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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.

Round Bales

Round bales of hay are a staple at TurkeyCrest farm, typically from December through mid-April. A number of best practices call for minimizing the number of hay bales fed, relying on pastures of stockpiled grass. We have one neighbor who is an expert at this, he rarely feeds hay to his cattle and grazes pastures all winter long. His cattle are healthy and happy. However, we are in the group of many farmers that feed hay throughout the winter months.

There are many methods to feed hay to cattle, including unrolling, hay rings and feeders. We like to unroll bales to spread out the hay on the ground, giving all of the cattle easy access and avoiding the lowest cows in the pecking order from being crowded out. Unrolling also avoids the moats of knee deep mud that are unavoidable with stationary rings and feeders.

Our unroller, loaded with a new hay bale

Every morning, we feed the main herd in the Mountain Field first. There is definitely a pecking order with the cows, so we always unroll a long line so everyone has space to eat.

Main herd of cows enjoying breakfast

After the cows get their feed, we unroll hay for the heifers in the South field. Here, everyone gets along better so there is not as much pushing for the best position.

Herd of heifers enjoying breakfast

There is always a stub left over after unrolling bales for the cattle. I save the stubs for the other animals. Sundance gets hay from the best bales.

Sundance

The pig and goats get the leftovers, which they love!

Sammie, my miniature pig, is a late sleeper in cold weather. He gets apples, bread and kibble so does not mind letting the goats have the hay.

Sammie, avoiding the snow.

Fingers crossed this was the last snow of the winter!

More SNOW!

The weather forecast yesterday called for mostly rain, with a mix of some wet snow, from noon-6pm today. So the plan for today was to dig some stumps, work on fencing the new pasture, and then feed both herds of cattle around noon.

At 7:30am, a light snow began to fall, and has been falling all day. So much for well made plans. The cows had to be fed early, and with a few inches on the ground by noon, all other projects were cancelled. We unrolled hay for both herds, gave the older ladies a new protein bucket and fed them some sweet grain. The heifers just got unrolled hay. With all of the moving between the herds, they have become spoiled, so I am cutting back their expectation of sweet grain each morning.

Yesterday, we loaded the last steer of 2018 into the stock trailer and took him to “camp” at the base of Old Rag mountain. We are fortunate to have a relationship with a beef finisher who buys all of our steers, typically when they reach 7-9months of age and at about 500-600lbs. The finishing farm keeps the steers for 12-18 months before their final step to becoming beef. Harsh, but that is where burgers and steaks originate.

No cattle pictures with this post – I was so focused with moving the steer and dealing with the weather that at the end of each day, I realized no activities had been captured. Next time!

As I watch the snow fall and accumulate, I am thankful for the beautiful views, my cozy home and that calving season does not start until the end of March this year.

“Portable” Corral

There are four pastures on our farm that we use to rotationally graze our cattle throughout the year. And at any one time, cattle are on at least two of the fields, spreading our herd out. In order to give us flexibility to work, load and manage the cattle in any field, we use metal panels that can be hooked together to make a working area in any field. For the number of cattle we typically work, we have 10 panels for the corral, two sections of a Priefert alleyway and a wishbone trailer for our Priefert head gate.

The morning after catching and relocating the last of the three heifers (the Dixie Chicks – Mahalia, Aretha and Shirley) in the Mountain field, the whole setup had to move the South Field. Without taking time to fetch the tractor, we disassembled and piled up the panels and alleyway. Yet again, we were in to a day’s work before breakfast. After laying down the setup in an area the cow couldn’t reach, we took a break to grab a quick meal and feed the rest of the farm animals. Heading back to the Mountain field with the tractor and a trailer, we loaded all of the panels. In spite of being tied down with a ratchet strap, as the tractor pulled to the gate, I watched helplessly as most of the panels slid off of the trailer into a heap. After an exhausting morning wrangling cattle followed by loading the heavy pieces by hand (each section weighs between 100lbs – 200lbs), we left the nine panels on the ground and continued with just the alleyway.

With the threat of an approaching snowstorm, the next day’s project quickly became recovering the panels and building the corral in the South field. This time, the tractor provided the lifting power.

