Who forgot to take pictures on sale day? I forgot to take pictures on sale day. And that’s really bad, given  we only sell calves twice a year.

When we sold retail beef, “payday” used to be spread out a bit. But now that we’re back to selling calves only twice a year, “payday” is now twice a year, in the spring, and in the fall. Most producers either have spring groups or fall groups – we have both. We rent most of our pasture land – if we had all our animals on one farm, we’d just have one calving season. The explanation is fairly simple. We try to check our cows at least twice a day during calving season, and that’s impractical if they’re on different farms. So we end up with thirty-some calves born in the spring on one farm, and sold in the fall, and a second group born in the fall, on a second farm, and sold in the spring.

july_bull_calf

The calves we sold today looked similar to this guy, who we sold this past summer. The buyers at the sale today seemed to appreciate our calves, and feels pretty good to have our efforts validated.

And heading into winter with few mouths to feed feels pretty good as well.

First thing this morning, we headed out to our neighbors feedlot to sort and load a group of our calves, and get them to the sale barn. The calves were being kind of silly, but we got them down the road and unloaded in little more than an hour. It wasn’t prime picture-taking time, from both a daylight and a husband-and-wife-working-cattle-together perspective, but the calves sell tomorrow, and conditions will be a little better, I’m sure.

heifer_calves_cropped

After dropping off the first group, these girls came home with me. Three are keepers, and the fourth is an oddball that we’ll sell later.

Tomorrow I’ll head out to the sale and see how our calves do. Calf prices were up last week, and we’re hoping the buyers will like our weaned, vaccinated bunk-broke steers, even if they’re red!

To be honest, another reason the blog and webpage have been so sorely neglected is because I spend a lot of time on Facebook, and through some of the relationships I developed there, I’m now an occasional contributor to two pages – Ask the Farmers and The Food and Farm Discussion Lab. The Food and Farm Discussion Lab (FAFDL) is particularly active, and even with 8 mods, it takes up a lot of time.

But getting off that page is sort of my equivalent to getting off the farm, and sometimes what I find on other pages is enough to prompt me to address certain topics in greater detail. Here’s one such topic.

For us, being able to keep our cows fat and healthy on forage alone is purely a business decision. We’re not against feeding cows, it’s just that we’re just basically lazy, and rather they do the work themselves. The equipment and infrastructure to feed cattle is actually pretty significant, and we’re just not interested in doing that while we have other options. And as far as we’re concerned, the best (read enjoyable, and most profitable) way to keep cows is to keep them on managed pastures.

207_croppedB77_cropped

But what do you do with the cow that just can’t quite get the job done? As livestock managers, what are our obligations to the animals in our care? These two girls are a pretty good example of what I’m talking about. They’re a year apart in age, in the same pasture, and they’ve both just weaned their calves. The red cow’s calf literally weighs half of what the white cow’s calf weighs, though they’re close to the same age.

So while some of the grassfed purists (typically people who don’t actually raise cattle) will loudly proclaim “cattle don’t need grain”, in my mind this poor red girl does, and to deny her adequate feed is to willfully engage in animal cruelty.

There’s always someone out there who is more than willing to put the “cult” into agriculture. And I’m not one.

 

 

Let’s face it. I pretty much suck at keeping the farm webpage updated, I get distracted. I lose interest. And frankly, I’ve always pretty much just figured that my life is too much of a bore to talk about. But then again, who am I to be the arbiter of what’s interesting and what’s not. You’re free to stay or go. And in the spirit of aspiring writers everywhere, I’m going to try to write a post per day for the entire month of November. We’ll see how far I get. And how far you get.

Images of grass growing just aren’t very interesting, no matter how artsy I try to get with it. But bear with me, and you’ll be able to see a few things going on in this photo. The girls haven’t gotten to these plants yet, and with all their leaves, they’re much easier to identify.

trit_clover_vetch

On the upper left is mature triticale, which is good, since that’s what we planted in this field. Triticale (it’s supposed to be pronounced trit-ih-KAY-lee, but I’ve mostly heard it pronounced trit-ih-kale) is a sterile hybrid, a lab grown plant, with an interesting history – it’s a cross of wheat and rye, that wouldn’t likely happen in nature. It’s only with careful breeding and the use of colchicine, a potentially toxic plant extract, to render the seeds fertile, that we have this versatile and hardy forage. The thing with triticale, and most grasses we use for forage, the cows will avoid it once it’s developed a seed head. The plant’s energy has been transferred to the seeds, which are now protected within the hull, and the leaves are now merely support structures, with decreased nutritional value. The idea it to graze the field before the plants generate seedheads, but with the weather conditions we’ve had this spring, cool and dry, then cool and wet, we’ve let some of the grazing get ahead of us.

 

At the top right, you can see crown vetch, a potentially invasive plant, but don’t tell the cows that. They’re pretty fond of it. They just happen to have missed this particular plant, probably because it’s so close to a mature triticale plant

 

And trying to make its way up from the ground surface, there’s white clover, another introduced species. Right now it’s being protected by the triticale, but as the cows continue to graze, and the weather warms up, the white clover will start to assert itself in this grass stand.
Here in the mid-Atlantic region, there are few native grass species in any large numbers – most of the grasses you see, in pastures, along roads, or in your yard, originate around the Mediterranean, imported by design or by accident, over the past 500 years or so. Re-establishing native grasses takes considerable time, effort and outlay, against considerable odds – they have a really hard time competing against the newer, introduced species. And with the right management, these introduced species can allow land to support wildlife, provide forage for livestock, and help keep our soils and waterways healthy.

