Stories of life on our farm in Northwest Georgia where every day is an adventure in this beautiful spot that God has entrusted to our stewardship.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Proud to Be . . . an AMNCG!

One of my cattle forums was visited this winter by someone named "Taurus" who seemed to have it in for Dexters and women--on a board where numerous women truly love their Dexter family cows.

Taurus wrote that where he's from Dexters "are the exclusive domain of the amateur mentality nouveau country gals from the suburbs who have this misty morning and rainbows fantasy about farming."  (Note the misty morning above and the rainbow below.  I confess to loving them both!) 

He accused these "amateur mentality nouveau country gals" of buying into the propaganda about Dexters, of misunderstanding all animals (even their pets), of adopting poor breeding practices which have ruined the breed in his area, and of making all their decisions based on emotions, convenience and aesthetics.  Some of his last words were, "Life is not a Disney movie."

A few of us joked among ourselves about being "Amateur Mentality Nouveau Country Gals," which we soon shortened to "AMNCG."  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that, by Taurus' definition, I am an AMNCG!

A little over five years ago, I was living in the suburbs growing flowers in my neatly manicured garden.  I had never touched a cow except to pet one at a State Fair, much less thought of owning one, milking her, or raising our own beef.

Then, rather on a whim, we bought a house on 29 acres in the country, far removed from suburbia.  One day a visitor looked out at the grassy hills behind our house and commented, "You've got a lot of grass going to waste.  You should get a cow!"  And that was the beginning of my Dexter story.

From not knowing anything about cows, I have learned to recognize the signs of calving, to halter train young calves, to deal with mastitis and a self-sucking cow, to treat bloat (and better yet how to prevent it), to secure a cow for treatment when there's no squeeze chute, and to handle a bull.
But I do think that rainbows make everything a little brighter, and why shouldn't a cow be the next Disney princess?
I believe we can teach the world to sing in perfect harmony by teaching one child at a time where their food comes from, even when it's that cute calf they played with.
My granddaughter made me that rainbow-covered heart pillow for Christmas and my all-boy grandson wanted to hold the rainbow parasol, so it looks like they agree!

It's true--life is not a Disney movie--and when it's not, I'm a fierce protector of my cattle.  I can't do everything, and I know when to call the vet.  After all, I was 54 years old when we got our first cow, and I live with various physical limitations.  But I've taken on blazing sun, pouring rain, gooey mud and predators from flies to coyotes in defense of my animals.  I've gone from complete bovine ignorance to dealing with everyday life on a farm.  So yes, I am an AMNCG--and proud to be one!

Thank you to my daughter Jenny for the great photos--and to Siobhan for her patience when all she wanted to do was eat that nice, green grass!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Just When We Think We're in Charge . . .

Dexters are pretty smart.  Siobhan's dam Sara weaned Siobhan all by herself without any human intervention.  After we sold her back to Kim, she witnessed exactly how Sara went about weaning her calf.  One day Sara kicked her calf off and wouldn't let it nurse.  The next day, she let it nurse.  The next day, she kicked it off again.  That smart old cow took her calf to every other day nursing to wean it and dry herself off!

Siobhan is just as smart as Sara, although maybe a little less determined.  Last February I noticed Siobhan kick Macree off when Macree was 9 months old.  Macree would not be dissuaded, though, so I intervened with a weaning tab.  The same thing happened this February; Siobhan gave Wellie a good kick to let him know the milk bar was closed.

Then Wellie got castrated, and Siobhan seemed to sense that he needed comfort, so she let him start nursing again.  Shortly after that I threw my back out, and the family told me to take a break from chores.   After three days of rest, I went out to the barnyard to check on the animals.  To my surprise, Siobhan had apparently decided that Wellie was sufficiently comforted, and she had kicked him off.  Her udder was bursting with milk, so I decided to start once a day milking.

Just to be sure Wellie had gotten the message, I put a weaning tab in his nose.  Poor little guy, he had just about forgiven us for the castration, and then this!

