Yesterday, as the temperature outside climbed towards sixty and the miracle of a full January thaw unveiled parts of the farm we haven’t seen since early December the dogs and I — and at least one barn cat — set off to take stock of […]
People like to drop cats off in rural areas to live out their lives as a barn cat. At first glance it makes sense, there are wide open spaces, a presumably plentiful diet of wild prey, and FARMS! Cats and farms, after all, go together like peas and carrots. But the reality isn’t quite the picture we paint in our minds.
During the arctic freeze someone dropped the cat picture here off at one of our daughters’ friend’s and after two days of pestering us about it, we finally agreed to take it in. Since feline drop offs are a reality of rural life, but one we’ve never really addressed here before, we wanted you to know a few things about farms, cats, and what you should consider before taking a kitty for a one-way drive down a backroad. Here we go…
Prey Isn’t That Plentiful, And Domestic Cats Aren’t Built for Predator Life
One of the things about rural life that seems to surprise our city friends the most is how few small prey animals they see around. It’s not like a city park where you may see several squirrels and chipmunks in the course of a short afternoon walk. While we have more variety of wildlife in the country, we also have more land area. Which means the density of the prey population is much lower. Especially with small prey. We go weeks here without seeing a single small prey animal of any kind and a cat may have to travel quite a way before encountering a squirrel, chipmunk, rabbit or mouse. Which means he will probably expend more calories searching for prey than he will be able to get out of eating whatever he catches. Especially if he’s not accustomed to hunting.
On farms rodents such as mice and rats can be more plentiful, but modern farms of all sizes and types have more rodent control options at their disposal. Which means even on a farm, there are usually not enough rodents to sustain even one cat, let alone many. What’s more, even if prey were abundant enough to support many roaming cats, domestic cats are not physically equipped for the life of a predator. They don’t have the stomach capacity to safely store large meals and then survive on them until their next kill. They’ve evolved differently since becoming domesticated, and therefore require different care.
Not All Farms Are Cat Friendly
Some farms choose to use rodent control options that are toxic or dangerous to cats. And even on farms that don’t use poisons and large traps, not all farmers want cats in their barns, shops and houses. Cats, like any animal, can be destructive and even the best behaved felines require some amount of care. You can’t assume a farm is safe for a cat just because it’s a farm. Nor can you assume another person — in this case the farmer and her family — want or are even able to care for the cat.
Even the most laissez faire approach to barn cat care requires resources — food, water, warm shelter in the winter and cool shade in the summer; an occasional deworming and round of vaccines increase costs even further, and spay and neuter clinics can be even pricier for farms who choose to fix their barn cats and get many drop offs throughout the year.
Transition Can Be Difficult & Dangerous
Many times, drop offs were previously indoor cats. They haven’t experienced all the sights, sounds and smells of the great outdoors, let alone had to contend with them while also adjusting to a completely different life than the one they’ve known. Even if a cat has spent weeks lazing about in your windowsill in the city, the reality of being outdoors can be overwhelming. Throw in a stressful car ride to get from your home to the country, the completely different surroundings of the country itself, and the sudden loss of companionship from people your cat knows and trusts and adjusting can be scary and difficult. It’s not uncommon for cats to never be seen again.
Barn Cats Are Partners or Employees, Not Pets
A farm isn’t a rescue and that’s an important distinction to make. Even with top-of-the-line barn cat care, farm cat life is often a shorter life than house cat life. This isn’t innately wrong or bad, it just is. Barn cats have more freedom than house cats and with freedom comes danger. All kinds of things can befall a barn cat: they can be hit by a passing vehicle; they can become prey for a larger predator like a coyote, wolf, bear, or eagle; they can venture to neighboring farms and get into things that make them ill; they can over-estimate their abilities, venture too far and become dehydrated; they can get stuck up trees where no one can get to them to get them down.
