What We Do: November 2017

What We Do: November 2017

We had our first hard, killing frost on October 26. We’ve entered the 100-meter dash portion of winter prep. No longer are we running a marathon. Not this month, not with this forecast.

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!

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