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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.

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.

Bovine Bliss

Early Monday morning, after a final check of the perimeter fencing, we opened the gate from the Mountain field to the Bottom field. The cows were so excited! Bella, the leader of the herd with her heifer calf Pearl by her side, immediately began scoping out the perimeter. Some of the younger cows danced with joy at seeing this fresh stand of grass. At this time of year, all of the cows are tired of eating hay but most of the grass is still thin, just beginning to grow. Having a field with fresh, tall grass is definitely a treat for the ladies. Looking forward, as part of our yearly field rotation, we hope to keep the Bottom field set aside during the winter months so each spring we will have stockpiled good grass.

Old Lucy, the last cow to pass through the gate is well into her teens, perhaps even 20 years old. She is part angus and part dairy with a wrinkly, dangling udder much used from years of raising calves. Old Lucy meanders in the new field, takes a look around and then heads for the trough for a snack of sweet grain. I always save a scoop and sneak it to her when the other cows aren’t looking.

Turn on the volume before playing this second video. The sound of cows munching the tall sweet grass is the best!

The Bottom field is about 20 acres of pasture. We sectioned off 6-7 acres, let the cows graze that grass down and then move them to the next section. By the time they are in the last area, the first section will have had some time to recover, before the herd moves back through. By early-May, the cows will be back in the Mountain field, just in time for Shane Jr, our red angus bull to join them!

Five days later, the line between the grazed and ungrazed portions of the field is distinct. Each morning and evening when I drive out to check on the herd, the girls moo and bellow, staring at the greener grass on other side of the fence, then looking at me with pleading eyes.

This evening during a lull in the rain, we headed out to move the fence line and give the herd more grass. The anticipation was palpable, and loud!

All eyes were focused on the new fence line ….

Ready, Set, Go!

Here is an interesting picture of Pearl, just shy of 3 weeks old and already trained on the electric fence. She is perched on the edge of the old and new line, no fence in place anymore, but Pearl hesitates, and won’t easily cross that line.

The Never Ending Project

Fencing – the never ending project on a cattle farm. New fences need to be built, old fences have to be fixed or replace and unused fences must be removed. On TurkeyCrest farm, we always have multiple fencing projects in progress or on the to-do list.

Last year, we were fortunate to rent an adjoining 25 acre pasture from our wonderful neighboring farmer friends. The farm land is on our side of a small river, or large creek depending on the weather. The bottom acres flooded last summer during the months of constant rain, changing the course of the waterway as trees fell and sandy banks eroded. At one time, cattle grazed and hay was cut on here but this land has stood empty for decades.

Making use of this acreage for our herd began last summer by cutting the fields twice to knock down the weeds and encourage grass growth. By this spring, 25 acres of stockpiled, amazing grass were just waiting for our girls to graze. As soon as the winter weather ended, this fencing project began.

Stockpiled grass

Along the creek and up both sides of the pasture to our existing Mountain field, we ran high tensile, two wire electric fencing. The first task was to drive wooden posts at corner locations, along elevation changes and in areas where extra support for the wire would be needed. Then we added metal t-posts to stretch the wire between the wood posts, and finally fiberglass posts between the t-posts to keep the wires parallel.

Along the wood line was an old barbed wire fence, probably put up in the mid-1900’s if not earlier. The original fence posts were cedar logs, the wire was heavy duty, rusted and broken in many places. Through the years, other farmers had added t-posts and new barbed wire to patch the holes and fortify the line. As the pasture sat empty, new trees grew up through the fence, old trees fell on the wire and deer made pathways over and under in many places. We had to clear and fix this fence line to keep our cattle out of the woods, and to clean up any random lengths of wire laying loose on the ground.

Supply wagon

The only chainsaw that I am comfortable using is my “chainsaw on a stick”, a pole saw. I use this 12″ chainsaw to trim limbs, fell small trees and when held horizontal, as a brush saw. This job was especially difficult because the old barbed wire was everywhere, on posts, on the ground and around trees. Fortunately, I managed to clear the line without ruining the chain!

Clearing the fence line
Cleared fence line

This is a typical fence post along the line of fencing that had to be cleared and fixed. An old fence post, with ancient rusted barb wire next to a newer t-post with new barbed wire run between both. The lowest strand of wire is actually at ground level and unattached to the t-post. Over 1/4 mile of this had to be dealt with before our cows could use the pasture.

Generations of fencing.

Where the trees have encroached along the fence, I trimmed the branches and left the stumps. The oldest strands of wire had grown into the trees so removing them would be difficult. And a tree stump with wire embedded in it actually makes a reasonable fence post. Done.

