Category Archives: Cattle

Marion’s Calf

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Meet Martin!

Martin is the last of our calves and kids to join us in 2012.  He was born early this morning and his mother Marion had him right inside the daily paddock rather than breaking down the electric fencing and going off to a corner while setting all of the other animals free.  Since I had to go to work, I really appreciated Marion’s considerateness.

Martin is a half-brother to Lawrence, sired by the same bull last summer.  Half-brother can also be taken another way and still be literal, because while Lawrence checked in at a robust 105 lbs Martin joined us today at a much more reasonable 68 lbs.  I’d rather our calves be 70 lbs than 100 lbs just for the safety of the mother and to reduce or eliminate the need to pull calves.

Martin was freshly born when I encountered him at six o’clock this morning.  The morning fog was pretty thick, and I couldn’t see him until I was right up next to the paddock.  His mother was still trying to dry him off.  Martin was not so interested in being dried off, Martin was interested in milk.  He would not stand still for cleaning until he had gotten a good long drink of it.

After he finished his drink I weighed him, put iodine on his navel and umbilical cord, and gave him ear tag #2.

I’m looking forward to seeing him this afternoon after work.  I can’t stop worrying about him.  We are having “unseasonably warm weather” here in early May.  That’s the weatherman’s polite way of saying it’s going to be 90° today.  I hope he’s able to find the shade shack.

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Calving Season has Begun!

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This afternoon I came home to find that the cows and goats had broken out of their paddock.  The fence was knocked down and everyone was huddled underneath the pine trees at one end of the pasture except for Ivory, who was still in the original paddock with her two new kids, and Laurel, who was at the opposite end of the pasture from everyone else and grazing contentedly in the shade.

I commenced to take down the old paddock’s electric fence and set up a new paddock when I noticed the large afterbirth sitting there.  I immediately trotted over to Laurel and saw her brand-new heifer bull calf resting next to her in the shade.  I was so excited!  I’d had April 20th circled on my calendar since the day we’d bought the cattle in September and Laurel surprised us by giving birth one day early.

One day early did not mean scrawny, however.  The calf, who we’ve named Leslie Lawrence, weighed 105 pounds.  Wow!  From the sale data about the cow we bought and the bull it had been bred to, I was expecting a calf in the 80-pound area.  Since we don’t have a livestock scale, we drug the bathroom scale out and I stood on it holding the calf and we just subtracted my weight.  She He may weigh a little more than 105, because she he and I together maxed out our 280-pound scale!

After weighing her him we dipped the umbilical cord in iodine and gave her him an ear tag – #1!

Then we walked Leslie Lawrence and Laurel back to the new paddock we set up and corralled everyone else in as well.  All the cattle are very curious and keep investigating the calf.  The goats try to sniff her him as well, but Laurel won’t let any of them get close.

As soon as the other calf is born, we’ll send in the paperwork to register two more members of the threatened Red Poll breed.

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Leslie Lawrence stands up and investigates the grass. Is this what we eat?
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The family group: Laurel, Larue, and Leslie Lawrence. Larue is Laurel’s calf from last year.
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Mama and calf cruising the paddock.
Leslie Lawrence resting in the grass after a nursing session.
What’re you doing to my calf?
Head shot.
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UPDATE
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Upon further examination, “Leslie” is in fact a little bull calf.  When we first examined him, his testicles were sucked up into his body and I saw 4 nipples so I assumed “girl.”  Yes, I was a biology teacher but I guess I needed to pay more attention to the cattle anatomy lecture.  So “Leslie” became “Lawrence” today.
The obvious down side is that we don’t have a new heifer to add to our herd and Lawrence will have to go away at some point.  The plus side is that we will have beef to eat or sell in approximately 30 months.
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Barn Raisin’

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We just finished a new barn on our property.  We needed a sheltered area for the goats and cattle for the winter as well as a predator-proof nighttime roost for our poultry to deter the extremely bold and clever minks.

