Frosty Fur and Whiskers

Frosty Heifers

The morning temperature yesterday at feeding was 12deg and today just 6deg. Both mornings, the sky was clear blue and the sun just beginning to rise over the tree tops to shine on the fields. Fortunately, there was almost no wind, unlike yesterday afternoon when it was howling. Getting up and out to feed and check on the farm is something I look forward to, especially during the winter months. The cattle deal much better with the cold snowy weather than with either the hot, humid, buggy summer days or the cold, wet rainy days of late fall.

I love to see the cattle with their frosty fur and crispy whiskers on these cold mornings. The younger heifers are full of energy, dancing around while we pour grain into the trough and unroll hay in the field. Standing, or laying in the trough, is a power move when there is stiff competition for the sweet grain.

Fair share?

The grown ladies are more mellow. They are happy to see the new bale added in the hay ring, and will rub their heads on the hay to help unroll it from the tractor. Bella and Patty run the herd, and are always first to rub the bale and eat the hay. Young Lucy and Scarlet had the best whiskers this morning.

Lucy’s Whiskers
Scarlet’s Whiskers

Our two senior ladies, Old Lucy and Gilley, move a lot slower more like cold molasses. On these frigid mornings, we unroll a line of hay close to where those two cows are standing, so they don’t have to expend too much energy getting to breakfast. Old Lucy is on the far right of this picture of the main herd. She is a hereford/milk cow mix and is probably at least 15 years old. Gilley is 10 years old and like most of the cows, is expecting a calf this spring. Old Lucy has the year off from calving.

Old Lucy (on the far right)

How many cattle are in a small-scale herd?

So how many cattle are in a small-scale herd?  To me, a small-scale herd is defined more by the experience than a number of cattle.  If you raise cattle for fun or as part of other farm projects or even as a hobby, and someday hope to just break even on cash flow, then consider your herd small-scale.  On the other hand, if you are feeding your family and making mortgage payments based solely on cattle proceeds, then you have grown beyond the small-scale size.

The size of a cattle herd is often characterized by the number of mama cows, not the total number of cattle.  The reason being that the mama cows are the one constant in your herd.  The bull may be around for a season or a few years, but is inevitably replaced to refresh the bloodlines.  Steers are sold soon after weaning, as are any heifers not being kept as a breeding mama.  The core of your herd, the breeding mama cows, define the size of your operation.

Our herd at TurkeyCrest Farm has a total of 22 mama cows, 10 of which are still heifers.  One of the hardest aspects of managing our herd is deciding which cows to keep and which to sell.  We have a few criteria that each heifer has to pass before being eligible to become a herd cow.  The first is a calm and engaging temperament.  Any heifer that is crazy in the alleyway and head chute is not a keeper. Another factor is confirmation and being a good mama.  We like a medium framed cow with a good udder who easily calves and readily brings her new calf to the herd.  We are also partial to Red Angus and Charlois/Red Angus mix, although we have a Baldy and a couple of Black Angus cows.

Above all, we have fun raising our cattle and managing the herd!

Farm feeding first, human’s breakfast last

From December through March or April, mornings on the farm start with feeding the animals. Willow, our bucket calf, eats first while the tractor is warming up.

Next to eat are the heifers and steer, our youngsters from last spring. We unroll hay for them each morning, and set a bale in the feeder when a storm is in the forecast.

In the mountains field, our main herd of mamas, who are all expecting calves this spring, get their breakfast next. We keep two hay rings there and usually unroll a bit of hay so the cows can spread out and feed.

Of course, Sammy and the goats are waiting for their kibble, the hens are clucking for some scratch grains with mealworms and Sundance is anxious to move into the front and his hay filled barn run-in. I use heated water bowls during the extended cold spells but none them are very large, so all have to be refilled twice a day.

And then finally, the humans get to eat. One of our favorite winter breakfast meals are grits with eggs, topped with crumbled bacon. Yum!

Calf coats

Two years ago, one of our heifers, Josie, gave birth in the middle of the night during a March snow storm. At daybreak, we found her calf in the field near death. After calling a friend for advice, we ran to the local farm store and bought a calf coat. I wrapped the calf up, loaded him into the bucket of the tractor and drove him to the barn, with mama following close behind. After 12 hours wrapped in the coat, lying in a warm and dry barn with his mama and a tube feeding of colostrum, the calf started to gain strength.

Josie was a willing mama, but having her in the head gate made holding baby up easier. These weak calves tend to have trouble standing on their front feet. After a day or so of assistance, the calf was able to stand and nurse normally on his own.

After this experience, I keep a calf coat on hand for early spring or late winter births. The extra warmth of the coat can make all of the difference in saving a calf born in cold, wet weather.

Flashback to a Summer Day

Sammy looking as big as Lucy’s calf

One of my all time favorite photos from the middle of a hot summer. Sammy, my miniature pig, found his way to the front field. He spent the entire day, grazing amongst the herd, gaining even more weight than I ever thought possible. Fortunately, Sammy has slimmed down during these more austere winter months. Dry pig pellets are not as lovely to eat as sweet, shoulder high summer grass.

Winter Feeding

Fresh hay on a snowy morning
Willow getting a warm start to the morning

Feeding is a daily event during the winter months. This time of year, coveralls, coats, boots and warm clothes are a necessity. The cattle become much more docile and accepting of close contact, just the sound of the tractor brings them running. I take the opportunity to walk among the girls during unrolling of the hay. The cows are happy with the colder temperatures, no flies are buzzing around and as the hay hits the snowy ground, many of them accept a pat or a rub.

Willow, my first bucket baby, still looks for that blue bucket of milk each morning. She is almost 5 months old, and I will be weaning her in a week or so. I am hoping for a few mild days so the weaning is not too hard on her (or me).


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.