Tree stumps as fence posts

The final and most complex fencing to be completed before the cattle could use this land was to provide access to the water. We decided to install a nose point waterer to allow the cows to drink but prevent them from lollygagging in the stream.

Nose point waterer

The cattle take turns, 1 or 2 at a time, to walk down the bank and get a drink of water. Most of the older ladies have experienced these types of waterers, and they show they younger cows how the system works.

The only downside is if (or when) a huge rain storm occurs. The stream turns into a river, floods the banks and the volume of water through this lazy creek will ruin the nose point waterer. All part of farming, and why fencing is a never ending project.

Good-bye Thelma

Today, I said good-bye to my Thelma. Thelma has been with me for over 7 years after I adopted her from a shelter when she was 8 years old. She was my wonderful, happy protector, constant companion, farm dog and friend.

A couple of years ago, I had her dna tested … amazing how accurate the results were.

Thelma was, at heart, a protector. She almost never barked, except at the occasional UPS delivery person whom she thought might be suspect. And once, when she was getting on in years, she forgot that Bill had left the house. When he returned unexpectedly through the a different door, she heard footsteps and ran barking. When she saw the intruder was Bill, she skidded to a stop, with an almost horrified look on her face. I just smiled, patted my dog on the head, “Good Girl!”.

On bunny guard duty, or hoping for a snack.
Ready to run the neighbors goats back to their field.
Watching Nolan in the jumpy seat.
Guarding against any scraps hitting the floor.
On guard as the grandsons tour the farm.
Hanging with Nolan as he roams about and picks strawberries..

Thelma was also an all weather dog. She loved the snow, and would always be ready for an outing on a cold winter day. I liked to keep her fur cut short, and had a number of winter coats to help keep her warm.

Thelma had so many friends, both 4 legged and 2 legged. She liked company but was not overly needy, close enough companionship suited her fine.

Thelma and her BFF , Izzy.
Thelma loving on Vivie.
Thelma and Frankie
Thelma and her grey nemesis, Slick
Thelma and Nisseh.
For years, Thelma was the greeter for the Spruce Rock Christmas Tree Farm

Thelma LOVED riding in boats. With her ears flapping in the wind, she enjoyed every voyage.

Bill and Thelma canoodling.

Most of all, Thelma was my constant companion at the farm. She loved to ride with me in the kawasaki mule, walk through the fields and canoe on the pond. She was my ever stalwart protector and friend. I will miss her strong spirit and I loved her beyond words.

Born the Hard Way

On Sunday, Bella delivered a beautiful heifer that I named Pearl. She joined Josies’s day old heifer as the first 2 of 9 for 2019. Almost immediately, I realized both of these Mama’s were hiding their babies under a single strand of electric poly wire, meant to keep the herd away from a stand of woods. We decided to spend the day moving the herds around to get the cow herd into our South field where the fence was more protective and so the ones still due to calve would be easier to watch.

Bella’s heifer Pearl – Yep, it’s a girl!
The main herd excitedly ready to move to a new field.

Our cattle love to switch fields, so everyone happily settled into their new pastures by Sunday afternoon. Three of the ladies were close to calving, Scarlet, Ruby and Patty. Scarlet is Ruby’s daughter and at 3 years old, this was going to be her first calf. Last year, she bred but was not able to carry that calf to term. I was excited for this one because it would be the first 3rd generation calf born to our herd. This is a pic of Scarlet on her birthday in April 2016.

Scarlet as a newborn – April 2016

Early yesterday morning when I checked on the ladies, sure enough, Scarlet was in labor. She was pacing around, having mild contractions, but generally looked fine. I guessed within 2-3 hours the calf would be on the ground. As the morning passed, I checked on her every hour or so, and things progressed but at a slower pace than I anticipated. By 1:30, Scarlet began harder labor, started to repeatedly lay down and then get up, but still no hooves presented. When a cow gives birth, the best sight to see is the calf coming out in the classic diving position – two hooves with pads down followed by a nose. Anything else is a problem, and with Scarlet, no hooves at all after so much time, was becoming a problem. I texted a couple of cattle friends, and both said definitely time to get her up (aka, move Scarlet to a corral) and call the vet.

The stars had aligned for us with our decision the day before to move the herd to the South field. The panel corral was already setup, all we had to do was add the head gate. Of course, the other cows and new calves found all of this activity super exciting, and took the opportunity to play with every piece of equipment, oblivious to poor Scarlet’s uncomfortable predicament.

Scarlet in the corral.

