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the story of Marmite...and her unexpected confinement

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…

the largest horsefly ever - tabanus sudeticus

‘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.

biting Marmite's teat

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!

newborn

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!

just 24 hours old

just 24 hours old

Mother and daughter continue doing well….

...happy result!

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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.

ice and water

ice and water

What's all the fuss? TB? Us?

Those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook probably gathered my cattle had a bovine tuberculosis (bTB) test about ten days ago. Those of you familiar with farming and the countryside will have a pretty good understanding of the problems surrounding bTB and the distressing effect it has on farmers, farms and cattle industry. And those of you who aren’t that interested in farming, will, I’m sure, be aware of the debate that rages around badger culling, vaccination and the like.

Personally I feel every test brings us one step closer to the inevitable…bTB breakdown. Illogical? Probably.  Or maybe not.

We’ve been ‘upgraded’ to six monthly testing, as the farm’s contiguous. I don’t know what’s changed; we’ve been contiguous to farms suffering breakdowns for a good many years. Anyhow this new status certainly makes me more jumpy.

I guess that it’s here that I should mention that in the twenty years I’ve been farming at Locks (and actually for the whole thirty-five years of my farming career) my cattle, first dairy, now beef, haven’t had a case of bTB. I say this with great trepidation; I really dislike mentioning it.  I’m terrified of tempting fate.

Briefly, the bTB skin test takes place over a period of a few days. On day one tuberculin is administered at two sites – the first (or the top spot) is the control – avian tuberculin is used; and the bottom, the second site, is inoculated with bovine tuberculin.  Three days later the test is read and a conclusion reached on the size of the reaction.

As we were getting ready on the first day I said to Polly, our vet, “Well, don’t suppose we’ll go clear. Bloody miracle if we do.” And somewhat to my surprise she said “Yes, it will be.” None of that nice reassuring talk… my fault for bringing it up, not hers for being honest!

I firmly resisted any temptation to check for reactions. On the Friday as we were sorting through the cattle before the vet came I mumbled to Olly “She doesn’t think we’ll get through you know.”

“Don’t be such a doom merchant” he snapped back at me. But I noticed he didn’t follow it up with “You’re daft. You always say that. Of course we will. We always do!” (I now know that he’d been checking the animals and had found some substantial lumps!)

Reading the test was heart in tongue stuff; Polly had the callipers (used for measuring the size of the lumps) out for practically every cow. Almost all the animals had sizable reactions to the avian tuberculin (indicating a high incidence of avian TB) but, thank god, no reactions to the bTB.  We were clear! A surprise to all of us.

So why? Why did we go clear…?

Because I run a closed herd? Or that we’re organic? Maybe we practice exceptional welfare? Have a healthy badger set? Keep a native breed? Farm extensively? Don’t have tonnes of hard feed knocking around? Or that we are just too darn wet? But others are doing these things and more still suffer breakdowns.  It is just luck?

Perhaps not…An intriguing paper arrived last week

Please log on tomorrow –  I’ll be writing a post on this paper and would hugely value your reactions and comments

...intriguing, she says.

calves on Saturday's frosty morning

calves on Saturday's frosty morning

Glorious October certainly! We continue to be busy outside with the hundred and one jobs this dry weather has allowed us to get on top of…dung spreading, ditching, fencing, hedge trimming, cutting and carrying wood from our wood stacks to our winter store and, of course, never ending topping (yes, we are still able to get onto the land with a tractor!).

ewe lambs enjoying the autumn sunshine and grass

ewe lambs enjoying the autumn sunshine and grass

The ewes have been tupped and are now grazing peacefully, happy in the autumn sunshine and revelling in the unexpected bonus of being dry underfoot.

Cows and calves are contentedly munching away in the River Meadows, whilst the bull and his cohort are doing a first-rate job around our smaller meadows at the home farm.  Our autumn flush of grass has been excellent – more sustaining and nutritious than the rank crop our waterlogged fields produced during the wet summer months.

the bull happily grazing Flop Meadow

the bull happily grazing Flop Meadow

Polytunnel beds are gradually being mulched down with our organic dung and covered over for winter – though a handsome supply of chilli, aubergine, tomato, squash and carrot are still providing us with tasty suppers. Outside in the kitchen garden leeks, kale, red cabbage, spinach, broccoli spears and roots are giving us delicious seasonal variety.

Though apples haven’t produced that well this year the quince tree is heavy with golden, fragrant fruit which I’ll pickled, make into jelly and quince cheese. The pear tree in the orchard is also bowed over with small, bullet hard fruit for which I’ll have to invent some different preserves.

It’s a good autumn; land, man, beast and wildlife flourish. Next weekend, on the 25th, we have two farm walks, so though the weather is due to break tomorrow I hope  we won’t  return to horrendous torrential drenching!

Devonian Whitebeam (indigenous to Devon) berries, which I'll harvest to grow sapplings from.

Devonian Whitebeam (rare and indigenous to Devon) berries, which I'll harvest to grow saplings from.

my Devons grazing Path Field

my Devons grazing Path Field

Did any of you catch Countryfile this week? In particular John Craven’s investigation into methane producing cattle and sheep, climate change and Meat Free Monday?

