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.
Hugo has his neutering surgery last week. When I dropped him off at the vet’s office, he was bouncy and joyful, expecting a play date or day care outing. Surprise! Afterwards, as he laid on his bed whimpering, I explained to him that he was fortunate to get anesthesia and stitches, bull calves only get a squirt of betadine and a pat when they become steers.
Hugo was much better the following day and a good sport about wearing the cone. The only problem was the plastic cone from the vet was too bug and uncomfortable in his crate. The first night, the poor dog spent an hour trying to go to sleep with the cone constantly catching on the crate walls.
So I bought a softer, somewhat smaller cone that was a lot more comfortable. This dog is amazingly nimble and by the third day had figured out a way to lick the stitches in spite of wearing the cone. Thankfully, no damage was done.
Yesterday, the long week was finally over and Hugo could finally resume his daily walks off lead. With seven days of pent up energy, he was one exuberant schnauzer.
The first creep gate we built was cobbled together with panels, t-posts and a trough. I have found that panels are a very useful item to have on a farm. Each 12 foot panel is fairly lightweight (I can lift and carry one myself) and multiple panels can be moved at the same time using a forklift attachment on a small or mid-sized tractor. In the past, I have used groups of panels to build temporary corrals and working areas by connecting them together with their built-in pins and loops.
Below is a photo of the creep gate area we built from panels to feed a group of calves during the month before they were weaned. I used four panels connected into a square, leaving one corner open just wide enough for the largest calf. For added stability, T-posts were driven at the closed corners as well as at each side of the opening, and the panels secured to the t-posts with chains. I knew the cows and larger heifers would definitely try to get to the trough near the opening. Using the t-posts kept the creep area securely in place when the larger cows pushed and rubbed on the structure.
For the creep area, the most important T-post is the one located horizontally across the open corner. This controls the height of calf the walk into the area. Full grown cattle won’t stoop to crawl underneath a barrier, so I placed and chained the horizontal bar at the height of the largest calf’s neck.
In order to generate curiosity and excitement in the calves, I placed a second trough somewhat near the front of the creep gate area. For the first week, each time that I fed sweet feed to the herd in their trough, I added a bit to the trough in the creep area.
Finally, I setup a game camera to determine when the calves were entering the creep area. As soon as the calves were reliably eating the feed, I would stop giving my already well-fed, spoiled cows regular treats.
On the first day after setting up the creep gate, I checked the game camera. No calves, only shameless squirrels happily filling up on sweet feed.
The next day, a crow was boldly eating his fill without a calf in sight.
Checking the camera two days later and apparently the neighbor’s goats were perfectly comfortable jumping two fences and ducking into the creep area in the dark of night to enjoy a midnight snack. Lots of goat photos but still no calves.
Finally, after almost a week, a calf! I don’t know if she was the smartest or bravest, but regardless this little heifer was enjoying a well earned snack.
Pearl, who is Bella’s year old heifer, proved the hypothesis that only the smaller calves would enter the creep area. Here she is trying to get inside but that horizontal bar is lower than her back. Even though her head fits through, she won’t duck to go underneath.
Only a few days later and I was able to stand on the other side of the creep gate with a pen full of calves, all calmly and happily munching away. There is Poor Pearl, watching and drooling on the other side.
Before long, the largest of the calves, a cute but obnoxious steer, was standing right in the trough hogging all of the feed.
Another style of creep gate that I have used on the farm is an example of a wonderfully creative and sturdy gate built decades ago by TA’s father-in-law. Using reclaimed pipes, a welder and some kind of pipe cutter, he built an adjustable creep gate that could be attached to panels or at an open spot along a fence line.
Here is that hand crafted gate setup in the Front field to feed three just-weaned steers. I used a panel for each side and the existing woven wire fence along the back. The panels were hung on fence posts by inserting the panel’s pins through heavy duty eyes I had driven into the posts.