We had one large barn from the 1940’s already but it leans pretty badly, is elevated off the ground (not predator proof), and doesn’t offer any sheltered areas for livestock that are secure.  We have 2 useful stalls that we use for quarantine purposes, but that old barn is really not useful for anything other than storage.

So with the help of Abe, one of our Amish neighbors, we designed a combination run-in shed and poultry roosting house to serve our purposes.  The completed structure is 20′ wide, 48′ long, and 8′ tall at the lowest point of the roof rising to 12′ tall at the apex.  The poultry roosting area is 16′ x 20′ (320 square feet) and the run-in shelter is 32′ by 20′ (640 square feet).

The poultry roosting section is completely enclosed with poplar boxing harvested from our woods at the top of the hill.  The boxing goes all the way up to the roof and spacers are attached to prevent any critter from climbing over the walls.  We also sunk hardwood boards a foot into the ground below the boxing to prevent digging critters.  As an extra measure of protection chicken wire will be stapled to the baseboards, buried beneath a thick layer of gravel planted with thorny cactus and multiflora rosebushes to form a (hopefully) impenetrable barrier to predators.  If any minks, raccoons, or stray cats can get through this, then we’ll just have to give up on raising chickens.  Inside the roosting house will be a bamboo roost, nesting boxes, and a feed bin with a rodent-deterring latching system all over an auto-composting deep bedding system.

The run-in shed serves as shade and shelter for the ruminants during stormy winter weather.  On the open front we will attach 2 16′ gates to span the open side.  One gate will open outwards and one gate will open into the shelter, allowing us to utilized the gate to help us corral goats for hoof trimmings.  We purposefully placed the shelter connected to the garden area to collect the fertility from the hay and manure for our crops.  Basically, the cows poop, we add some grain and cover it with straw or hay, the cows poop more, we add more grain and cover it with straw or hay, and the cows trample out all of the oxygen.  This binds all of the nutrients together and stores them until we’re ready.  No smell and no shoveling manure!

Once the cows and goats are back out on pasture in early April, we’ll buy a couple feeder pigs and turn them into the shelter and garden area.  The pigs will root through all that hay, straw, and manure in search of the grain we buried in there for them.  In the process, the pigs will inject oxygen into all that organic matter and the whole lot of it will begin to compost.  After a few weeks we will have a garden that has been fertilized and tilled as well as a couple of pigs to eat!

This shelter went up very quickly.  It took 3 men (2 Amish and 1 Geoff), 1 teenager, and 1 kid 5 days to complete it.  Very economical as well.  Abe gets good prices.  I priced out the materials at Lowe’s and the wood alone was only $700 less than we paid for the whole structure and the labor.  Plus, it’s built far more sturdily than I could have hope to build it alone.

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When the Neighbors Stop to Watch

As most readers probably know by now, we rotationally graze our cattle and goats.  That means we move our animals every day to a new area in the paddock using the electric fencing.  Around here, intensive rotational grazing is a new idea.  Most of the other livestock producers here, if they rotate their animals at all, will rotate them between 2-3 pastures every few weeks or months.  So seeing me moving cattle and goats every day has attracted a little bit of a following.

Some of the neighbors have taken to parking their trucks across the highway from our field and watching what I’m doing each afternoon while I’m moving the animals.  Sometimes there’s nobody there but other times there are as many as three pickups parked across the road.  Just watching.  If I was an attractive young lady I might find it creepy.

After the cattle and goats have left a paddock, I’ll run over it with the mower or weed whacker to knock down any of the plants that were too mature or otherwise unpalatable for the animals to eat.  Yesterday, as I was mowing the previous paddock down, one of the pickup-parking pentagenarians pulled off the road on our side of the highway, flagged me down, and we had the following conversation.  This is as close to verbatim as I can get.

Pentagenarian:  “What in the world are ya doin’ mowin’ yore pasture in December?  That grass ain’t gonna grow no more.”

