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.


When it comes to moving cows, November can be pretty boring. Every day it’s walk out, put up a new “break”, and move the cows. They get moved once a day this time of year because it’s not terribly busy, the weather is pleasant and they seem to enjoy the routine.

Dixie, 1P and 4P Wish I Would Hurry Up

Dixie, 1P and 4P Wish I Would Hurry Up


Inside though, the kitchen and mudroom are still in total disarray as I finish painting. I was supposed to finish today so I can start cooking tomorrow for about 20 people on Sunday. It’s Thursday night and it still looks like this in here. It’s Aldi’s pizza for dinner.


If You Think the Kitchen looks Bad, You Should See the Dining Room

But at least the mudroom is done enough so I have a place to put Big Muffin’s feed.

Doesn't Everyone Store Milk Replacer in Their Mudroom?

Doesn’t Everyone Store Milk Replacer in Their Mudroom?

I’m still painting the kitchen and mudroom, in preparation for the holidays. I started in the mudroom, and I’m moving towards the kitchen, and stopped for the evening.  The orange on the right is the color of the dirt here in Virginia, but the idea of the having the kitchen and mudroom match our red dirt is an idea whose time has come and gone. The floor still mostly matches the dirt, but I was ready for a change. My friend Bridget suggested the grey would go well with the red, which matches the barn, and some of the trim on the house. The grey doesn’t seem very farm-housy, but we’ll see how it looks when all the coveralls and boots return to the mud room.

The holidays are always a big deal around here. In fact this year, the holiday season has already started, and as usual, I’m not ready. Last weekend the youngest daughters had a bonfire. This weekend the oldest kids are having a paintball tournament here. The following week is our turn. Then it’s Thanksgiving. So what am I doing this week? Painting the house, of course. Trying to get that all done before the cold weather hits later in the week. Hopefully I’ll finish up tomorrow, so I can make sure I’m ready for dinner for 20 on Sunday!

The term “grass fed” gets kicked around a lot, but when it shows up on a beef (or any other) meat label, it’s what is called a marketing claim. There are a lot of marketing claims and there are different levels of verification for them (that’s important to remember.) They include things like Certified Angus, Organic and Certified Humane are three that you may be familiar with. It’s important to remember that they aren’t meant to convey the safety or benefit of a product, only that it adheres to certain guidelines. Here’s a Food Label Guide from the Federal Accounting Office that gives an overview of some of these claims.

These claims are breed specific, or state specific. I can buy Certified Angus, Certified Texas Longhorn or Iowa Best. Being able to meet some of these additional protocols gives us more marketing opportunities for our cattle. Our cattle meet the standards for the Red Angus feed calf program, and also they also meet the standards for the grass fed marketing claim.

The grass fed claim can be a bit confusing to producers as well as consumers. You’ll often hear people say “Our beef is grass fed and grain finished”, but if the word “grass fed” appears on the label, it basically means no grain ever.

And that’s a pretty long lead up to the question: “What do Grass Fed Cows Eat in the Winter?”

If you figured they eat hay in the winter, you get a few points, because at some point in the winter they do eat hay. The problem with hay is that it can be inconsistent in quality, it can be expensive and it may not meet an animal’s nutritional needs. They need feed that has the right balance of protein and energy, and they need enough of it. The old “quality or quantity” thing doesn’t apply. Cows need both if they are going to get through the winter and be ready to raise a happy healthy calf in the spring.

As I already mentioned, hay can be expensive, especially when you include (as you should) transportation and labor costs. Spending an hour or two every day, driving a $60,000 tractor to put out feed can be pretty costly. Even buying grain and feeding can take a lot of time and requires a way to get the feed to the cows.

So what do we do to make sure the girls have plenty of quality feed? We’re lucky here in Virginia. The predominant grass here is Kentucky 31 Tall Fescue, and it makes a great winter feed. In a process we call stockpiling, we allow the grass to grow in late summer, into the fall, and then ration it out to the cows in a process we call rotational grazing.

Other grasses stockpile, but Kentucky 31 does it really well, and it retains its nutritional properties far better than baled hay does. The cows harvest it, so we don’t have to – they go to the feed, so we don’t have to take it to them, and cows can do a remarkable job nosing through the snow if they have to, in fact they prefer it to eating hay!

If we’re really lucky, and we’ve planned well, we can make it most of the way through winter without feeding much hay. We have hay for the times, like during ice storms, where the cows would have a really hard time getting to the grasses, but we’re fortunate that the easiest way to get a cow through winter is also the least expensive, and the healthiest way.