After a few days, I noticed that some mornings I was getting almost no milk at all.  At best, one side would have milk and the other would be empty.  I knew Siobhan wasn't self-sucking because I had put her harness on as soon as she weaned Wellie.  I figured that naughty Wellie must be nursing through the weaning tab, so I booted him out of the barnyard to join the other cattle.

The next morning the barnyard gate was pushed out as far as it would go, and one side of Siobhan's udder was empty.  I figured Wellie must be nursing through the wires of the gate despite his weaning tab, so Herb and I covered the bottom of the gate with chicken wire.  The next morning, as expected, we got all of Siobhan's milk.  It looked like we had solved the problem!  Sir Loin was hanging around the barnyard visiting Siobhan (as he had visited his buddy Wellie) and talking to her in little "baby" moos.  I thought it was odd, but kind of cute.

And then a couple days later I glanced out the back door.  To my horror, Sir Loin was nursing on Ebony who is due to calve in early April!  I ran out to check, and sure enough, all four of her teats were wet!  Sir Loin was banished immediately to a different pasture, and I post-dipped all of Ebony's teats before I turned her loose.

Suddenly Sir Loin hanging around the barnyard, the soft little moos, the gate pushed out, and Siobhan's empty quarters all made sense.  It wasn't poor Wellie nursing around the weaning tab; it was Sir Loin nursing through the gate!  And when we foiled him by adding chicken wire, he managed to convince Ebby to let him nurse on her.  I told Herb that Sir Loin looks tastier every day!

With the sneaky nurser banished, the only remaining problem was that Siobhan's harness was not holding up very well.  So I decided to try a product designed to support heavy dairy cow udders--Tamm Udder Support.  Two days after I ordered it, Siobhan was decked out in her new lingerie.  The sunlight shows her udder through the netting.  This is good for air circulation, but in order to be sure she wouldn't try self-sucking, I secured a clean cloth inside the net on her left side.

You can see from the loops that even the small size support is a little large for a Dexter, but it is easily adjustable.  This is much more comfortable than Siobhan's old harness, and she seems happy to be able to turn her head freely.

You can see that there are numerous ways to customize the fit.

For milking, it was pretty easy to undo the two back buckles and one side buckle above the udder support without removing the entire harness.

We've had a fair amount of rain, and the cotton canvas dries out easily.  Of course, with all the rain, Siobhan's new lingerie is now a nice muddy beige.

Siobhan will remain in the barnyard wearing her harness until she's completely dried off.  Once I'm sure she won't be tempted to self-suck again, she can ditch the harness and join the boys until it's time for her to calve.

Her pre-drying off mastitis test came back with no Staph A, but I'll continue to keep her separate from Ebby as a precaution.  The episode with Sir Loin nursing first Siobhan and then Ebby is a reminder that even when we think we're in charge, we might not be.  We have to stay on our toes to keep ahead of our Dexters!

At least for now, everyone is where they should be.  Siobhan is drying off in the barnyard.  Ebby is about to move into the Home Pasture for calving.  Once she does, Sir Loin's banishment will be lifted and he can rejoin the bachelors.  It looks like we're back in charge again, for now . . .

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Winter Wonderland Reprise

I walked out of our bedroom this morning and saw a sight that made me RUN for my camera!

No newspaper this morning!  Luckily we have nowhere to be, so we can just soak in the beauty of God's creation.  The snow is still falling hard outside, this time as it melts in huge clumps from the trees.  So we're going to enjoy it while we can--along with our warm, lighted house and internet service.  

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Winter Wonderland

We finally got a real snow!

It started about 5 p.m., and by the time we finished chores at 6:30, it was falling thick and fast in huge flakes.  It was time for some winter fun . . .

A snowy ride would be more fun if the Doodad had a windshield, but it handled the snow just fine.

The dogs raced ahead of us, delirious with joy at the outing.

From the top of the Back Pasture, we could see the whole farm through the thick veil of falling snow.

Peaceful and still, it was truly a winter wonderland.  Sometimes I think God's creation is at its most beautiful buried under a soft blanket of snow.

