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.
All of the calves born last spring are well on their way to becoming teenagers. Last week, the little bulls became steers and then were weaned, filling the air with moo’ing both day and night for a couple of days.
Pearl was our only heifer old enough to wean. Physically, she was almost old enough to breed but we don’t put our heifers with Shane until they are at least 14 months old. Pearl would stay with her Mama in the main herd, so she had to wear a weaning ring. This contraption has sharp points facing up, so when the calf tries to nurse, the mama is jabbed with spikes and discourages the calf. The ring just slides into her nose and is tightened to stay in place. It doesn’t interfere with grazing or drinking water. After several months, Pearl will be weaned and the ring can be removed.
We moved the main herd of cows back to the Mountain field, leaving a potpourri of occupants in the Front field – the steers, Shane, Gilley and Sundance, who seems to enjoy the company of the cattle. Being weaned is hard on young cattle, so we devised a creep gate area where the steers can get a snack of sweet grain and hay whenever they are hungry but the larger animals can’t fit through the gate. Our neighbor loaned us an old, hand built creep gate that is adjustable to the size of the calves. We added a panel on each side with t-posts in the corners for stability. The whole structure is connected to the field fence posts using large eye bolts that the panels hang on.
The two smallest steers were the first to find the food inside the enclosure. Gilley tried to squeeze her large self into the pen but our design withstood the test.
The calves ate while Gilley watched on forlornly. I didn’t have the heart to let the larger cows go without any snack so I put a few scoops in a nearby trough. Fortunately, Sundance is usually at the far end of the field during feeding time. If he hears grain hitting the trough, he will race up and chase away the younger cows. However, Shane and Gilley stand their ground with him. Feeding time can be quite the show.
Shane LOVES the sweet grain, almost to the point of being a bit scary to feed. He has no problem trying to give me a head butt if I am standing around in the field with an empty bucket. A few days ago, I was late feeding one evening and when I opened the barn door, Shane was waiting … in Sundance’s stall!
During September’s vet visit, all of my cows were checked to determine who is pregnant and the approximate due date of calf. A cow that is not bred is said to be open. This year, all of our cows were carrying a calf except for one, Gilley, and this was her second year in a row to be open. Without the demands of a calf, Gilley had grown fat from grazing which lowers her chance of being bred even more. I always give my ladies two chances, so sadly, Gilley’s time had come to move on. The local auction barn held a cull cow sale last week. Early the morning before the sale, we loaded her in the trailer and headed down the road. My “two strikes and you’re out” rule is keeps the farm a farm and not a petting zoo but saying goodbye is always hard on me.
As a younger cow, Gilley enjoyed jumping over and onto gates, escaping from the crowding pen. As a result, there is a 8 foot high, almost solid wood wall known as “The Gilley Wall” that we built it to keep her in during vet visits. I think of Gilley each time I look at that wall.
A happier example of the farming circle of life is that Gilley’s last calf was a heifer, born in the spring of 2018. Oprah is the spitting image of her mama, and I look forward to her giving us many calves throughout her time here. Gilley’s legacy should live on with generations of beautiful cattle.
Weaning is a stressful time for the calves. For some reason, Billy Boy did fine for the first 10 days and then suddenly became listless. He stopped coming to the creep gate to eat and laid in the field looking sluggish. We brought the three steers and Shane into the corral and tried unsuccessfully to separate Billy Boy from the gang to get him into the chute. While he was jogging around the corral, I saw that he also had diarrhea so suspected a case of scours. We loaded the dart gun and gave him a shot of strong antibiotics. Finally, I was able to separate him from the others and isolated him in the crowding pen with food and water to rest. After a day and a half, the antibiotic should have begun to work, but Billy Boy grew weaker and stopped eating. We gave him a different antibiotic, one more specifically designed to treat pneumonia, and hoped for the best.
Despite all of our efforts, Billy Boy succumbed to his illness on Thursday. We buried him with Old Lucy very near the spot where he was born. Experienced farmer friends always tell me that you can’t save them all. I know this is true, and despite all of one’s efforts, some lives end too soon. Billy Boy’s mama is carrying another calf that will be born next spring. Through the laughter and tears, the cycle of the farm goes on.
