New Life

There is so much to catch up on…leaving Sierra Leone, a road trip from Texas to New York, moving onto a new farm, bees, chickens…so much change in a few months.

But I’m skipping ahead of all those stories and introducing you to a new little life…a heifer calf from my most favorite cow. Honey calved yesterday morning in a brushy patch hidden away in the pasture. I found her laboring around 8am and stayed to watch her through it. It’s a really amazing thing to watch such a large animal give birth. She passed the calf just two hours later and immediately went to the business of licking her clean. Honey loves babies and is an exceptional mama. I was hoping for a heifer calf with horns, but it doesn’t look like this little girl has any horn buds. I may keep her anyway…calf

Her name is Pecan. I visited them hours later and they were both laying down in the same spot she gave birth. I let them be and came back to see them two hours later. Honey hadn’t cleared her afterbirth yet and I wasn’t convinced the calf had figured out how to nurse. Honey is older and has a somewhat misshapen udder, not the easiest for calves to figure out.

I went back an hour later knowing I had to get the calf to drink colostrum before nightfall. Fortunately, Honey cleared her afterbirth but was looking very uncomfortable with such a full udder. I cleaned her up (she likes to be a very clean cow) and milked about a gallon out of her to relieve her pain. I tried coaxing the calf onto her, but she just wasn’t getting it. I decided to pour Honey’s colostrum into a calf bottle and see if she would nurse. She is a strong little girl! Fighting being held with everything she had, she also sucked down about a half gallon of Honey’s milk. So, I left them for the night with a  full belly and a little relief. As I was leaving, they were finally making their way out to pasture.

I will have to work with them today to get the calf to nurse from her mama, but hopefully she now has the energy and will to do just that.

honeycalf

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Temple Grandin

I have a far greater appreciation for eating meat now. I am a firm believer that we should be eating less meat and the meat we purchase should be of high nutritional value from animals raised humanely (because of the limits of economies of scale with livestock, this means that in most places quality meat will come from your farmers’ market).

The contrast between animals raised conventionally and those raised with exceptional standards (and the spectrum in between) is really how I came to be a livestock farmer.

Understanding that we are a society that eats meat and that our consumption is not going to dramatically reduce any time soon, the farmer has incredible agency in the system. The farmer can choose how meat is produced and whether s/he improves or degrades environmental factors. That’s pretty powerful.

My priority in raising dairy cattle is to strive to minimize their stress. This means ensuring adequate and proper nutrition (cows are designed to eat grass!), ensuring they have clean, dry, comfortable areas to rest, and ensuring handling techniques are gentle and do not invoke pain or fear.

For dairy in particular, the reproduction cycle is a critical management period, as it is by nature stressful but how the farmer chooses to manage the cow from breeding to drying off her milk production, from cow/calf care to weaning has a dramatic impact on the health of the cow and calf.

One of my heroes is Temple Grandin. She is an expert on minimizing stress of livestock and has revolutionized slaughterhouses in America by redesigning them so they are less stressful for the animal. She is also autistic.

Here’s a video of her TED talk (which is more on autism but she touches on her work with livestock). She mentions the movie made about her with Claire Danes, which I definitely recommend.

One of the reasons I admire her so much is that she chose to work within the dominant system of conventional feedlots. In doing so, she made a HUGE positive change to the lives of millions of cattle. Certainly more than I’ll ever do with my dream of a 20 cow dairy.

She’s an inspiration for sure and a source of technical guidance. I was over the moon when I wrote to her asking a question about the order of cows coming into the dairy barn and whether letting them choose their place was more or less stressful than making them go in the same stall every day. Her answer was simple genius. She said “if the cows seem calm, they are calm”.

A Local Milk Economy

Dairy has a rich, complicated history in our country.

The overall picture is pretty bleak: from 1982 to 2007, New York lost almost 65 percent of its dairy farms (see this news article).  All over this county, there are old dairies gone under, sitting empty, falling apart without the life of cows to sustain it.  The reason for the decline in dairies is complex and can be traced to the commodity price of milk, import of milk products, and the role of large scale processors.

There is a pocket of hope though. The interest in “niche” milk markets could SAVE THE SMALL DAIRY.  Because of the high costs of raising animals and the up-front capital needed, dairy farmers have to receive a premium for the product to survive as a business.  Enter : RAW milk from happy healthy herds.  With the public interest of where one’s food comes from, some small dairies are tapping into this market by demonstrating how their product differs from shelf-bought milk.  Around here, raw milk sells for $7 for the half gallon.  At the gas station down the road, one full gallon goes for $2 plus change.  There’s a lot to unpack in that, but for now, I’ll just say that’s a big difference in price to the farmer.

Something in the Air

Ok, NOW spring is coming.  Telltale sign : 9 inches of snow overnight turning into a beautiful sunny day in the 40’s.  I love March weather.  It’s unpredictable, but lighthearted.

It’s been a busy week as I’m trying to cram in as many farm-y events as possible before lambing and gardening begins.  Yes, LAMBING.

I’ve visited a couple of friends’ farms lately to see their ewes and newborn lambs. They just steal my heart.  Those baby lambs are utterly irresistible.  I think lambs may be the singular expression of God’s pure joy.  More than any other baby animal, lambs make my heart hurt.

I’m not raising sheep this year, but my friends down the road have an impressive flock and I fully intend to get on the lambing rotation during those first two weeks of May when 150 ewes will give birth. It’s THE best time of the year. Better than the first ripe tomatos, even better than when cows are turned out to pasture.  And that’s a hard one to beat.

My dream farm is a raw milk dairy and dual purpose sheep for food and fiber.  Wouldn’t it be lovely?

Butter May Be Bewitched

milkmaid drawing

Folklore is rife with tales of dairymaids churning and churning and no butter being made.  The culprit was these problematic, obstructive witches interfering in the process. There were many remedies for this, some involving ash and hot irons, and smoking the spirits right out of the barn.

Today, as Butter, was being a bit…difficult, shall we say: too stubborn to get out of the milking barn and too quick to throw her horns, I thought it a bit ironic that she’s named after the most common bewitching product of the dairy.  She’s living up to her name, I suppose.  I just hope I don’t have to try too many remedies to be rid of that witch peeking out from those growing horns. After all, she’s just a kid.

An Incurable Affinity for the Dairy Cow

Farming requires fidelity.

I find that if my attention is elsewhere, things don’t go as smoothly.

I appreciate that about farming. If you can practice giving your full attention to it, it gets to know you.  It responds to you. You become of part of that small world.

For me, I can feel a shift in my being: my breath deepens, my face relaxes, and I smile a little bit.

The cows can sense it. They approach me. They suggest I get some perspective. They remind me to love bigger.