It’s cold. It’s wet. The land gave up. Suddenly. We brought the cattle in.

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Walking up from the River Meadows the cows avidly searched the hedgerows along the lane for ivy; sniffing out the darkly-glossy green leaves and pulling long tangled binds free to munch on as they lumbered up the lane, their calves frantically attempting to catch and eat the trailing ends with extended prehensile tongues.

I find such behaviour fascinating and never tire of watching the cattle seek out specific plants and leaves. Generally it’s a ‘bitter’ they’re on the look out for during the late autumn months – ferns are popular and in particular harts-tongue. These bitters are said to have anthelmintic (worming) properties which makes sense after a season’s grazing.

I manage the farm to ensure the cattle access to hedgerow leaves and herb-rich margins. So, like their ancestors, they can forage for different varieties of plant to provide the trace elements not found in modern grass and clover leys. During the winter months when they are housed, apart from being fed haylage made from our pastures which contain a good mix of grasses and herbs, I supplement their food with dried seaweed and rock salt.

One of the biggest risks to any farm animal is stress. It makes them so much more vulnerable to disease. Housing is not a natural state of affairs for cattle and so could be the cause of much stress. I try to forestall this by allowing the cattle to keep in their social groups and herd hierarchy. It’s important that they have a lounging area as well as an area with enough dry clean bedding to cud and sleep on without being bullied or intimidated by others. I make sure that every animal has ample space to feed and drink without feeling threatened.

a few of the cattle cudding contentedly at one end of the yard

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When the cattle first come in I begin the calves’ weaning process. Done abruptly, this causes a huge amount of stress and trauma to both cows and calves. Over the years I’ve developed a gentle and natural weaning method which seems to work well. At one end of the yard I gate off an area or ‘creep’ which only the calves can access. Here they experience their first taste of hard food and have their own feed barrier, water, licks, together with enough room to lie and lounge around without being biffed about by adults. Gradually the calves and cows become used to some degree of separation and the calves become less dependent on milk as they eat supplementary cereals.

three calves in the creep area

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The scene is set for the winter’s routine. Cows have slipped into it easily and contentedly, remembering past winters. The calves are using their creep and eating well. The only ones not so happy are the yearlings, last years calves. They certainly remember yellow buckets full of feed; they bellow and call loudly to me…why, why, why isn’t it for us anymore?

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