Last summer, a nasty storm brought down a large red oak tree on the edge of the Mountain field. Two large branches stuck in the ground holding the trunk about a foot off of the top line of the fence. In the fall, we trimmed out the top of the tree leaving just the large central trunk and a few branches. Since then we cordoned the area from the cattle just in case the tree gave way, if or when, the cows rubbed against it.
Last week, felling the remaining trunk of the tree finally bubbled to the top of farm to-do list. With the two limbs holding the trunk high off the ground, we decided to use the excavator bucket to get high enough to cut the trunk. This was my first time running the excavator and I was more than a little nervous. My job was to lift Bill up in the air close enough to cut the tree but far enough to avoid the falling limbs from hitting the bucket.
I took a few minutes to practice with the controls. The last thing I wanted to do was confuse up and down while he was standing in the bucket holding a running chain saw. No pressure.
Let the chain sawing begin! We follow many safety practices such as ear muffs, gloves and pre-job planning, but the harness was too constraining so Bill took it off. We also reviewed our own personal hand signals before beginning. Closed fist is “STOP”, thumbs up is “Raise The Bucket”, thumbs down is “Lower The Bucket” and middle finger is “Put The Phone Down And Move the Machine”.
Suddenly, as the chain saw cuts and tree limbs fall, the cows begin to take notice – a cow is basically a very curious creature. At first, two of the young heifers Rita and Pearl, gather to watch the activity happening at the end of the field.
Then the two Wise girls join in, not wanting to miss anything. The grass around the fallen tree has not been grazed all summer so as soon as they realize the line is down, all of the cows move in, excited for the fresh food.
I think this is an example of why farming is one of the most dangerous occupations. There is always so much to take care of around the farm that farmers learn to just get it done.
Soon every cow had gathered to oversee the tree removal and sample the fresh grass. As if removing a huge, dangerous tree was not enough to concentrate on, we suddenly had to deal with a whole herd of curious cattle milling about the work site.
As I drove the excavator from one side of the tree to the other, I liberally used the horn to startle the cows out of my path. Otherwise, they would just stand and stare at me, not moving at all.
At the end of the job, Shane decided to check out the remaining stump and rub his neck against the rough bark. Before we left the field, I put the posts and line back up to keep the cattle away from the remaining tree trunk. Just in case!
In early June, when we moved the herd from the Mountain field to the South field, Crazy Heidi balked at the gate. She turned and ran the back the length of the field, taking Billy and her calf, Billie Boy with her. Those three spent weeks alone, not being vaccinated or fed sweet grain and without the protection of the herd. The lack of being with the herd bothered Billy but Heidi’s fearfulness was infectious so there they remained.
Fast forward a few months, the time came to again when we moved the herd from the Mountain field to the Front field, and this time Crazy Heidi cooperated. She and three other cows were separated out to join the heifers in the Front field, close to the working facility.
My initial plan to get Crazy Heidi to market was to tranquilize her in the field with a dart gun, lift her into the trailer with a tractor and then take her to the auction. After running this plan past Dr Amanda, I learned that there is a multiple day waiting period to allow the tranquilizer to exit the cow’s system before she could be sold. I had to come up with another way to get rid of this cow.
My next idea was to hire a few expert cattle handlers to help us load her into the trailer. After Crazy Heidi twice chased me up and over the fence the day we moved her to the heifer herd, I was not looking forward to another rodeo. Unfortunately, finding this kind of help proved difficult, there is not a “Cattle Wrangler” category on Angie’s List or Care.com.
The day before the next cattle auction, I sent a text to our friend and neighbor, the cow whisperer who helped us deliver Scarlet’s calf, to ask for his advice. Later that afternoon, he stopped by the farm and listened as I described the harrowing experience of separating the fearful Crazy Heidi from the herd.
He liked our corral improvements and felt the pens were mostly sufficient to contain the wild cow, suggesting we add height to one section of fence to discourage any thoughts of jumping. He also strongly encouraged us to load Crazy Heidi ourselves, without anyone else helping. Crazy Heidi had grown comfortable to me feeding her so adding an unknown person would make her wary. He reminded me to move slowly and quietly, using just my presence to calmly pressure Crazy Heidi to walk in the direction where I wanted her to move. The goal was to move her from the corral and into the trailer without any running or jumping cows, without any extra cows in the trailer and with no one (me) getting hurt.