Fifteen minutes later we headed back to the house, cold and wet--and thoroughly enchanted!

As night fell, it was still snowing.

I hope our winter wonderland will still be there in the morning.

P.S.  Herb just came in at 9:30 after putting Misty to bed in the barnyard and said, "You have to come see this!"

It's still coming down, and with the temperature holding at 30°, it looks like our winter wonderland might still be here in the morning.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Wellie's Castration Story

When we decided last summer that Wellie would be castrated, I talked to our vet about when and how to do it.  He advised doing it when Wellie was 4-5 months old, by cutting rather than banding.  He wanted to wait until Wellie was old enough for his vaccines and fly season was past.

He said he would give Wellie a shot of tetanus antitoxin as well as a tetanus vaccine (and his other vaccines) at the same time.  In the absence of a previous tetanus vaccine, the antitoxin would prevent any chance of tetanus while the vaccine built up immunity over a two week period.  We had heard tragic stories about people who castrated calves and gave tetanus vaccines, only to have the calves die of tetanus before the vaccines could build up immunity.

Unfortunately, life got in the way for the vet and us, and we were unable to get him here when planned.  Finally, I decided that at 8 1/2 months Wellie really needed to be castrated, and I called another vet.  (We like to keep good relations with several vets for cases just like this when one can't make it.)  The second vet also prefers castrating as less painful, uses the same tetanus prevention protocol, and agreed to use a local anesthetic.  So we set a date for the deed.

On Feb. 11 we put Wellie into the squeeze chute.
The vet folded down several of the squeeze bars so he could reach Wellie and administered the local anesthetic.  He gave it time to take effect while he gave vaccines to Wellie and Ebony.

I saw that the vet used a tool called a Newberry knife and made a slit in the back of the scrotum.  After that I went up by Wellie's head and did not see the actual operation.  I learned later that some vets cut off the bottom portion of the scrotum to allow for drainage, but ours made an incision in the middle.  It bled a little, but not much, and the vet said it would swell up and remain swollen for several days.  When I asked about disinfecting the site, he said I could use 1/2% iodine, so I sprayed some on.

During the operation, Royal came over to check on Wellie.  Of course, when it was his turn later to get in the squeeze chute to get a magnet, he did NOT want to go in!  I assured him that considering the per capita price we had paid for his testicles, they were quite safe!

Wellie jumped more over his immunizations than he did over the local.  He struggled a bit during the surgery, but less than I have seen cows fight over a shot.  Although the vet says they have more pain with banding, I don't think there is a painless way to castrate.

I know some farms do not castrate meat animals, but we simply do not have enough pastures to keep intact bull calves separate from cows and heifers.  As he has gotten older, Wellie has engaged in more head-butting challenges with Royal and Sir Loin, the older steer.  Being so small, he gets pushed around, and although he has never been hurt, I hope that he will now act less like a bull.

I do not like castration.  I wish it didn't have to be done, and I'm sure Wellie did, too.  But if we are going to be responsible breeders, we have to make sure that a bull calf that is not breeding quality is not breeding our cows and heifers.
I kept a frequent eye on Wellie to be sure he was okay.  The rest of that day and the next, he was moving slowly (to be expected), but was nursing, eating hay and chewing his cud.  Then on the morning of the 13th, I found him laying partly on his side with his legs spread out as if to keep them off his swollen scrotum.  When I got him up to check on him, his rumen was hollow (showing he had not eaten a lot of hay), and he looked peaked.  Half of Siobhan's udder was full, so he had obviously not nursed much, and I decided to take his temperature.  It was 24° out, so Wellie might be expected to register lower than the bovine normal of 101.5°, but his temperature was 103.9°.

I was quite concerned and called the vet, who had gone out of town!  Not only that, his partner does not do farm calls, and he didn't have another vet to cover for him.  So I called the original vet I had hoped to have do the castration.  He agreed that Wellie's temperature was too high and said if I would meet him, he would give me an antibiotic.  I made the two-hour round trip and came home with Excede, a long-lasting antibiotic, as well as a bottle of Banamine to relieve pain and fever.  Pain inhibits animals from healing, and when they are given pain relief, they tend to heal more quickly.

