by Sally Colby
Like many farmers throughout the nation, Dan and Sue Egan have been caring for livestock through incredibly cold temperatures this winter. And their location in Forestville, NY, not far from Buffalo, means they’re also dealing with record snowfall levels.
Dan Egan, who manages the Hanova Hills cattle herd, wasn’t raised in a farming family. He grew up in town and worked on a dairy farm, then he and his wife Sue joined as partners in the Lake Country Premium Natural Beef with Doug and Barbara Bunker. Although Doug Bunker recently passed away, Dan and Sue are continuing the operation with Barbara.
When the Egans joined the operation, the herd included about 60 cows. Dan recalls that some calves were being fed out on the farm while others went to the farm’s nearby feedlot for Hanova Hills’ own Lake Country Premium Beef label. “When I came here, we wanted to do it all,” said Dan. “We wanted to switch to finishing the cattle here, so we revamped an old dairy barn to make it better for finishing cattle.”
Today, the cowherd includes about 135 cows, primarily Angus with some baldy cows that are the result of Hereford sires. “They’re really good moms,” said Dan, describing the white-faced cows. “I think we get a lot of hardiness from the Hereford breed. They seem to do better in winter. The black baldy steers will finish faster, and seem to have better quality beef.”
Any black baldy females that are retained are crossed back to an Angus bull to retain the desirable Angus traits, including the black hide. Dan keeps four bulls — one Hereford and three Angus — and uses low birth weight bulls to avoid calving problems.
Dan explained that close to half of the 550-acre farm is wooded, and some of that acreage is included in grazing paddocks to provide shade. “We always take in some trees when we put up fencing, and do some of our winter feeding out there,” he said. “The cattle can come up to the barn for water, but we feed them along the trees and they’ll stay out there. Even on the coldest days, the oldest brood cows stay out along the trees.”
In winter, cows are fed dry hay and baleage, and Dan explained that rather than designating sacrifice pastures, he uses pastures year-round as part of an improvement plan. “If I have some pastures that aren’t the best, I’ll start feeding hay out there in fall,” he said. “Then we go in there in spring and use an aerator to flatten out the ground and run a packer behind it. I broadcast some seed, and with the cattle manure and seed from the hay we’ve fed, the ground becomes green right away in spring. It isn’t very sophisticated but it works. We typically run the aerator over every area the cattle have been in winter once it’s dry enough in spring.”
Although the total grazing acreage includes about 300 acres, Dan doesn’t maintain a strict rotation schedule. “I move cows at least once a week,” he said. “In summer, I run about four different groups of cattle, and depending on which group is being moved, they won’t be in the same area for more than a week.” Dan uses a bush hog to clip pastures after cattle have grazed to ensure no undesirable weeds go to seed.
Water for cattle is primarily from five deep wells in various pastures. “We take a portable generator, plug it into the well and fill 300-gallon poly water tanks,” Dan explained. “As we move cattle, we also move the water tub and generator to the next pasture.” Although there are streams in some pastures, Dan prefers to rely on the wells for a steady source of clean drinking water.
Dan worked with NRCS to add a concrete pad and barn gutters to manage runoff. He has also rehabilitated a lot of abandoned pasture by clearing and fencing it. He said purchasing a bulldozer to do heavy-duty clearing has saved wear and tear on the tractor. “We clear a little more each year, then let the cattle go in and knock it down more,” he said. “We also feed them hay in there, but the cattle do more clearing work.”
Although caring for a large herd of cows is a significant amount of work, especially in winter, Dan considers his system to be minimal input. “We rely on pasture and concentrate on grass,” he said. “Our winter program is based on getting cows through the winter so they have healthy calves on pasture in spring.”
Although cattle receive the appropriate vaccinations and fly control measures, they’re mostly on their own other than supplemental winter feeding.
Bulls are in with the cowherd for 60 days in July and August for April/May calving. Cattle are pregnancy checked, and leave the herd if not confirmed in calf. Newborn calves are tagged with hand-written tags that denote bull or heifer and birth year. Dan carries a calving book with him during the season to record calving dates, calf size or any difficulties. He said in general, overall herd quality is good, so calving problems are minimal.
Calves are weaned at about six months in November using a fence line weaning system. “I lock the calves in the barn and the cows are outside on a concrete pad,” Dan explained. “After a few days we put the cows back out to pasture and it’s over.” Dan doesn’t see any benefit in pushing grain to young calves, and has seen calves do well on grass through summer and until weaning.
Newly weaned calves are immediately started on soft, second cutting hay before being slowly introduced to baleage. “At finishing, they still get baleage, which is mostly grass, and we’ll give them about six to eight pounds of grain per head per day for about three to four months,” said Dan, adding that he believes grain feeding toward the end of finishing helps improve the overall carcass quality. “We buy local feed, which is mostly ground corn with distiller’s grains and wheat middlings. Since all calves are born in spring, the largest calves are separated for finishing first, and the smaller ones go later on.”
Finished animals are taken to a USDA processor in Girard, PA, which is about an hour and a half away from Hanova Hills. Beef is dry aged for 14 days, then cut to specs, cryo-packaged and labeled Lake Country Premium Natural Beef. Beef is sold at three farmers markets in the Buffalo area from May through November. Hanova Hills also offers custom cuts, halves and quarters.
Sue manages the books, farmers markets and meat orders in addition to her full-time teaching position. Since beef is custom-cut for customers who purchase quarters and halves, Sue often spends a significant amount of time explaining cutting options.
“Our selling point is that everything we sell is under my control,” said Dan. “It’s born here and never leaves this farm. I have total control over it from the time it’s born until slaughter.”
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