Later that evening after we fortifier the corral fence by adding old gates on cinder blocks for more height, I snacked the herd sweet grain inside the corral. As everyone was enjoying their feed, I slipped around behind them and quietly closed the gate. The herd of 4 cows and 6 heifers spent the night in the corral.
Just after daybreak the next morning, I filled two buckets of sweet grain and again snacked the herd in two troughs, one in the main part of the corral and the other in the crowding pen. While the cows were distracted, I opened all of the gates from the working area through to the head gate. The 4 older cows, Crazy Heidi, Pippie, Garnet and Gilley began wondering where this breakfast was leading while the young heifers kept their noses in the feed, oblivious to the activity.
When there was not much grain left in the corral trough, Crazy Heidi moved into the crowding pen, joining a few heifers to eat there. I quietly followed her into the pen and closed the gate, one step closer to our goal. In this picture, the extra gates we added temporarily extending the fence height and the blinds to block the view through the gate are visible behind the trough. The white face heifer at the trough is Crazy Heidi’s daughter from last year, Aretha. Thankfully, she did not inherit her mother’s fearfulness.
As she surveyed her situation in the smaller pen, Crazy Heidi grew suspicious but not yet frightened. Seeing the second trough of sweet feed, our oldest cow Gilley stood by the panel gate wanting inside. Having a seasoned companion cow in the pen would help keep Crazy Heidi stay calm, so I opened the gate and let Gilley into the crowding pen.
Keeping our friend’s advice in mind, I stood in the crowding pen without even a cattle prod, using just my presence to encourage the cows to walk towards the alleyway. When the feed was gone, a few of the heifers meandered through through the alleyway where Bill let them out into the corral. Crazy Heidi saw this and wandered into the bud box and then hesitated, looking around for direction. I had slowly followed her and now stood blocking the exit out of the bud box. And then Gilley, as if knowing she was there to help, walked past me and basically showed Crazy Heidi the path into the chute. Seeing the opening through the head gate, Crazy Heidi walked down the alleyway where Bill caught her in the head gate.
With Crazy Heidi finally securely captured, we opened the gate so the rest of the herd could head out of the corral and into the Front field.
This next two pics tugged at my heart. Crazy Heidi turned and watched as the cows and then Gilley left the corral. As difficult and dangerous as Crazy Heidi was to move and work, all of her actions came from fear not meanness. I felt sorry for her.
Bill backed the trailer up to the head gate and I opened the latch to load Crazy Heidi for her trip to the auction. At one point, she had her hoof up on the wall of the trailer trying to escape.
At 8am after just a 20 minute ride, we arrive at the auction barn.
To limit her movement and keep her safe during the drive, Crazy Heidi made be trip at the front of the stock trailer behind the cut gate. Even in that smaller space, she moved around so much the trailer felt like it was swaying.
Heading off the trailer at a trot, Crazy Heidi moved on to her next adventure.
Before leaving the auction barn, I checked in on her one last time. Her ears were not pinned back, she had calmed down and was more relaxed. Even seemed to be making a few new friends.
Pippie has been limping for a few weeks now. She and her 3 month old calf, Annie, were with the main herd all of the way out in the farthest field, 3 fields away from the working area. Last week, we moved the herd all of the way back to the front field and separated four problem cows from the herd (Separating Cows). Once we safely added Pippie and Annie to the heifer herd in the Front field, I called Dr. Amanda and scheduled a farm visit to diagnose Pippie’s limp.
Beforehand, I did some research on my own and found that there could be 3 probable reasons for a cow to a limp:
a foreign object stuck in her hoof
a stifle injury or leg joint swelling
After examining her hoof in the field and not seeing any foreign object, I mostly ruled out something stuck in her hoof. From my research, although most bovine limping is caused by a foot problem, either a stifle injury or upper leg joint swelling would be very serious for Pippie. Unless the problem is not very severe and easily responds to antibiotics, the ending is a trip in the trailer to auction. With a young calf still needing nursed for a few more months, Pippie had to see the vet so I would have a better understanding of the problem.
