Comfort Food and Summer Storms

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.

Water level still high but no damage.

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.

Saga of the Nose Point Waterer

Last year we completed fencing the Lower field, and chose a spot for a nose point waterer across Beaver Run. This large creek is a watershed for several miles before running through the Lower field, and before last summer’s torrential rains, was home to several large beaver dams.

The design and purpose of a nose point waterer is to permit one or two cows at a time to drink from stream, then back out without pooping in the water. A herd of cattle will politely and calmly take turns walking to the water for a drink.

We located the nose point waterer under a large sycamore tree for shade, in a place where the creek bank gently slopes toward the water. The opposite bank is high and steep, a perfect wall to discourage a curious cow or rambunctious calf. After clearing the brush from the creek bank, we sank t-posts along both sides of the bank and then two on the opposite bank, leaving just enough space for a cow to access the water for a drink. Lining both sides with two sets of high tensile wire that were tied into the existing perimeter fence, the waterer was functional, safe and secure.

Then one evening in June, a summer storm hit that dumped over 4 inches of rain in a couple of hours across our area. Checking on the cows, we found hoof prints going half way down the bank and then nothing except smooth sand. Both electric wires from the right side of the bank were pulled across the path blocking access to water. High water and debris had destroyed the waterer, pulling the wire off of the posts and burying everything under sand, brush and rocks. Although the wire was tangled and stretched downstream, high tensile is very strong so there weren’t any breaks and the lines remained electrified. Step one was to turn off the power to the fence by flipping both cutoff switches we had installed for just such situations. With the daytime temperature climbing well into the 90’s, this was a crisis. All of the cows, the bull and calves were growing bit frantic.

Hoof prints stopping at the electric wire pulled across the path to the water.
A second line pulled out of the post and across the watering spot.
Debris washed from upstream, tangled in the wire and posts.
Intact wires, over 10 feet from the water line, covered in debris.
Pulled up and bent t-posts.

Oh, and did I mention that three of our grandchildren, ages 7, 5 and 3 were staying with us at the farm, sans parents when this storm and crisis occurred? With the grandkids in tow, our options to get water to the herd were a bit limited.

The best choice would be to clean up and restore the nose point waterer because the grass in the Lower field had barely been grazed. As I stood in the mud, debris and tangled wire, listening to three young ones anxious to play at the pond or at least meander in the creek, the thought of starting a complex job (because nothing like this is ever quick and easy), was horrifying.

Bill and I looked at each other and simultaneous said, “Let’s open the red gate and move the herd back to the Mountain Field.”. The grass there was short but not overly grazed and most importantly, the water hydrant 100% reliable. We loaded the grandkids into the back of the mule, gave them feed buckets and showed them how to call the cows. The herd came running and within five minutes, every cow was jostling around the trough for their turn at much needed water.

After a fun filled week on the farm, we delivered the grandkids back home to the parents and turned our attention to fixing the nose point waterer. A friend recommended a new type of connector Lock Jaw, that holds the wire securely to the t-posts but then will pull away without breaking when the water rises and debris catches on the wire. Keeping our original design, we rebuilt the waterer using the new connectors.

New and improved wire t-post connectors.

With the herd still hanging out in the Mountain field, another storm blew through and again produced inches of rain in just a couple of hours. This time, I wanted to see what the creek looked like after such an event. As soon as the storm began to let up, we drove out to the Lower field. Earlier in the day as we rebuilt the posts and wires, I stood in water that was ankle deep. At the tail end of this storm, the creek at the point waterer was over 6 feet deep, covering the entire cow path down to the water and nearly overflowing the bank.

The force and strength of the flash flood was astonishing and had the expected impact on our waterer. All of the wires we had just rehung that morning were pulled from the t-posts, debris clinging to every wire and post, trees and limbs piled up everywhere. Clearly, the nose point waterer had to be redesigned.

Same spot in the creek, different storm with more debris on the lines.
New connectors survived the storm.

We decided to bring the two sets of wires from each side of the path to a point on the opposite bank. Instead of attaching the wires to t-post, we used a ratchet strap wrapped around the limb of an over hanging tree for added height and greater flexibility. The distance between the t-posts on the near bank was the same as the initial design, but on the opposite bank changed from a square to a point.

By now, several weeks had passed since the first wash out and the cattle had eaten down most of the remaining grass in the Mountain field. The time had come to move the herd back to the plentiful grass in the Lower field. Despite moving the herd during the early morning hours, the weather was already hot and humid. Fortunately, there are several large wooded areas which make the Lower field ideal for summer grazing.

