Finding Perfect Cows

The search is on.  I am beginning the process of hiring as many as five full-time employees.  Applicants must be female, young and fertile.  Good physical condition is a must and they must maintain that condition while eating grass and living outside.  I’ll be looking at hair quality (but not color), length of legs, size of belly and fatness of rump on all applicants.  If things go as planned, after 10-12 years of healthy reproduction and the applicant has deposited approximately 250,000 pounds of manure the applicant be slaughtered, butchered and eaten.  I’ll explain the full qualifications below.

These aren’t criteria I have whipped up from my own experience or imagination.  I am working to distill what I have learned from studying books on grazing cattle.  Feel free to disagree.  You aren’t disagreeing with me.  I found information on selecting cattle for your herd in five cattle books I treasure:

Comeback Farms by Greg Judy
Ranching Full-Time on Three Hours a Day by Cody Holmes
How to Not Go Broke Ranching by Walt Davis
Salad Bar Beef by Joel Salatin
Grass-Fed Cattle by Julius Ruechel

I feel all 5 of these will stand the test of time…meaning I’ll still be looking up things in them in 10-15 years.  My copies of each are worn and heavily bookmarked.  I have read most of the modern texts concerning cattle.  That means I have read a lot of junk.  I feel this list represents the best of what is out there currently.  I think it is worth reading so many opinions because Proverbs 15:22 says

Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.

I’ll add to the list Success on the Small Farm by Haydn Pearson.  Though not a cattle book, it’s a classic in every sense of the word.  It contains some sound advice about herd management as well as little nuggets of wisdom on anything you want to know about.  Further, my copy is loaded with notes, underlining and little newspaper clippings pasted in by a man named Gerhard Richert who bought the book originally in 1946.

Finally, I’m going to focus on cows.  Not bulls.  I’m not selecting bulls at this time.  I’m selecting cows…preferably heifers.  The main points are get quality stock that will thrive on feed you can source on farm.  Measure your success by their fertility and how infrequently you have to call the vet.  But, don’t take my word for it.  Let’s hit the books!

Only one book in my pile gives specific recommendations for starting a new herd.

Click on image for source

Greg Judy begins on page 234 with a bullet point from his mentor, Ian Mitchell-Innes:

Buy two young heifers for the price of one bred cow.  Graze these heifers through your management system and keep the ones that perform well, sell the ones that don’t.

He goes into more detail in the next chapter on page 246:

So where does a person find some grass-genetic cattle?
The most economical method would be to attend local cow sales and look for small frame cows.  These smaller frame cows will always be cheaper to buy than the monster cows that all the mainstream producers want.

…When you’re looking for these smaller frame cows, watch for cows that have a big gut for lots of grass capacity.  Most cows today have had all the gut capacity bred out of them.

Pearson describes making a profitable dairy at some length in Chapter 10: Small Farm Dairy (a chapter Mr. Reichert seems to have skipped).  He makes three main points.

For the beginning farmer who likes cattle, this is the one most essential point: Get quality stock.

He drives this home with an illustration I’ll share in the next post and goes on to say you should grow your own feed and find a good market for your products.  For now it suffices that Mr. Pearson wants the reader to buy quality stock, not whatever is cheap.

Click on image for source

All authors seem to agree that you want a smaller than industry standard cow, topping out around 1,000-1,200 pounds.  Holmes suggests 950 would be better as:

Smaller cows eat less grass.  It makes a lot more sense to have a herd of 950-lb. cows weaning off 450-lb calves on grass than 1,500-lb. cows weaning off 575-lb calves running on a  creep feeder.

Click on image for source

Salatin is unconcerned with breed.  He is concerned about animal performance on grass.  At this point in the discussion he really only weighs in on those two points.  Animals vary widely within breeds so you can’t rely on breed alone and most of the modern cattle genetics are geared toward an animal that’s at a disadvantage on pasture.

Davis suggests you buy local cattle in Chapter 14: Adapted Animals.

Different breeds are differently adapted to different climates.  Even within a breed, regional changes require adaptation.  He begins by discussing resistance to local parasites and diseases then goes on.

Radical changes in climate and elevation severely stress animals with the greatest effects occurring when animals go from cold to hot climates, from low humidity to high, and from high elevation to low.  Differences in mineral content of forages also play a role in how soon and how well animals adapt to a new area.  In many phosphorus-deficient areas, the local shrubs have considerably higher phosphorus content than the grasses; local animals learn to browse the shrubs and cope fairly well, but animals new to the areas that don’t have a history of browsing are at a severe disadvantage.

It is more than likely that part of the adaptation process relates to the rumen microorganism populations adapting to local conditions. [and later still discussing gut flora…] it would be illogical to think that these organisms do not develop genetic traits that make them better adapted to the local conditions found in soil and forage.

As usual, buy local.  Even if you can’t find grazing genetic stock locally, you might be better off buying animals from your own region.