Research, reported in the New Scientist not long ago, suggests that producing a kilo of beef has the equivalent effect on the climate as driving 250 km and leaving all the lights on at home to boot.  Meanwhile ministers have been on record as saying that if you really want to save the world (and your health), you should stop eating meat.  There’s also a maxim that climate change is driven by the three Cs:  combustion, chainsaws and cattle.

So, am I an arch climate villain?  Is my carbon foot print so big that I leave tracks across the world like yeti? By my calculations, every time I sell a bullock, it’s like driving all the way from Devon to Timbuctoo.  I’m told cattle produce huge quantities of methane, a gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its greenhouse effects, from both ends.  Even worse, on conventional farms, the grass and grain they eat requires tonnes of fertiliser which takes barrels and barrels of oil to make as well as releasing yet more greenhouse gases when it’s spread on the fields.

But there’s some hope for me.  I may not have to sell up quite yet.  Some Swedish research shows that organic beef raised on grass has a much lower carbon footprint, emitting forty percent less greenhouse gas and consuming eighty-five percent less energy.   This figures since we don’t use artificial fertilisers, recycling nutrients (good, old-fashioned muck) from the farm, and keep far fewer cattle per hectare.  What’s even better, there’s good reason to suspect that organic soil management actually results in carbon being taken out of the atmosphere (carbon sequestration) rather than being released into it offsetting the methane produced by the animals.  (It’s a little known fact that there’s far, far more carbon stored in England’s soils than in all its woodlands.)

But, I could be in danger of being complacent here.  Unfortunately it’s still a fact that my Devons are belching and farting large quantities of a powerful greenhouse gas into the beleaguered stratosphere. So what I should try to aim for is to be carbon neutral, right the way from grass to plate. I wonder, by the way, what the term is for a negative footprint is? Someone who takes more carbon out of the air than they release into it?

I shall have to have one of these carbon audits done and see what I can do to reduce my footprint.  Perhaps I can manage my soils differently, let my hedges get even bigger; reduce transport costs, put up solar panels on the barns and be energy self-sufficient, look into other means of collecting and storing water…fixing plastic bags onto the rear end of the cattle is an interesting prospect, perhaps my inventor friend can work out a way and we’ll get rich on the patent!

The other side of the coin is that Devon badly needs its cattle and sheep.  Imagine Dartmoor without them.  Our priceless historical landscape would be lost beneath a sea of bracken, gorse and trees. Think also of all our wonderful unique indigenous grasslands. They and their supporting habitat wouldn’t survive without grazing. I guess our challenge as farmers is to produce beef and lamb in a way that helps the climate. Far better for us to face the challenge now and take the matter into our own hands than to wait for the inevitable regulations down the road.  I don’t know the answers, but suspect they may involve all of us who enjoy meat eating less of it, valuing it more, and being prepared to pay much more for it, so farmers can afford to farm in a way that is in tune with Mother Earth.

For now, I’ll keep my cows. Try to sleep soundly at night too…after all, there are things I can do.

'...verrry interesting!' *Belch* 'Ooops! Excuse me.'

'...verrry interesting!' *Belch* 'Ooops! Excuse me.'

One of my young (sixteen month old) heifers had developed warts.

This in itself is not a particular problem. Warts are a fairly common occurrence in cattle, particularly in stock under two years old, and are caused by the skin’s reaction to an infection with papova virus (six different papova viruses have been identified, though the majority of cases are caused by one of two types). These warts can crop up anywhere on the animal’s body though most frequently around the head and neck area; less common but more worrying sites are the teats, scrotum and penis. Warts can grow fast and vary greatly in shape and size from almost flat pea-sized lumps to large orange-sized balls on stalks.

bovine warts around the head of an animal - google images

bovine warts around the head of an animal - google images

My heifer had a few small areas of infection around her muzzle though the worst was a cluster of large nebular sessile (squat) warts on the inside of her hind leg and, horror of horror, a huge, repulsive pedunculate (stalked) brain-like growth hanging off the side of one of her teats. It was the size of a nectarine (but not as juicy!).  Not only was it getting knocked and damaged when she walked, becoming a fly magnet, its sheer size and weight was elongating and deforming her teat.

warts on the udder of a cow - google images

warts on the udder of a cow - google images

Generally warts disappear within six months but in this case something had to be done to the one on her teat so she didn’t suffer permanent damage.

We discussed the options. Cutting it off? Not the best of times to do this; possible excessive bleeding, fly strike and difficult to treat post-operatively in the field. Restricting blood-flow with a ligature? Not ideal, again the problem of fly-strike, but probably the best alternative in the circumstances.

So having decided on the ligature we began to gather up equipment and manpower.

The young stock spend their summer at some rented land a few miles away and though we have a corral where we can gather and load them we don’t have a proper crush. We decided we’d rig up a gate crush and with strong rope, brave men and a little bit of luck we would be able to pin her behind the gate and hopefully immobilise her sufficiently to be able to tie the ligature on.

