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Scotty's back

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane [you aren’t alone]
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promised joy.

It definitely takes a bull to make calves.  Whether you use his services on the hoof or from a straw, there’s no getting around the requirement to manage the breeding back of cows, or any livestock for that matter.

Raising Devon beef cattle to sell as gourmet grass-fed beef, I wanted a Devon bull, at least to begin with.   Cross-bred beeves would be just fine, there are many advantages and I may go that route in the future, but in the interests of laying the groundwork for producing a consistent product I felt it best to stick with the Devon genetics to reduce variability.  There’s enough variability within a breed and amongst a group of animals, I don’t need any more just yet.

But there aren’t any Devon cattle in my area – this is Angus, Hereford and Charolais country.  No one’s even heard of Devon cattle here, so finding a bull nearby wasn’t an option and I knew it wouldn’t be from the beginning.  I used AI for the herd’s first breeding back in Fall 2013, a lot of work and fuss and effort for not much return, which I also knew it would be, so I kept a bull calf out of the first crop, from my most feminine cow, to use as a home-grown bull.

As a long yearling left in with the herd, Scotty did a great job cleaning up all the open cows left from the AI experiment, although I left him in far too long – over the winter – and so their conception dates were as far-flung as the stars above on a clear night.  The results:  this past season we had two calves in July, five in September/October, and one finally showed up on December 11.  All over the place.  Not ideal for raising grass-fed beeves and finishing them right at 30 months.  They’re all beautiful calves though, born without any help, I only had to tag them and retrieve a couple wanderers the first few days, they tend to head for the long grass or woods to hide as newborns and the cows can’t follow them out of the paddock.

Ideally, I would like my calves born after the cows have been grazing good late-Spring/early-Summer grass for a few weeks;  from late May through June would be optimum for this farm, it’s climate and pastures and that sort of thing.  That means I need them bred in August/September.  Ideally, I would separate the yearlings (so the heifers don’t get knocked up), borrow a neighbor’s nice bull for 6 weeks, put him into service the Big Gals, then send him home when he’s done.  Well, even if I were to use a neighbor’s Angus bull, no one around here manages theirs that way, they are not trained to load or haul to a visiting farm, you put your cows in with their bull and their herd or you get nothing.

So the plan with Scotty was, THE PLAN WAS, to find a home for him off-farm, someone with cows they needed to keep bred, and use him just the 6 weeks of the year I needed him.  I had a plan in place that included the discounted sale of a couple Devon heifers in exchange for Scotty’s permanent room-and-board, but that plan did not work as expected.  Another story for another day; the point is, he had to come back for good after only being gone the summer, not just for a few week’s visit.  And I was not in any way, shape or form, set up for that.  And he came back late, because of the late Fall calving.

Better late than never though.  Gotta have calves.  They may not all finish at 30 months, or some may go over and be processed as boneless, we’ll cross that bridge when it comes, down the road.

I’m still setting up what I hope will work as a winter paddock for Scotty the bull, down with the horses, along the woods edge at the bottom of their hillside paddock area.  His service period is nearly complete and as much as I had hoped to be able to treat-train him to hop back up in the livestock trailer, it appears the cows get in there before he does, so I’ll probably have to lane the whole herd back to the corral here in a week or so, separate him out, load him for the short drive to his new digs, then let the herd back out to where they left off with winter rotation.

Spring will bring another bridge to cross:  what to do with him during the summer grazing season.  For now, I’m just focusing on what needs done to get everyone settled before winter finally sets in.   And I’m thankful the cows will be bred.

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Aries and Aedan profile pic

My how time flies when we’re having fun!  Seems like just a few weeks ago (was it really May?) my sister and I raised a little horse barn on the knoll behind the Big Pond,  and here it is the end of August already, with days getting short and the list of projects to complete before the seasons turn again getting longer.

Yes, the horses made it here, and they are wonderful.  They are getting along just fine in their new little herd and eating like elephants, like starving, ravenous elephants.  I am already planning to set up another auxiliary paddock to add a week’s recovery to their grazing rotation schedule.  My goodness.

