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Why we don’t halter train calves

 

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I’ve been asked why I don’t halter train by folks, particularly when I have a calf for sale.
Here’s why:
I haven’t seen the need for it with my set up and my training.
My girls and boys come when called and follow my direction to move through gates or into buildings. I use voice, hand signals and the already trained herd to move cows and even bulls. I have not had that fail yet.
While I understand that some folks need this ability to tie off their cow for milking, that should not be the primary means of controlling a cow. A buyer can slip a halter on a heifer and train her later in her development for that.
The girls will come individually by name. I call them and they all look, the one that I have called comes and the rest of the herd generally returns to grazing, unless they think there is a treat involved. Ha ! If you name your cows and speak to them often, they know who they are. Even the bulls respond to their names.
All that simply stated, we recently bought the two Swiss girls from a farm that is big in show. The girls were exceptionally well handled and care for in prep as potential show cows, but spent their lives being confined to huge stalls and small pastures for their maintenance and safety as show heifers. All the cows there are kept in very structured environment. They were led by halter everywhere they went.
Due to that, they have no idea how to move or behave in a herd. They will not budge unless led. We had a hell of a time getting them off the trailer upon arrival. They just stood there looking at us like we had no clue what we were doing and waited for us to lead them. Pushing their rears didn’t budge them. Coaxing didn’t budge them. It was ridiculous.
They also have no idea what it means to be in a herd , but are slowly adapting. They did not follow the herd. They hung to themselves apart from the herd until we decided that separating them would be the best thing for them mentally and functionally.
They still walk tentatively as though they feel insecure without their halter and lead rope stabilizing them mentally. It’s what they are used to. They feel insecure without them.
Cows are creatures of habit. I don’t train mine to the halter because I do not want a herd of 36 cows I have to walk in one by one after retrieving them from pasture individually. These girls will still not budge from whence they stand without me pushing, cajoling, coaxing and insisting. It’s a mess.
I want to stick my head out the parlor door or the back door and holler ‘ C’mere Girls !’ and have them come. None of this current ‘ come get me ‘

You do not have to halter a calf to make a pet of them.  Most of my girls are pets and none have ever been haltered.  Time, attention, speaking to them as you pass, extending your hand as you walk toward them or by them, all of these acts will earn the trust of your calf or cow and eventually the ability to give them physical affection such as scratches and pats, even hugs with many.  I rather like to give my cows the choice to be pets, rather than forcing attention on them, I just offer it.

 

 

There is also no need for halters to train a cow, again–unless you need to tie her off for milking.  A cow that is raised according to her natural drives and instincts will follow her herd. Herd mentality is a powerful thing and should be used to your advantage when calling or moving cattle. A single family cow that was raised with her dam will mimic her dam’s behaviors even after she leaves her.  If her dam was with her long enough to instill behaviors such as responding to her keepers call or feed / milk times, she will not be nervous about such interactions and will just respond to the cues around her.

 

The erroneous romanticizing of cows

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My social media pages have been flooded with a particular post about a business that offers ” Cow Cuddles” for $300 per hour.  There has been talk of how ‘ cute’ , ‘ sweet’ and ‘savvy’ an idea it is.  I am appalled by it.  Appalled.

Let’s consider the facts:

Every year, cows kill more people than sharks , snakes and bears combined.

In 2009 in Britain, 8 people were stomped to death, separately,  by their own cows in a three month period.

In the US, the CDC estimates that 22 people are killed by cows each year.  75% being deliberate attacks, 25% being accidental / incidental. While it is clear that bulls are dangerous, bulls are only responsible for 6 of the 22 bovine related deaths on average.

Why more cow related deaths than bull related ? Simple. People are naturally respectful and afraid of a bull, a cow is not held in regard as being threatening.  She should be.

These facts are available to anyone who wants to look them up on online.  What is not clear with any reporting entity is how many serious and tragic injuries involve cows each year in addition to the human deaths.  Those figures are sketchy at best, due to insufficient and unrequired reporting of medical facilities, but are frightening.

Cows are just generally  cumbersome, clumsy animals which, with no intention at all on their part, can cause serious injury to a human.  As my best friend states, ‘ They just don’t always know where their ends are.’  I am very careful around my girls, very aware of where they are in relation to me when I am working with them, yet I have suffered numerous accidental injuries:  I have had three toes broken by my sweetest mini Jersey cow who walked across my foot leaving the stanchion because I forgot to pull my foot back.  I have suffered bruised ribs and pleurisy from the trauma of being accidentally pressed against the wall of a barn by a cow just walking by and found another cow blocking her path.  I have suffered numerous deep tissue bruises and broken vessels on my arms and legs from incidental swipes of the hoof from a cow trying to kick a horse fly that had landed on her udder and a calf just doing his ‘ happy dance’ while I was standing too close turned my entire calf of my left leg black for nearly 8 months and required frequent checks by ultrasound and other tests to ensure no clotting had occurred.  One calf cut me severely with her teeth trying to mouth my hand when I had my back turned. Another young cow head butted me in the kidney while I had my back to her, for no understandable reason other than she was in a snotty mood and didn’t appreciate my presence.  This is the short list.