Robert, Joe, Olly, me and, of course, my right-hand man Theo all piled into the truck, complete with elastrator (castrating tool, just in case I was able to fit a castrating ring over the growth), suitable strong, non-slip string to form the ligature, iodine, salt solution, Spot On (fly deterrent), rope, baler cord and, most important, a bucket of nuts as an incentive and reward.

In no time an admirable gate crush had been constructed. We managed to lure the cattle into the corral in record time with the promise of nuts. Once the cattle were contained it wasn’t too much bother to isolate and crush the heifer concerned behind the gate. So far so good, now the difficult bit. The elastrator was unfortunately far too small. We would only get one attempt with the string ligature…she would kick, she would start forward and she would make it impossible for a second attempt. Robert decided I would become permanently damaged and broken so he would endeavour to tie the ligature. All was ready…Olly on the ropes, me with the nuts and Robert at the business end. In the flash of a moment the heifer lunged upwards and forward in an attempt to escape, landing on top of the gate – but in her violent forward movement against Robert’s pull on the ligature the string had severed the whole gruesome growth! Yes, it was bleeding but not too severely. Settling the heifer down behind the gate, I dressed the wound with iodine and cobwebs (cobwebs are an old remedy used to hasten blood coagulation), fed her a good measure of nuts, treated her with fly deterrent and sent her off into the field.

Then we searched around for the wart, and found it.  What a trophy!  I showed it to all our friends, many of them aren’t speaking to us now. First I kept it in the fridge for easy access until the family rebelled.  Now it’s in the freezer.  I just hope that in a year or two someone doesn’t open the bag, think that looks tasty, and have a good fry up!

I’m sure this isn’t the only job where you flip from total elation to utter dejection in a bat of an eye but it must rank pretty high on the list.

I was feeling very optimistic about this year. After all it was a fine winter: frost, ice, bright cold days and even snow. I liked it, a proper season with humans, stock and nature responding accordingly. And spring? Spring’s been magnificent; full of sun and promise, smiley people and happy animals. The difficulties of the last two summers began fading into the distance. I’d even started to plan…

Then last week it began to rain (actually I don’t mind rain, it’d be a stupid place to live if I did). But this is not gentle rain or even just normal rain, rather the stair-rod kind we’ve experienced more and more over the last two years – monsoon rain.

no grass, just thousands of orchids and wild flowers thriving in Dillings, our hay meadow

no grass, just thousands of orchids and wild flowers thriving in waterlogged Dillings, our hay meadow

A blogging cyber-friend, Elizabethm, came for an ‘in-the-flesh’ visit the afternoon the rain started in earnest. After she left I had a long phone call with my son in France about wedding arrangements (he and Berengere are getting married next month in Marseille) so by the time I got out to check the calving cows it was almost dark and still pelting with rain. One of the cows, Hermione, looked pretty imminent. It was too dark to move her so I left hoping she would hang on till morning.

All night I listened to the sound of torrential downpours and the wind frenziedly whipping and slapping at the bedroom curtains. As soon as it was light enough to see I was up to check the cow and sure enough there, by her side, was a sodden shaking calf. At least she was alive, though being born in the worst of the wind and rain she had not managed to suck and was fast becoming hypothermic. As quick as I could I moved them into the shed, towelled the calf and began the long laborious job of trying to get a sucking reflex. Not as easy as a lamb, you can’t put a 40 kilo calf on your lap, open its mouth, clamp it onto the teat, hold it there, stimulate sucking whilst pinning its 600 kilo mother against the wall with your shoulder. You desperately need the cooperation (hollow laugh) of both cow and calf. Suffice to say after nearly four hours and on the point of giving up, I managed to get the calf on the teat whereupon she miraculously changed from a fading shadow into a lusty ravenous monster-calf!

hermione with her heifer calf sucking lustily

hermione with her heifer calf sucking lustily

During this palaver and one of my ‘it’s-never-going-to-suck’ exits we went to check the main herd. More drama! The river was in full spate separating a couple of cows and a group of calves from the rest of the herd. Both groups were bawling franticly at each other divided by a dangerously fast flowing torrent. In a situation like this it’s best to do nothing (the animals could panic and throw themselves into the river) and hope that both the rain and river will ease off, fairly fast!

hermione licking her calf

hermione blissfully licking her new calf

Luckily by the time I’d finished with the cow and calf the herd had reunited and we were able to move them back to the farm for safety.

So my optimism has taken a knock. Still the rain rains and it’s hard not to feel a little pessimistic about the outcome. We thought that building the polytunnel was a sure fired way of guaranteeing a hot summer and now we’re not so sure…but this morning there’s watery sunlight, no wind and a grin on my face!

Locks Park Farm

Thanks for visiting my blog. All entries are presented in chronological order.

I have a small organic farm on the Culm grasslands near Hatherleigh in Devon, with sheep and beef cattle. I've been farming in the county for more than 30 years. I've set up this blog to share views on farming and the countryside - please do give your thoughts.

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