The adjustable opening is positioned to allow the steers to enter but keep out the cow and bull who were in the same field. In addition, I drove a T-post at each front corner and chained the panels and gate to them for added strength. No way Gilley could fit through that opening!
This past spring, Scarlet delivered a set of twin heifers. Although Scarlet is an awesome mother, the twins were skinnier than the single calves and by summer, Scarlet’s condition began to suffer trying to feed two hungry babies.
I decided to separate Scarlet and her twins from the main herd when the heifers were about 5 months old so all three could get supplemental feed and then I would wean the girls. To accomplish this plan, I needed another tailor built creep gate to fit between the South and the Backyard fields. Using an angle grinder and welder, Bill removed a few bars from an old gate, re-welded them vertically and fashioned a custom-made creep gate. This one is not adjustable, but works perfectly for its intended location and purpose, letting calves creep between those two fields.
On the South field side, I again set up a feeding trough for the cows that was in close proximity to the creep gate opening. Before long, the twins found the way to their own private feeding trough.
After a couple of weeks had passed, the day came when the twins, along with Rose’ (Garnet’s 10 month old replacement heifer) and Nellie (a 7 month old replacement heifer) were all happily snacking in the Backyard field. I quietly walked behind them through the opening in the creep gate. Tied to a nearby tree was the regular gate which I pulled into place and chained to the creep gate, effectively blocking their return. The weaning of the twins was underway! Using this process of feeding calves through a creep gate before weaning worked much better than I expected. Scarlet and her twins remained calm and relaxed, with very little mooing or no pacing.
The creep gate weaning worked so well, that we decided to purchase a new 16 ft creep gate to fit between the Front field and the corral. There is an adjustable horizontal bar on this pretty red gate to fit the size of calves being permitted access to the feed. Now, we just have to hang it up and wait until this fall’s babies are about 5 months old and ready to creep!.
The weather this summer has been relentlessly rainy and exceptionally hot. Except for a short 10 days at the start of August, the ground at the farm has stayed wet with high humidity, like living in a jungle. The weeds grew wild and I couldn’t cut the grass fast enough. I am still mowing the yard and fence lines as if the month was May, although the cattle are enjoying fields with grass so high it tickles their udders. The cows are fat and I am exhausted.
And then there are the five heifers that were bred at the end of 2019. This group is our first set of replacement heifers, all daughters from the previous bull. Heifers are female cows who have not yet had a calf, and as with all first time mama’s, the first birth can be a nerve wracking time, for both the heifer and me. I calculated their calving dates should start around mid-August.
Towards the end of July, we decided to separate the expecting heifers from the main herd and move them closer, into the front field. Here I could keep an eye on them and in case of difficulties, the working area was close by. We put up a poly wire line at one end of the mountain field, then used feed buckets to sort the bred heifers on the gate side of the line. Reba, Bonnie and Oprah cooperated, while unfortunately, Shirley and Mahalia balked and ran back to the woods. As a last minute decision, I decided to also move Scarlet and her 5 month old twins. Scarlet had been losing weight trying to keep up with nursing those two growing girls. The twins were old enough be weaned and would thrive with supplemental calf feed. This would also give Scarlet time to regain her conditioning as she was most likely already bred again.
So the small herd of Scarlet, her twins and 3 of the 5 expectant heifers made their way to the South field, through the Backyard field and finally to the safety of the Front field.
By staying with the main herd, Shirley and Mahalia sentenced me to two treks a day to the Mountain field, often in deep mud and pouring rain, to check on them as calving time approached. During one particularly wet and dreary span, our motorized mule broke down so I made the trips on foot. By mule or on foot, Hugo is always by my side for companionship, protection and at times, to drive me crazy. Such is life with a farm puppy!
Finally, after making dozens of trips without any news, early one morning I found all of the cows in the field grazing except for one who was standing at the edge of the woods. Shirley had given birth to a completely black little bull! Shirley, the one-eyed, hapless, orphaned baby heifer had grown into beautiful, full grown cow with her own little bull.