We’ve had plenty of rain, so the pastures have grown well following the cowherd’s grazing.  I failed to document specific paddock rotation dates so I’ve quite lost track of how many times we’ve been around the pastures.  Seems like at least 4 times already. (Seriously, I do keep track.  Four times at about 45 day intervals, starting beginning of May, although some sections got skipped.)   Judging by how everything is recovering, we might make it all the way around twice again before the sward goes dormant.  I’d like to say I’m seeing radical improvement after all the fertilization and hoof impact.  Hesitant to call it that since I’ve never seen these pastures grow through a season, much less grazed, but I am pleased by the density and vigor of what springs back up following a paddock shift.

The closest alligator to the boat these days is getting the cows bred.  Sans a bull, that means AI, and we are closing in on pulling the trigger on the very first Bear and Thistle fertility clinic – a wee bit later than I’d have liked, but I’d rather get it done right and be a little late than dork the whole evolution up completely.

It’s worth an entire blog post to describe the strategy I’ve undertaken, but here’s the very very short version:  1) find an AI technician (check), 2) get quality semen shipped (check), 3) upgrade corral area to add adjacent working alleys, squeeze chute, palpation cage, and crowd pen (nearly done, check), and 4) procure the meds and assorted materials required to undertake a forced fertility regimen, to trigger estrus on all 10 candidates at the same time (check).

Wish me luck.  The AI guy is an old hand at this, and I’ve got my vet’s ear for any technical assistance needed.  I hope to start the 7-day protocol no later than Thursday, which means we’ll be inserting semen on the 5th of September; so if all goes well we should have calves hitting green grass mid-June next year.  I’d have rather have had them born end of May, but I’m not going to beat myself up about getting two weeks behind.  Mid June is just fine, and we can edge the dates up each year until we hit the mark, so it’s all good.

After we get the cow herd bred, focus shifts to laying in hay for both horses and cattle.  Then there’s the Fall frost seeding for all pastures, along with the 1.6 acre finishing pasture that has been cultivated clean all summer and will get sown to a high-sugar grass/clover mix for the slaughter beeves’ last 4 weeks.  Yum.

And now the garden is covering me with produce that needs to be put up, though I’m not complaining!   Was supposed to make pickles, can green beans, and roast tomatoes tonight, but only got the tomatoes roasted.  Wish there were more hours in the day…

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First calves

Whitey's calf first day of Spring

As another farmer-blogger put it recently, if you haven’t seen me here much, it’s because I’m busy beyond belief, spending most of my free hours running as fast as I can to stay ahead of Spring.  Indiana Jones racing madly down the cave tunnel just a hair’s breadth ahead of the rolling stone ball – that’s kind of what it feels like.

No sooner had I pulled taps and stacked sap buckets, then the calves started coming.  Yes, I got the cow herd moved to a dormant grass paddock first, as I had outlined in my transition plan.  Thank goodness!  And so far, there are three healthy bull calves scampering around their moms and aunts, lending a definite air of Spring freshness to the farm.

Arrivals began the day before St. Patrick’s Day.  Counting back on a gestation calendar, that means these three cows were bred in early June.  That was long before I arrived on the scene, and who knows what condition they were in – obviously good enough to cycle and conceive.  The great mystery is how Bruce the (nearly) infertile bull and his unknown-aged son out of god knows which cow, were able to breed more than three cows in this motley herd.

I say more than three, because there at least two others “bagging up” and showing other signs of impending parturition.

I should have gotten the vet out to preg check them in the fall.  Next year I definitely will, but I didn’t really count on too much fertility going on with this bunch this year, between the poor condition of both the cows and bulls when I found them, and the extreme heat.  I’d separated them into two herds as soon as I turned them out on my pastures, to allow the girls to recondition, but  June and July breeding activity was not in my control.  (I will aim to breed later, for calving on green, growing grass.)  But it must have happened, because I got calves.

No complaints here, though.  All three births were unassisted, wee-hour events in fairly good weather on good clean pasture.  All three moms are taking good care of their kids.  There’s some udder conformation issues with one, and a late-gestation prolapse occurred with another, so I am not sure if all of the new momma’s are keepers.  We’ll let them raise their calves and see how they do.  But these three boy calves represent a marketable inventory of grass-fed beef in 2015, if I’m able to raise them to adulthood in good health and with steady growth.

After many years of planning, learning, and waiting, we’re in the cattle business, raising a calf crop, at last.