Me:  “Yes sir, I know that.  I’m knocking down the grass the cattle didn’t eat so that it won’t go to seed and so that the cuttings add organic matter to the soil.”

Pentagenarian:  “Organic?  Are you one of them organic farmers?”

Me:  “No, we’re not certified organic.  I’m just talking about putting stuff down on the soil to decompose and help add fertilizer and nutrients to the soil.”

Pentagenarian:  “That’s what they make fertilizer for, son.”

Me:  “That’s one way to do it.  I like using the grass cuttings and the manure because it’s natural and I don’t have to buy it, store it, or spread it.  This way lets me buy left stuff.”

Pentagenarian:  “Well, I don’t know ’bout that.  You bought that there electric wire and rigged it up inside yore reg’lar fence.”

Me:  “That’s to move the cattle with.  Keeps ’em in one place in the field.”

Pentagenarian:  “It’s a lot less work if you just turn the cattle loose in there and let ’em graze.  I see you haulin’ that fence around ev’ry day, pushin’ their shelter around ev’ry day, haulin’ ’em water ev’ry day.  You should just put in a water line to a tank and put a feeder next to it and let them eat that.  Lots less work.”

Me:  “I know, but this way is better for the pasture as a whole.  If I left them to roam the whole field, then they’d eat their favorite plants every time they regrew a little bit, and sooner or later all that would be left in the field is the plants they don’t like.  This way the cattle are forced to eat or trample almost everything and then the plants have time to regrow before the cattle come back to that spot.”

Pentagenarian:  “Hmmm….”

Me:  “This way really thickens up the grass and soil.”

Pentagenarian:  “What’s soil got to do with raisin’ cattle?  I still think you should let ’em out of that little fence and give ’em a grain feeder.  Save you a lot of work.”

Me:  “That would save a lot of work, but we don’t feed grain at all so that’s not an option for us.”

Long, uncomfortable pause.

Pentagenarian:  “Son, yore a little different aren’t ya?”

Me:  “I guess so.”

Pentagenarian:  “I’d say so.  Well, I’d better get back to work.  Oh hey – why is yore mower so quiet?”

Me:  “It’s electric.”

Pentagenarian:  “Sigh.  You take care now.”

Now, for those of you reading this blog from a city, I may need to explain country vernacular to you.  The word “different,” for instance.  Out here, “different” is country polite for “crazy,” “touched,” “backward,” and “strange.”  It’s not good to be considered different.  For instance, all of our neighbors refer to the former owners of our property as “different.”  He was an arms dealer and sold semi-automatic weaponry from the property.  I’ve found RPG tails in the woods and he had a Gatlin gun mounted in the window of his shop when we toured the property.  That is different.  I move cows every day.  That is different, too.  I’m still working out whether or not there are varying degrees of differentness.  I hope so.

I knew we were going to farm differently.  I knew people would think we were strange for the way we were doing things.

I did not expect to have an audience while moving cattle 100 feet.

Eventually, I hope that some of these guys will notice the positive impact on our land and our animals that the rotational grazing is having.

In the meantime, anybody wanna sell tickets?

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“Holy Cow!” -Harry Caray

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Well, our cows aren’t holy.  They were just a little skinny when we got them.

I’ve done a lot of research and thinking about cows over the past year.  I’ve read a lot of books about grass fed beef production, cattle breeds, and rotational grazing practices.  I’ve visited websites good and bad and farms large and small to check out different breeds and practices.

As listed in a post from before we even bought the farm (click here to read the whole thing) the breeds I have been researching and thinking about all along were: Belted Galloways, Red Polls, Pineywoods, Longhorns, Highlands, Murray Greys, Charolais, and Brahman.  I also considered Angus, but Angus have become so popular that they are like Dalmations after a Disney movie – you can’t find good ones because lots of people are just breeding black cows together and calling them Angus.

I finally decided that Red Polls would be the best breed for us.