Re-design using a tree limb and ratchet strap on the far bank.

Ideal that is until the cattle refused to use the redesigned nose point waterer! When we checked on the herd around noon that same day, every single cow was panting and stressed, looking longingly at the new watering hole from the top of the bank. There was not even one hoof print in the sand on the slope of the bank.

Thirsty cattle in 95 degree heat, refusing to walk down to the creek

This time, there was no moving back to the Mountain field because the grass there was overly grazed. I drove back to the barn, grabbed a bucket of feed and made a path of sweet grain down to the water line. No one budged, not even an inch. These cows, who would normally eat grain out of my hand and who were clearly in great need of water, would not take even one step down the bank to get a drink. Suddenly, Shane the bull caught the scent of molasses in the sweet grain and thought a drink of water might be nice. He lumbered passed all of the girls, ate his way down to the water, took a nice long drink and then ate his way back up the path. The ladies looked at him like he was the stupidest thing on earth. Not one cow followed him.

Shane, eating the grain trail then quenching his thirst.
No problem at all using the nose point waterer for the 2000lb bull.

The cows had to stay in the Lower field for the grass and they were in desperate need of water, so we drove back to the barn and gathered two rubber troughs and filled a 65 gallon tank with water. Still in a heat wave with 90+ degree temperatures, we began hauling water to our herd. While filling the tank, Bill and I contemplated the root cause of this dilemma. Were the cows remembering the first storm when a live electric line blocked the path? Maybe one or more of them had been shocked if the lines electrified the water when the level was still high. Or did the ladies not like the look of the redesigned waterer? I leaned towards the memory theory.

Regardless of the root cause, until this was resolved we had to haul water to the entire herd. Each cow requires at least 20 gallons of water per day in the summer heat. Immediately we made two trips with the tank which the cattle drained almost before the water hit the troughs. Then two more trips later in the afternoon and then another two just before dusk.

Hauling water, 65 gallons at a time, from almost a mile away. Each cow needs at least 20 gallons a day in the summer heat.

We were exhausted but the cows were ecstatic.

As many noses as possible in each trough.

A herd of cattle has a pecking order and with water being scarce, the top cows drank first and drank their fill. Then, the second tier cows pushed their way to the water for a drink. The poor cows on the bottom of the bovine social ladder got a few sips at best. This happened every time we refilled the troughs. Bella, Gilley, Pippie and Garnet were well hydrated while Hazel, Heidi, Crazy Heidi and Rita waited.

Not waiting for the water to hit the trough.

Shane on the other hand, who was still drinking his fill from the creek, sauntered up to each trough, sucking down water like a sponge.

Shane, drinking from the trough, because it is there and because he can.

The calves, thankfully all still nursing, managed to sneak in between the cow legs to grab a few quick sips before the water was all gone.

Baby heifers, Pearl and Annie, getting a few sips.
Shane, posing for a photo with me.

The next day, I tried the sweet grain trail again.

But with the same results, no one was impressed or enticed. The hoof prints stopped at the top of the bank regardless of more grain just a few inches away.

I decided to hold the grain bucket up to Bella’s nose and managed to get her part way down the grain trail. But she stopped and turned around before getting close to the water. Not one other cow followed her, so the water hauling continued for another day. As we were filling the tank for the second time on the second evening at 10pm, we vowed to redesign the waterer first thing in the morning. I was beginning to think maybe the cows were balking at the view and not the memory of that first storm.

Bella, eating the grain trail, but balking before getting to the water.

In the morning, we discussed the project over coffee and decided to:

  • widen the point on the opposite bank to more of a square
  • remove the ratchet strap, and use more flexible, composite posts instead of t-posts
  • remove the high tensile wire and use poly wire across the creek for flexibility
Re-designed nose-point waterer. Square point with polywire across the creek.

Finally, the question was answered. The cattle had not been suffering from bad memories of the blocked, electrified watering hole, the girls had been completely unsettled by the too narrow look of the single point across the creek. After weeks of storms, building and re-working the design and two days of hauling water in 95degree summer heat, this last picture was the beyond satisfying. Hoof prints all of the way down the sloped bank down to the water. Even the butterflies drinking water from hoof prints seemed to be celebrating!

And by the next day, the whole herd including these 5 calves, was calm and relaxed. Nose point waterer crisis resolved!