First snow, first hay

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Winter feeding paddock yearlings

Yet another first for me this year on the farm:  transitioning from winter to spring.

While I’m thankful for the short and mercifully mild winters here in south-central Kentucky, it does keep a beginning grazier on her toes.  Seems like we just moved the cows and yearlings to their winter feeding paddocks and now, it’s time to build a strategy for getting them transitioned back to rotational grazing, in concert with what will soon be growing grass.

The trick, as I see it, will be holding them in hay-munching mode long enough to let the pastures get a good start, all the while trying to avoid undue damage to the soil where they’re parked.  Just where to put them, and when, to accomplish this is what I’m bending my brain around this week.

The five youngsters pictured above are not really a huge problem where they are, and they’ll probably stay in their fenced acre or get rotated onto the short stockpile around their sacrifice paddock in increments, until it’s time to join them up with the big girls and move the entire bunch onto fresh tall grass.  They are lightweight and by feeding out their hay in various spots, I’ve been able to conserve the turf in their paddock pretty well.  It lies underneath a layer of trampled hay, which adds carbon and will virtually melt into the surface once the temps rise and microbial activity begins; but most importantly, it is not altogether mud.  A little compacted, lightly pugged in places, and definitely in need of tillage and seeding renovation, but in reasonable shape.

Winter feeding paddock

The cow paddock, however, has had enough impact, since they are so much heavier and there are more of them.  After these past few days of moisture I hate to walk through it and I can’t bring myself to take pictures of it, although as cattle feeding areas go around here, it’s only a bit soggy.  It has layers of leftover hay from feeding piles distributed very evenly all around, and the very highest sections afforded fairly dry conditions  up until this last bit of precip, but now it’s all wet all over, and with a couple of the ladies due to calve soon, I want them up on terra firma.

So yesterday I dropped the partition line across their enclosure, letting them back into the section where I’d first fed them back in November, out of the round bale feeders.  Roped off and left alone, the soil there had finally drained and dried out pretty well, and enough grass was still left around the perimeter that the girls ran around clipping off the remnants like they hadn’t been fed in three days, ignoring the piles of hay I’d already tossed down.  Good hay just can’t hold a candle to green grass, no matter how short it is, for a cow.

That rested acre will give them some clean dry ground for a few days, in case miss betsy decides to calve, and buy me some time to get the 5-acre First Pasture set back up for a quick, minimal-impact rotation through the month of March.   There’s a short stockpile left on it that they will enjoy very much and I’ll keep feeding hay and move them on before they have a chance to graze it too close or pile on too much manure.  Then I expect the grass will have broken dormancy by the time April is upon us, and I’ll have to figure out a holding pattern for the herd until forage growth is well above the post-emergence stage.  Nothing sets a sward back faster than being bitten too soon, and I don’t want to get ahead of the grass growth in the sequence of rotation.  Better to wait and feed hay a few more weeks, and let the forage bank build.

So the little herd may end up back in their winter feeding paddock for the first part of April, as it will have drained and dried by then and can wait another few weeks for my Rotavator to get here for the renovation festivities.  I haven’t decided what sort of crop or forage mix to plant there; still strategizing best use of that heavily fertilized couple of acres.  It’ll get lightly tilled (not plowed), worked into a seedbed and be ready to grow forage annuals or perhaps a patch of oats, millet, or even feed corn.  The Big Experiment continues.

I’d love to hear how other grass farmers transition their livestock from winter feeding (or grazing, if you’re doing really well) to spring pastures.  Despite the wintry look of this morning’s snow-covered dormant pastures, green grass is on the way, and I am planning for it.

Hay pile framing snow pasture

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Standing water on hilltop pasture

Standing water on hilltop pasture, 30 December 2012

This started out as two posts:  Outwintering, and Slow-draining Soils.  There is much to say about both.  But because these two subjects are, right now, my greatest challenge, and so interconnected and related, I could not separate them.  So let me begin.

Until such time as I am able to achieve the ultimate in managed grazing, which is to have stockpiled forage to rotationally graze as much as possible throughout the calendar year, I will have to feed hay during some or all of the winter months.  This grazing year was a complete anomaly, starting late with a hungry, starving herd of animals on summer stockpiled pastures and doing my best to make the forage last as long as I could, without compromising either herd health or pasture condition.