Saying that we were late getting to the fall pasture planting is a bit of an understatement. In one particular pasture, we weren’t just competing against time, we had a pretty significant weed load in the field as well. Before we planted, we had to spray – “burn down” – the thistle and dock – plants that cattle won’t eat, to make room for the wheat and triticale that we were going to plant.
This is all ideally done in September. Plants have to be actively growing, with sufficient canopy – leaf area – for the spray – a tank-mix of RoundUp and 2,4-D – to make good contact, and then to be transported through the plant, to get a good kill on the field. Any spray that hits the ground instead of the plants will immediately be broken down by soil microorganisms, and be gone before the new seed sprouts, in about seven days. And the elevated soil temperatures of early fall mean that we can burn down, plant and the new growth will have time to become established before winter arrives.
Since this is a pasture, and not a crop field, our objective and approach are a little different – we don’t want to kill everything, just the things that the cows won’t eat. To protect those plants, we let the cows graze the field just before we spray. That way the desirable plants don’t have enough leaf area for the spray to be effective.
Nice plan. I think we got started on it around Halloween. I was in melt-down mode. Scott was going to burn-down on Friday, and plant on Saturday. In my mind, we were going to be putting down some high-dollar spray that wouldn’t kill anything, then spend time we didn’t have, to put down seed that was going to rot in the ground. All to be followed up by no spring grazing.
So how did it end up? Well, the girls are eating triticale. And I’m eating crow.

 

 

 

Stand back, Dad. We’ll try Science!

Yeah. It’s supposed to be Throw Back Thursday, but around here sometimes, it’s more like Throw UP Thursday. Some of you may remember this picture from a couple of weeks ago, of Marlaina, pulling a calf.

Sadly, this calf was born dead, and by the smell of it, it had been dead for a while. But this all happened on a Saturday afternoon, with a fairly tame cow, close to the house. That means there are lots of options.

Daddy Cheese went to the local sale barn and came home with this little guy. There’s a pretty good market for these calves because of cases just like ours.

 

Unable to start the chainsaw, the jersey bull calf initiated a charm offensive.

Unable to start the chainsaw, the jersey bull calf initiated a charm offensive.

In order to trick Y24 into thinking that this little guy was her calf, the placenta from the dead calf was placed on the adoptee. The buzzards weren’t circling yet, but the smell was a bit on the putrid side.

"I'm not sure about this new jacket, but if you say I look good, I must look good!"

“I’m not sure about this new jacket, but if you say I look good, I must look good!”

z24_and_jersey

“Something weird is going on here, but I can’t quite figure it out.”

By that evening, Z24 had fallen for the trick, and was thoroughly convinced that this was her calf.

lady_c90_jersey

Little Stinky and Friends

And please don’t tell little Stinky that he’s adopted. It’s liable to break his heart.

 

spring

This spring is about 30 feet from the spring house pictured below.

With all the talk about the drought in California, it’s a good time to be thankful for the plentiful water we have here in central Virginia. Pictured above is a spring, where an irresistible force, water, meets an immovable object, a rock. It’s just a spot where water comes from out of the ground, to the surface. This particular spring is pretty small, just a few gallons per minute. If the cattle had access to it they would just tear it up into a big mud-hole, so they are fenced out. It’s what we call an unimproved spring. It’s about 2 feet in diameter and the water from here flows pretty much uninterrupted to the Rapidan River, about a mile away. There are dozens of these small seeps and springs on this particular farm.

Before the advent of refrigeration, dairies relied on spring houses to keep dairy products cool. These structures were built directly over a spring, and the flow from the spring was channeled around the milk containers.

 

 

 

 

 

spring_house

This spring house in in remarkably good condition, but the 6″ of water on the floor make it impractical to use for anything other than cooling milk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

see_through_springhouse

The foundation and roof are in good shape, but this see-through spring house is past its prime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

multilevel_springhouse2

The concrete foundation is just about all that is left of this large spring house

multilevel_springhouse

This is another shot of the multi-room spring house. It must have supported a very large dairy.

 

It’s hard to imagine hand milking cows, then hauling the milk here, and then hauling it to town. Changes in dairy regulations and advances in refrigeration made these structures obsolete by the 1930’s.

We’re fortunate in that not only did we get to select the site for our house, we designed and built it ourselves. (the fact that we ran out of money before we finished is beside the point).  When you’re laying out a farm, it may seem that you have all the room you could possibly need to do anything that you want, but a farmstead is more than a house and all the pieces have to function properly together. You don’t want bellowing calves by your house, any more than you want grain trucks going by it. Your kids need a safe place to play, and you need to be able to see as much of their activity as possible. From one of my kitchen windows, I can see the garden, the kids play area, and beyond that to the riding ring. From the window at my kitchen sink, I can look straight down the alley of the barn. From the window of the kitchen door, I can see every vehicle coming down the driveway, the pond, and perhaps most importantly, I can see the heifer’s field.

The heifer’s field is where we put first calf heifers, anything that is calving off schedule, or ones that we think we may need a little extra attention, like the older cows. This design paid for itself even before the house was built. When the house was just a shell, I rescued two calves who were born during an ice storm. Being able to just look out the window at your cows is an invaluable asset.

So today, the day after Thanksgiving, I’m watching one of the show cows who is getting ready to calve. She’s been getting up and down all day, scratching at her sides, and generally looking like a bovine version of Jabba the Hutt.

Dixie is a pro at this – it’s her fourth calf, and we’re not expecting any problems. The weather is cold, but it’s not rainy or windy, and she’s still hanging out with the group. I expect by tomorrow though we’ll have another Murray Grey calf, and hopefully it will be a heifer.

But in the meantime, I’m not having very good luck paying attention to anything I should be doing. Calves are always exciting, show calves even more so. My binoculars are right here, and every time Dixie moves, I have to go to the window and check on her.

Dixie has had three bull calves. Here’s to a November heifer.