1 of 5 heifers have successfully birthed their calves.
Shirley is also a fantastic mama! She is quite protective and calls her little bull with a fog horn of a moo, and he comes running. She must have a bit of dairy cow in her genetics because her udder is huge, always full. She could keep 3 calves well fed. In just a week, her little bull is strong and lively.
Mid-August and with one successful birth completed, there were four more to go. I wasn’t sure if the next one would be Reba in the Front field or Mahalia in the Mountain field. My twice daily trips to check on Mahalia continued.
And then just before daybreak on August 29 as I was taking Hugo out for his pre-breakfast walk, I heard a quiet mama-moo from the Front field. The sun had not yet risen enough to see but I was sure a new calf had been born. An hour later, I found Reba with her newly minted heifer.
2 of 5 heifers have successfully birthed their calves.
A few days later and this heifer is already running joyful circles around the grazing cows. She is strong, pretty and thriving.
Mahalia, a.k.a Horny, had begun to look more motherly with each passing day. She is a leaner, medium framed cow who was never hugely pregnant but her udder began filling up and her back area became floppier.
Then one afternoon as I made my rounds, Horny was nowhere to be found. After searching the woods and the briar patch, I finally found her and a brand new bull hidden in the tall grass. She still has a bit of wild cow in her, so I kept my distance not wanting to make the new mama nervous.
Every newborn calf on the farm receives a dose of Inforce III, a respiratory vaccination, that is given as a liquid in their nostrils. I like to vaccinate the babies when they are between 12-24 hours old, after Mama has them dried off and the calf has nursed a few times. The mama’s are a bit calmer after some time has passed as well. The next morning, I drove out to check on Horny and her calf and found she had moved him to the other side of the field, into the middle of a large briar path that covers a steep hillside. A perfect spot to keep the baby safe, Horny was standing guard and she even made a run at the mule, mostly because Hugo was with me. I waited until later in the afternoon to try and dose the calf. With Bill along to help, we headed out around the time the herd typically went for water as I was hoping to find the calf alone. Leaving Hugo at home, we went to the briar patch approaching from the opposite direction of the waterer. There was no sign of Horny as I made my way through the briars, using clippers to clear a path, looking for the calf. Thankfully, tucked among the weeds and thorns, his white face gave him away. Not knowing exactly where Mama was and fearing being trapped by her and those horns, Bill stood guard while I crawled into the spot where the calf was laying. There was only one way in and out, and I was praying that the calf didn’t moo and that Horny was busy getting a drink. Speaking softly to the little bull, I gently lifted his head and gave him the vaccination. Thankfully, he didn’t make move or a sound. I was able to back out of the spot and make my way down to the mule with only a few thorns and bloody scratches as a reward. We drove toward the waterer, and there was Horny, already making her way towards her calf at the sight of the mule.
3 of 5 heifers have successfully birthed their calves.
The remaining pregnant heifers, Oprah and Bonnie, were safely in the Front field so my frequent treks to the far field had thankfully ended. I could casually keep an eye on the last two through out the day. Oprah’s mama, Gilley, had been quite the cow. All of her calves were bulls except for her last which was Oprah. Gilley’s nickname was “The Flying Cow” because during one working day, she went airborne over a brand new gate, completely squashing it, and escaping out of the working area. Gilley was also the only cow to almost kill me the first time I tried to gender check one of her newborn calves.
Early in the morning on September 4, Oprah was far away from the herd at the end of the field. As I approached her on foot, I saw a tiny patch of black pop up from the ground. Oprah had her baby! With the memory of her mama in the forefront of my mind, I cautiously approached the pair. Talking quietly to Oprah, I approached the calf with mama about 2 feet away. I waited until Oprah turned a bit sideways and then I gently checked the baby’s gender, another heifer! Thankfully, Oprah was not just like her mama and had not tried to kill me.
4 of 5 heifers have successfully birthed their calves.