Dr Amanda arrived with her bovine tilt table in tow. She backed up our chute and head gate, aligning the tilt table to the left side. This was going to be interesting!
The tilt table extends the chute so the cow walks through our chute and then right into the tilt table. Pippie is so tame (she loves a good neck scratch and pat) that even with her calf waiting in the crowding pen, she confidently walked through the alleyway, through our chute and into the tilt table. Dr. Amanda watched Pippie walk and saw how she held her hoof off of the ground and the way she hitched her hip each step. Her preliminary diagnosis was a foot issue and not a stifle injury – good news!
With Pippie securely inside, Dr Amanda locked the gate and strapped her in. The look on Pippie’s face seems like she is thinking, “Well, this is something new!”.
The table rotates clockwise a quarter turn and Pippie finds herself in a position that she has never experienced before, laying on her side, about three feet off of the ground. With chains securing each of Pippie’s legs, Dr. Amanda begins her examination.
After the ride to horizontal, Pippie becomes a bit more concerned about this whole new adventure. Her eyes were open wide with surprise but she never really struggles and only lets out a moo when she catches a glimpse of Annie, pacing in the background.
There is swelling in her injured hoof, her ankle and a bit up towards the knee. Dr Amanda shows me the swollen areas and we both can smell the foul odor coming from the hoof, clearly indicating hoof rot. Having Pippie so far away from the working area delayed treatment but hopefully we will get it dealt with in time to get the rot under control. The tilt table is perfect for this type of examine, not to mention that this was the first time that I have seen a cow’s udder from this perspective.
With the examination and diagnosis for the limp completed, Dr Amanda plugs in the grinder and trims all of Pippie’s hooves, a bovine hoofi-cure. With bits of hoof flying all around, Pippie’s feet have never looked better.
The treatment for the hoof rot is a slow acting antibiotic, Exceed. Interestingly, this medication is injected into the cow’s ear. In case the cow’s condition worsens and she becomes unable to easily walk, the medicine moves out of her system and the cow can be taken to market reasonably quickly, after just 15 days. And since the injection goes into the ear, any site damage is irrelevant as the ears are not used. We are all fairly optimistic that Pippie will not have this fate.
And now for the rotating dismount! The tilt table rotates counter clockwise to set Pippie back on her feet.
With a look of stunned disbelief at what just occurred, Pippie regaines her composure and exits the tilt table.
Annie watches closely from the crowding pen, but is also keeping her distance in case she might be next.
Pippie, now with beautiful hooves and hopefully with the infection under control, takes one last look at the contraption she just survived. If cows can communicate, I am sure she will be telling tales in the field to the herd later in the evening.
Simultaneous with finishing the fence on the cattle working area, we had three cattle goals to accomplish:
Separate 4 cows and 1 calf from the main herd and add to the heifer herd
Gilley and Garnet – both close to calving
Pippie and her 3 month old calf, Annie to vet check Pippie’s limp
Crazy Heidi to take to market
Work the remaining herd to administer a pour-on wormer
Return the main herd to the South field and the heifer herd to the Front field
Step one was to move the main herd from the distant Mountain field back to the closer South field. I wanted to move the cows before the heat of the day, so we were out to the field just after daybreak. As the screech-screech sound from unwinding polywire reels echoed through the early morning mist, excitement built throughout the herd. Led by Bella, everyone rushed towards gate.
I waited in the mule with a trough of sweet feed tied to the hitch as the cows watched anxiously by the gate as Bill untied the chains.
Bella led the way through the gate and then through the woods to the fresh grass of the South field. Shane always brings up the rear, slowly taking his time and plodding along.
As the girls see their destination, they burst into a trot happy into a new, fresh field.
A couple of days after the move to the South field, we finished the corral and working area so were able to repeat the move of the herd, this time to the Front field. Once the cows were in the Front field, I fed them snacks of sweet grain each evening in the corral. Spending happy, calm time in the corral helps sooth any nerves with the smaller enclosure.