A happy or excited cow will burst into a dance that involves throwing the head and bouncing in such a way that they cannot know what is around them. This happens without warning and frequently.  Cows startle easily.  Anything out of their routine ( ie…strangers , the noise of an excited child) can set them off in a nervous state of confusion, defensive aggression or fight or flight mode.  Sometimes, just like any sentient being, they’re just cranky or having an off day and that will bring you a surprising head butt or side swipe from a normally lovely bovine.

I do not allow small children in the cow yards for all of the above reasons , plus some I didn’t touch on.  It is just insane to think a small child is safe around an animal who may not even see the child , inadvertently crush or kick the child, and which could step on the child top to bottom without effort, or which may view the child as a threat or as unwelcome in her space.  Those things aside, if a small child is standing next to a cow or calf and a fly bites the animal, that reflexive response by the bovine to jump and kick at the fly is a direct and unpredictable threat.  The ability of even a smallest calves to knock a child down and kick or step on him in completely innocent curiosity or play is a credible and serious threat.

Do I allow my own grandson to pet calves and hug them? Yes.  With direct supervision and in a controlled environment with me standing directly over them.  My grandson is not allowed to be in the parlor unless the cows are locked in the stanchion and he has to step out of the area before I release them.  Why? Here’s why: A while back I allowed him in for the process, sitting on a stool behind me.  A well trained  cow who had recently calved was walking out of the stanchion , made an effort to go around me as I habitually stood between her and my grandson while she was exiting and attempted to ram him with her head.  I guess she thought of him as an intruder and a threat to her calf who was waiting outside for her.  Thankfully, I was able to block her, but I took the brunt of her head in my forearm and shoulder as I ducked over him in protective mode.

I blame social media heretics and the ill conceived magazines geared toward the Ag hobby world for this proliferate trend of thinking of the family cow as we do the family dog. ( one in particular seems to have made it her mission to put a cow in every yard)        The propagation of the idea that ANYONE can and should own a family cow, whether you’re capable of providing for the animal’s intrinsic nature and needs or not is deplorable.

I have seen articles on FB and magazines of how to keep a ‘ Backyard cow’ in a garage meant for cars and tools.  I’ve seen the photos everywhere of women in flowing prairie dresses standing with miniature cows on pristine lawns.  This ain’t reality folks and it gives a false illusion of what keeping a bovine entails.  Yes, I take lovely photos of and with my girls, but I also share photos of their challenges and the trials of keeping them in a healthy, stable, humane environment.  There is mud.  There is manure.  There is a difference between neighborhood back yard grasses and carefully cultivated, nutritious pasture grasses; A cow can graze all day and starve on improper pasture. There is lobbying among the herd for dominance.  There is worry and injury to the farmer and the cow.  These ‘ backyard cow’ people don’t mention the bruises they obtained from milking that perfectly behaved Jersey the first few times they laid hands on her udder.  They don’t quote anyone about the wrestling match it was to train her or how they were so sore for days they could hardly sit down from stiffness and pain.  They don’t tell you the cow is not able to engage in her natural behaviors and is generally unhappy about her situation.  No, they don’t tell you the truth; they want to portray the disservice they are doing to these cows as romantic and a journey back to the old ways.  Well, lets look at the old ways.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, family cows were kept for the nutrition the milk provided a family and for the meat her offspring could provide.  It was all very practical.  Yes, the families , I am sure, largely bonded with their family cow, but she was livestock and treated as such.  She was turned out to pasture after her milkings with the other livestock to graze, not kept in a tiny back yard and barn all day.  The grazing was likely not much on the average farm, but it was sufficient and she had the company of goats and other livestock.  Occasionally, she would be walked to a neighboring farm to breed, I know folks who still do this.  Her life was pretty much grazing, milking and having calves.  They treated her like a cow.  And I’ll bet she was happy with that arrangement.

