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Small-Scale Cattle Farming

This blog is a forum for those who keep small scale herds of any breed of cattle. Share your ideas, experiences, learnings and best practices from daily life raising and selling cattle.

As well as a place to posting photographs of your cattle, use this blog is a resource for asking questions and initiating discussions within the cattle community so we can learn, improve our herds and have fun!

There are many pleasures and rewards that go along with keeping a small herd of cattle.

Working with fewer animals can be easier than a large herd, and in a small herd, you get to know each cow personally. Some, especially bottle babies or difficult births, can reach pet status. Many small herds are a wonderful mix of animals, like a bag of skittles, while others focus on just one breed.

Small herds can bring a unique set of challenges to the farm. Large equipment expenses are harder to justify, and deciding on which cows stay or leave may cause more heart ache. Having enough pasture space to separate the bull from the cows when his job is done for the season can be a struggle, as is keeping young heifers separate from a bull until they are old enough to breed.

Excavating artifacts

The original part of the farm house on TurkeyCrest dates to the late 1700’s, with later additions in the early and mid 1800’s. We have renovated/restored the house over the past ten years, and have finally begun work on the final phase of landscaping. Around both sides of the house were stone “walls”. Piles of stones, centuries ago cleared from the adjoining fields, formed two informal low walls, each about 3 ft high and 40 ft long. The randomness of the stones made lawn mowing treacherous, gave too nice a home for snakes and by mid-summer was covered with weeds. This final project began with using the piles of stone collected by previous generations of farmers to build proper walls around the back sides of the house. Using the existing stones to rebuild the walls had the added benefit that the walls matched the stone chimneys of the house.

North side rebuilt wall.
South side rebuilt wall.

On the south side of the house, every shovel of dirt and loose stone that was overturned seemed to expose a bit of history. Long ago, there must have been a structure in this spot, maybe an outhouse or shed where broken items were thrown.

Some of the metal items found.
Pottery pieces.

I was surprised at how clearly visible even the small pieces of pottery and china were after being buried in dirt for so long. The regular shape of the metal items helped them stand out from the randomness of the rocks. Trying to match the larger pieces of pottery into their original crock shapes will make good winter day puzzles!

Miracle of birth

Yesterday I had a full day scheduled, beginning with exercising my horse, returning borrowed toddler cots to a friend, getting to an appointment at 9am in a neighboring town, taking a riding lesson at 1pm and then mowing fence lines before the day ended. Getting an early start, at a little before 7am, I headed out to the mountain field with one bucket of medicated mineral and one of sweet grain for the main herd. This year, I had decided to try to manage the flies through the cow’s mineral supplements and wanted to get them started on it. Hearing the sound of my 4-wheel mule, the herd came running to the troughs, moo’ing with excitement at the prospect of sweet grain, also known as cracker jack.

As the cows jostled for position around the troughs, I heard a distant moo’ing coming from a far corner of the field. Instantly I realized that Pippie, who had been close to having her calf, was in labor. She had seen the other cows running, heard the cracker jack hit the trough and was moo’ing forlornly at being stuck in the corner of the field birthing a calf. My carefully scheduled day was in shambles.

Checking on Pippie, I found her in full labor with one hoof already presented. I guessed the calf would be on the ground within 30-45 minutes.

One hoof

Since I had some time, I decided to head back to the barn, feed the other animals and let Sundance out to graze – exercising him would not happen today. After about 20 minutes, I was back to the Mountain field to be with Pippie. This time, I parked the mule outside of the fence and walked in so the other cows would not get excited, thinking I was back with more cracker jack. Pippie had not progressed as far as I expected, just that one hoof was still showing. Crossing my fingers, and saying a few prayers to the cattle gods, I had to wait almost ten more minutes before seeing the beautiful sight of a second hoof, pad down. Pippie started to alternate laying down, then standing up, each time the calf would present a little farther.

Two hoofs and a nose!

Then in a quick woosh, the calf was safely on the ground!

Calf safely on the ground

As all good cow mama’s will do, Pippie immediately jumped up and began licking her calf to dry it off and stimulate it to breathe and move.

Pippie is a great Mama

Having watched many calves being born, to me the most endearing part is the soft moo’ing sounds that the cows make when cleaning their freshly born babies. A lot of this moo’ing also helps create the strong bond between the mama and her calf.

Typically, I let the pair have some time together so the calf can stand and nurse before bothering them to checking the calf’s gender, but today I had things to do. Pippie is one of the cows that I can touch, so as soon as she cleaned up the baby, I stepped in to check. Pippie gave me a moo and a look, but I whispered, “Just checking on what you had” and patted the side of her face. She stepped back, I lifted the calf’s leg … a heifer! Pippie’s first girl and another keeper since her father is not Shane.

I managed to barely get to my appointment on time, and accomplished everything on my list except for the mowing. Around noon, I checked on the calf again and found her standing and nursing, a strong, healthy little heifer. As with all of our newborns, I gave her an intranasal dose of Inforce3 vaccine to prevent respiratory disease.