An assortment of webbed straps are very useful aids in lifting heavy items on the farm. Along with hooks welded onto the tractor bucket, we can move just about anything. The purple straps I chose to lift the panels are about 6ft long with a loop at each end. I wrapped one on each side of the panel and then slid the strap through the bucket hook.

One panel at a time, we unloaded and laid out the alleyway, trying to arrange each section in the appropriate order and orientation.

Cattle are so curious! The heifers wandered around us the whole time, checking out the tractor, sniffing the trailer and getting in the way of swinging panels.

Watching the girls dance in and over the panels laying on the ground, it looked like they were playing hopscotch. Too funny!

Heifers playing hopscotch.

Starting from the corral end, we assembled the alleyway. The center and end frames have 4×4 boards attached to the bottom with a hole drilled through each end. These enable the alleyway to be secured to the ground with rebar if a more secure installation is required.

With half of the alleyway standing, the second half is easier to connect.

Halfway done.
Looking down the alleyway

This is the view a cow has looking down the alleyway, although typically there is a head gate or trailer at the far end. The sides can be adjusted closer together when working with smaller cattle or calves, so they can’t turn around.

Hazel surveys the completed alleyway setup as she strolls by to get a drink of water.

Once the alleyway was completed, we drove the tractor and trailer to the Mountain Field to gather the rest of the panels that had slid off during the previous trip. The corral panels are lighter weight than the alleyway so we did not use the straps to lift them in and out of the trailer, making the job somewhat quicker and easier. Although having to load them all a second time was definitely a chafe.

Finally, the “portable” alleyway and corral were assembled and ready for use in the South Field. Thank goodness for the tractor and straps, but the job was still a good workout. In a week or so, the two oldest girls, Hazel and Heidi, will be moved with the main herd in the Mountain Field. Both are old enough to breed, and have a date later this spring with Shane Jr, our red angus bull.

Later in the day, we fed the girls in the new setup. Every heifer ran to the trough to eat the sweet grain, inside or outside of the corral. Even the three Dixie Chicks were unfazed by the panels. Happy and calm cattle … nice!

Shirley

Alone with a herd of full grown, pregnant cows, one last young heifer remained in our Mountain field. Her name is Shirley, and Shirley has had a rough start to her short life. Like Willow, she was orphaned at a very young age but unlike Willow, Shirley has been fending for herself ever since. She managed to survive without Mama’s milk for most of her calf-hood, leaving her sporting a pot belly from lack of proper nutrition. And to make matters worse, she was cruelly struck with pink eye late last summer, taking the sight from her left eye.

Shirley as a sad, forlorn calf.
Shirley (second from right) with her wild herd

I am not sure of Shirley’s age, but am guessing she was probably born in May or June, so is about 8-9 months old. She is small for her age, and with sight in only her right eye, has grown particularly wary.

Learning to drink from a fountain

As cows will do, Shirley was on the bottom rung of the pecking order in the wild herd and then again with the combined herd. The grown cows and even the other heifers would push her away from the sweet grain, and she was always at the end of the line of unrolled hay. After we moved Mahalia and Aretha to the South field with our other heifers, Shirley was left alone with the grown cows. Day after day, we tried to entice her into the corral with grain and hay, but the cows would always push her away. She may be very smart or perhaps not so much, but either way needed to be with the younger heifers to have a chance to thrive. I was getting worried we would never catch her and began contemplating using a dart gun and tranquilizer.

Grabbing a bit of hay beside Bella

During feeding, I noticed that when we put a bale of hay in a ring, the cows would gather round to feed, crowding out the Shirley and a few others. So this past week, we didn’t feed hay on Thursday and by Friday, everyone was hungry. After adding a bale to the ring, we unrolled a good amount inside the corral and watched from the tractor. Shirley came up to the corral with a couple other cows. Sure enough, the cows crowded into the corral, head bumping Shirley to keep her outside. Using the tractor, we guided Shirley around the corral then I hopped down to steer one of the cows out of the way. Backing off again, we waited and watched. Before too long, Shirley snuck into the corral with her head down focused on eating hay. I slipped up to the opening and quietly pulled the panel closed. Three cows, one older heifer and Shirley were captured!