The Red Poll is a dual purpose breed from England that once enjoyed a prominent role in the dairy industry because of the large amount of quality milk they could produce. Prior to the advent of the modern Holstein, the Red Poll held many all-breed records for milk production. Since the introduction of the Holstein, the Red Poll has almost gone extinct – especially in North America. The few remaining proponents of the breed started to improve the Red Poll’s already strong meat characteristics in an effort to save the breed. They have been successful at creating an ideal grass-fed beef animal, but the breed still teeters towards extinction. Red Polls are listed as Threatened by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy with fewer than 1,000 head in the US and less than 5,000 head worldwide.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any breed of livestock – you just have to find the breed that you think will perform best under your management in your environment.  The Red Polls had a combination of traits that matched up well with our desire to produce beef on grass and hay only without feed, antibiotics, hormones, and other props and crutches. The Red Poll breed are very fertile – which is the most important trait of all because without a new calf to work with every year all of the other traits become moot. They are easy calving because their calves are small at birth. The calves grow very quickly and in several studies I read Red Polls led all breeds in 205-day calf weight per cow bred. The cows are able to do this because their breed history in the dairy industry means that they can produce large quantities of milk. The breed is known for being docile, which is an important characteristic for us since we move our cattle every day. We want protective mothers, but not aggressive cattle. We get that with the Red Poll breed. The breed is also moderate in size (cows around 1200 lbs and bulls around 1800 lbs), giving them the ability to fatten and marble on grass alone. They are one of only a handful of breeds that can finish to Choice on grass. Red Polls are reknowned for the tenderness and quality of the beef they produce.

Having decided that Red Polls were the breed for us, we now had to find a breeder around us for this threatened breed of cattle.  There are 3 or 4 Red Poll breeders in Kentucky, but our golden opportunity came when I discovered that the National Red Poll Sale was happening in early September in Danville (only 45 minutes from us).  So I downloaded the sales catalog and studied all of the lots for sale.  This meant I had to learn a whole new code for cattlemen.  BWs, EPDs, YWs, WWs, MWs, MM – all with numbers to go along with them.  I also looked at the sale prices of all of the lots from the previous national sales and examined the average sales price for bulls, heifers, bred cows, cow-calf pairs, etc.  After a few days of research, examination, and thought, I picked out about 6 lots that I thought we should be interested in.

All of the lots I picked out were young bred cows (under 5 years old) with heifer calves at their sides.  That means for each “lot” we buy we are getting a mature cow, a young heifer who can breed in a year, and an unborn cow of an unknown gender.  Basically 3 cows in 1 lot.  From looking at the sales figures from the previous couple of years, I thought that if we could get a bred cow-calf pair for $1700 or less, then we should go for it.

So I took $3500 out of the bank, borrowed a livestock trailer from our neighbors the Beachys, and Lindsey and I hit the road for Danville.

Since Lindsey is a much better writer than I am, what follows is her account of a first-time visit to a cattle auction:

Before I retell the glory of the cattle auction let me first announce that it was at the cattle auction where some foreign particle lodged itself in my eye resulting in a unique condition called pingueculitis. Several weeks and a round of steroids later, my eyes are fine. I don’t blame the cows.

For those of you who have never been to a cattle auction, imagine sitting in a primitive movie theater made of concrete and wood. In the front where the screen should be instead is a stage covered in hay. On either side of the stage are gates, and behind and above the stage, like a judges bench, stands the place where the auctioneer sits. Because cattle auctions are glamorous there is a teenaged crown princess of the particular breed of bovine you are shopping for, in this case Red Polls, who circulates through the crowd in jeans, ropers, and a tiara. Everyone else is pretty casual. You know it is time to begin when the auctioneer gets up on his post and starts introducing people. In order to bid you need a number which a nice lady gives you if you ask her. Once the auction starts everything goes by in a blur. Like an episode of “King of the Hill” it is very hard to understand the important people. The auctioneer sounds like Boomhauer and makes humorous cow related jokes at lightning speed. To bid you nod at, yelp at, or wave your number at a man standing in front of the stage near the section where you are sitting. He yelps real loud and that counts as your bid. If someone else yelps loud then you have to bid again, if no one else yelps then you won. Geoff did an expert job of jumping in and nodding appropriately. We walked away with the exact cow/calf pairs that we wanted. I will have to go to two or three more auctions before I feel comfortable throwing my yelp into the ring. Cattle auctions are definitely a feast for the senses.