One more heifer left to give birth. I was beginning to believe this crazy summer might actually end on a good note. The weather had also taken a turn for the better with not quite as much rain over the last week although my grass was still growing like it was spring.
By now we had moved the heifers and their calves into the south field. I had weaned the group of 9 spring calves and they were occupying the Front field, close to the loading area for their next step. The rest of the main herd, minus two silly heifers Pearl and Willow who were missed the move, went to the Mountain field a few days after the spring calves were weaned.
Bonnie finally began to show signs of an imminent birth. On September 13, our last heifer safely had her calf, another beautiful little red heifer. Bonnie’s girl was taller than the others but still on the small side. Shane the bull was fulfilling his job of producing “calving ease” babies.
5 of 5 heifers have successfully birthed their calves. The ground is dry and the sun shining.
This time, I brought Pippie and the two young heifers into the corral the night before auction day. With a full round bale of hay, a trough of water and Sundance’s run-in for shelter, all three were happy with the accommodations.
At 6am the following day, with the weather rainy but cool, Pippie moved relatively easily into the working pen. By 6:30am, she was loaded on the trailer and we were heading off to the auction.
Saying good-bye to Pippie was sad, but she had lots of other cows to keep her company. And the auction was being held later in the day, so she did not have to spend a night waiting. The circle of life on a farm can be difficult, but with a cow in Pippie’s condition, better to be moving on now rather than risk a difficult calving.
Pippie’s day to leave the farm arrived on the morning before the cull cow auction at the local cattle company. At daybreak, Bill helped me separate Pippie from her small herd of Annie and Rose’. With a bucket of grain to entice her, I walked Pippie across the lane and into the corral.
The daytime high temperature was forecast to be 90 degrees, and the air was already humid and thick at 7am. Bill was headed out for a golf outing, so the plan was to load Pippie that afternoon when he returned. I set up Pippie with extra grain, mineral and a trough of fresh water. In addition, there was the shade structure and Sundance’s run-in for her to shelter from the sun and heat.
No sooner had Bill left than Pippie started pacing, moo’ing and generally acting unsettled. She knew something was up, and was not at all happy about being away from her small herd of three. By 8:30am, with the heat of the day was already setting in, I decided to load Pippie as soon as possible instead of waiting until the afternoon. I called TA and asked if he would stop by and lend a hand.
While waiting for TA, I moved Pippie to the working side of the corral and with Hugo in tow, grabbed the keys to the Superduty pickup truck. Click … click was all I heard as I turned the key to start the truck. Sigh, dead battery. Hugo and I headed back to the house to get the keys to my little blue truck, and then walked back to the shop. As I hitched the stock trailer to the blue truck, I realized that the wiring harness was different and wouldn’t fit. I would be traveling without tail lights on the trailer. Hearing Pippie still moo’ing and pacing, I googled the directions along the back roads to the auction.
Hitching the trailer to the truck was easy, I have done that alone many times. But backing up the trailer to the head gate by myself took a few tries. Especially since the blue truck is two wheel drive and I had to take care not to spin the tires.
After a number attempts and with Hugo sitting on my lap for encouragement, I had everything lined up and in place. Just in time, as TA was coming down the lane. I was sure the morning would now proceed smoothly, Pippie would be at the cattle barn within an hour where she would have the company of other cows, or so I thought.
As soon as I joined Pippie in the working pen, I knew that she clearly had other plans. Pippie adamantly refused to move anywhere near the alleyway. For more than 20 minutes, I tried buckets of grain, gentle tail twists, foot prodding with the cow stick, verbal pleading and actually pushing her on the butt, all of which just made Pippie laugh. She would take couple of steps and then circle back to the shade.
I thought maybe bringing in Hugo would get her moving. With the schnauzer on a long lead, I brought him into the corral. Hugo barked and danced at the back of Pippie’s feet, doing his best to annoy her into motion. More laughing from the cow as she calmly walked back into the shade of the run-in. Giving up, I took Hugo out of the working area through the two panels next to the truck.