Shirley and Rita in the corral.

Success! I was elated knowing that now Shirley would finally have the chance to be spoiled and to thrive. We switched tractors, and hooked up the trailer. In order to keep everyone calm and to separate Shirley for loading, we divided the corral in half using polywire and step-in posts, cows on one side and Shirley on the other near the alleyway. Five minutes later, Shirley was heading to the South field to join the rest of the young heifers.

Welcome to the South Field heifer herd

Almost immediately, Shirley was a different heifer. Her whole demeanor changed from nervous and jumpy to calm and engaged. Mahalia and Aretha stuck close beside her, happy to be together again with their cousin. Willow was glad to have another member of the herd who was her size, and who had a similar start in life. Later that first afternoon, Shirley was happily eating her first snack of sweet grain, without any interruption from full grown cows bumping and pushing her away from the trough.

A good day on the farm!

Snacking with friends

Mahalia and Aretha

These two heifers are doing great! The moo’ing and pacing has ended, and both girls run up to get their morning share of sweet grain and unrolled hay. Our oldest heifer in this herd is Hazel, who is half Angus and half Braunvieh, giving her an absolutely beautiful, chocolate colored coat. Hazel is the queen bee and will push the younger ones out of the way so she can eat their grain. Eventually, she will be moved in with the older cows. But until either that happens or the other heifers tighten up, we set out a few separate food bowls for the Mahalia, Aretha and my baby Willow.

Hazel
Mahalia and Aretha eating their breakfast grain

When we unroll hay for this herd of young cows, we make sure to put down a few rows of hay, separated by a few feet. This gives the smaller heifers space to eat. The older, larger girls like to bump the roll on the tractor and rub their heads on the fresh bale, knocking off chunks before the tractor even sets down the bale. The morning line up of heifers has become interestingly predictable. Once the unrolling begins, the heifers who have been together the longest always eat on the first line, largest to smallest. In the next line of hay, Willow is able to get her share. And then at the end of a row, the two newest herd members, Mahalia and Aretha belly up to their hay bar.

Line up of the oldest heifers
Willow’s share
Mahalia and Aretha at the end of the hay line.

Creepin’ Heifers

In our Mountain Field, there are several cow, heifers and cow/calf pairs that we recently added to our herd. These cows are not at all familiar with corrals, alleyways and head gates and have been used to living life on the wild side. Since being integrated with our herd, most have begun to settle down. About a month ago, we managed to work them through the head chute, giving each of the ladies an ear tag, vaccine and pour-on worming.

Left to right: 2 nursing heifers, the orphan, expecting mama

In this new group are two cows and their heifer calves who are still nursing, a young orphaned heifer and an older heifer. Additionally, at least one of the mama’s is expecting a calf this spring. We had to catch these young girls to wean the two nursing ones and give the orphan more feed and care. Figuring out how a way to catch just the heifers and not their mama’s or the rest of our herd was a puzzle.

Creep gate made with MTO – Materials On Hand.

During a visit to our friend’s farm, we saw their creep gate setup that permits their calves free access to food while keeping the larger cows out. We fashioned a similar opening in the panel corral already set up in our Mountain field using MTO – Materials On Hand. For two days, the sweet grain we put in the trough would be licked clean in the morning but we never saw any calf go in. So the next evening, we hung the game camera to a panel and added more grain. The next morning, there were 210 photos on the camera – caught!

The two nursing heifers spent over an hour that night eating the grain, and then came back early in the morning to see if more had magically appeared. When they didn’t find more grain, they milled about and posed for some selfies, hahaha!

By the next day, these two girls ran into the corral after I added the grain, not caring at all that I was standing right there. We closed up the opening, backed our trailer up to the chute and moved these two into the adjacent field with Willow and six other calves.