Early in the morning on the day we decided to work the cattle, we set up step-in posts and a polywire fence from the corral to the Backyard field, creating a runway for the four cows being separated from the main herd. At 7:30am, I open the corral gate to entice the ladies in for an early morning snack of sweet grain. This was a critical moment, so even before our neighbor arrived to help, Bill and I decided to close the gate and capture the herd in the corral. The cattle were accustomed to us and we didn’t want any cows to balk at the gate because they saw an unfamiliar face.
With all of the cattle in the corral, we started the process of separating the four cows from the herd. The first lady to cooperate was Garnet. Nearing her calving date and with a sweet disposition, Garnet willingly walked through the two gate alley to join the heifer herd in the backyard.
Our friend and neighbor TA, arrived to help with the rest of the sorting. The three of us circled the cattle around the corral a few times before segregating Pippie into the alley gate. With her mama removed from the herd, Annie was easily guided through one of the panels to join her. Both calmly walked through the two gates and alley, joining Garnet and the heifers.
With two cows moved and two remaining, we turned our sights on Crazy Heidi. Her reputation is well known and respected. Crazy Heidi is about 4-5 years old and has had no human contact until last year when we first began managing her herd. When enclosed in a small space, she becomes very fearful and therefore quite dangerous. Last fall when we first worked her in a panel corral in the Mountain field, she attempted to jump out and bent 2 of the panels. That time we won and Crazy Heidi received both vaccinations and an ear tag.
This morning, the three of us used her anxiety to our advantage. As we walked behind the herd, the cattle to flowed around the corral and Crazy Heidi was fairly easy to isolate and run into the crowding pen. I stepped into the pen to close the gate while Bill climbed over the fence into the pen to open the exit gate. Realizing she was captured, Crazy Heidi panicked, racing around with a terrified look in her eyes, searching the pen for a way out. Twice she came towards me a a gallop, I have never climb a gate so fast. Finally , she saw the opened gate and dashed toward the Backyard field. We all hoped she would be somewhere in the backyard, and not galloping down the road towards town.
Last to be moved was Gilley, our oldest cow who in her younger days would routinely escape the corral by jumping gates. The first time I watched Gilley sail over a gate, I suspected there must be truth behind the Cow Jumped Over the Moon rhyme. These days she is too old, too fat and hopefully expecting a calf, so Gilley’s jumping days are over. Instead as we drove the cows around the corral trying to separate her from the herd, Gilley would slip behind others cows, using them to run interference. Eventually, we got her into the pen and through the gate to the Backyard field. Goal #1 complete!
Gathering the pour-on, I was using Dectomax – a dewormer and fly control medicine, we turned our attention to working the remaining herd. All of the ladies and calves cooperated, so the task moved right along. When Billie’s calf, Billy Boy came into the head gate, I noticed he did not have an ear tag. And then I remembered that he and his mama stayed behind in the Mountain field with Crazy Heidi last spring. Billy Boy had never been worked before. So I grabbed a dose of Covexin8 which is vaccination for 8 different diseases including black leg and tetanus, and an ear tag. Billy Boy didn’t flinched for either the injection or the tag – tough little bull! Goal #2 complete!
Once all of the cattle had received the pour-on, we moved the main herd back to the South field, and then moved the heifer herd which now included 4 cows and Annie, to the Front field. Goal #3 complete!
I called the vet to schedule a farm call to examine Pippie’s leg (topic of my next post) and then lunch time!
Over the past two summers, we have added a few miles of 4 strand, high tensile wire fences around the shop, the backyard field and the mountain field. Stringing high tensile wire fence is lot of work, however it pales in comparison to replacing a board fence. The three board corral fence has been in need of repair for years, and I wanted to redesign the cattle working area inside the corral to handle our increased herd size. The first step was to remove the old boards and posts from the corral which we completed back in May. August rolled around by the time we were ready to put up the new boards, with the typical average day time temperatures in the 90’s. Here I was again, working on fencing in the dog days of summer. So goes farm life!