TA and I decided to give it one more attempt. I managed to get Pippie out of the run-in, and as she took a few steps along the panels, I looked over her back and realized that I had left the two panels ajar after taking Hugo out. Before I could formulate a thought, that darn cow saw the opening too. And then Pippie, who was too hot to move 10 minutes ago, pivoted on a dime and with the grace of a ballerina, twisted her 1200lb body through the small opening, taking a hard left turn between the truck and panels, and danced with freedom out of the corral.
TA and I followed her across the yard but getting that cow to even look towards the corral was impossible. The only place Pippie would agree to go was back into the South Field to rejoin her herd of three. I gave up and opened the gate.
The herd has been on the first summer time pasture for a week now. The difference between the used field on the left and the fresh field on the right is striking. Eighteen cows, one bull and nine calves have mowed down acres of spring grass in a mere seven days. So we pulled up the line and moved everyone to the greener pasture, beginning the summer rotation.
As with all herd activity, Bella is at the head of the parade while Shane brings up the rear, plodding along, taking his own sweet time.
Once on the fresh field, the air is filled with the sounds of munching. I take some time to walk through and inspect the herd, looking at each cow and calf for soundness, clear eyes or anything out of the ordinary.
Thankfully, everyone looks great! Lucy’s infected back hoof is sound and regrowing, and the rest of her feet look wonderful. The twins are growing well, a bit skinnier than the single calves, but sturdy and healthy. Peggy’s broken leg has completely healed and she runs with the other calves with ease.
This past October, Lucy came up limping. I was able to walk her from the Mountain field all of the way back to the working area and administer a dose of LA300 antibiotic. Her limp cleared up after a few days, she went back to the herd and all was well. Until last Friday morning when I fed the cows grain to check on everyone, again in the Mountain field.
Lucy stayed behind in the woods which is always telltale sign something is wrong. I went to find her and she struggled to stand, her limp was back, much worse than before. As I took a closer look at Lucy’s feet, her back hooves were long, crossing over each other and she was putting her weight on the back edge of her foot. To make the situation even more complex, she had a 6 week old calf at her side, an age that is too old to be easy and too young to be on her own for long.
The next day, we used the dart gun to administer 16cc of Draxxin in the hopes of getting Lucy stable enough to walk to the working facility. Two days later, she could walk, although slowly and still with a pronounced limp. After calling the vet to schedule a farm visit, we moved the whole herd back to the South field to facilitate separating out Lucy and her calf. Then we moved the pair through the Backyard field and finally up and into the corral. Poor Lucy was ready for a rest after the hike.
I was very worried about this cow’s prognosis. Her hooves were obviously longer than normal and curled, but the limp had developed very quickly. One day she was fine and the next day, she could hardly move. If Lucy’s case was terminal, I had no idea how I was going to raise her 6 week old heifer.
Dr Pat Comyn arrived with his son Daniel, a student in Virgina Tech’s veterinary program, trailering the bovine tilt table. What a lucky young man, on the job training with hands-on experience to supplement this spring’s online university classes.
Before I had even moved Lucy into the alleyway, Pat took one look at her feet and said, “She has corkscrew claw.”. He explained that Corkscrew Claw is a genetic trait that causes hooves to curl and grow down and around the bottom of the hoof. This condition can contribute to a variety of other foot issues such as foundering, abscesses and lameness. There is no permanent cure, but with care and maintenance, Lucy would be able continue as a herd cow.
With Lucy inside the unit, Pat and Daniel strapped her to the table and tilt it up. Then they chain all four hooves down to immobilize her.
The look on Lucy’s face as she found herself lying on her side, strapped to the table with all four feet dangling in mid air was priceless.
With Lucy securely on the table and somewhat calm, Dr Comyn was able to take a closer look. She had been favoring her right rear leg the most and just above her hoof line, Pat saw an abscess. An abscess can develop quickly and is terribly painful which is why poor Lucy went from feeling fine to barely being able to move in a day’s time.