Am I saying you shouldn’t love your cows, pet them or brag on them? Hell no !  I am saying that they are cows, not dogs.  While I encourage you to show love and pride in the cow you own, I do not support inviting the general public in to do so; it’s stupid and it’s unfair to the cow.  I am saying let your cow be a cow, if she also wants to be YOUR pet, that’s awesome.  I am saying don’t buy a cow out of a romantic notion that it’ll be like owning a giant pet that provides milk and keep her in a tiny yard never meant for cows.  And for GOD’s sake, don’t buy a cow you have to keep in a converted garage attached to your  house.

If you can’t keep a cow humanely and properly, admire them from afar.

Basically, let cows be cows and respect them for what they are.

The case for cross bred dual purpose cows

 

Many modern families are moving toward a more connected and simple lifestyle on the small farm and homestead. They desire to raise their own fresh foods and have a hands on approach to what they put on their table. Be it beef or dairy the goal from their future family cow, both can be accomplished with the addition of a well bred dual-purpose bovine.

There is a common misconception that a beef / dairy cross is undesirable for milk and lends itself less to quality in beef. This is far from true. A well selected and bred cross of beef and dairy breeds gives the best of both worlds without the usual lacks and frailties.

There are recognized breeds of dual-purpose cattle available: Dexter, Highland, Shorthorns and Simmental Cattle are all examples of easily procured breeds of this type.

http://msue.anr.msu.edu/uploads/236/58553/BreedsOfBeefCattle_Ritchie.pdf

While I admire the features of these breeds, as they are breed trait specific, one only gets the benefits of what is in the animal’s direct bloodline, whereas with the intentionally crossbred bovine, one develops the best of the best traits of both breeds.

Of late, there have been numerous studies on the benefits of intentionally cross breeding strong breeds of both dairy and beef. The findings tout the monetary, time, vigor and production gains of such pairings.

Penn State University did a study on cross bred cattle titled “ Crossbreeding is a good idea ; because heterosis is free money’. Heterosis is the emphasis of a value or trait as compared to the parent animal’s value of the same trait. They found that a pairing of breeds that are more genetically different pass more of the heterosis benefit to their offspring than those genetically similar. In example, a Jersey X Hereford would produce a calf of stronger positive characteristics of the sire and dam than a Hereford X Angus would, meaning that the beef x dairy cross would have the best of the parents traits at a higher percentage than the beef x beef breed cross.

https://extension.psu.edu/crossbreeding-is-a-good-idea

http://www.beefmagazine.com/mag/beef_crossbreeding_composites

According to the FAO ( Food and Agriculture organization) , small countries such as those in Latin America are turning to the dual purpose, cross bred cow not only for family use, but in large operations as well. Their hardiness, disease and defect resistance and ability to maintain and gain being key factors in that movement. The study that the FAO did regarding cross bred , dual purpose cattle was based on the success of these struggling farmers after switching to the cross bred type of cattle. The FAO’s primary mission statement is to end world hunger. They look for the most efficient plan and the least expensive to maintain for developing countries struggling to maintain livestock and feed the hungry. The FAO likes the dual purpose , cross bred cow for this goal.

http://www.fao.org/livestock/agap/frg/AHPP86/Restrepo.pdf

How do we decide what cross breeds will work for both quality meat and rich milk? We choose two breeds that already provide those things separately and put them together, taking advantage of the aforementioned heterosis.

The American Hereford association actually recommends breeding Jerseys and Hereford for a strong, dual purpose cow. They cite the benefits of the superior beef traits of the Hereford and the superior dairy traits of the Jersey being the perfect combination, or in their own words ‘ the perfect cross’. The Hereford’s feed conversion efficiency, which translates into live weight gain in steers and exceptional weight maintenance on pasture in the heifer and cow make for not only better beef and dairy gains in the Jersey X Hereford offspring, but at a lower cost to the keeper. A quote from the article:

We did some research into Herefords and thought that using the Hereford on our Hereford X Jersey cows could work well. We felt that both breeds had good fertility, easy calving, the Jersey had plenty of high quality milk ideal for rearing beef calves while the Hereford offered high quality, marbled beef. In addition both the Jersey and Hereford were calm breeds and easy to handle,”

In a study by The Hereford Cattle association comparing beef breed traits and characteristics such as feed efficiency and general health and function, the Hereford was number one in all categories , across the board , for a 7 year controlled study of various highly recognized beef breeds. It is suggested that combining that upper tier beef influence with the globally recognized production capability and milk quality of the Jersey cow can result in the finest cross bred , dual purpose offspring.

