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Back in March 2008 we had a first for the farm. Gwen, a sweet cow, gave birth to twin heifer calves. They were lusty, tiny, pretty and quite adorable – we called them Marmite and Mustard-Seed. For twins they did pretty well considering it was one of our sodden monsoon summers where all vestige of pasture/grass/herbage was swallowed up in a quagmire of soul-sucking mud.
Time moved on and I decided to keep Marmite as one of my replacement heifers. Though not as big as I would like, she, nevertheless, had a lovely temperament and reasonable conformation. Also I was rather curious as to how she would develop in the future.
During their second summer our youngsters are grazed on some rented land a couple of miles away. They do well on it, and it’s a safe environment for them have their silly season as adolescence before joining the main herd and taking on the full mantle of bovine responsibility.
One misty October morning, not long before they were due to return home for the winter, we were rather taken aback to find a monstrous and completely hideous Friesian bull standing possessively in the midst of our coy young virgins.
‘What the heck…!’ Robert exclaimed. Not only were we somewhat surprised as the land is well fenced, but somewhat wary too…Friesian bulls are not known for their docility.
18-month old heifers are unabashedly flagrant in their sexual desires; bawling outrageously, they pant, salivate and sweat in sexual fervour, mounting and pursuing their peers relentlessly – willing or unwilling – and so advertising their condition to all and sundry. Luckily this heightened state of oestrous only lasts twelve to twenty-four hours whereupon, with a flick of a switch, they morph back into the demure bovine maidens they were.
When we found them that morning there was no sign whatsoever of a rampant orgy having taken place. The heifers couldn’t have been more demure or uninterested…in fact it was more a case of them gathering around us, all sideways glances, breathy exclamations and outraged mutterings about ‘that awful disgusting, wicked BULL that was letching…yes, LETCHING at them’ and ‘could we possibly just, please, get rid of him…or move them immediately – NOW’ – which of course we did.
After having paid a visit to the neighbouring dairy farm to ask them to keep tighter control of their bull and to remove him from our land without delay, we went back to inspect the heifers. We looked under tails for signs of bulling, or worse, penetration; we looked along flanks for signs mounting; we looked at legs for signs of strains (large bulls can occasionally damage young, immature heifers’ hips and back legs – amongst other things!). Nothing, nada, nil, zilch.
‘Well, that’s a relief’ said Robert.
‘Don’t you believe it’ said I ‘No way would a bull have scaled field and fence for nothing!’
But as to who or which we were clueless and would only find out during the winter when we could keep a close eye on the heifers. Of course nowadays there are other implications of strange cattle getting into a closed herd – disease, bTB and the like, which can have lasting repercussions on the health status of one’s herd and potentially be far more damaging than an under-aged heifer becoming in-calf.
Unfortunately, yes, you’ve guessed, it was Marmite, by far the smallest and most immature of the group, who was the culprit.
I watched her anxiously through much of the winter, feeding her extra rations. I watched her anxiously during the spring as she began to swell with calf. I watched her anxiously as she neared her time, keeping her in a field close to the house so she could be checked frequently. I watched her anxiously as I was worried about an underage Ruby heifer calving a large Friesian cross.
She had us on our toes. Her udder swelled to huge proportions as did her teats…
‘It must be soon’ sighed Olly ‘Look at the size of her teats!’ and then found they were being bitten by the largest horseflies imaginable, causing Marmite considerable discomfort.
The waiting seemed interminable, forever, until one evening she was slow in coming for her food and was even slower the next morning. Within a couple of hours she was calving. Within minutes the sack was showing. Within seconds the calf was halfway out and completely trapped in a thick, bluish, membrane. I broke the membrane, got the calf breathing and went to pull the rest of it out. It was stuck…firm…! My hands, slippy and wet from membrane and birthing fluid, could not get a good grip….I shouted, screamed, hollered – but I was halfway down a field, out of earshot of the house and people. I bawled again…no one. There was nothing for it I would have to strip using my overalls as ropes. There I was – down to bare-nothings and pulling for victory when thankfully Olly appeared. Relief! Together we pulled the m-o-n-s-t-e-r out…but wait…she wasn’t, she was beautiful, actually beautiful!
The colour of bitter chocolate with a black dorsal stripe and black fringing around her ears; her nose was slate blue-black and deep black kohl outlined her ridiculously long lashed eyes – she was a hybrid, a fusion, a mix between calf, fawn and foal!