In a day or two, these young heifers will settle down and become part of this new herd. Our remaining challenge is to catch the orphan heifer. She has had a rough life to date, no mama since too early an age and she has been the last cow in the herd pecking order. I left the corral creep gate setup in the field, and added a roll of hay along with the sweet field with hopes enticing her. Time will tell.

Weaned without a Moo

On September 1, 2018, a cow delivered a pair of healthy, decent sized twin heifers. As sometimes happens, the mama cow accepted one of the calves and left the other to her own defenses. Without intervention, the calf would not have survived the night. I had been out of town that day and arrived back to my farm late that evening knowing this small calf had a tough fight ahead of her.

That first feeding was a bottle of cow colostrum. By now the calf was pretty weak and only sucked a few sips from the bottle, so I tube fed her the rest. The next day, she took more cow replacement milk from the bottle and I was started to have hope she might survive. But the effects of her rough start in life lingered and on day three she stopped eating. I tube fed her electrolytes twice over the next few days, and finally she perked up.

This tiny (for a calf), super cute heifer had a strong will to live. A typical angus calf weighs anywhere from 60-100 lbs at birth, depending on many factors especially breed.. As a twin and with her rough start, this calf weighed only about 40lbs. Towards the end of her first week of life, she began eating 2-3 times a day and had seemed to turn the corner. Although she was still not completely out of danger, I named her Willow.

Willow survived one more scare during her third week of life when scours set in. Scours is a general term for calf diarrhea, and is caused by bacteria in the intestines. A calf weakened by a stressed birth is especially vulnerable. Again, I consulted my friend who had experience saving calves, and she recommended a dose of antibiotics. Within a day, that shot of antibiotics started clearing up the scours and Willow began to feel better. I was her surrogate mama with the blue makeshift udder, and this small calf followed me all around the farm.

Every day, I mixed up batches of Land-o-Lakes Cows Match powdered milk for Willow. Since she was my first “bucket baby”, getting the right amount of milk for each feeding took me a while to master. Some days, I had to go back and make more, while other days a lot was wasted. Eventually, we settled into a routine of two daily feedings, morning and evening. She had a stall in the barn where she spent the nights with feeders of sweet calf grain and water available to her.

Twice every day for 5 months, I mixed buckets of milk in my kitchen for Willow. On the few days when I was out of town, my farm sitter Bev took over the feeding duties. Willow would stand at the barn door at feeding time, moo’ing and pacing until the blue bucket was placed on the hook. As she grew, the amount of milk increased. When calves nurse, they head butt their mama’s udders to make the milk flow. Soon the small blue bucket was not big enough to hold the milk, especially through the head butts. Willow wore milk on her head after each feeding. At 6 weeks old, Willow was drinking 16 cups of milk at each feeding, and needed a bigger bucket. I bought a larger blue bucket, drilled a hole near the bottom for the nipple/check valve and it worked great!

Bev and Willow
Maeve and Willow

As the months passed, Willow grew tall and strong. She graduated from living in the barn to being in the field with our herd of young spring heifers. I had to convert her from being my calf to becoming a cow, because weaning time was approaching. The advice I received on when to wean a calf ranged from 6 weeks (from an old farmer) to four months (from a friend and my vet). Angus cow mamas will typically wean their own calves between 6-7 months old. By January 1, Willow was 4 months old, weighed about 350lbs and would now run to the rolled out hay after her bucket breakfast.

I had a half bag of powdered milk left so decided to begin weaning by cutting her feedings down to once a day in the mornings. Luckily, after a couple of evenings looking for me, she quickly adjusted to only getting her blue bucket in the mornings. After two weeks of once a day feedings, I reduced the amount of milk by half, from 16 cups down to 8 cups. Then a week before the bag of powdered milk was gone, I began putting down a pan of grain for Willow as soon as she finished drinking.

Yesterday on Willow’s 5 month birthday, there was no powdered milk left in the bag. No blue bucket appeared on the post hook that morning. I expected the worse, that she would follow me around the field looking for the blue bucket udder, then stand by the fence moo’ing sadly as I left the field. But there was none of that! She ate a large portion of grain, and then hurried to the newly rolled out hay along with the other heifers. Willow weaned without even a moo!