I was able to utilize every acre of stockpiled growth, and move the cow herd back through about 15 acres of regrown pasture before the growing season ended, grasses went dormant and I deemed it time to stop grazing around the end of October and leave what cover remained to protect the soil until Spring.  Without a loafing shed or permanent feeding area set up yet, and limited areas suitable in terms of slope, wind protection and vehicle access to outwinter the herd, I picked several spots to set up as “sacrifice” paddocks this winter.  They’ll get way more than their share of manure and hoof impact and will need some serious renovation come spring, but I believe it is better to do that to a relatively small area than visit serious damage far and wide.

I knew from my limited periods of observation during short working visits to the Farm in previous winters that there were areas in the central part of the pasture that held standing water after a rain event, and drained slowly over a period of several days.  I also knew from having performed soil quality tests, that my pastures are a clayey loam, with not a lot of organic matter, and the root profile of the sod does not penetrate very deeply.  Knowing that the pastures were reclaimed from invading forest by bulldozer some 25 years ago and had been seeded and maintained as tractor-mown meadows without animal impact since then, I also accepted the fact that the topsoil was probably thin, mixed with subsoil, and compacted.

So, when I went to set up my winter paddocks I skirted what I had identified as the low, wet area between the two ponds, and fenced the highest summit-like areas, maximizing proximity and orientation to forest edges for shelter from the west/northwest winds.

Feeding cows round bales of hay in ring feeders set in open fields is standard outwintering practice in these parts.  Most feeding areas I’ve seen on neighboring farms are not even on high ground.  I thought my carefully-chosen locations would work very well.  And they did, for a few weeks, until the December rains came and saturated even the highest spots.  Dormant grasses don’t move water.  Two inches of rain in two weeks is not absorbed or utilized the same way in December as two inches of rain in, say, September, even on the best soils.  And my clay soils hug water like they never want to let it go.

The cows and a small area of soil around the failed feeding areas suffered for a week or so until I came to my senses and realized the pugging damage and ankle-deep manure/mud was not worth the convenience of having them self-feed out of a ring feeder.

I won’t post a picture of the destructive impact caused by eight full-grown cows around a ring feeder on wet, slow-draining soil.  Trust me, it’s ugly.  It made me sick to my stomach to see, and I wracked my brain trying to figure out first how to prevent it, then second, how to mitigate the muck once they had stomped through the sod and worked the area into 8″ of sloppy mud.  Finally, the light bulb came on, and I realized what a losing proposition those ring feeders are on unfrozen ground in this climate.  At least, for a farmer like me.  I know what happens to soil structure when it is churned into mud, and it’s the exact opposite of what I’m trying to accomplish on these pastures.

And the cows aren’t the only problem – driving the tractor in to fork another bale in makes mud ruts in a hurry, too.  I was trying to limit the tractor moves to below-freezing mornings when the ground was stiff and frozen, but the timing didn’t always work out.

So, I am hand feeding now, forking the hay off the rolls, which are set on end in a staging area, into the dump bed of my little 4×6 Gator and delivering it, gently, to the paddocks.  And it is better, much better.  I can move the piles around which distributes not only the hoof impact, but the leftover hay that becomes trampled-in carbon to feed the soil.  With the Gator I can haul and dump huge piles of hay in just a few minutes, and fork out the excess manure pats to stockpile in next year’s garden area.  It is more hand work.  It takes more time.  But the ladies are eating better, I’m able to keep a closer eye on their condition with the twice-daily interaction, and best of all, the pasture area they are feeding on now looks excellent.  The sod is somewhat trampled, but not broken.

Hand fed cow

Next year I hope to graze a little longer into the winter, but I’ll still need a winter hay feeding strategy.  I think for the long-term an idea like this permanent central feeding station that would integrate with pasture rotations would be ideal.  It’s a matter of finding the right location, as it is quite permanent; but it could also be roofed and serve as shade and a rainwater collection point.  Not something that can be thrown together at the last minute but certainly worth planning for.

Meanwhile, the cows have learned the new feeding routine and don’t seem to miss the mud.  And I sleep better at night.