Mother and daughter continue doing well….
The cattle were bawling again. They’d been at it on and off all day.
‘What is up with them?’ I muttered to myself ‘I only moved them Friday? Can’t be short of grass yet, surely.’
I was in the middle of feeding hens, feeding dogs, getting washing in, and picking veggies for supper.
I had another thought – perhaps the water wasn’t working and they were thirsty. That would explain the ruckus. I called over to Robert who was busy saving potatoes (you’ve guessed, they’ve all got blight. Damn it. Well, one bed anyway)
‘You couldn’t check on the cows for me could you? Don’t know what’s got into them. Water possibly?’ Robert’s far more able to deal with water repairs than I am.
‘No’ he said when he reappeared ‘Water’s fine. They’re hungry. Starving actually!’
‘Weird, there was plenty of grass there. Okay. Let’s move them then.’
We set off down the lane. It’s been a good year for our farm. Ideal conditions from winter to summer have resulted in an abundance of grass without our normal swamp-like conditions.
‘Where are you moving them too?’ asked Robert.
‘Five and Dung’ I replied ‘Though it could be Dillings, Flop or Top!’ I grinned up at him ‘Good to have a choice once in a while.’
Five Acres and Dung Field are at the end of a remnant of ancient green lane. To get there we pass Turkey Shed, a beautiful haphazard barn made from elm boarding which Robert restored twenty odd years ago. I love it; it’s one of the most beautiful buildings on the farm. At the time of its restoration Robert installed a barn owl box, which had never been used for breeding but it did become a favourite roosting site. This year, though, the owls’ preferred box in another barn was taken over by jackdaws and they resorted to nesting in Turkey Shed.
The cattle turned up the lane with me bringing up the rear – as we passed Turkey Shed I noticed feathers in the mud and a few yards further on there was the dead mutilated body of a barn owl.
‘Oh no, oh no, no. Robert, look! One of the barn owls…oh I can’t believe it.’ We secured the cattle into the field and went back to the dead owl.
‘That’s tragic. Just awful. After all those years.’ The barn owls have been severely hit by the last three years of unprecedented wetness and as far as we know haven’t bred successfully on the farm for about four. And now this…
‘I think we’d better check the nest. Just to be sure there are no chicks starving in there.’ Robert said as we looked up at the nest box for signs of life. ‘I’ll get a ladder. Can you bring down a box and torch?’
By the time I got back Robert was up the ladder. ‘Can you hand me the torch.’ He asked. I passed it up ‘What can you see? Anything there?’ I asked as I craned my neck ‘Empty?’
‘Er…yes, uh….wait a moment. No! There’s one here. Oh god…its foot. Its foot’s caught! Uh…baler twine…it’s caught up in baler twine. Tight around its foot…it’s tethered!’ he attempted to cut it free ‘Got it. Here…’and he passed me the lightest bundle of stinking snowy-white fluff. One foot was grossly deformed and swollen, baler cord biting deep into the flesh just above the foot. I rushed up to the house with my precious bundle
‘Oll, Oll! Can you help please? I’ve got a baby owl…baler cord caught tight around its foot…need some help…got to get it off. Are you there?’
Olly came down the stairs ‘Ah Jesus! Poor bugger. That’s awful. Hang on I need scissors…bloody hell it’s going to be painful when it comes off…’
Together we carefully and methodically cut away the cord buried deep into the tissue above the foot and around a toe. I feared gangrene, infection, the worse. Once we’d removed all the tiny fibres I bathed the foot in warm, salty water and massaged it gently with teatree oil.
We now had a tiny, traumatised wild owlet in our midst. Would he survive? Would the shock and the pain prove too much for him? After all barn owls are notoriously emotionally sensitive…difficult.
It was getting late. After I’d forced-fed him strips of raw beef I put him to bed in a box lined with fleece. Tomorrow, if he survived the night, I’d phone the vet, source some suitable food and get as much advice as I could.
SBS, discombobulating knee or whatever…the show goes on. Nature waits for nothing; certainly no woman!
So in the cycle of things that are total certainties we began lambing on Saturday with calving hot on its heels. To say that I was dreadfully unsure as to how I’d manage this vital part of the farming calendar is an understatement – I’ve taken myself rather for granted over the years. But the human brain and body is nothing if not inventive. So with the stoic and long-suffering help of Olly and Robert there’s a new order emerging!