A separate article by Hereford Cattle Association spotlights a rancher who has made the Hereford X Jersey his standard to much success and global benefit.

http://www.herefordcattle.org/uploads/file/2015/lockward%20farm%20feature-2.pdf

In an article on Lifestyle Block, Dr. Clive Dalton also recommends creating your own dual-purpose cow by crossing the Hereford and Jersey: https://www.lifestyleblock.co.nz/lifestyle-file/livestock-a-pets/cattle/item/16-dual-purpose-cattle

Michigan State University did a study of long term crossbreeding and the results. Some of these intentional pairings have so consistently produced offspring with similar, hardy traits that they are now recognized as their own breed: The RX3 ( Holstein X Red Angus ), The Beefmaker ( Hereford X Simmental ) and the Florida Cracker. The findings of this particular study outlined the benefits of such pairings:

Calf vigor

hybrid vigor

Feed Conversion

Thrift

environmental tolerance

dietary tolerance

Overall general health long term

significantly reduced fertility and birth/delivery issues

In all considerations, the hybrid not only excelled as compared to the ‘ true bred’ offspring, but carried all the best qualities of the sire and dam.

Then too, there is an increase of the desirability and marketability of the Jersey steer or bull calf when combined with respected beef genetics. An article on AgWeb outlines a study by The University of Minnesota showing that the Jersey X Beef calves brought up to ten times more than straight Jersey male calves. In their study, they crossed a Jersey with a Limousin and the resulting calf was dubbed a ‘ Beef Builder’.

https://www.agweb.com/mobile/article/beef-genetics-make-jersey-bull-calves-10-times-as-profitable-naa-wyatt-bechtel/

A study called : ‘ Production comparisons among various two breed cross cow groups’ observes that the Jersey cross is most efficient in calf weight ratio at weaning—the calf weight was highest for Jersey cross calves as compared to their dam’s weight at weaning age.

http://beefextension.com/research_reports/research_56_94/rr81/rr81_10.pdf

At SpiritGrove Farm we are inclined to agree with the findings of the various studies on cross bred bovines. We have had several here and have been impressed with each one for their personalities , appearances, qualities of meat and milk and abilities to gain and maintain weight on pasture. They seem to have less birth / rearing issues as indicated by recent studies and their production and quality of milk and beef have not disappointed.

It is recommended by all studies that to produce the best results with the top gains of genetic influences, one should pair a beef bull of sound breeding and genetics to a dairy cow of the same genetic appeal. We have done both here: Hereford bull to Jersey Cow and vice versa. I agree with the finding that beef over dairy is the best combination for primary beef production but my experience has been that a dairy bull of astute and exemplary breeding over a beef cow produces offspring with a greater milk production capability, while maintaining a high quality of beef; it just depends on what you’re looking for in a cross bred bovine.

  Here at our farm , we have further found that for the small farm, using miniature bulls of impressive genetics over thoughtfully cultivated Jerseys or Herefords , even standards, produces some added benefits–We keep a miniature Hereford and two miniature Jersey bulls for these effects:        Smaller calf size which lends itself to easy delivery, better weight maintenance of the dam through pregnancy and post calving, less risk of milk fever* that Jerseys are prone to due to their high production levels & propensity for difficulty  with maintaining weight and nutrients while in lactation– the smaller mini sired calf  puts less draw on the dam’s physical resources post calving.                                                                                                                           

There is also the benefit to the buyer of a thoughtfully cross bred percentage miniature bovine that requires less space on the small farm and does well on a variety of grazing situations.       

 * Milk fever is caused by a consumption of calcium from the tissues of the cow by the demand for milk production exceeding her ability to produce ( hypocalcaemia)* . 

There is a rising appreciation  for the dual purpose cow of quality breeding, particularly with a miniature influence. Multiple registries and other official entities in the mini bovine world, devote time and space on their pages to what is commonly referred to as the J-lo, Jey-Low or low line beef over Jersey cross. The lower cost and vitality, which parlays into ease of keeping is one of the appealing factors for the small farm or homestead. The dual purpose bovine does well on pasture and requires less cost to feed. They also can provide the obvious, both meat and milk for a family in a single animal or herd rather than keeping two separate breeds and possibly, two separate bulls. They are excellent candidates for organic, grass fed farmsteads. You can garner rich milk from a cross bred cow, but don’t necessarily have to milk them on a regular , twice daily schedule as they, with the mini genetics in the mix, are generally not heavy producers. And their offspring are just the cutest…there is that factor.

http://www.miniaturejerseyassociation.com/pdf/Jey%20Low%20Breedng%20Program2PG.pdf

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The bottom line is that the cross bred, dual purpose family cow is great for the bottom line, in all factors. I have spotlighted the Hereford X Jersey in this article because that is what I believe to be the best cross based on the information I have and the experiences I have with that pairing. This two breed cross works best for my intentions for my herd and provides my buyer and myself with excellent beef and dairy.