Early last evening, we went back to the Mountain field so Bill could see the calf and to check on the pair one more time. Pippie’s little heifer was all curled up and napping in the tall, soft grass. Witnessing the amazing process of welcoming a new calf to the herd will never get old for me, each birth is a miracle of nature.

Baby heifer

Bull In

Yesterday, our pure bred, red angus bull named Shane came back to the farm. Shane is 7 years old, not too big, mostly calm and very reliable. And like any bull, Shane likes to do two things, eat grass and date the ladies. Some farmers leave their bulls in with the cows year round, but then calving can occur randomly. I prefer to give Shane a couple of months with the cows, then move him out, so my ladies will all be expecting within a 2-3 month window. This fall, three of my young heifers will be old enough to breed so I will put them with Shane later this year. For the first time, next year I will have both spring and fall calving seasons.

All of this coordination can be difficult to track, so I keep a farm calendar and journal to plan and document farm events including bull arrival/departure, calf births, vaccinations, pasture rotations, etc. Especially with the heifers, knowing the dates when their calves are expected is important. This year, I plan to have Shane with the cows during these months:

  • May 12 – Bull arrives and is in with main herd
  • July 24 – Bull Out
  • November 1 – Bull In with heifers
  • December 21 – Bull Out and leaves for the other farm

In between his work assignments here on my farm, Shane needs somewhere to hang out. From July to November, he will rest in our front field with a bred cow or a couple of steers for company. During his off season from TurkeyCrest, I am fortunate to have an arrangement with a neighboring friend and cattle farmer who use Shane for their herd. From December to May, he is trailered back to their farm to spend spring with their ladies for fall calving. The cows are happy to see him, and of course, moving day is high on Shane’s list as one of the best days of the year.

Shane arriving back to TurkeyCrest
Shane meeting my ladies.

If only …

So, this actually happened earlier this week, on April 30-May 1. I have only now felt capable of putting the story into words. In the aftermath, Bill asked me, “How many calves have we raised?”. I checked my books, and calculated that since we have started keeping cattle, 31 calves have been raised here. 30 were born on the farm, plus Willow, who arrived at 6 hours of age. Of those 31 calves, we have saved three from the brink of death. On May 1, I lost my first calf.

At 4pm on April 30, I checked the herd. Lucy was standing on the border of the woods and pasture, showing signs of labor. Lucy is an experienced mama, so I was excited at the prospect of a new calf. Just before dark, around 8:30pm, I drove back to the field to check on Lucy. She was in the same spot, with no further progress. Thinking all was well, I headed home leaving nature to take its course. At 7am the next morning, we headed back to the field. As I walked to the woods I saw Lucy standing, clearly having given birth. But there was no calf beside her, and she looked stressed. Instantly, I knew something was wrong, and I ran to Lucy, desperately looking for the calf.

And then I saw the him, a perfect bull calf still half wet and lifeless, his legs tangled in the lower strand of the polywire. Not thinking, I tried to free him, not quite believing that he was already passed saving, but I was too late. Poor Lucy started fretting, bringing the rest of the herd to the area. We immediately made the decision to move the herd back to the Mountain field, so the remaining expectant mama’s would not calve around any polywire fencing.

We buried calf #1906 in the woods under in a grove of poplar trees. Lucy stayed away from the rest of the herd, hanging in a stand of woods until today, when she finally joined the other cows.

I have been heartbroken, waking each morning thinking of Lucy and that poor calf. Going over and over in my mind, if only ..

… if only I had disconnected the electrics, maybe he would’ve lived until I could untangle him.

… if only I had moved Lucy to the Mountain field to have her calf.

… if only I had not used the lower line of polywire, he would have not gotten tangled.

… if only I had stayed with Lucy that night while she calved.

I know and have heard many stories from farmer friends, every cattle farmer loses a calf or cow, it happens. But when it does happen, the lesson is a harsh one.

Willow’s Bling

Most cattle farms have a succession plan for their herd, and mine is focused on pure bred red angus cows and charolais mix cows, like my Bella. This spring Bella gave me a beautiful charolais mix heifer, Pearl, who is definitely a keeper. I also keep a few outliers in the main herd even though they aren’t red or white because they are good mamas. There are the black angus mixes Patty and Gilley, Josie our angus/hereford cross and my two angus/braunvieh cross heifers, Hazel and Heidi, that I traded for last spring.

With a fixed number of acres in pasture not every heifer can stay at TurkeyCrest. Every year, hard choices and difficult decisions have to be made but this year is a happier one. Because of the new bull, I can keep a few more of the young girls and grow my herd a bit.

In the Front field, reside the herd of eight young heifers. All are 2018 babies, born between June and September and none are related to Shane, my red angus bull. A number of these heifers are already designated as keepers. The two reds Bonnie and Reba, one black angus Oprah who will be a replacement for her older Mama in a few years, and of course Willow who is here for life. But eight heifers are too many to keep so after a lot of consideration, Edith was chosen to go to auction. Edith is a beautiful black angus heifer, she will make a fine replacement cow at another farm.