There are nearly as many ways for a barn cat to die as their are barn cats. Nature can be cruel and since farm cats are workers, not pets, we can’t spend all day coddling them in order to remove all these dangers. Remember: when farms keep cats around outside, it’s usually for a reason: pest control. They’re paid in a reasonable amount of kibble, basic health care, and the occasional scratch behind the ears, but they also have a job to do and the reality of that job can sometimes be dangerous. Just like the jobs we do on the farm.
Many No-Kill Shelters Have Barn Cat Programs
In the end, if you think a barn cat is best for your cat for one reason or another, the best way to transition your cat to a farm is by contacting a shelter or rescue that has a barn cat program. Many help farmers subsidize the cost of spay and neuter and then place the cats in barn homes for no or very little cost. This helps minimize the problems that can go wrong during transition while still getting your cat to a farm home. It also ensures your cat ends up at a farm that actually wants her.
Season extension is something small, diversified, and niche farms like ours are engaged in nearly constantly. For many of us, extending the growing season is key to making a living. Whether we deal in produce, livestock, or some combination thereof, having food and food-producing animals […]
Winter arrived with the thunder of a runaway freight train shortly after noon yesterday. I was shoulder deep in the freezer in the barn, digging for lamb shanks for the evening’s meal. I pulled my head from the freezer just in time to hear the wall of frigid air hit the north side of the building, wrap itself around the corner and howl its way inside. By the time we began evening chores the tiny flutters of white against the already darkening six o’clock sky were unmistakable. When we finished loading corn stalk bales for bedding barns at eight, we were working in a bona fide snow storm. This morning a thin blanket of white covered just about everything. Tuesday it’ll be fifty degrees and sunny. Such is the changing of the seasons in the midwest.
Here are a few good things to end the week:
Watch: Have you seen our youtube channel? If not, be sure to click here and subscribe. This trailer (below) is all we’ve uploaded so far, but we have a couple videos on tap between now and the new year and then plan to be posting regularly thereafter.
Eat: Don’t hold the shoddy picture in this post against the recipe. It was dark, cold and we were all too hungry to haul out my light stands for a proper photoshoot before digging in. Poor kitchen lighting aside, this Lamb Shank Ragú is a staple in our recipe rotation for good reason. It’s filling and scrumptious on a cold night.
Listen: Mark my words, Donna Missal is a name we will be hearing everywhere soon. Those pipes!
The wide egg noodle is an overlooked and under-appreciated dinner delivery mechanism. Smooth, buttery (after you apply butter, of course,) and reminiscent of a hearty chicken soup on a cold winter night. They somehow dress a meal up and down simultaneously. You can tuck into […]
Now we’re in a game of chicken with Mother Nature. Nothing horrible will happen if she wins, but chore time would be more difficult for a day or two and we really try to avoid that. On months like these the list looks short and sweet, but each item represents a significant amount of time spent and effort expended.
Move the cows into their winter shed/pen with the bull.
This isn’t an ideal time of year to be moving cows in with bulls. Normally, you want beef calves born in the spring or early summer so you can take advantage of a first full season of grass before they’re weaned. The grass is an excellent addition to their mother’s milk and it helps her make a lot of the frothy white stuff, too. However, our mama cow, Lotte, was already on a delayed schedule when we brought her home. She’d calved her daughter, Layla, just a couple weeks before we brought her home in the early fall and she was bred back for a late June calf. That little bull calf entered the world here this summer and he’s been living the good life with his Mom and sister ever since. Beef cows come back into estrus within a month of calving, and we know Lotte has been cycling since July. We could have bred her back right away and it would have gotten us closer to spring calving. But we didn’t like where Lotte’s body condition was at that time. Lotte and Layla being our first cow-calf pair on the farm, we made some mistakes. We left Layla on her Mom too long and because Lotte produces a lot of milk, it took too much off her body condition over last winter. And because she was very leery of humans for her first several months here, we also didn’t notice the loss enough until spring when her wooly mammoth-esque coat began to shed out. She gained a lot on spring grass and a little grain, but since she already had another calf on her by the time this summer’s drought hit, she began to lose again then. We could have pulled her from the grass lot where she lives with both Layla and her bull calf shortly after he was born, weaned him off, and put the weight back on her in a couple week’s time in order to get her bred sooner, but that never felt like the right decision to us. Weaning a beef calf at just a month or two old can be done, and some producers even do it regularly. But we prefer to leave them on a bit longer. Instead, we began supplementing her with more grain to hold and slowly increase her condition while her bull calf grew a little longer. A May calf would have been more ideal than an August or September calf next year, which is what we’ll get doing it this way, but a late summer calf is still a calf and it’s one that’ll come into the world without us having to sacrifice its older brother’s calfhood for a better birthdate. This way, Loki will be weaned at a more appropriate age, at the time of year all the cattle are put into the winter shed anyway, Lotte will be in decent body condition going into breeding and winter, and — a bonus — since Layla’s now the right age and size to breed as well, we can get it all done at once. Two fall calves coming right up!