Ruechel adds to the pile by suggesting the list above plus a few more.

On page 23 he says replacement heifers and cows should be

feminine in appearance.  [and later…]  She and her daughters should cycle for the first time at ten months and conceive at fourteen months.

On pages 24 and 25 Ruechel lists bullet points of things to look for in a replacement heifer.  These include details the other authors skipped: wide mouth, well developed udder, short, slick shiny hair.  The bullet points are detailed, less abrupt and inspire fewer giggles than Judy’s choice of words on page 249 of Comeback Farms:

The cows should have a big old butt on them.  This is a feminine trait.  It gives them more room to calve.  A cow needs a big butt.

All kidding aside, between Ruechel’s bullet points and Judy’s entertaining list you get a nice checklist of traits to pay attention to.  Judy even suggests linear measurement as detailed by Jans Bonsma.  I’ll leave the reader to research that.

So.  I need to buy quality local heifers of small frame and feminine appearance.  These should come from cows that cycled early and often.  Once I get those heifers I need to get rid of the underachievers.  I’ll detail that process in the next article.

Be sure to check out the books I listed above.  If I could only pick one out of the pile I suspect it would be Comeback Farms by Greg Judy though I do appreciate the wealth of experience brought by Davis.

Please comment with your cattle buying criteria or any additional book recommendations.

No Doubt, it’s a Drought

Farmers are never satisfied with the weather.  Environmentalists are never satisfied with the weather.  In both cases, it seems it’s the worst it has ever been and there is no hope of recovery.  I’m an alternative environmentalist and an alternative farmer.  I need medication.  Global climate change advocates tell me it’s too hot/cold/wet/dry because of decades of human activity.  Astrophysicists present that temperatures follow solar flare cycles (and that a huge solar flare could wipe out the power grid).  The alternative farmer in me knows I can do little to affect the sun but I can take action to positively (or negatively) impact the hydrological cycle.  I can sequester more carbon.  I can cycle nutrients more quickly.  I can grow more food with less irrigation.  I can landscape in such a way to not only hold more of the rain that falls on my farm but to encourage more rain in my region.  “If everyone of us would sweep their own doorstep, the whole world would be clean.”  These notions appeal to my inner alternative environmentalist but where the rubber hits the road, I need rain now.  Now.

Today we’re in a drought and it’s getting pretty gritty.

I helplessly watch the rainclouds float on past to the North and South.  They kind of spit at me for a few minutes here and there but no rain.  No real rain for weeks.  We’re short by 18 inches this year…a big deal to a midwesterner.  We had solid rain at the beginning of May, an hour of hail mid-May and a half-inch of rain a few weeks ago.  The pond is down a foot already.

The grass under the maple trees has given up…the maples have sucked the ground dry.  It seems that nothing can stop the poison ivy though.

What can I do about it now?  Not much.  Drought is a fact of life.  It happens.  It always happens.  As I read Walt Davis he jokes that the Texas rainfall average may be 20″ but that’s because they get 60″ one year and none for the next two years.  I have to learn to manage for drought.

I have grass.  It’s not pretty, it’s not a lot but it’s there.  Where the goats, chickens and pigs have been there’s a tall, diverse stand of grass…even if dry.  I’m surprised how little moisture there is under the tall grass but at least there’s something standing to catch the dew…when there is dew.  I need to fence out the neighbor’s cows so I can monopolize the growth.  I need to maintain and encourage that stand.  Where the grass is short I need to allow rest.  Where there is bare dirt I could put down any number of things but I have been leaning toward using litter out of the layer house or sawdust as a mulch.

Going forward I need to catch my greywater (not to mention the infrequent rain) in a series of swales down the hill from my house.  I don’t really know how to establish the swales at a minimum of expense but I’m considering using a 2-bottom plow just to get something out there.  I need to grow more trees.  The lack of shade out there is a killer.  Beyond shade, I need protection from wind to help limit evaporation.  Also, I need more things for my goats to eat.  I may buy a box of hybrid poplars and interplant with fruit and nut trees on the swales.  But the real focus needs to be on building additional ponds.  I don’t even know how to estimate what a pond will cost but I know what it’s worth to the land.  That’s going to have to become a large part of our future farm budgeting.  We need to catch and hold the water as high as possible and work to slow it down as it runs downhill.

Each of these things will work to dampen (lol) the effects of drought in the future.  What can I do now?  Right now!

There are good chances for rain this weekend.  All I can do today is pray.  Just pray.  Rain breeds rain.  If we get a little moisture this weekend, maybe we’ll get more next weekend.  Maybe, by the time hurricane season gets started in the gulf, we’ll have so much rain I’ll write a blog post complaining about being waterlogged.  Oh, to dream!  In the meantime I’ll keep my animals watered and shaded and my kids cool inside.  I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do about the solar flares.