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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.

Spring tune-up

Every spring, we bring the whole herd to the front field so the cows can be worked through the alleyway and squeeze chute in the corral. Each cow receives a multi-purpose vaccination, fly spray, a deworming pour-on and an eye check for pink eye. Everything proceeds a lot smoother when the process is well planned because the cows usually create some type of chaos on their own. This spring, in addition to the 17 cows, we had to deal with Shane the bull and 7 calves.

The day began around 6:30am, mostly because of the hot, humid weather and looming rain clouds, although I generally believe that cattle move easier in the mornings. The first task is to complete setting up the corral by moving 6 panels in place, creating a crowding pen on one side of the head gate and a release area on the other. We greased the levers, sliding door and gathered the vaccinations, pour-on, gloves, disinfectant, cattle prods, ear tags, and buckets of sweet feed. Bella heard us and knew something was happening, so soon the whole herd was standing by the gate, moo’ing in anticipation. I opened the gate from the front field to the corral, and led the cows in with a bucket of feed. All of the cows and calves came running, except for three cows and Shane. Gilley and the 2 Braunvieh heifers balked at the gate, turned and ran back to the field. Shane, who never runs anywhere, meandered with his slow, deliberate pace into the corral. We tried a couple of times to get three stragglers to follow without any luck, finally deciding to proceed without them. Inside the corral, I used another bucket of feed and a cow stick to gently guide Shane back the the front field so he would be out of the way. Nothing is worse than working cows with a bull hanging around just getting in the way.

Waiting their turn in the crowding half of the corral.

Bev, my friend and neighbor, agreed to lend a hand this morning. A few seasons ago, I created a spreadsheet to track the tasks and details of the working sessions. Bev’s job was to make sure everything was done for each particular cow in the chute, and then to check off each item on the chart. She would also be very helpful in sorting the cows, calves and managing gates. I told her we would just need her help for about an hour.

My cow working sheet, with tasks to-do highlighted for each bovine.

I made sure the vaccinations, sprays, disinfectant, pens, gloves and checklist were all setup on a table next to the head gate and the reviewed through the pre-job planning one last time. Before working cows, I always remind myself of a piece of advice told to me by a good friend who helped us with our first cattle, “If you want to work cows fast, work them slow”. Already annoyed that two cows and a calf were left in the Mountain field, and 1 old cow and two heifers were hanging out in the Front field, I took a breath and focused on being in the moment.

Separating out 2-3 at a time, I moved cows and calves from the crowding pen into the bud box, down the alleyway and into the head gate. All of the adult cows have been through this many times and know the drill, some a little too well. Bella in particular, is much too opinionated with the whole procedure. Being part Charolais and as tame as a dog, she is nearly impossible to move through until she decides to go. At least three time, Bella pushed me with her head, with enough intent to get me scrambling up the wall just in case she was serious. When most of the other cows were done, Bella finally agreed to get moving and went into the head gate.

Bella daring me to make her move.
Bella in the head gate getting her immunization and pour-on.

The calves are a whole other experience all together. This group of babies ranged in age from 4 weeks to 5 days old, and this was their first time through the process. I adjusted the alleyway so no one could turn around and run back into the bud box. To keep a calf moving, I stuck close behind them with my hands on their back and their back legs touching to me as I guided them through the alleyway. Being close prevents any kicking from hurting me too much. This group did well, everyone stayed fairly orderly and calm. When the time came to work on Annie, Pippies’ 5 day old heifer, Bill and I just went into the bud box and held her against the boards. She was much too little to go through the head gate.

This month old little bull voiced his displeasure with the whole process. Funny, but he does not realize that his next trip through the head gate will not be so pleasant. We will make steers out of these little bulls later this summer.

Two of the spring calves missed getting their respiratory immunization within a day or so of birth so I gave each their dose. This is an easy one, just a little liquid in each nostril.

Bill took a course where he learned and practiced giving injections to cattle and has been certified under the Beef Quality Assurance program. Taking the course is on my to-do list, but for now there is no rush. Bill gives all of our cows and calves their injections, and is very good at it.

As much as I would love to keep everything single cow (except Crazy Heidi), our herd has a maximum size based on the amount of pastures on the farm, and choices have to be made. I was fortunate to find a neighboring family who was starting their own cattle herd and sold them Patty, Josie and their calves. I bought Patty as a year old heifer and Josie was my first calf born at TurkeyCrest. I will miss these ladies but they will live on a great farm and will be well cared for by these folks.