Wean, vaccinate & castrate this summer’s bull calf.
One of the benefits of waiting to wean Loki and re-breed Lotte until now is that they’ll all be in their winter quarters regardless. Which means we can just put a gate up across one section of the shed for him. This way, we can do what’s called “fenceline weaning.” They can nuzzle and groom one another, sleep next to each other and generally do everything a cow-calf pair would want to do other than nurse. Since separation is the primary source of anxiety for cows and calves during weaning, this method reduces stress. And, in this case, will likely eliminate it altogether. Loki has already reduced his nursing frequency to just a couple times per day on his own and they’re both comfortable as long as they can see one another. It should be an easy transition.
The castration, on the other hand, probably won’t be so great, but is necessary. Since Loki was the first calf Lotte had on our farm, we were told she was very aggressive with humans when we brought her and her last calf home, and she had certainly exhibited aggression with us early on, we didn’t press our luck with her when he was born. Other than spraying some iodine on his umbilical cord from a distance and watching closely to make sure they got off to a good start we largely left them alone. In hindsight, this probably wasn’t necessary. She had already calmed down quite a lot by then, and throughout his life she has been very calm and content with us being around. At this point we can pet her all over — by contrast we could barely touch her head when she first came here — and she never objects to us being near him. Nonetheless, we’re also fine with the way this has gone. These extra few months of relationship building with her have been productive and put both us and her at ease with one another going into her next gestation and calving. We’ll just have the vet out to give us a hand with anesthetic and post-op pain management for Loki this go-round, and we’ll continue to build trust with Lotte so we can safely and easily handle her newborn next time.
Close up the sow & show barns.
Since ventilation and sunshine are two of the most important components of a happy, healthy indoor environment for livestock we keep the top halves of our sheds open whenever possible — and that’s, usually, about seventy-five percent of the year. Sunshine kills germs, good fresh air promotes health. But when the cold winds start howling in from the west it’s time to put the top half of the walls on the barns. The pigs, who don’t grow heavy fur coats, get the first round of extra windbreaks, then the kids’ show cattle — because we’ll spend a lot of time in there over the winter and also don’t have fur coats, not because they’re more affected than the other cattle. It’s not until the cold westerly winds switch over to frigid northerly winds that we start considering closing up the farm cattle and sheep sheds. Depending on the temperatures we may never close them up at all. On mild winters the sheep are content to never go inside anyway, and the cattle follow suit except on the very coldest and wettest nights. For them we simply watch the weather and adjust as needed.
Build and install a new trough and hay rack system for the show cattle.
One of our small humans has been showing cattle in 4-H — in addition to pigs — for three years now. This year, the other joined in and they started planning show outings other than county fair. The result: we immediately doubled our show string from just two steers who lounge about all winter to four who will have a job just about every month year round. It’s a lot of work, but they’re committed and learning, and that’s all we ask. However, we’re having to beef up our facilities a bit to keep up. (Pun intended.) Right now we’re feeding them in buckets over the gate with their hay in a corner of their stalls, but that won’t do all winter. We’ll put in a simple trough and rack system up along one wall to keep their hay high and dry, their grain coming, and their minerals from being stepped on and pooped in. Ah the joys of livestock!