Scourge of Summer

Last year was our first summer of dealing with bovine pink eye. Carried by flies and exasperated by tall grass and weeds, pink eye can spread through a herd quickly. The disease is very painful and without treatment, the animal can quickly lose their eyesight. The first signs are a cow or calf that just looks uncomfortable, weeping from an eye which they keep half closed or closed. After a couple of days, the affected eye will turn bright red. Without treatment, the eye turns cloudy and dull and eventually, the cow can lose sight. One of the heifers, Shirley, had pink eye last year. We managed to treat her but not in time, she lost the sight in her left eye.

Baby Shirley. Not very clear but she has pink eye in her left eye.

So in June, pink eye watch begins on the farm. Every day, we walk among the herds, looking at everyone’s eyes for signs of weeping, squinting or the dreaded red eye.

Heifer Eyes

Through the end of June, none of the herd showed any signs. My hopes were high that our ladies, the calves and Shane would be spared this year. Then rolled in numerous summer rains with high humidity, breeding clouds of face flies and encouraging the weeds to grow tall. That first week of July, two of our heifers were struck – Oprah and poor, hapless Shirley. In order to treat cattle out in the field, we use a pump action air gun loaded with a syringe and antibiotics that are appropriately sized for the weight of the animal.

Cow eyes, calf eyes and Shane eyes.

A few days later, Shane the bull began showing signs. His left eye was weepy and he kept the eye half or all of the way closed. Our largest syringe holds 10cc’s, so with Shane weighing a good ton or so, we had to get three darts in him. Luckily, as bulls go, Shane is even tempered and good natured. One dart hit his right butt cheek, and the other two hit the left. Bull’s Eye!! Or maybe that should be Bull’s Butt!

The darts tend stick in their target anywhere between about 5 to 15 minutes. I always wait until they fall out to collect the empty dart so no one steps on or chews on the sharp point. I knew that the three darts in Shane’s thick skin were going to take forever to fall out. So I crept close to the bull as he meandered through the herd, hiding behind the girls until I could get close enough to pull out the darts. Shane did not even flinch!

Two days later during pink eye check, I spotted my prize heifer, Bella’s baby Pearl, lagging behind the herd in obvious discomfort. On closer inspection, I saw the early signs of pink eye.

Poor Pearl with early pink eye.

We made a quick trip back to the shop to gather the dart gun, dart and medication. Bill does the shooting, and I take care of gathering the empty dart. As with most calves, when Pearl felt the dart, she did a little dance and scooted off. Her Mama Bella is a great mama, and followed behind trying to take out the giant “wasp”.

Checking the herd the next day, Pearl was no longer in pain and her eye was completely normal. Success!

The weather has cooperated since early July, still very hot and humid but much less wet, which is fantastic for the cattle although less fantastic for my garden. So far, no more pink eye in the herd. My daily checks will continue because 24 hours can mean the difference between a quickly healing a case of pink eye versus a blind cow.

Thistle

We decided to move the main herd of cattle to the Lower Field yesterday. They had been grazing the Mountain field for three weeks, since that storm took out the waterer on June 26. I keep a paper calendar just for farm events, like what day the cattle move to a new field. With two herds on different fields, the main herd and the heifer herd, Bill and I seem to continuously ask each other, “When did we move these cows?” or “Which calf was born in May?”. Marking farm events on a calendar, which I then periodically transcribe to a journal, helps to keep us sane.

Because the Lower field is fence with wood posts at the corners and high tensile wire between t-posts, the foliage had to be cut under the wire. We set the bottom wire at 16″ and the top wire at 26″. This time of year, weeds and grass quickly grow up to and over the wires which causes the electricity to become less effective.

Trimmed fence line.

On top of the hill is a patch of Canadian thistle that I have intermittently trimmed throughout the spring. The thistle is also known as Californian thistle, Creeping thistle, Field thistle, Corn thistle or Perennial thistle. Since I was on my mower, I decided to take a quick detour from trimming the fence line and cut down the thistle patch. I started mowing the plants when I saw butterflies all over the thistle flowers.

I stopped cutting and sat on my mower, amazed at the number of butterflies. There were dozens, on every pretty, purple thistle flower. Thistle cutting was over, I couldn’t do it. This fall when the flowers are gone, I will cut it down. Even the weeds can look pretty in a field!

Little Whistle Pig

Before we drove the posts for the fence project, one huge walnut tree stump had to be removed. Mowing around it was such a chore and removing all of the weeds nearly impossible so we decided to dig it up before installing the new fence.. Next to the stump was a wood shed we had built to hold wood for the fire pit. I knew there were a couple of groundhog holes around the shed and stump but had not seen any activity this spring.