It is not the only superior cross out there.

Tammy Marr

SpiritGrove Farm

  • Any links to studies not included herein came from fee related resources, subscriptions or text books.

Other materials and resources:

Dairy and Beef cattle by Thomas

Animal Science and Technology by Miksell / Baker

The Future of Animal Farming by Dawkins

Grass Fed Cattle by Bennett

Farm Animal Well Being by Ewing /Lay & Von Borell

National Agriculture Library / USDA

Agricultural Sciences – SCIRP

Cambridge.org/core Journal of agricultural sciences

Some truths I’ve found in farming

 

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I am often asked even by close friends why I farm. The question is occasionally prefaced by a laundry list of all of the hard work, financial strains, difficult decisions and tough situations farming entails.
Each time, I answer simply, ‘ because I love it.’
I state that with emotionally tethered sincerity. I love farming.
Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it is rife with heartache and strain. Indeed, there are days you can’t picture yourself getting through in one piece and there are more sleepless nights than one can anticipate.
It is most assuredly hard, dirty work, trudging through manure laden mud at times that is so deep it fills your boots and sucks them off; I joke that decades from now, someone will buy this farm and find so many pairs and singles of footwear lost to mud, they will believe an entire colony of same sized farmers lived here.
Farming is demanding; of your time, your finances, your emotions, your body, your mind and your beliefs.  Yes, your beliefs. You will find renewed faith in some long held convictions and a loss or evolution of others. You will not be the same person in spirit or thought 2 years into farming of any kind that you were when you began.
Farming alters every aspect of your life and processes–neither body , mind , habit nor schedule is untouched. You will become stronger, require less sleep, require more silence and stillness.
You will no longer make long term plans to ‘away’, your schedule and availability are at the whim of  influences you respect as being beyond your planning and control. You will connect more, but socialize less.
You will be more capable and self-sufficient. You will learn to stand alone and act alone in the scariest and most physically demanding moments, because you have no choice–lives depend on it.
You’ll learn to appreciate your own company and savor alone time.

You will accomplish things you never pictured yourself attempting on your own and feel a sense of pride in the smallest of tasks.
You will become self-reliant in most things, but will lean heavily on your mentors and fellow Farm hims and hers when the chips are down, and they will respond with support of all kinds and in whatever way they capable of helping.
You will learn things that allow you a confidence and aptitude in many aspects of living that you never even considered before and that knowledge will change you in many ways you hadn’t counted on.  For example, I can no longer enjoy many meals in restaurants I used to frequent aside from seafood. Knowing the outstanding taste and texture of fresh foods, combined with the mental images of how a lot of Big Ag livestock are treated and the detrimental additives they employ has left a foul taste in my mouth for foods sourced commercially. I am forever altered by farm fresh, humanely raised and processed foods, in health and spirit.
You will develop an affinity and kinship with your charges that allows you to tell they are ‘ off ‘ before they fall ill. You will be able to singularly identify an animal from behind in a herd identically marked, by her udder or her gait. There is an awareness that comes with observant vigilance you cannot fathom without acquiring it for yourself.
You will do and say things that would have made you cock your head before you started farming. You’ll spend an awful lot of time staring at , admiring and even proclaiming admiration of the personal parts of your livestock and of the livestock of others. You’ll say things out loud to your stock like, “wow ! your poop looks great today ! Yay you ! ” You’ll endlessly talk to your non-farming friend over lunch about the bodily functions of your cow, using words like ” mucus” , ” vulva” and ” stool” as you eat your salad and she drops her fork.
You will amaze yourself. You’ll cry from being tired and worried, alone in your barns, but you’ll finish what needs to be done.

