Tommy Casados grew up on his father’s family ranch in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico. It was a cow-calf operation with perennial grass fields in this 16-inch rainfall environment. They followed the traditional stewardship of the land for New Mexico, grazing in high country in summer and making hay and coming back to the home place in the winter or their 500 acres of irrigated land, running about 400 head of cattle. They leased about 10,000 -12,000 acres in the Carson National Forest that were broken up into around three allotments.
As Tommy grew up on the ranch, he was planning on going to college to get an engineering degree. At the same time, he was getting into rodeo and team roping and met a friend who was interning with the local Soil and Water Conservation District. After listening to him talk about the work there, Tommy got interested in working for the Natural Resources Conservation Services. With that focus in mind, he shifted focus to Rangeland Science at New Mexico State University and became a student intern at NRCS his sophomore year. When he graduated from NMSU, he began working fulltime for the NRCS in 2007.
Growing a Beef Business
As Tommy worked at the NRCS, his thoughts kept turning to how livestock could be used as a tool to manage land. “I was given so many resources to learn and work with ranchers at the NRCS,” says Tommy. “I also saw so much grazing going on in an unmanaged way. I knew I just had to start my own business and experiment with grazing. So, I left the NRCS to graze cows and sell beef in 2017 and started C4 Farms with my wife Jessica.
“Our cattle started on 20 acres of leased pasture in 2013 and we were looking for more pasture. We acquired new leases on irrigated pastures and got up to 100 acres and then picked up a State Land lease for 640 acres and 1,000 acres of open rangeland private lease.”
Tommy notes that the irrigated land was 5.5 times more productive than the rangeland so when he can get those leases the additional cost is worth it. He also notes that it has been challenging to get some leases because when there is change in ownership for the property, he may lose the lease. Given that he has to juggle these leases right now he only owns stocker cattle so he can have flexibility for his management.
“State Land leases are pretty easy,” says Tommy. “They were really good to work with and they are 5-year leases. The bill is sent every July to be paid by October 1st. If you have to do improvements, the process is really quick to get approval. It usually only takes 5 days to a couple of weeks. We did have one State lease that was overgrown with trees and we had to hire a hand crew to thin about 70 acres of it.”
Initially Tommy started out with 100 momma cows and retained 35-40 calves to be finished. They had them processed at Manassa and Romeo, Colorado and even as far as Durango. After expanding the herd, he sold his cow/calf operation to his grandfather and now sources calves from him and other producers. Last year C4 Farms butchered 97 head and grazed 135 head. They are hopefully processing 130 cows this year.
Tommy got into the Santa Fe market and was selling beef sticks and jerky they produced. This experience started him thinking about having their own processing company. “I started to think about how to move the whole animal,” says Tommy. “We started the process of building a processing plant in 2018. People started hearing about what we were doing and saying they wanted to bring their animals. There was definitely a need. The County heard and wanted to get a grant for the processing facility. We got approved for a $75,000 Meat Readiness Grant and started building in 2021 in Tierra Amarilla and opened the doors in September 2022. We started full operation slaughter and processing the beginning of May 2023 as a USDA-inspected facility. We have a capacity for 24 head/week for cattle, but don’t have the labor force. We currently process a mix of cattle, lamb, pork, and goat.
“We plan on training our labor force. Right now, we have some of our staff who have trained with online courses and workshops and they are training new employees. Eventually we will have 10-11 people. We also want to compost the offal.
“The criteria for the cattle we buy in is that they have to be pasture-raised, no growth hormones, and no antibiotic use in meat animals we sell. We try to source short-framed with a little long body Angus, with a little Limousine cross. We aim for a 680-pound carcass at 18 months. Our job is to focus on backgrounding and finishing the calves we bring in.
“We finish them on irrigated pastures or improved rangeland pastures and start butchering in late June and early July through December. We do weekly monitoring of body condition and dung score, looking for a good pudding consistency for the dung and a minimum body score of 7. I’m also monitoring my pastures. We are grazing and moving the cattle every day. We give them about 1.5-2 acres per day for 135 head. We are aiming for 1,000-pound live weight for harvest.”
One way that Tommy experimented with finishing was to lease a 120-acre circle pivot and fence it by dividing it into thirds. Then he used temporary fencing and split the permanent paddocks further into smaller paddocks to feed the animals for a couple of weeks at a time because the lease was some distance from his home. He was able to graze 70 yearlings on this dormant alfalfa for three months from December to February. However, he didn’t get as much gain as he had hoped. He finds that it makes more financial sense to feed animals closer to home. He feeds approximately 20 pounds/head/day of alfalfa, triticale, grass hay and beet pulp to get the gains he needs.
Tommy doesn’t separate the steers and heifers so having one herd makes things easier. He’s also being careful to keep his leases close to home. He allows at least 30-days recovery on irrigated land and his rangeland he grazes once during the growing season, using the State Land lease for winter range. Since improved soil health is an important piece of their business model, he has been pleased to see that he is getting good diversity of grasses and legumes, with the plants thickening up and getting darker. He has also noted with increased stock density he is seeing better manure distribution.
Portable electric fencing is one key tool in the success of C4 Farms. Tommy uses Gallagher chargers and reels, polywire, step in posts with double tread ends and a cordless hand drill to roll up the polywire. They purchased portable troughs and with NRCS funding were able to put in a new well and extend their water system as well as build an underpass to allow their cattle to go under the highway.
Building a Meat Delivery Market
As Tommy was building out the production end of the business with the processing plant and developing leases for the backgrounding and finishing end of the business, he was also building his market through word of mouth, home deliveries, and social media. He currently moves about 400 pounds of meat/week.
They make 15-17 deliveries a week for their retail sales and they also sell quarters and halves as well. People can place their order two days before delivery. They deliver to northern New Mexico (Santa Fe, Espanola, Abiquiu, and Los Alamos) one week and central New Mexico (Albuquerque/Rio Rancho) on the next week. Their customers come from all different demographics. They are not doing farmers markets anymore because of the time commitment those take. They are thrilled with the success of their delivery. They also just got approved for the New Mexico Supplier program so they can supply schools and senior centers.
Tommy said they tried a buyers’ club model and it wasn’t working, so this individual approach has been the solution. They use insulated bags for the home deliveries and have used coolers. They got a salvaged van from the schools and fixed it and insulated it and use it now for the business.
Their customers are excited about the quality of the meat that comes from good finishing and the two weeks of aging after harvest. They also want to support the good land stewardship ethic that Tommy talks about on his social media channels and their website. As Tommy notes:
“Our goal at C4 Farms is to grow as much grass as possible for our cattle to harvest. To accomplish our goal we utilize a rotational grazing system that allows us to graze small pastures for short periods of time then rest those pastures from grazing until they have adequately recovered. This grazing system provides many environmental benefits such as improving the water cycle and the nutrient cycle. Keeping the soil covered is key to improving both cycles. Living plants and the litter from dead plant material help to hold in soil moisture, making more water available for plant growth while also keeping the soil at an adequate temperature to sustain soil organism life. Soil organisms drive the nutrient cycle by breaking down organic matter and making nutrients available for plant growth. The end result of our management is healthy, nutritious, and delicious beef for our customers!!”
New Agrarian Apprentice Program