This girl is one of our favorite cows. U16 is out of our Old Number One cow, who was with us for many years. U16 is raising her fifth calf this year. She also shows one of the problems we have with ear tags. They are the form of animal ID that we rely on most, but they have a tendency to get caught in trees, resulting in tears like you see in her right ear. She has a unique marking on her face, so she’s easy to ID if she loses her tag, but some of our cows, mainly our registered cows, have tattoos in their ears to help identify them, and some have RFID tags, and some have all three. Plus fly tags! Keeping tabs on individual cows is important. We use a software program called CattleMax to help us keep up with the breeding and medical records on each animal.

U9 - The Struggle is Real

U9 – The Struggle is Real

Yesterday Scott and I worked cows. Typically a cause of extreme domestic strife, we’ve gotten pretty good at it, our cows are pretty good, and our facilities are pretty good. We draw blood for pregnancy test, remove fly tags and make sure that their ear tags are legible. Usually, you just remove the old ear tag and put in a new one, but U9 is so laid back, she’s just standing there while Scott re-inks her old tag. Most cows would never put up with this, but U9 doesn’t seem to mind.

green_tractor_and_drill (1024x537)

While it’s hard to get through a winter without feeding hay, there are quite a few things we can do to make sure that our cows get quality forage year round. Fortunately there are some grasses that do quite well in the late fall and early spring, so that we can cut back on our hay feeding. Annual ryegrass, triticale, barley and wheat are grasses that are fairly cold tolerant, and can be planted after our cash crops come off the field. In this picture, Scott is finishing up planting triticale on some bean ground. So that during the winter, the cows will have fresh green grass, and the soil will be covered, minimizing erosion and suppressing weeds. Quality forage for our cows doesn’t just happen!


We really don’t like moving farm equipment any more than we have to, but sometimes it just has to happen. Here’s Scott, moving the drill between two farms. It’s hard to see in the picture – I was driving the pilot car – but he takes up both lanes, so there isn’t much room for anyone else to get down the road. We try to move on Sunday mornings when there is little traffic, but even with that, we can slow things down quite a bit. But after the corn comes off the fields, small grains such as barley or wheat need to be planted back onto the field within a day or so. These cover crops keep the soil in place over the winter, and provide competition for the few weeds that may still try to come up. So the drill follows the combines, making sure that fields go into winter looking like this.


I’m not sure why it is, but our Murray Grey cows have never had twins, but our Red Angus cows more than make up for it. We’ve ended up with two sets this year, as far as we know. “As far as we know” is the bad part.

With beef cattle, there are a couple of potential problems with twins, and may require a bit of extra management.

Some cows have no problem with it – Herefords seem to be particularly adept at raising twins – and they just go on and raise two calves without any intervention at all.

Our Red Angus cows aren’t quite as willing to raise an extra calf. What we see most often is that a cow will have a calf, clean it up, nurse it, and then have a second calf. She then cleans up the second calf and totally forgets about the first. If we find these calves, they have a great chance of surviving – mama has gotten them off to a great start and then we just have to keep them going.

If you’re in a position to pay very close attention to your cows as they calve, you can find these abandoned twins pretty easily. Often they’ll just stand there and bellow, and when you have 8 cows and nine calves, it’s easy to figure out what happened.

No It's Not Mom, But It's Not Bad

No It’s Not Mom, But It’s Not Bad

That’s what happened with this calf, the mysteriously name Big Moofin (Muffin). His mama is out being the perfect mama to her other calf, but she totally ditched him.

If these twins show up in January or February, they can be pretty easy to deal with. This is the height of the calving season around here and someone is likely to be looking for a calf to graft to a cow who has lost her calf, or a cow that needs a calf. That’s what happened with Emma, one of Marlaina’s show cows. (See “Legal Loopholes” a post on grafting calves – http://pannillsgate.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=210&action=edit). Emma’s calf was born dead, and it took all of three phone calls to come up with this Simmental heifer for her to raise.


Another potential problem with twinning is that you can end up with what is called a freemartin. A freemartin is a female calf who has a male twin. In cattle, female calves with male twins most often have reproductive issues, and can’t successfully reproduce. It would be nice to know who Big Moofin’s mama is, so we can make sure that if his twin is a girl, we don’t keep her to breed.

And of course, if mama isn’t taking care of a calf, there is always the chance that some predator will find it first. These are the ones we don’t know about, or we find out about them too late. Not only is it a missed opportunity, it’s totally heart breaking.  We always second guess ourselves. That’s why we keep a close eye on our cows during the calving season.

Because you gotta wonder, who could refuse a face like this?