Okay, Geoff’s back.

We ended up getting the two bred cow-calf pairs that were #1 and #2 on my wish list for $1500 and $1550.  The first cow is a 3-year-old and the second cow is a 2-year-old, so both have many productive years ahead of them.  Yes, expensive but well below the threshold I had established before bidding started.  A pretty good deal, too, judging from current cattle prices and previous sales figures from this very sale.  One bit of advice though – go into an auction with a set limit in mind.  It is designed to feed on people’s competitive nature and some people were going all “Storage Wars” in there and ended up paying far more than they wanted to.

Coincidentally, we were sitting behind the rancher and his wife who owned the cattle pairs that we bought.  Simpson M.  Calhoun from Ohio.  He is a super nice man and seems to have very good Red Polls.  Highly recommend him if anyone in the Ohio area is looking for Red Polls.

After the auction we loaded up our 4 new charges into the livestock trailer and drove them back home.  We backed the trailer up to the portable electric fencing defining the current goat paddock, moved the fence slightly, and opened the trailer gate for the cattle to exit.  After a moment’s hesitation and disorientation, all four cows began grazing the lush grass.  The goats appeared to be more stressed than the cattle.  If a goat could exclaim, then ours all did when they saw the size of their new paddock-mates.

Since they are registered, our cattle do have fancy schmancy registered names like SMC B Vella’s 130 and WW670 Babe’s 904.  That’s too much of a mouthful for Lindsey and I, so we tried to think of another way to name them.  I suggested that we could name them after Kentucky counties.  That strategy would keep us in names for a long time.  So we named the 3-year-old cow Laurel and her calf Larue.  The 2-year-old cow is Marion and her calf is Magoffin.  They are damned glad to meet you.

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Livestocking Plans – Cattle

Cattle

Now we move on to the most visible animals on the farm, the cattle!

Cattle will be the largest, most obvious feature of our pastoral landscape and will do the majority of the grazing.  They, along with the sheep and large black pigs, will harvest most of the solar energy harnessed by the grasses and legumes in the pastures and turn it into healthy, profitable, sustainable meat.  While doing that they will trample undesirable forages, press new seeds into the soil, and deposit copious amounts of natural fertilizer from their back ends.

We will be practicing intensive rotational grazing; moving our mob of cattle every day to access new forages, to move away from yesterday’s wastes, and to give the grasses a chance to recover so that we don’t deplete our pastures of the most palatable species over time.  Therefore, we are really looking for cattle that are easy to work with, gain well on grass, produce high-quality beef, will do well in Kentucky (where it can be hot and humid in the summer but cold in the winter), and have good maternal instincts combined with calving ease.

With those qualities in mind, here are the cattle breeds we are considering, in on particular order.

Belted Galloway – The “oreo” cow of Scottish descent.  Even their hides can become very valuable assets after processing.  The Belties tolerate cold very well and grow thick coats during the winter.  They handle heat better than most cold-adapted cattle as well.  They are listed as Recovering by the American Livestock Breed Conservancy.   They have good maternal instincts and their long body conformation helps maximize the high-quality cuts of beef.

Red Poll – The always hornless Red Poll is a good pasture-based breed that can produce excellent quality beef on grass alone, which is definitely what we’re looking for.  The ALBC lists the Red Poll as Threatened.  They are very docile, so they’re great for intensive rotational grazing.  The calves have low birth weights, but in one study Red Polls led the tested breeds in average 200-day weight of the calf for each bred cow.  This means that they’re really fertile, hardy, and grow quickly.