You’ll take care of what needs to be tended no matter the weather, the danger, the pain in your bones or the illness of your body. I dragged myself around on a broken and separated ankle for two and half weeks before agreeing to surgery because I was afraid of what would happen to my animals if I was out of commission. I once milked cows while vomiting in a bucket I had next to me, then threw all the milk to the pigs.
From time to time, I shake my own head and ask why I do it, then I remember life before farming, I remember ME before farming and I plow on.
I grew up in a lower class, crime ridden, mid city neighborhood. I hated it.
Worse yet, I enjoyed no stable or loving home life, being alone much from the age of 8 and wishing I was alone much of the time when I wasn’t.
I sought refuge in the one wooded area my neighborhood offered , at the back of the community beside the railroad tracks. Abutting this wooded area was a horse farm surrounded by deep ditches that to me, seemed like tiny streams. I spent a lot of time there as a child and young woman. Every chance I had, I’d take a bag of snacks and a book and spend hours sitting on the bank of the ditch on the neighborhood side, enticing the horses with sugar cubes and apple bits. It was my dream to live there or somewhere like it. It was peaceful. It was full of animals. It sheltered happy people dwelling in a happy home.
Before I arrived at this place, I suffered with many effects of my former life: Depression, anxiety, weight struggles, sleeplessness, anger…
All of those things resolved themselves over time spent on this farm. I didn’t work at them. I just gradually stopped acknowledging them, replacing those negative aspects with positive ones without effort: eating fresh foods, working hard and tiring myself, finding comfort and peace among my cows and peers,living away from the over-stimulation of city life, etc…had an effect on me that no medications, therapies or external efforts could accomplish.
I learned in studying psychology formally that every action we do, every decision we make, has a payoff for us. Positive or negative, there is a subconscious part of our brain that yearns for that payoff. Even negative actions gain us something we may not even realize we want.
Although most people I know living in large towns and cities are living a life of productivity and choice, I have come to realize there are those folks who crave negativity and propagate the  harshness of the modern city, just as there are those who stay only due to fear of leaving it’s conveniences and commercial accessibility.
I did not fully recognize just how much overt negativity and disharmony I was surrounded and bombarded by until I was apart from it.  I feel deeply for those who wish to escape it’s assault on their senses and spirit and are trapped in it like I used to be.
Here, I am surrounded by peace and beauty. No matter how badly a day goes, there is always at least one moment, one happening, one sight, that makes me smile. I have come to feel those moments in my core and appreciate them for the gift they are.
The smallest things fill me with gratitude–the soft moos coming from the darkness as I walk to the parlor, the sight of a bouncing calf, the smell of a tomato as it’s pulled from the vine. These things are the stuff of life. These things are the truest this world has to offer.

 

” I want your life. ” Things to consider if considering a cow.

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I hear it time and again: ‘ I want your life’

People learn that I have dairy cows and beef cows, live in a restored farm cottage and raise much of our own food and they get wistful and ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ at the idea of fresh food and livestock surrounding a quaint country cottage in a remote town.  It is romantic.  It is cozy.  It is peaceful.

It is hard.

It is a hard way of life.  It is often a stressful way of life.  It is an all-consuming way of life.

People imagine bucolic pastures and contented cows that give milk on demand and at the farmer’s leisure.  What they don’t –and can’t–imagine is what a struggle it is to get a cow to give milk at times nor how much daily work goes into each and every cow to keep her healthy and in milk.

They don’t imagine the worry that goes with the wonder of owning and breeding livestock.

They don’t imagine that the cute cow they see in photos on social media, happily being milked by a cheerful milk maid tried to kill her keeper in her training period.

They don’t imagine how inherently clumsy and dangerous cows are( my best friend says that cows don’t know where their ends are sometimes),–nor do they imagine how moody and unpredictable a cow in estrus or close to calving can be.

They don’t imagine being chased across a field by a mad mama cow and hoping you make it to the gate before she catches you.

They don’t imagine a perfectly lovely, trained, 800 lb. dairy girl walking across your toes in the parlor because you forgot to pull your foot back. Or being pressed hard against a solid wall by a sweet cow who was just not paying attention to where you were.

They don’t imagine many things in those moments of envious reverie.

They see the beautiful, lush pastures but do not see the mud in the common areas or the flies that swarm everything and cover up your house and car and bite you and the cows.

People admire beautiful cows in great condition but have no idea how much planning, time and money goes in to keeping them that way.

I don’t buy expensive clothes, I buy expensive cow minerals.

I don’t ‘ get away’–I get up before the sun.     Every. Single.Day.

No one who doesn’t live it can imagine the life of a farmer: The work involved that is back breaking and heart breaking.  The losses you suffer become part of you, sometimes teaching you and sometimes just hurting you.

Keeping the barns, the parlor, the yards, the troughs etc…clean and tidy is no easy feat.

Keeping the animals healthy and happy is not something that comes naturally to anyone, it is a science–and an art.

No days off, kids ! Rain, snow, ice storm, hurricane…doesn’t matter.  Animals still have to be cared for, worried over, milked…

Sick??? Tough.  The work isn’t going to do itself and I promise you won’t be able to afford someone to do it for you.  No one wants your job but you.

Broken bone? too bad.  Get to work.  I once walked ( dragged, stumbled, leaned, hopped) around for two and a half weeks on a broken ankle with the tendons torn completely away before I could make it to a doctor and have corrective surgery.