Lambing is not such a problem and can be approached sitting on the ground in a pair of thick waterproof trousers using a variety of interestingly contorted ‘yogic’ positions. Once the ewe and her brood are penned the same technique can be used for popping lambs onto the teat if the need arises – though Olly is proving a dab hand at this. Tagging, tailing and castrating? No probs – perch on the side of the pen/ask an Olly. Feet? An indispensible Olly is needed here as he is for post lambing drenching.
Calving is altogether a different kettle of fish, with absolutely no contorting-ground-sitting substitute sanctioned.
Last night our first calf was born – from a young first-calving heifer. Luckily there was no particular problem, she was just taking her time, so, I decided, she was an ideal candidate for ‘the boys’ to learn on. Trying to explain how to attach calving ropes while standing outside the calving pen is one of the most difficult things I have ever done. It took every ounce of self-control not to vault the gates, get in there and show them!
You should have seen us! Me, with my face, hands and arms involuntarily mimicking vastly exaggerated actions of my explanations….‘That’s it, that’s it. Put your hand in…no, no right in, right in!’ (my arm snakes out) Yes that’s it…and feel, feel. Eyes shut, eyes shut! You can feel better.’ (my eyes squeeze tightly shut as my hand and fingers turn and feel the imaginary legs and head) ‘The second joint…you want to get the rope well over the second joint.’ (I slip the imaginary rope over the hoof and position it) ‘Don’t forget to check the head’s still lined up! (I twist my arm to feel over my holographic (I wish) head and second leg) Yup, pull, gentle, gently’ and so on and so on.
Then there’s one rather shocked bloke trying to grab the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t-foot staring at me with bug-eyed concentration whilst the other bloke, equally mesmerised, holds desperately onto the heifer’s tail crooning, soothing and smoothing. It was quite the stuff of slapstick!
The heifer was extremely patient and tolerant with her learners seeing that this was the first time for her too, and in due course a beautiful heifer calf was born – bright, lusty and healthy.
We all went to bed happy and contented.
I haven’t dropped off the edge. I’m not shirking or dodging or avoiding. I’m not even suffering from virtual overload or writer’s block (in fact I’ve been itching to write). What I have been doing these last few weeks is getting ready; preparing.
This Wednesday I’m having my knee operated on – anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction – and I’ll be out of action…for some time…so they say. In my life there’s never, ever going to be a good time to be ‘legless’.
Over the last few weeks I’ve revelled, enjoyed, embraced, slogged, worn-out and appreciated the extraordinary aptitude and freedom (normally taken entirely for granted) my two legginess gives me. From the domesticity of making marmalade…
…to the exhaustion of hedge laying;
from mucking out the cow palace…
…and crutching the ewes prior to lambing to walking the dogs;
…driving the car (NO driving for SIX weeks!), handling the bobcat and the tractor…bringing in wood…gardening…doing housework…the cooking…going to work…! Even finding the first dump of frog spawn…
…and seeing pussy willow bursting its buds at the top of our lane..
I expect you’ll be hearing a lot from me in the coming weeks of my enforced incarceration!
….give or take a day or so for artistic licence.
It was seven thirty on Thursday morning as I headed up the steepest part of the farm lane on my way to work; the truck manfully gripped the icy surface ‘four wheel drive – a doddle!’ I thought ‘no problem!’ No sooner was the thought out of my head, than the wheels began to spin, the back of the truck fishtailing precariously. ‘Damn it, here goes’ I muttered thinking it would be only a matter of seconds before we slid oh-so-ungracefully and uncontrollably back down the lane and into a ditch. But by some miracle one of the tyres gripped and we were away, somewhat haphazardly, up the solid sheet of glass ice that was our drive.
The day before we’d had a partial thaw. Overnight it had frozen hard, the melt water forming a smooth, pristine coating of ice over the layers of packed snow and ice already covering our farm track and the network of lanes and minor roads in and around our area. It was seven miles of wheel-clenching, white-knuckle ice-time-driving before hitting any gritted major roads.
I was hoping that Thursday would bring a proper thaw…I was getting worried.
A group of ten month old weaned calves I’d sold at the beginning of December were still stuck on the farm. Not that I minded that. The problem was a point of law…legislation.
You remember I had a TB test in November? Well following this (providing you’re clear of TB) there’s a 60 day window in which cattle can be moved off the farm; after this time period has elapsed your animals have to undergo another pre-movement TB test at your expense. Something I was keen to avoid at a cost of around £100 or so…and Saturday was my deadline.