As we sorted the cattle this morning, I kept Patty, Josie and their two calves in the crowding pen so they could hang out in the corral after going through the chute. Later in the day, we loaded them into the trailer and they were off to join their new herd.

Patty and her little bull in the crowding pen.

After all of the other cows were finished, we opened the gate and let the herd return to the Front Field. The three hold outs and Shane were happy to see them again. Of course, Bella and her heifer, Pearl were last to leave. Those Charolais cows are so opinionated.

My one hour estimate that I gave to Bev was a bit optimistic. We finally finished a solid three hours after first bring the herd into the corral. And poor Bev had cow manure splatter all over her, the same as me and Bill. Good thing she is a cowgirl at heart.

Taking Bev’s hand-written sheet from the morning’s work, I filled in the boxes for each cow and calf. Except those cows with the X’s in their row, the spring working day went well. No one was injured, all of the cooperating cattle have refresh immunization and the 2019 calves have their first calf-sized ear tags. Job well done.

Moving the cows

In preparation for working the cows, which is somewhat comparable to a semi-annual inspection and tune-up, this past Sunday we enlisted the help of two friends to move our herd from the Mountain field to the South field. The preparation began with an hour of setting up a temporary alley between the two fields using step-in posts and polywire. Then I hooked up the feed trough to the hitch on the Kawasaki Mule, to entice Shane and the ladies with sweet feed. All was proceeding smoothly until I realized that Patty and her 5 day old calf were not with the herd gathering at the gate. Setting out on foot to search the 20 acre field, I finally found them in the shade of a group of trees at the complete other end of the pasture, ugh. The calf jumped up and decided to have a meal. When he finished nursing, I started the slow walk back to the gate with Patty and her little bundle of joy leading the way.

By the time I reached the rest of the herd near the gate, Crazy Heidi and her side kick Billie, were growing antsy and wary. Sure enough, as soon as the gate was opened to start the procession to the South Field, Heidi took off in the opposite direction with Billie and Billie’s calf in tow. There was nothing to do except continue moving the majority of the herd through the alley way. After getting 17 cows, 6 calves and one bull safely to the South Field, we returned to the Mountain Field to try and convince Crazy Heidi and Billie and the calf to follow the herd.

Fast forward 2.5 hours. Four adult humans were completely exhausted and three cows were (again) running down the length of the field. The weather was hot and humid and after so much chasing, I worried the calf was being pushed too hard. To the relief of everyone involved, we decided to throw in the flag. These three bovines were going to stay in the Mountain Field until being reunited with the herd in a few days.

The herd, minus 3 bovines, in the South Field.

Originally, the plan was to work the herd in about a week. But my quarter horse Sundance was coming back to the farm over the weekend. Sundance’s run-in is located at one end of the corral where the cattle working area is as well. I wanted to get the cattle out of his corral and returned to the Dixon Fields as soon as possible. So yesterday, we continued toward the goal of working the cattle by again moving the herd, this time to the Front Field, which borders the corral.. As with the all of our pasture moves, step one is to set up temporary posts and polywire to connect the two fields.

Temporary alley way between the fields.

The cows hear the click, click, squeal of the polywire being unrolled and gather excitedly by the gate, waiting to move to greener pastures. The flies are just tormenting poor Patty and Gilley, our black angus cows. One primary reason we work the cows this time of year is to administer a pour-on wormer, wipe their faces and spray them with fly repellent. I tried fly ear tags a number of years ago and was not a fan of them. Besides not keeping down the number of flies, the cows are always batting their eyes with their ears, and those medicated tags would hit their eyes. I haven’t used them since.

I opened the gate, pulled the trough through the alleyway and the whole herd followed, cows and calves and Shane the bull.

Starting the procession.

Halfway across the alleyway, Josie realizes that she has lost track of her calf. She stops, looks around for her, lets out a “follow me” moo, then continues to the new field.

And along comes Josie’s little white-faced heifer.

Josie’s white faced heifer.

New field, fresh grass, and everyone celebrates!

Excavating artifacts

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

North side rebuilt wall.
South side rebuilt wall.

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

Some of the metal items found.
Pottery pieces.

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

Miracle of birth

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

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

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

One hoof

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

Two hoofs and a nose!

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

Calf safely on the ground

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

Pippie is a great Mama

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

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

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

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

Baby heifer

Bull In

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

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

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

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

Shane arriving back to TurkeyCrest
Shane meeting my ladies.

If only …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willow’s Bling

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

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

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

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

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