The feed bills are not something that comes to mind either: grain, hay, alfalfa, minerals…even if you plant and harvest your own , it costs ya !

The equipment is not on anyone’s mind either: tractors, hay forks, troughs, milking machines, etc…

So many expenses that no one considers.

Veterinary care: maintenance vetting ( dehorning etc ) is quite costly, but there is major expense if something goes wrong., Budget devastating if something goes REALLY wrong. My highest single event vet bill was $3200 and I lost the cow.  Sometimes, even finding a good farm vet is impossible depending on your area.  If that is the case, I really advise not having a cow.  If something goes wrong and you can’t handle it, you will blame yourself for a loss due to lack of vetting.

Time.  There’s one to consider ! Especially if you work outside the home as I do helping my husband and my son with their businesses.  There are only so many hours in a day and there are always so many things on your list, not counting your normal ‘ duties’ like cleaning, laundry, cooking, helping your kids with whatever they need of you…

I am lucky to be able to make doctor appointments or lunch with my friend once every three months.  Every activity is scheduled around milking my cows or caring for the animals.  I have a hard time even making it to special occasions with my family.

” I want to live your life”.

One instance of that being spoken inspired me to write this post because despite my advise and cautionary tales, someone jumped in and nearly went under.

She called me several months ago wanting to ask about keeping a dairy cow.  Just one.

I advised her how to set up her parlor for hand milking, how to set up her yards so they would be convenient and safe, how to build a run-in shed barn, etc..

I told her all the things I touch on here–the worst of the worst.  Still she persisted in her quest for a cow.

I told her what to look for in a family cow and since I had none to offer, I helped her pick one. I went to her homestead and taught her how to prep and milk her cow when the cow arrived.  I made myself available to answer all her questions.

Three months later I got a call from her.  She opened with , ” I think I made a mistake.” and the conversation , and her cow’s future, went downhill from there.

She thought I was exaggerating all the work and expense and worry.  No, seriously, that’s what she told me.  She thought I was exaggerating. Sigh.

If she believed half of what I told her is true it should have been enough to spark her brain into realizing she shouldn’t have a cow with her lifestyle that she was unwilling to change.

The picture is never the whole story.

That is what I leave you with.  You cannot see the work, the strain, the worry, the suffering, the efforts, the expenses, the exhaustion, the physical stress…not in a picture.

Enjoy the photos of happy cows and the posts of contented farmers, but understand that the cows are happy because of proper care and attention and the farmer is tired but satisfied with her choices.  If you are considering those choices for yourself, ask the hard questions and for the love of cows, believe the answers you get.

 

 

 

Intertwined

I saw a photo of a calf.

I had put a simple post on my personal and farm pages on FB stating that I was seeking a Jersey cow or heifer of breeding age and was messaged by a FB friend in Eastern Virginia whom I have never met in person, casually mentioning that she had a cow available which had come from a farm I am familiar with.   I explained the uncertainty of our interest,  asked for 24 hours  to speak with my husband about his travel schedule and  a Jersey cow on a local farm he does business with that I have been interested in for some time that may also be available and expressed my sincere appreciation for her offer.

She agreed and as it was late in the evening, provided me with a photo of her  cow’s most recent heifer calf , which she just happened to have on her phone at the time and which   was not available, having just sold.

I saw a photo of a calf.  A Jersey calf.  A Jersey heifer calf.  A percentage miniature Jersey heifer calf, her dam being a standard–her sire, a miniature.

I was struck instantly by the resemblance of this calf to my Bibs at that age.  Dumbfounded is a better word.   I could have been looking at a photo of Bibs two years earlier.  I know that seems odd, because it was a calf and it was a random photo of a calf, but I just couldn’t escape that perception.

The owner went on to answer my queries about the available dam of this calf .  How old she is, her health , her temperament, etc…all the while I was staring at the photo of the calf. Mesmerized by the calf that was already sold, not able to shake the feeling she looked just like Bibs.  I mentioned this feeling to the party I was chatting with.  She remarked that Bibs and this calf have similar genes coming from the same Virginia farm lines and it was not unlikely they be similar in appearance.  I replied something to the effect of, ” No,  they could be clones. I’ve seen a lot of calves from those lines and none of them have looked like Bibs.  ”

I verbally mourned missing the opportunity to buy the calf and continued on talking about her available mother.

After discussing her particulars, I asked for the available dam’s name  so I could look up photos of her.  I was unfamiliar with that particular cow even though I was familiar with the originating farm; her name did not ring a bell.   When I saw the registered name of that available cow’s dam  I  choked on a sob and pushed my chair back from my desk so hard and fast I almost fell over…

She is Sweetie’s first heifer calf born to these lines.  Bib’s sister.  Tia’s aunt.