Her two front hooves needed trimmed and shaped, but were not as in bad condition as the rear hooves. Daniel started work on the front feet using a hoof trimmer and an electric grinder to clean out the crevices and remove excess hoof material.
Lucy’s back hooves were in terrible shape, long, curled and folding from the sides down and underneath the hoof. Dr Comyn worked on these with grinders, knives and nippers. Pieces of hoof were flying everywhere!
All the while that Lucy was getting her feet worked on, her little heifer waited patiently in the working area. She is a beautiful calf, dark red coat and very spunky.
After a lot of work, Lucy’s feet were steadily beginning to resemble a normal cow’s hoof again instead of the pointed elf feet.
Dr Comyn turned his attention to the abscess, which had blown out of at the top of Lucy’s hoof. The spot was still seeping and soft to the touch compared to the rest of her hoof.
After reshaping the hooves but before cleaning the abscess, Pat fit a protective pad to the good half of Lucy’s back right foot. He filled the pad with epoxy, warmed it with a heat gun and then stuck it on to the inner hoof. The pad raises Lucy’s foot off of the ground enough to let the side with the access heal before Lucy fully walks on it.
As Pat cut away the hoof, the path of the abscess was exposed. He opened the path up enough to completely drain the infection, ease the pressure and also promote healing by preventing the area from closing and becoming reinfected.
Soon, all four of Lucy’s feet were beautifully trimmed, tapered downward, smooth on the bottom and ready to support a 1400lb cow. Lucy will need an annual trim to keep the corkscrew growth from returning and to hopefully prevent any further abscesses.
Because the condition is hereditary, Dr Comyn suggested genomic testing for our herd for corkscrew claw. Knowing which of my girls have the gene will enable me to make an informed decision about which heifers to keep or sell. In addition, using bulls with good foot structure will help keep the condition from being passed along to the calves. Thankfully, Shane’s feet seem to be fine.
In spite of the short trim and green slipper on her back foot, Lucy looked amazingly more comfortable as soon as she regained her composure after the exiting the tilt table. Her gait was nearly normal, the limp almost gone and her calf very happy to be reunited with mama.
I will keep the pair in the Backyard field for a few days to make sure all is well before returning them to the main herd. So nice to see a happy, flat-footed Lucy!
Today, as part of our traditional Mother’s Day weekend, Shane returned to the farm. The ladies and his group of babies from this spring, all gathered to welcome him home.
While the cows and Shane were getting reacquainted, I put some sweet feed in the creep feeder trough. Scarlet’s twins are doing well but seem to be a bit thinner than the single calves. We set up a area in the field to allow the smaller calves access to supplemental feed. Obviously, all of the little calves have figured out the entrance and are hooked on the sweet grain. Pearl, who is 14 months old, looks on longingly from the outside. By design, she and the other older heifers are too big to fit through the doorway.
Of course, there is always that one steer in the crowd who takes advantage of the situation by standing on everyone else’s food.
I just love how the baldy babies look so much like their mama’s!
My two bee hives came through the mild winter very strong. Over the past two weeks, they have started swarming, with three of the swarms landing on fence posts near my apiary. We managed to notice and catch all three swarms.
During today’s swarm and capture, I took some videos because the whole process happened while we were watching. The first part of the video shows the group of swarming bees coming out of the hive and gathering around the opening. Then the bees leave the hive and gather on a nearby post. Somewhere in the middle of the worker bees is the queen. As the bees wait on the post, surrounding and protecting the queen, scout bees are sent out to look for a new home.
I scoop up handfuls of the docile bees and drop them into the hive box but the only bee that matters is the queen. If I get her into the box, then the workers will follow. And once the workers go into the hive box, the scouts will return and go inside too. Then the whole group will decide that the hive box is a good new home, so they will stay. The queen will start laying eggs and the workers will go out to gather pollen and store honey.