The purchaser and I had originally agreed delivery date at the beginning of January, thereby avoiding the first freezing spell of weather, Christmas and New Year. Never in a blue moon (I know, it was!) did we imagine both our farms would still be ice-bound and in the grip of sub-zero temperatures.
With a thaw looking touch and go at the beginning of the week I’d contacted Animal Health. Would they consider an extension in exceptional circumstances? Maybe just a day or so until our lane was safe? After all neither the calves, the purchaser or I had been anywhere or had had any stock movements during that time.
Absolutely not! They understood it had been an unusual month…but the rule stood. ‘It’s law, don’t you know’. If I couldn’t get the animals off the farm by Saturday they would have to be retested.We’d provisionally made arrangements to deliver the animals on Friday come ice or snow…and though the northern slope of our lane was still covered by a slowly flowing glacier first thing Friday morning, with the help of the bobcat and rising temperatures this (thank all gods in the firmament) shifted. The pick-up with trailer in tow and one and a half tonnes of calves got away successfully. (okay…this has gone into italics and won’t revert!)
As I write the sun is shining and it’s a balmy 12˚C. I’ve found snowdrops…which were flowering under the snow and ice, and I can hear great tits belling. The calves have settled well, being the only occupants of a large airy barn; and are enjoying trough-fulls of organic rolled barley (the farmer who bought them supplies me with organic cereals)…I can almost say ‘Snow? What snow?’ except I’ve heard that we could expect more on Wednesday….
With skewed flat hat-hair, a permanently leaking nose and fragile, papery onion-skin lips I bundle myself into layers of garments, old and threadbare from years of daily use. Thinning thermal vests and once ‘super-active’ (from New Zealand) merino leggings and tops; socks, no longer luxuriously thick and downy-soft but rather a shabby shadow of their former glory are pulled on over goat bed-socks for added insulation. The whole eclectic creation is zipped into overalls, topped with a matted fleece, a poundland hat, waterproof gloves and worn-down neoprene lined wellies (luckily kept for visitors at the back of the cupboard). All set, I go outside. It’s six thirty in the morning.
My boots squeak-crunch satisfyingly, compressing fresh fallen snow into the thick layer of ice. The dogs scrabble and bark at their door unused to this new sound. I let them out and they explode in an excited flurry of static-crackling white-grey fur; bounding, barking, snapping, slipping and sliding around my unsteady legs.
We make our way down to the yard, though still dark the snow and frost, moon and stars illuminate the countryside with bleached lightness. I walk tentatively. Ice, hidden by snow, covers every inch of the ground. The last twenty yards is the most lethal, here the ice has been polished to glass-like smoothness by bobcat and tractor, I slide-walk across to the massive double doors. The smell of frozen cow shed hits me…it’s an evocative mix! Overriding the spicy warmth of cattle and the cloying sweetness of frozen dung and urine is the acerbic black, old-fag reek of freezing metal and concrete.
The cows stir, coughing, belching and farting…clouds of white vapour pooling around them; fresh dung steams moistly before freezing. Too cold, too dry for the spangle of condensation along the flanks of the cattle, instead their deep chestnut-red bodies give the impression of dark spaces in the ice-crystal air.
Water troughs are frozen sculptures. Around their edges jagged spears of ice-enamelled forage fall to the floor where their drips and trickles have frozen to form a network of icy veins and arteries across the concrete ground.
We chip and chisel, muck out, brush and sweep. Heave armfuls of forage, sacks of grain, pitchforks of straw and bucket upon bucket of slushy crushed ice water. Soon our cheeks are rosy red, our fingers and toes thaw with excruciating intensity and a musky fug oozes from around our necks.
The morning lightens with blue greyness and crystals of feathery frost glint and spark as I trundle down the icy slope of the lane wheeling a barrow heaped with forage (incongruously summer-scented), nuts and water for the sheep. I turn up the lumpy track to Turkey Shed; the sheep alerted start to clamour and run, bizarre snowy baubles bounce and swing around their necks. Manic, ravenous, they barge and shove in a feeding frenzy knocking me sideways…I almost lose my footing.
I tramp back up the lane, dogs haring ahead exuberantly. Frantic birds follow my progress, calling and whistling, egging me on faster, desperate for a life-giving breakfast of fat, sweet, soft apple, seeds, grain and nuts.