Our large animal vet would not get to our farm for a couple of hours, but gave me some advice over the phone. Fortunately, one of our good friends and and an experienced cattleman whom I had texted earlier, stopped by to lend a hand. By now it was late afternoon and Scarlet had been in active labor since 7am. The calf had to be examined to determine it’s position in the birth canal, and would then probably have to be pulled out. Scarlet seemed to know that she needed our help and moved easily into the head gate.

One funny side story is that we had most of the basic supplies on hand for this event, except we needed iodine and lubricating ointment. Bill ran to the local farm co-op where he found the iodine but they were out of cattle lube. So he went to the dollar store down the road, and had to buy two tubes of K-Y personal lube. He said the clerk just smiled at him. LOL!

Scarlet -front end of the head gate.
Scarlet – back end of the head gate

I have done internal examinations on cattle before, but never during a birth. I put on the shoulder length gloves, disinfected with the iodine, lubed up and attempted to discern how far along the calf was in the canal and what part was presenting first. And then Scarlet started to lay down in the head gate. Argh … not convenient at all. We did everything possible for the next 30 minutes trying to get her to stay standing, but she kept laying down. In spite of the steep angle, I managed to feel two hooves and a nose, and the little thing actually licked my fingers from inside his mama. We still had a live calf! I almost cried, partly because this yet unborn baby licked my fingers and partly because we were a long way from a successful birth.

This is when the picture taking ended. All three of us, including our friend in his good work clothes, were covered in cow muck. Getting my arm well inside of Scarlet, I wrapped a chain around each hoof of the calf, above the hock, but could not get any traction because of the position of Scarlet. We had to let her out of the chute, chains dangling from her back end and then catch her again in the corral. This time, we let her stand in the alleyway with a board behind her to prevent my getting squashed if she backed up. Our friend and Bill cobbled together a makeshift tensioner using a ratchet strap and boards. With steady pressure, alternating pulling on each hoof with the chains, Scarlet suddenly realized she could help us by actively pushing as we pulled. At last, we saw the nose, then the eyes, the head and finally with a big woosh, out came the whole calf. I rubbed him down, cleaned out his air ways and the big, little bull calf took his first breath – a live calf on the ground!!! Time was 5:30pm.

Just born!
Scarlet first sees what all of her efforts made.

Scarlet suddenly realized this little thing was hers. After some time alone, she began tending to him, licking him dry and encouraging him to stand. Scarlet was going to be a good mama.

When our vet (who I consider a friend too) arrived, about 2 minutes after the birth, she examined Scarlet to make sure there was no tearing or issues created when the calf was pulled out. All was well with Mama and baby. We are so fortunate to have the help of a wonderful friends in times like these.

Highs and Lows before 10am

Two days ago, we had torrential rain that lasted all day. Which was followed by hollowing winds throughout the next day and all night long. Thelma, my rickety old dog, woke me at 4am needing to go outside. As I laid awake trying to fall asleep and listening to the wind, I knew checking the fence lines would be job #1 as soon as the sun rose.

At 7:30am, after feeding the herd of heifers some grain, we jumped into the kawasaki mule to check for weather damage. As we rounded the corner of the South Field, there was an old cherry tree blown down across the path and onto the fence. The top electric wire and the woven wire fence were intact but crushed under the weight of the tree. Fixing this would definitely take a couple of hours. Before we tackled this mess, I wanted to check on the cow herd because several of the ladies were due to calve any day.

Tree crushing the fence.

As we approached the Mountain field, I did a quick count of the ladies: 5 red angus, 1 charolais, 2 black angus, Old Lucy, 3 heifers, 3 baldies ….wait, there were only 2 baldies. Josie was missing and she had been very close to calving. We walked through the field to a small grove of trees at the far end and there was Josie, with her brand new, still wet calf. Josie herself was born on our farm and is a calm, trusting cow and a great mama. I lifted the leg of the little baby, her first heifer! The calf was just a few minutes old, Josie had work to do to get her baby dried her off and standing, so I didn’t stay too long.

Josie’s heifer

On the way back to tackle the fallen tree, I looked down at the muddy path and noticed several large sets of prints – hoof prints, and they were on outside of the fence! Earlier when feeding the heifers, I was distracted thinking about potential storm damage and did not count heads. Obviously, someone had escaped through the wrecked fence.