Sweetie was the first dairy cow I ever owned.  She was the first cow I ever milked on my own farm.  She was the gentlest soul–my first bovine love.

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Those of you who know me understand what finding this cow means to me and how I will never be able to find adequate words to explain it to those  who do not.   I never got over losing Sweetie and I never forgave myself for my part in her inability to recover from the worst case scenario milk fever that took her from me despite heroic efforts from our vet and a team of people working around the clock for days.  It is the one time I didn’t ask questions before making a change regarding my Jerseys and I will regret it for the rest of my life.  Sweetie was my favorite cow.  She was a pet.  She was a friend.

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I mourned Sweetie’s loss so deeply and felt such profound guilt it ate at my spirit.    Her absence on this farm is a fixture and often painful entity; hiding around certain corners and pouncing, apparent beneath her favorite shade tree, hovering in the corners of the parlor–a glimpse, a memory, a sound and there she is.  I still miss her with all my heart.

I saw a photo of a calf and  I knew.       Somehow, I knew.

When I first saw the photo of Sweetie’s daughter sent to me after we agreed to purchase her,  I cried hot tears, covering my face with hands and telling my husband between shuddering sobs, ” I just didn’t expect her to look so much like Sweetie.”  I was , again,  floored by the resemblance.   Knocked back.  He asked if it would upset me having her here and I assured him it would not, that I was profoundly blessed and happy to have found her, I just wasn’t prepared to have her look so much like her mama.

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So many factors came together to make her good steward the person who would now sell her to me.  This person was not her original owner, nor her second owner…imagine that.

Imagine the complexity of movements it took for me to find the  first daughter of a cow I still mourn and regret and whose female offspring I cannot bear to part with.   Imagine that I would be FB friends with the person who ultimately ended up buying her and then needed to part with her–someone I have never met–who  offered her to me based on a casual post.  Imagine that this cow made her way to me through three owners in another state.  Coincidence?  I don’t believe in coincidence.  I believe as surely as I believe in God that all things happen for a reason; even the smallest of things.

Sweetie’s  daughter is coming home to be with Bibs and Tia and me–here–on this farm–where she will be cherished like her mama is in memory.  Here, where she is meant to be.

It amazes and comforts me how intertwined we are with all we love and hold dear.  More so than we humble humans can fathom.   I am blessed.  I am grateful.

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Sweetie & Bibs

 

 

 

 

 

It had to be you : An Ode to My Honey

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It had to be you.

Only you would find me charming while I am milking cows in my pajamas and muck boots.

Only you would hug me when I smell like pigs and cow manure.

Only you would pull me close and kiss me when my hair is plastered to my skull with sweat , woven through with hay and straw and my clothes are covered in stains and clumps you don’t want to guess at.

Only you would rub my feet at the end of a long day with hands you’ve worked to bone.

 

It had to be you.

Only you would buy me a cow just because I think she’s pretty when you know she’s overpriced.

Only you would let me buy animals that will cost more in vet care and time to heal them than they will ever bring, just because my heart cannot stand to leave them and wonder what became of them.  You and you alone understand that knowing obligates me in spirit.

Only you would tolerate me bringing calves into the kitchen by the wood stove and keeping them in dog kennels so they don’t chill.

Only you would go out in the middle of the night with your gun and flashlight because I ‘feel ‘ like something’s not right.

 

It had to be you.

Only you would give up the comfortable life you had in the city to move out to the middle of nowhere with me so I could have the peace I yearned for.

Only you would surrender what you termed ‘success’ for me to have my dreams.

Only you would put up with sinking all of our funds into things you never desired.

 

It had to be you.

Only you would understand what it means to me to be here; to have this little piece of earth and these cows and these llamas and these pigs…to walk with them and chatter with them and watch them bring babies into the world and care for them and occupy my time and my mind with their needs and their antics.

Only you would have watched me on brink of losing it all and decided that no matter what it took, that wasn’t going to happen.

Only you would have invested the time and months and money and sweat and aggravation and efforts of all kinds it took to reclaim this farm after the flooding and the mud and the losses and rebuilt it better than before.  Most men would have breathed relief at having been done with the stress, let me grieve and moved on.  But not you.

It had to be you whom I walked through all of my life’s paths with: the joys, the sorrows, the regrets, the victories, the frustrations, the peaceful moments of quiet contemplation.

It was you.   It’s always been you.    It had to be you.    It will always be you.

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