After a few minutes of stump digging, the wood shed was clearly in the way and had to be moved. At about this moment, Bill mentioned that he had seen something run out from under the woodshed towards the herb garden. We proceeded to load the pile of wood from the shed into the tractor bucket and move it to the tobacco barn. After 4 trips, the wood pile was almost gone when I noticed sometime behind the few remaining logs. I poked at the small furry ball and out ran a young groundhog. Her mama was what had caught Bill’s attention running from the shed when the digging began.

Looking for a place to hide, the little groundhog buried her head under a random piece of wood left lying in the grass. Apparently believing that if she couldn’t see me, then I couldn’t see her. LOL!

As I reached toward the small critter, she peeked out curiously from behind the piece of wood. I just love groundhogs, with their bottle brush tails and piggy ears.

The best nickname that I have ever heard for a groundhog is Whistle Pig. Just give a whistle to these brown, furry pigs grazing in a field and they pop up to listen.

Tired of my company, off she ran to look for her Mama and a more secure place to hide.

I was amazed at how this groundhog blended in with the dirt, stone and roots, perfectly camouflaged. She is standing at about 11:0, close to the center of the photo. No doubt, this cute little critter has reunited with her Mama and they have found a new home somewhere in our backyard field.

Fence Post Day

The fencing project that I have been looking forward to getting done finally began this past week.

Over the winter, we used the drone to help plan the project. Using aerial views over the backyard, we planned where to run the high tensile wire fence and the best spots for placing gates. The aerial view of the cattle working facility was especially useful in deciding how to enlarge the crowding pen for the cattle. After printing a photo of each location, I recorded the distances between the straight runs of fence after we measured the perimeters. From this, we calculated the necessary number of fence posts, gates posts and braces for the project.

Redesign of the cattle working area in the corral
Addition of fence and gate for a barnyard area
Backyard field behind the orchard
Backyard field behind the house.

On July 1, MWP (our local wood store), delivered the piles of posts and boards:

  • 45 – 7ft 5-6inch posts for the high tensile fencing around the back yard field and to redesign the cattle working area
  • 29 – 8ft 5-6inch faced posts to replace the corral fence
  • 5 – 8ft 6-7inch posts for five new gates
  • 50 – 16ft pine fence boards

Of course, no project on the farm is at all straightforward. Before any fencing could begin, all of the old board fence and posts from around the corral had to be removed. As each board and post came down, every nail had to be pulled out. No nails sticking out of wood is a good safety precaution but also if we decide to burn the boards, nothing in the burn pile will be an issue for tires or hooves. This chore took a couple of days to complete and interfered mostly with Sundance’s living quarters. For the duration of the corral work, I set up Sundance with a suitable arrangement in the barn and front field.

Another pre-job job was removing a gigantic walnut tree stump that was along the new fence line in the back yard. Once the fence was in place, the stump would be impossible to remove. This one stump took almost two days to completely dig up. Bill filled and smoothed the area under the fence line. Later this month, I will use the smaller tractor to grade the remaining debris and dirt.

We decided to rent the post hole pounder for just one day, so spent the day before measuring and marking the position of each post with marking paint and then laying out each post in position. When we fenced the Mountain Field, we also marked post locations but used the hopper on the machine to carry a load of posts. Given the tight quarters and terrain of this job along with having only one day to complete, I felt laying out the posts ahead of time made sense. The effort involved to lift a post out of the hopper or to lift one up from the ground is similar … exhausting either way.

Post Pounder #4

As soon as MWP opened their doors, we picked up Post Hole Pounder #4, the same one we used last year. We started the day working on the corral, putting in the faced 3/4 posts. Because this would be a board fence and the perimeter size unchanged, these posts were set in the same holes where the old ones had been. Immediately we struggled with getting the posts pounded in vertically, keeping the faced sides flat to the inside of the corral. Most of the posts wanted to twist. Towards the end of setting the 29 corral posts, we decided to stop using Pounder #4 and set the remaining 6 by hand. We were both frustrated and ready to move on to the round posts waiting for us in the backyard field. From a timing standpoint, I was pleased that we finished most of the corral by noon and then happy day … our friend and farm sitter showed up with lunch for us! Wonderful friends like her make life so sweet.

Corral posts
Posts for the holding pen in the corral. We will set panels between each of these.

After a 30 minute break for lunch, we turned our focus to the 45 round posts along the Backyard field. The majority of these went in smoothly and predictably, only a couple missed vertical because of hitting rocks. We ended the day by setting the gate and brace post to fence in the barnyard. The day was a long one but we powered through, pounding in that last post at 7pm. Done!!

The last section of the backyard fence. The remains of walnut stump dirt pile is visible under the cedar trees.

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.