All is done. I kick snow from my boots and peel off an outer layer of clothing putting it by the fire to dry and warm. With cheeks already flaming and toes and fingers burning I make my way to the kitchen and a mug of steaming hot tea.
Okay, here goes. The paper which landed on Robert’s desk the week of our TB test wasn’t a recent publication…in fact it was published in 2006. It never receive the coverage it should have at the time. Strangely its arrival had nothing whatsoever to do with the farm or our impending TB test. It was forwarded to Robert because of his involvement in all things hedge (being chair of the national hedgerow Biodiversity Action Plan group, Hedglink and co-chair of the Devon Hedge Group).
Robert popped his head around my office door “You should take a look at this.”
“What?” I looked up at him
“A paper on bovine TB linked to hedges”
“Hedges?”I scratched the top of my head and twiddled the hair “What…hedges decrease, increase the incidences?” As always when another study is published on bTB my reactions are mixed…hope, doubt, excitement, negativity and a kind of destructive inevitability.
“Oh something went wrong around here then!” I said wryly “Us being one of the most heavily hedged landscapes in Britain with some of the worst incidences of TB.”I leant back in my chair “So how do you mean? Good thick boundaries between contiguous farms?” I went on pre-empting his explanation “I didn’t know this…but the spread of disease from cattle to cattle out in the field is apparently quite unusual. The vet said a TB infected animal has to have developed lesions in the head and lungs and to hawk violently onto an area of grass just before it’s ingested by another animal to get cross contamination. Interesting…I always thought it was a much more tenuous encounter” I stretched “So, what’s its claim then? The paper? Where was the research carried out?” adding tongue-in-cheek “The hedgeless, stockless arable wastes in the east of the country?”
“No. Here. In North Devon. And on the Hereford/Gloucestershire boarder!” He grinned “I’ll send you a link. Have a look for yourself!”
So I did.
The study covered 120 dairy farms, 60 with recently infected herds and 60 without, and looked at the influence of various factors on the incidence of bovine TB. These factors were farmland habitat, topography (landform), badger density, proximity of farms with breakdowns, stocking density and herd size.
As expected bTB incidence was found to be linked to herd size and distance to nearest infected farms. In line with some other studies but not all, incidence was not found to be closely linked to badger density. It was also not closely linked to the extent or configuration of deciduous woodlands nor to the extent of pasture (both favoured badger habitats).
What was new was that hedgerow characteristics were found to be strong predictors of breakdown incidence. Hedgerow abundance, the number of hedgerow gaps, and the number of ungrazed field boundaries were all important. For example, a ‘hedge-poor’ farm (as defined in the paper) would be expected on average to have a 1.6 times greater risk of bTB than a ‘hedge-rich’ farm. Considering just total hedgerow length, an increase of 1 km per 100 ha was associated with a decrease in the risk of breakdowns by about 12.5%: in absolute terms this equates to the annual risk of bTB changing from 9.2% to 8.1% for herds in the West of England: an annual reduction of 251 infected herds (based on 2004 figures). These figures were controlled for herd size and distance to next bTB case: it is not simply the case that farms with plenty of good hedgerows have a lower stocking density.
The authors conclude that habitat management appears important to a farm’s bTB risk. ‘Nature friendly’ management practices – the presence of ungrazed wildlife strips, and the greater availability, width and continuity of hedgerow – are all associated with reduced bTB incidence.
They could only speculate on the mechanism through which hedgerows may reduce incidence of bTB, but suggest it could be due to one of two factors. The first is that hedge-rich farms are managed differently – for example they have different crop rotations which reduce the likelihood of cattle eating contaminated grass. The second (and more likely) is that the presence of hedges reduces badger-cattle transmission because a higher proportion of contaminated grass is kept out of the reach of cattle. Badgers preferentially use hedgerows as movement corridors and for their latrines, so where cattle are excluded from these areas by either hedge growth or fences, contact with the bacteria is reduced.
Given the practical difficulties associated with badger culling, and the fact that to be effective it has to be carried out over large areas (because of the perturbation effect), the authors suggest that improving habitat features such as hedgerows and ungrazed wildlife margins might be a more cost effective strategy to reduce infection.
So there you have it. A piece of research I had no idea existed. And the one thing we have on this farm? Exceptional density of hedges…with very few gaps; in fact we have many more hedges now than were present on the 1840 Tithe Map.
Could this be (and I hardly dare think it, let alone say it) a reason why we ‘continue’ (whispered very quietly) to go clear?