Yesterday we decided to work the heifers through the head gate to give them all a booster shot against blackleg, a pour-on de-wormer and to replace old ear tags. The sun was hot and the temperature rising by the time we started the process. These heifers follow a feed bucket anywhere so getting them up to the corral was a snap. I have never had such a calm, relaxed session working cattle as with this group yesterday. Each young cow calmly walked into the crowding box, down the alleyway and into the head gate. I was able to get them one at a time, keeping Edith for last for her ride in the trailer to the auction.

The absolute funniest heifer to work was Willow. She had never been worked through the head gate before and was completely fascinated with the whole process. Instead of guiding her with the cattle stick, I had to stand beside her and pat her butt to keep her moving. She would stop now and then to the taste the grass growing between the panels. Willow is the happiest and most mellow bovine EVER! I decided to give her an ear tag, something I had not been able to do in the past. She didn’t even flinch, and seemed proud to be sporting her first bling. Of course, her number is #1!

BillieBoy

Just after sunrise on earth day, I took a walk to check on my herd and found Billie the cow (as in Billie Holliday) in labor. She had chosen a good, comfortable spot in the woods, and was close to delivering. I hung around and within 30 minutes, Billie had delivered a healthy and super cute little bull. All was well, so I headed out, giving Mama and baby time to bond.

A couple of hours later, I went back to check on the calf. His ear tag will be #1905, but this little bull got the nickname, BillieBoy. As I walked up to the spot where he was born, BillieBoy was all dry and sleeping with Mama nearby. A few of the older heifers saw me and took the opportunity to meet the newest member of the herd. Hazel, Heidi and Rita moseyed over and gave him a sniff. Billie was calm and relaxed, letting the younger cows close to her baby. Then for some reason, Hazel started to push the little guy with her nose. Once, twice, and then she rolled him over, seemingly trying to make him stand up. I was astonished, having never seen such treatment of a newborn calf by another cow. Billie was surprised too. She started moo’ing to her calf, calling him to come to her. But he was only a couple hours old, and not as energetic as some other calves. BillieBoy flopped around like a rag doll as Hazel continued to push him. I clapped my hands, yelled at the young heifers. Slowly the crowd dispersed, ending calf introductions before things got completely out of hand.

Hazel, Heidi and Rita checking out the new calf.

Mama Billie let out a sigh of relief.

At lunchtime, I headed back to the field for another check on the herd. This time, no one was in the woods, Billie had moved her baby. As I walked along the path towards the hill top pasture, there were a pair of ears above the grass, on the other side of the high tensile, electric fence! My heart skipped a beat, BillieBoy had scooted under a 16inch high fence. There was no way he had gotten there without being shocked. I had to get him back, without shocking either of us. I hurried through the woods to the Mountain field and threw the shutoff switch. Back to the sleeping calf, I carefully tried to slide him under the wire. Sliding a gangly, 70 pound calf is not as easy as it might seem, and just as I got on the other side, he rolled over. BillieBoy jolted awake and gave out a loud bawl, ‘Meoowooew”. Suddenly, from the edge of the pasture, every cow, heifer and calf came running, straight at me. Bella and Billie arrived first, their full udders swinging from the gallop, skidding to a stop 2 ft away with BillieBoy lying between us. Standing my ground, I explained to the ladies that no one was hurting the calf, that in fact, I trying to help him. Fortunately, my cows know and trust me so I survived the encounter.

Mama Billie gathered up her baby with several load moo’s, and they started off walking toward the waterer. I turned the electric fence on, and came back to the field just in time to see BillliBoy head straight for the two strand polywire on the opposite side of the pasture. At just 4 hours old with wobbly legs, he stumbled head first through the wire, getting shocked for the second time in his short life. I stared in disbelief, then ran all the way back to the Muntian field to turn the power off – again.

This time, after I pushed BillieBoy back through the fence, I let out a tirade directed at Mama Billie, “Take your dang calf away from the edge of the fields! Hide him in the middle where there is a perfectly fine stand of briars! Quit letting him get shocked before he can even properly walk!!”. Thankfully, she got the message, or at least decided to keep her new calf away from the crazy, screaming cowgirl at the edge of the pasture.

For the next 24 hours, BillieBoy spent most of his time in the briars with Mama close by, I was so relieved. By the following evening, he was standing on sturdy legs and starting to play with the older calves, a happy sight!

BillieBoy

Cattle with a View

Spending the afternoon hanging on the hill, watching the storm clouds fly by. What tornado warnings!?!

In contrast, I have driven around the fields, checking all of the fence lines and the watering hole three times after each squall passed. And of course, two of these ladies are showing signs of delivering a calf at any time. Fingers crossed that these babies wait until at least tomorrow when this storm has passed to arrive.