Herb was gone all day, and I was pretty sure from previous experience giving shots to cattle, that I would not be able to do it alone, even with the squeeze chute.  So I called on our neighbor, Randy, who came over with his son to help.  Excede is very thick and must be given sub-cutaneously behind the ear--never in a vein or muscle--using a large-bore needle.  Banamine goes in the neck muscle with a smaller needle.  Wellie objected strenuously enough, even in the chute, that I was very thankful for help holding him.

Randy, who grew up with cattle and had seen many castrations, felt that the bulge of tissue protruding from Wellie's incision was not normal.  I had no frame of reference at all, but tended to agree with him.  When I posted a photo later, other cattle owners agreed.  Once Wellie was medicated, I took a bucket of hot water and cleaned the incision of dried exudate, making sure it could continue to drain as necessary.  I also applied oil of oregano around the incision on the advice of my family cow friends.  Within a couple hours, Wellie was obviously feeling better, eating better and had nursed Siobhan out.

Herb and I gave him Banamine the next morning to make sure he continued to feel well and eat well.  He objected much more vigorously than he had the day before, so I decided that if he felt that good, he didn't need any more Banamine.

Wellie is back to normal now, and his scrotal swelling is gone.  He's eating well and acting lively.  Here he is visiting with his buddy Sir Loin at the barnyard gate.

Today Wellie wanted to nurse, and Siobhan pushed him away several times.  (That's another story.)  In a fit of temper, he charged one of the ducks.  The snow in the barnyard was slippery and crusty with ice, so Wellie hunched his back and crow-hopped across the barnyard, landing each jump on all four feet, pursuing the hapless duck who fled with flapping wings as fast as his short little legs could go.

Without a camera, all I could do was stand there and laugh.  The duck escaped with everything intact except his dignity, and I was just happy to see Wellie feeling so fine.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Geography for Farmers

Here are some fascinating maps, the kind of geography farmers love!  Even if you aren't a farmer, if you simply eat and enjoy food, there is a lot of scope for reflexion in these maps.

40 Maps that explain food in America

The first one includes a bit of history, too.

Where the world's cattle, chickens and pigs live

In case you were wondering, there are apparently 980 million pigs in the world, 1.4 billion cows, and 19.6 billion chickens.  To put that in perspective, there are 7 billion humans.

According to evolutionists, chickens are the closest living relative to Tyrannosaurus Rex.  Considering that chickens outnumber humans by 2.8 times, it might behoove you to check the second map and see if there are any chickens living near you!  If there are, you should be afraid.  Be very afraid!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Share Milking

In traditional dairying, calves are removed from their mothers at birth or shortly thereafter and fed with milk replacer while their mothers are milked twice a day in order to sell their milk.  On smaller farms and homesteads, farmers sometimes remove the calf from its mother, milk the cow and bottle feed some of the milk to the calf while keeping the rest for the house.  Others use a foster cow to nurse one or more calves while milking the other cows.  There are numerous variations of this system, usually requiring the farmer to milk twice a day.

One of the things that attracted me about Dexters is that they are well-suited to share milking.  With share milking, the calf remains with its mother.  After the calf is a week or two old, it's separated from the cow for up to twelve hours (usually at night) to allow the farmer to get one milking.  The calf is then returned to its mother to nurse for the rest of the day.

There are several things I like about share milking:

  • I love the idea that our cows get to raise their own calves the way God created them to.  That's how heifers learn to be cows; and dam-raised bull calves are less likely to become aggressive with humans.
  • I love that our calves get a good start in life with their mother's healthy milk instead of artificial milk replacer.
  • I'm a lazy milker and don't want to have to milk twice a day, which is usually necessary when a calf is removed from its dam since her udder produces milk 24 hours a day. 
  • Bottle feeding a calf is a lot of work, and it can be difficult to get it right.  Too little milk, and the calf doesn't thrive; too much, and it scours.  
  • I like to take days off and go on vacations, something no dairy farmer can do without an experienced relief milker.  With share milking, the calf is a willing relief milker. 
There are also several potential problems with share milking:

  • I get less milk because the cow makes sure her calf gets what it needs, and I get what's left over.

