I plan to write a short series on the cow herd. I believe the cattle are the future. Feed them well and let them lead the way.
The future. I see the future in my mind. More cattle. Many more. Grass growing in dense stands, cattle, bunched up tightly, pushing organic material (grasses, tree branches, manure) into solid contact with the soil to feed the earth. The soil responding positively as impact and recovery cycles steadily build topsoil as the years pass by. And keep in mind, building soil is the goal, cattle are just the mechanism. I see it. Not just on my 60 but starting here. Right here. Today.
But I didn’t start today.
I started a few years ago. With just a few heifers.
First there were two dairy heifers, Mable and Flora.
Both great animals. Bred to thrive on grass. We bought these from Steve in 2011. What an upgrade from a goat! These would eat grass! It seemed to help for us to graze shorter grass, not tall grass. Also, you know that part about “thriving on grass” I wrote above? Well, when they are producing milk, they need quite a bit of energy. Energy that you just can’t get from fescue. We tried several things to keep them moving forward including giving them large areas of pasture daily but finally settled on giving them a mix of beets, carrots and oats with a smattering of molasses.
But we had cows. May is still with us. Expecting any day now. She is in a pen with the other recent moms. More on that later. Flora got sick. I don’t completely understand why or what but she just withered away over the course of a month or two. We suspect Johne’s but it could have been hardware disease too. We cried quite a bit when we lost her. Flora gave us only bull calves. May has only given us heifers.
Freezer was her first. I had no way to control a bull so we sent her back to Steve for breeding. He was born on the coldest day of February. We learned some lessons that day. Freezer didn’t stand up. We brought him in by the wood stove to dry and warm him in the back room. Julie and I tied and milked Flora to bottle feed the calf. It all worked out once he drank a little milk and he grew to be a fine young steer. We did not cry when we shipped Freezer. If anything, the pasture was a more friendly place in his absence.
The picture above shows the first four shorthorn heifers we bought and the day we introduced them to the herd. Here is another angle:
One problem we dealt with immediately was that Jersey cows are generous milkers. We had a few heifers drinking our family milk. I now separate mothers from calves. I hope someday to own more cattle who will kick away milk thieves…even their own calves after about 3 or 4 months.
Those are numbered 111, 41, 70 and 76. 70 turned out to be a freemartin (a sterile female) and is no longer on the farm. 41 has never weaned a calf. By accident, by injury by whatever, her calves don’t make it. 111 has given us two nice calves but came up open this year. 76 breeds back early and often, but her calf was stepped on last year. That was entirely my fault. Entirely.
Outside of those four heifers, we bought 81 and 27. Later we bought 2 and Snowball. I don’t remember Snowball’s number. She was pure white, except for the mud on her butt. Snowball was always a poor doer. We had little hope that she would breed.
Snowball went down the road. Twoey (2) turned out to be another freemartin. 81 gave us a heifer last year but we had to pull it. She came up open this year. One calf in 3 years. 81 is just too big. So is 27. They can’t eat enough grass in a day to maintain condition, let alone to make milk. They have to leave the farm.
If you review that list again you will see that out of 10 heifers we bought, four made the team after 3 years. And all four of those only make the team because I make excuses for them.
Long term, the herd has to survive on the grass we have. The goal is for a cow to wean four calves in its first 6 years. I want those calves to wean between 400 and 600 pounds. Not too big, not too small. But if I demand that every cow on my farm meets those criteria immediately I won’t have a herd. I’ll have to cull every animal. And maybe that’s the right idea but what would I do with all of the grass?
But the reality is, I can’t buy cattle that thrive on the grass we have. They don’t exist. Oh, there are a few out there but the majority of the N. American cattle herd grows fat on corn. Do you read bass clef? All Cows Eat Grass. That is no longer true. We have nearly doubled the size of each animal on pasture in 50 years. Now I come in with these animals and put them at a severe disadvantage, asking some gas-guzzling hot rod to run on self-harvested solar power.
On top of that you have a greenhorn like me. I don’t know what I don’t know about cattle. And it shows. I bought freemartins for crying out loud! And I don’t always know how to give the cattle what they need. Water, grass and minerals? Oh, it sounds so easy. But let me tell you, it isn’t. It doesn’t work according to plan.
Well, it kind of works.
76 gave us Edith and a nice roan heifer this spring.
111 gave us Agnes and a little bull calf. Turns out the bull calf is horned so I’ll have to make a decision on his future soon.
Mable gave us three heifers so far. We sold her first back to Steve. Clover is half shorthorn and gave us a beautiful 3/4 shorthorn bull calf this spring. Lucy is developing in the pasture and is stringy and bony like a dairy cow. Ugh.
81 gave us one heifer. We had to pull her. That heifer needs to leave the farm.
All of these second-generation heifers are better than their mothers. Their daughters will be even closer to what we need. But progress happens slowly. Deliberately. Gaining momentum over time.
Maybe by the time I’m 70 I’ll have cattle worth owning. Maybe.
So how can I begin to impact my pasture with so few cattle? It takes a lot of animals to make herd impact. Apparently, you need 300 head of cattle to make the herd become a different organism altogether, something that acts like a mob, eating what is available instead of just what is tasty. Pounding the soil with hooves and manure, restoring pasture ecology and diversity quickly and efficiently, pushing the weak animals to the perimeter like a real herd in the wild.
We have kept 40% of our original herd for 4 years. I am not happy with that number. But I am willing to be honest and open with you about mistakes we have made. You need to buy cows that are closer to grass, even if you have to pay a premium for them. Our cows were purchased at market price and are costing me years. Years.
Tomorrow I plan to write about how I am controlling the small herd I have as we work to grow better grass tomorrow.