Hoof prints

We hurried back to the South field, and sure enough one of the Red Angus heifers, Reba, was missing. I started to panic wondering how I was going to find and return a cow who was roaming around 80 acres of woods. Then I heard mooing coming from the direction of the pond. There was Reba, standing on the other side of the fence, desperate to return to her herd! She must have watched me feed grain earlier and had a bad case of FOMO. I grabbed the empty grain bucket (it still smelled like grain – cows aren’t THAT smart) and walked to the nearest gate. By now the other heifers were milling around, interested in the unusual activity and curiously wondering why Reba was on the other side of the fence. Willow helped out by walking through the open gate, encouraging Reba to return, which she did at a trot. I was so relieved that I didn’t even remember to take any pics of the reunion.

With the heifer safely returned to the field, we went back to the fixing the fence. First, we cut up the cherry tree, saving the logs to split for firewood. I used the bucket of the tractor to hold the tree off of the wire while Bill cut it up. This fence is woven wire with a hot top line and is very resilient. Using the hooks on the tractor bucket for tension, we straightened and stretched the fence back into position and stapled it up.

With the fence fix complete, we drove the perimeter of the other fields and thankfully found no more damage. Before heading back to the house for breakfast, I stopped by to check on Josie. She had her calf completely dried off and had moved her to a sunny spot in the grass.

First calf of 2019!

Farm Photo Challenge

On facebook, a friend nominated me to post one picture a day for 10 days without any description, that represented something about farming that impacted me. I take pictures almost daily, capturing moments and memories, so choosing just 10 photos to post was difficult . Below are the ones I selected, along with the short version of their story.

Day #1 – Springtime Exuberance

Day #1 – Springtime Exuberance. One beautiful spring morning, these two young calves celebrated life, running and chasing each other all over the field. While their mama’s grazed close by, they darted among the herd, kicking up their heels and leaping into the air. Every year on the farm, a crop of newly minted calves signals spring has arrived.

Day #2 – Pig Tails

Day #2 – Pig Tails. These three piggies were the cutest ever! Well, actually, all baby pigs are adorable. A basic piglet weighs about 20 lbs at around 10 weeks old. And then, after a mere 6 months of grazing, sleeping and wallowing, each piglet sprouts into a 250lb HOG.

Day #3 – Grandbabies and Calving Season

Day #3 – Grandbabies and Calving Season. Two activities that should never intersect on a farm. This pic was taken during our first calving season, during which we agreed to mind our two grandsons, then 2 years and 7 months old, while their parents went away for the weekend. Of course, Bella who was then a heifer, had a difficult birth requiring the vet, chains and extraordinary measures to save her and her calf’s lives. We spent 2 full days, toting grandsons along while desperately working to save Bella and her calf. This pic was taken as we transported the calf to our corral, grandsons in tow, where we worked with his mama to create a motherly bond with her new calf.

After this weekend, we made a new farm rule – any grandchildren visiting during calving season had to be accompanied by at least one parent!

Day #4 – Installing a box of bees

Day #4 – Installing a box of bees. A task that is so full of hope and anticipation. New boxes of bees are always so mild and well-behaved. To this day, I always review the installation process on a YouTube video that I have bookmarked.

Day #5 – Round Bale Fun

Day #5 – Round Bale Fun. No worries, Mama was just behind the bale in case a baby decided to roll off. Nothing better than introducing grandchildren to the full scope of farming 🙂

Day #6 – Snake Wrangling

Day #6 – Snake Wrangling. To me, this picture emphasizes that not everything on a farm is warm and fuzzy. Hens lay eggs => snakes like eggs => snakes will find the hen house. So, there are a few lessons to learn from this experience. 1: Don’t collect eggs in the dark 2: Look before reaching inside the box 3: Black rat snakes are good, relocate but don’t kill them. And I always give the snake an egg or two whenever I relocate them.

Day #7 – Fat Pet Pig

Day #7 – Fat Pet Pig. Here is Sammie at his summer time best. Obviously, he has put on enough weight to live through a Virginia winter.

Day #8 – Willow’s birth day

Day #8 – Willow’s birth day. My first orphan calf and bottle baby. Raising her has been such an amazing experience, I have learned volumes from her about cow behavior and calf rearing. Willow is now 8 months old, and she still comes to me for rubs, pets and ear scratches. I go to the filed, call her name, and she comes running. Love this heifer!

Day #9 – Willow meets Sundance

Day #9 – Willow meets Sundance. Not much to add to this picture, it just always makes me smile.

Day #10-a – Jack searching for Hens
Day #10-b – Jack and his BPa.

Day #10-a and #10-b – Jack. What more can I say other than grandchildren are so much fun, and Jack is one of a kind. Both of these pictures are among my favorites, and neither was staged or setup. I was just lucky enough to capture the moment and the sweet memory.