Florida Cracker / Pineywoods – I list these breeds together because of their extremely similar characteristics, not because we would hybridize the two breeds.  Both of these breeds are criollo cattle descended from the first cattle the Spanish brought to the New World.  They’ve been left to adapt to the natural conditions here on this continent for almost 500 years.  Both the Florida Cracker and the Pineywoods are heat-adapted cattle with good parasite and disease resistance.  They are almost always horned and come in very cool color patterns.  The beef is lean with a much different fat and CLA structure than most other beef.  Both breeds are smallish and retain some of their wilder nature, or what you might call “attitude.”

Texas Longhorn – As much as any Razorbacks fan would hate to do this, Texas Longhorns have to be in the mix for consideration for us.  Like the Florida Cracker and Pineywoods breeds, the Longhorn was developed from the cattle brought over by the Spanish and left to their own devices to survive on the American range.  What’s developed is a breed that is heat-adapted, parasite- and disease-resistant, and is quite at ease calving on their own on the pasture.  The meat is lean with a good Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio.  The Longhorn can finish well on grass and has good maternal skills.  The Longhorn gets larger than the other criollo cattle.

Murray Grey – For those of you who are also familiar with Tim and Liz Young of Nature’s Harmony, this is the cattle breed they chose to go with.  It is a good choice for a pasture system.  This Aussie breed can thrive on grass alone and has a very high dressing percentage.  They are easy to handle and work around.  Strong maternal instincts are another hallmark of the Murray Grey.  Firetree Production Stock, located very close to us in Kentucky, was instrumental in bringing some of the first groups of these cattle over from Australia and there are some established herds of Murray Greys already around us.

Brahman – The Hindu sacred cow from India complete with shoulder hump, dewlap, and loose skin folds.  This is a heat-tolerant breed that can also resist the cold down to 10 or 15 degrees.  It is a medium-sized breed that gives birth to small calves and are quite capable of handling calving themselves.  They are good mothers and can thrive under adverse conditions and poor forage.  The demeanor can vary like all other breeds, but Brahmans can become so tame as to be hazardous to traffic in India or so wild as to become rodeo bulls in the States.  They quickly learn how they are expected to behave.

Charolais – A large breed of cattle developed in France.  This is the largest breed we are considering, with females weighing up to 2000 lbs and bulls up to 2800 lbs.    They are very muscular and produce a lot of beef per cow unit.  They are cold-tolerant and graze aggressively even in hot weather.  They are reputed to have above-average quality beef.  I have not seen any reports of the ease of handling of this breed.

Highland – Arguably one of the most recognizable breeds of cattle in the world, the Highland comes dressed to impress with its long shaggy coat of (usually) red hair.  They are a medium-sized breed of cattle that is listed as Recovering by the ALBC.  The breed is renowned for the quality of its beef and comprise the herd of the British royal family.  They can thrive on forage that other cattle pass up and are known as light grazers, or the ultimate “green” cow.  Obviously this is a cold-adapted breed of cattle, but successful herds are established as far south as Texas and Georgia so heat must not bother them too much.  They are disease-tolerant and parasite-resistant.  Along with having a good, even temperament, this is another breed of cattle where calving is not a problem.

So what are we going to go with?  Unlike some of the less expensive animals, some of our choice here will be dictated by cost of acquiring and transporting the cattle.  We may have to see what’s available to us within a short drive of our ranch.

However without money being an issue, I would lean towards giving the Highland, Murray Grey, or Red Poll a try.  Lindsey may hold out for the Belted Galloway though, and I know better than to argue!  This is the one group of animals I’m a little intimidated to “experiment” with due to the prohibitive cost of acquiring the animals, so I’m going to look around hard once we get there and utilize all the powers of the friendly neighbors and friendly neighborhood extension service to try and get a breed that will perform like we want it to from the start, and then breed and cull until we get a group of cattle that are adapted extremely well to our little corner of Kentucky.

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