock-full of biscuits, bacon and beans. There were no campfires for the cowboys to sit around and serenade. There wasn’t even a “Eeee Haw!” or two sounded on the trail.

Still, seldom was heard a discouraging word for a return of the old days at this home on the range. This was a modern-day TDCJ cattle roundup that took place at the Ellis Unit outside of Huntsville earlier this year.

Cows and their calves are rounded up, or penned, at a dozen TDCJ prison units each year. About half of the units round up their cattle in the spring, and the other half do so in the fall. The purpose of collecting the cattle is to separate, or wean, the 7-month-old calves from their mothers. And when that happens, “Oooh, doggie!” is it ever noisy.

“The calves are calling for their moms, and the cows are calling for their babies said Todd Swick, who oversees TDCJ’s livestock operations for the Agriculture, Land & Minerals department.

The spring and fall weaning seasons span anywhere from two to three weeks. Approximately 3,000 head are weaned in the spring and some 6,000 head in the fall. Once separated from mama, the calves are sorted by sex and all the heifers are trucked to the Heifer Development Center at the Eastham Unit near Lovelady. There they are sorted by breed group and evaluated as to their fitness for assignment to the cowherd as replacements for cows taken out of production. Approximately 40 percent of the heifer calves weaned each year are normally retained for the heifer development program, Swick said. Heifer calves not making the grade are sold through a satellite video auction, as are all the steer calves. To ensure that the animals are healthy when marketed, all calves are weaned a minimum of 60 days for observation.

None of the 225 calves rounded up one April morning at the Ellis Unit showed any signs of illness. Swick and Ellis Livestock Supervisor Irvin Bruening said the excellent condition of the animals had much to do with the department’s preventative vaccination program and the fact that the cattle are gathered with as little stress as possible being put on them. Instead of whooping and hollering, the mounted cowboys in white and civilian dress at Ellis moseyed the cattle from pasture to pen in an orderly, almost gentle, fashion. No ropes were needed.

“We have one of the best health programs there is,” Swick said. “And as a producer, you don’t want to stress those animals. Not only does stress negatively affect the health of animals, but from a marketing standpoint, if they run, they’re taking weight off and you’ve spent a lot of money to get that weight put on them. So our working of the cattle is done in the safest manner possible, not only for the animals, but for the employees and offenders as well.”

In all, the Ellis Unit rounded up approximately 1,400 head of cattle this weaning season. At the same time, cattle were weaned at the Pack Unit in Navasota, the Telford Unit in New Boston, and the Buffalo Ranch facility in Burleson County.

Calves selected as replacement heifers spend about 18 months at the Eastham Unit, where they are bred to Angus bulls purchased by the agency. Once bred to calve at 30 months of age, the heifers become part of the cowherd and remain in the herd as long as they are productive. Cows that fail to produce a calf each year are taken out of production and sold.

Most of the cattle raised by TDCJ are marketed and sent to large feed lots, where they are fattened before being shipped for processing. Swick said because packers will pay a premium for cattle whose meat can be exported to other counties, each heifer and steer calf weaned by the agency is fitted with a microchip ear tag that can be scanned to track the animal back to where and when it was born. The ear-tagging program verified through the United States Department of Agriculture guarantees the age and source of the calves to buyers.

“We are age and source verified,” Swick said. “The microchip ear tag definitely makes our cattle more attractive from a marketing standpoint.”

None of the cattle raised by TDCJ throughout the state are processed for internal consumption. Instead, the agency buys quality beef trim for the making of the various meat products served to the offender population. All of the pork and eggs produced by the agency is consumed internally.

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