Separating Cows

Simultaneous with finishing the fence on the cattle working area, we had three cattle goals to accomplish:

  1. Separate 4 cows and 1 calf from the main herd and add to the heifer herd
    • Gilley and Garnet – both close to calving
    • Pippie and her 3 month old calf, Annie to vet check Pippie’s limp
    • Crazy Heidi to take to market
  2. Work the remaining herd to administer a pour-on wormer
  3. Return the main herd to the South field and the heifer herd to the Front field

Step one was to move the main herd from the distant Mountain field back to the closer South field. I wanted to move the cows before the heat of the day, so we were out to the field just after daybreak. As the screech-screech sound from unwinding polywire reels echoed through the early morning mist, excitement built throughout the herd. Led by Bella, everyone rushed towards gate.

I waited in the mule with a trough of sweet feed tied to the hitch as the cows watched anxiously by the gate as Bill untied the chains.

Bella led the way through the gate and then through the woods to the fresh grass of the South field. Shane always brings up the rear, slowly taking his time and plodding along.

As the girls see their destination, they burst into a trot happy into a new, fresh field.

A couple of days after the move to the South field, we finished the corral and working area so were able to repeat the move of the herd, this time to the Front field. Once the cows were in the Front field, I fed them snacks of sweet grain each evening in the corral. Spending happy, calm time in the corral helps sooth any nerves with the smaller enclosure.

Early in the morning on the day we decided to work the cattle, we set up step-in posts and a polywire fence from the corral to the Backyard field, creating a runway for the four cows being separated from the main herd. At 7:30am, I open the corral gate to entice the ladies in for an early morning snack of sweet grain. This was a critical moment, so even before our neighbor arrived to help, Bill and I decided to close the gate and capture the herd in the corral. The cattle were accustomed to us and we didn’t want any cows to balk at the gate because they saw an unfamiliar face.

With all of the cattle in the corral, we started the process of separating the four cows from the herd. The first lady to cooperate was Garnet. Nearing her calving date and with a sweet disposition, Garnet willingly walked through the two gate alley to join the heifer herd in the backyard.

Our friend and neighbor TA, arrived to help with the rest of the sorting. The three of us circled the cattle around the corral a few times before segregating Pippie into the alley gate. With her mama removed from the herd, Annie was easily guided through one of the panels to join her. Both calmly walked through the two gates and alley, joining Garnet and the heifers.

With two cows moved and two remaining, we turned our sights on Crazy Heidi. Her reputation is well known and respected. Crazy Heidi is about 4-5 years old and has had no human contact until last year when we first began managing her herd. When enclosed in a small space, she becomes very fearful and therefore quite dangerous. Last fall when we first worked her in a panel corral in the Mountain field, she attempted to jump out and bent 2 of the panels. That time we won and Crazy Heidi received both vaccinations and an ear tag.

This morning, the three of us used her anxiety to our advantage. As we walked behind the herd, the cattle to flowed around the corral and Crazy Heidi was fairly easy to isolate and run into the crowding pen. I stepped into the pen to close the gate while Bill climbed over the fence into the pen to open the exit gate. Realizing she was captured, Crazy Heidi panicked, racing around with a terrified look in her eyes, searching the pen for a way out. Twice she came towards me a a gallop, I have never climb a gate so fast. Finally , she saw the opened gate and dashed toward the Backyard field. We all hoped she would be somewhere in the backyard, and not galloping down the road towards town.

Last to be moved was Gilley, our oldest cow who in her younger days would routinely escape the corral by jumping gates. The first time I watched Gilley sail over a gate, I suspected there must be truth behind the Cow Jumped Over the Moon rhyme. These days she is too old, too fat and hopefully expecting a calf, so Gilley’s jumping days are over. Instead as we drove the cows around the corral trying to separate her from the herd, Gilley would slip behind others cows, using them to run interference. Eventually, we got her into the pen and through the gate to the Backyard field. Goal #1 complete!

Gathering the pour-on, I was using Dectomax – a dewormer and fly control medicine, we turned our attention to working the remaining herd. All of the ladies and calves cooperated, so the task moved right along. When Billie’s calf, Billy Boy came into the head gate, I noticed he did not have an ear tag. And then I remembered that he and his mama stayed behind in the Mountain field with Crazy Heidi last spring. Billy Boy had never been worked before. So I grabbed a dose of Covexin8 which is vaccination for 8 different diseases including black leg and tetanus, and an ear tag. Billy Boy didn’t flinched for either the injection or the tag – tough little bull! Goal #2 complete!

Once all of the cattle had received the pour-on, we moved the main herd back to the South field, and then moved the heifer herd which now included 4 cows and Annie, to the Front field. Goal #3 complete!

I called the vet to schedule a farm call to examine Pippie’s leg (topic of my next post) and then lunch time!

Corral Board Fence

Over the past two summers, we have added a few miles of 4 strand, high tensile wire fences around the shop, the backyard field and the mountain field. Stringing high tensile wire fence is lot of work, however it pales in comparison to replacing a board fence. The three board corral fence has been in need of repair for years, and I wanted to redesign the cattle working area inside the corral to handle our increased herd size. The first step was to remove the old boards and posts from the corral which we completed back in May. August rolled around by the time we were ready to put up the new boards, with the typical average day time temperatures in the 90’s. Here I was again, working on fencing in the dog days of summer. So goes farm life!

For the perimeter, we decided to try 3/4 faced posts thinking that the face gave a better place to nail the boards than a round post and the size was larger than a half round. Although the plan sounded fine, when we reused the original holes from the old posts which were wider than the new posts, many of the posts twisted as we drove them into place. Another factor adding to the twisted posts was that we did not have the proper attachment on the post driver for the 3/4 faced posts. So, the flat face of many of the posts were not in line with each other. To fix this situation, we used a chainsaw, circular saw and chisel, to notch almost every post so the boards would fit flush.

To hang the boards, we used 3 1/2 inch, galvanized twisted nails. I predrilled the boards to prevent cracking and to make nailing easier.

By the time the all of the perimeter fence boards were nailed to the posts, I was exhausted. The cattle working area still had to be completed and the weather, although beautiful, remained unusually hot and humid.

Moving our focus to the cattle working area, which is located on the northern side of the corral, we switched to oak boards for strength in the crowding pen and bud box, and four & five boards instead of three. I had redesigned the crowding pen to be a bit larger and more circular for better cattle flow so all of the gates had to be rehung as well.

Since the gates were being rehung, we decided to upgrade all of the standard gates with bull gates, and hang them higher on the posts. For this part of the project, we hung nine gates, five on the corral perimeter and four in the working area. Two of the perimeter gates were 16 ft bull gates, each of which weighs about 150lbs. To get these gates aligned, we set them on cinder blocks to make the hinge placements.

For the gates in the working area, we used flipper gate latches. These work well because they are easy to use with one hand and they keep the gate level, with no stress on the hinges, in the closed position.

On the perimeter gates, we use a hook and chain latch which is easy to use even when wearing gloves, and then added a large gate screw at the bottom of the closing post that the gate rests on when closed.

Just when I thought the project was nearing the end, I discovered that the post holding the interior gate leading from the pen to the alleyway was leaning because years ago we hadn’t done a proper job. The post had to be dug out, straightened with the tractor and then reinforced with a couple bags of concrete. No photos of this, I was cranky and irritated at having to reset that dang post.

Workably completed project! As always there are a few tasks to do before being 100% finished. I will paint the boards in a month or so after they have time to dry and we will cut off the top of the posts to the height of the top board. But for now, we can use the corral for housing the horse and the crowding pen for working the cattle.

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.