  • I get less cream because, believe it or not, cows can selectively "hold up" and save the cream for their calves. 

  • Some people feel that calves that get used to nursing are more likely to suck on other calves after weaning.  So far, this has not been our experience.

  • This past year, milking kind of got away from me.  I knew that we would have to be gone several times during the summer, so I kept both calves on their dams and just milked occasionally when we needed milk.  I was concerned that if I milked one of the cows on a daily basis, I would encourage her to build up her milk supply beyond what her calf could easily handle when I had to be gone.  So our cows got to be mamas and our calves got to be babies for most of the summer.

    Tiggy was weaned in October before going to her new home, and I dried Ebony off, leaving Siobhan as my milk cow and Wellie as my relief milker.  Then a fencing break in November meant the cattle had to move to a pasture too far from the barn for convenient milking.  In December I got sick and couldn't get well, so I went two months without milking. Although I missed the time with my cows and we missed our fresh milk, it was a relief that Wellie stepped up to the plate as relief milker without a single complaint.  :)

    Recently I've started milking again.  To my delight, Siobhan has slipped into our new routine without a hitch, and Wellie, whose halter training ended practically before it started, has been easy to work with.  I've switched to evening milking because I've been hesitant to shut Siobhan away from Wellie overnight for fear she would start self-sucking again.  In the winter, trying to put her anti-self-sucking harness on in the dark is more than I want to tackle.  So I separate Siobhan in the morning and milk about nine hours later when we do evening feeding.

    Today, however, was a first for me in share milking.  When I went out at 5 p.m., Wellie was standing at the gate like a small red shadow of Siobhan.  "How cute!" I thought, "and how nice that we don't have to go fetch him and lead him all the way to the barnyard."

    As I opened the pasture gate, I commented to Herb in passing that "the boys" had pushed it in toward Siobhan so hard that it was difficult to open.

    I tied Siobhan up to eat her grain while Herb led Wellie into the milking parlor.  I was surprised that Wellie followed Herb so nicely and didn't try to go nurse while his mama ate dinner, but I was gratified at how tractable he was.

    Wellie settled down to munch on Siobhan's hay while I got her into the stanchion.  To my surprise, her udder that should have been full and tight was floppy.  It didn't feel like she was holding her milk up; it just felt like there wasn't much in there.  And there wasn't--a measly one and a half cups!

    "Could she possibly have been self-sucking because I didn't put her harness on?" I wondered.   I didn't think she could have drained all four quarters equally, but I had no idea what was wrong.

    When it became obvious that I wasn't going to get much milk, I untied Wellie and decided to let him clean up.  To my astonishment, Wellie couldn't have cared less.  I couldn't even get him to look at Sibohan's udder, much less nurse.  And suddenly the light dawned!

    The pasture gate that was pushed in toward Siobhan . . .
    . . . Wellie waiting right by the gate . . .
    . . . Siobhan's empty udder . . .
    . . . Wellie completely uninterested in nursing--

    They were busted!  The little stinker had nursed through the gate and drained his mama dry!  And the big stinker had turned herself around so the little stinker could nurse both sides!  Look back up at the photo of Wellie by the gate, and you'll see what a feat of patience that was on both their parts.

    As I told Herb when I came inside with my measly haul of milk, at least today's milking wasn't a waste of time because we learned something!  I learned more about a cow's desire to mother her calf and got a glimpse of bovine problem solving.  And Herb learned that if he wants milk again, there's a new job on his Honey-Do List--line that gate with chicken wire!

    Despite the fact that we have to tweak our management a bit, I'm still committed to share milking.  We get plenty of milk for our needs, and far be it from me to interfere with that kind of God-given maternal instinct!