For the perimeter, we decided to try 3/4 faced posts thinking that the face gave a better place to nail the boards than a round post and the size was larger than a half round. Although the plan sounded fine, when we reused the original holes from the old posts which were wider than the new posts, many of the posts twisted as we drove them into place. Another factor adding to the twisted posts was that we did not have the proper attachment on the post driver for the 3/4 faced posts. So, the flat face of many of the posts were not in line with each other. To fix this situation, we used a chainsaw, circular saw and chisel, to notch almost every post so the boards would fit flush.
To hang the boards, we used 3 1/2 inch, galvanized twisted nails. I predrilled the boards to prevent cracking and to make nailing easier.
By the time the all of the perimeter fence boards were nailed to the posts, I was exhausted. The cattle working area still had to be completed and the weather, although beautiful, remained unusually hot and humid.
Moving our focus to the cattle working area, which is located on the northern side of the corral, we switched to oak boards for strength in the crowding pen and bud box, and four & five boards instead of three. I had redesigned the crowding pen to be a bit larger and more circular for better cattle flow so all of the gates had to be rehung as well.
Since the gates were being rehung, we decided to upgrade all of the standard gates with bull gates, and hang them higher on the posts. For this part of the project, we hung nine gates, five on the corral perimeter and four in the working area. Two of the perimeter gates were 16 ft bull gates, each of which weighs about 150lbs. To get these gates aligned, we set them on cinder blocks to make the hinge placements.
For the gates in the working area, we used flipper gate latches. These work well because they are easy to use with one hand and they keep the gate level, with no stress on the hinges, in the closed position.
On the perimeter gates, we use a hook and chain latch which is easy to use even when wearing gloves, and then added a large gate screw at the bottom of the closing post that the gate rests on when closed.
Just when I thought the project was nearing the end, I discovered that the post holding the interior gate leading from the pen to the alleyway was leaning because years ago we hadn’t done a proper job. The post had to be dug out, straightened with the tractor and then reinforced with a couple bags of concrete. No photos of this, I was cranky and irritated at having to reset that dang post.
Workably completed project! As always there are a few tasks to do before being 100% finished. I will paint the boards in a month or so after they have time to dry and we will cut off the top of the posts to the height of the top board. But for now, we can use the corral for housing the horse and the crowding pen for working the cattle.
August is the typically month when the pasture grasses become thin and crunchy under the hot summer sun. Without enough rain, grasses go dormant while weeds such as Priscilla Mint, Dog Bain, Goldenrod and Milkweed flourish.
Our cattle have grazed the fields since winter, enjoying the lush food during the regular rains and cooler nights of spring and early summer. For over three weeks, we have not had any measurable rain. There is still food in the fields but the pickings are slimmer and not as tasty.
To supplement the herd’s foraging, we decided to set a leftover hay bale out for the cows to pick at if needed. Comfort food for the dog days of summer. I dragged the hay ring into the Lower field with the mule, causing a lot of curiosity from the cows and excitement from the calves. Cattle love when something unusual happens, I think they get bored.
Bella, the queen of the herd, always leads the way to food, water and new pastures unless of course she has to go into the chute, then she makes sure to be last in line.
The cows have enough grass left in the field to satisfy their need for food but will nibble on the hay for a change of pace. Bella lets me know that she was expecting a bucket of grain instead of the huge piece of last year’s “shredded wheat”.
Two night ago night, a strong summer storm finally rolled through with thunder, lightning and several inches of rain. I love to wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of a storm. Although with the herd hanging out in the Lower field, I knew the first task in the morning would be to inspect the fence lines for downed trees, and check if the waterer was still intact.
The morning brought good and bad news. All of the fence lines were clear and the waterer survived but lightning had damaged the electric fence charger. My cows would never test a fence line so we had time to fix the charger. Checking on the watering spot, the creek level was still high hours after the rain stopped. If the water surge from the storm had risen above the lines overnight, no debris became entangled.
Last night, another strong storm blew through and dumped an additional 3 inches of rain on ground that was already soggy. The creek surged again with worse results for the waterer this morning. Missing poles, tangle wires covered with debris and a fence charger out of commission left us little choice but to move the herd back to the safety of the Mountain field.
The good news is that everything looks greener already and the cows will get their water from a fountain and not the creek.