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Snowy pastures on Boxing Day

I don’t watch TV news here at the farm, so my weather information comes from the internet or the national news on the local NPR station out of Bowling Green, KY.  Sounds and looks like today’s winter storm has clobbered some southern and midwestern states, wreaking havoc and even killing some unfortunate souls.  Road travel was especially hazardous in those areas today.

Luckily, the only road I had to deal with today was the muddy road from the house up to the pastures, and the muddy “roads” I’ve created up there.  My top speed today was 10 mph, and I crawled through the mud puddles, so the hazards were few.  It wasn’t even really all that cold.  Tonight, though, the temps should drop into the mid-twenties.

I took the day off to nurse this dratted chest cold that Santa brought me for Christmas, which means, after getting back down from morning rounds, I stripped down to long johns, stoked the fire, and snuggled into one of the reclining chairs under a blanket to watch documentaries on Netflix.  Very, very lazy behavior for me, I must say.  But even the legendary Thistledog needs to throttle back when under attack by the cold bug.  Hopefully, it’ll exit stage left in the next couple of days.

The rain turned to snow around noon.  Big, swirly fluffy flakes out the front window made me feel like I was in a just-shaken snow globe.  I pulled the blanket tighter around my shoulders and let myself go back to sleep.  The house was warm, the animals fed, and my to-do list could just sit there and not be done, no harm, no foul.  I roused mid-afternoon to fill up the water tank on the gator, and made the afternoon rounds up on the hill.  Snow was sticking to the grass, momentarily, and blowing a little.  Cows and heifers and yearling steers all had full rumens and though wet, were fine.  So back down the hill I went, for a little more down time in front of the fire.

The dogs and I walked up at dusk to shut the ducks in for the night.  It was still snowing lightly, but the snow is melting quickly and everything underfoot is soggy.  We’re thankful the storm path went north of us, at least this time.  Grateful for our blessed location.

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The Girls eating hay in December

My little cow herd is doing pretty well, all things considered.  They are all purebred Devons, bought in one group along with a registered Devon bull, a younger unregistered bull, three heifers, and a handful of steer calves.  The bulls are gone now, sold after failing their fertility test, and the two horned yearlings went to a friend and neighbor to fill their freezer next fall.

I’ll tell the whole story of how they all came to the Farm some other time.  It’s a long story and I don’t feel like putting it all together today.  I have work to do outside before it rains, and Christmas cards to write and address, and receipts to file, and then afternoon rounds up on the pasture.  But I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the progress we’ve made in just four months with these cows.

To begin with, here are a few shots of what they looked like back in late July and early August:

Skinny Cow 1

Skinny Cow 2

Skinny Cow 3

this is a skinny cow

Pretty skinny, huh?  [Edited to add:  Actually, these photos are more than a little disturbing to me.  I forgot how emaciated these cows were.]  What is important to note is the lack of fat on the spine, on the hip bones, on the tail head, and in the brisket.  Animals can lose muscle but when their fat reserves disappear, they are on the road to starvation.  These cows were being starved – you can see the pasture they were in was nothing but chewed-down stubble and rank, unclipped weeds.  Their body condition scores were very low 4’s and one of them at least, was a 3, by my estimation.

I took a great big risk on them.  I had them hauled back to the farm and put them on my stockpiled pastures, and let them eat, and eat, and eat.  I knew there might be health issues, and there were:  pinkeye, most significantly.  The little weakling male calf came down with it first during an extended rainy period in early September, then just about all the others showed symptoms within a few days and the job of treatment began.  Their eyes cleared up, then one of them would get a runny eye again, and the conjunctivitis would be back.  It was a tough couple of months.   I joke a little about earning my “Junior Vet Badge” but believe me, it was tough, and I’d rather not repeat it.

I don’t feel we are quite out of the woods yet, either, as I will occasionally see a runny eye here and there.  So I watch them like a hawk and take great care to ensure their nutritional plane remains high and steady.  They all get a generous helping of kelp meal each day, and the younger crowd, isolated from the older cows, are eating supplemental clover hay as well.

I’m pleased to see them come back in to condition like they have.  Those photos just say it all.  Now, as we move into winter, I am focusing on maintaining that good condition, and building health.

Whitey

Hefty

Pepsi Girl

So much better!

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