Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The story of our house cows - part 4

I haven't updated the story of our house cows lately, but its necessary now because Molly, our younger house cow, died a couple of weeks ago.  It was strange because I really thought that we were going to lose Bella first, but she is a resilient old thing, and seems in good health at the moment.  We are not sure what happened to Molly, it was not a long illness, she seemed fine one day and was found dead the next morning.  Anyway, I better start where I finished Part 3.

I wish our pasture looked like THIS all the time!

If you need to catch up, you can find Part 1 and Part 2 here.

Back in November 2015, we were still milking Molly and not sure what to do with Bella after she lost another calf and had severe mastitis.  We continued to milk Molly once a week, while Charlotte milked her foster mother Bella and Rosey had some of Molly's milk.

Bella and Molly

Around July 2016 we started to run out of grass at Eight Acres and decided, rather than keep buying hay, we should move all our cattle to Cheslyn Rise, where we had plenty of grass and they needed to move eventually anyway.  In the first load, we took Nancy, Ruby and Fatty (all animals that were destined for the freezer), we put them in our cultivation/pasture paddock, separated from the bull.

When we returned the next week with Bella and Molly, we found that the little shit bull had got under the fence and was in the paddock with our future eaters.  We pushed him out of the paddock, unloaded Bella and Molly, drove into town to buy fencing gear, spent the weekend building a new electric fence along the entire fence line (nearly 1km) and went home pleased in the knowledge that there was no way he could get back in.

Beautiful Molly

The next weekend we arrived to find that he had opened the gate and let himself into the paddock with the cows.  So that gave us a deadline!  We worked out that we would have to be moving to the property ourselves by April 2117 (and we did!).  The intervening months were pretty uneventful for the cows, we just checked on them once a week and fed hay as required.

Molly with her calf (that she hid from me for two days!)

Molly had her little calf a few weeks after we moved.  We were not quite set up ready to milk, so we decided to monitor her and not milk unless we needed to.  She was not in a particularly good paddock, so her udder was not very full and the little calf was soon taking all her milk.  This seemed to work well, as we were busy with the house and didn't have time to deal with 20L of milk anyway.  The problem is even if you don't want that much milk, you have to feed the cow grain to get her into the bales and then she makes more milk.  Nancy has also had a calf and we're not sure if Ruby and Fatty will be having calves too, not sure about Bella either.

Anyway, that seemed to be going really well with Molly until we found her dead three months later (just to be clear, we were checking her regularly and she seemed fine, so I would try this again, for a more flexible milking routine, possibly keeping her in a closer paddock separated from other cows so she could be fed more if required.).  We don't know if it was an issue with not milking her, not getting enough to eat, or even if she ate something poisonous, or was bitten by a snake or had an infection or disease, it is a total mystery and not worth paying for an autopsy as its likely to be inconclusive.

The baby house cows, Charlotte and Rosey, stayed at Eight Acres until we were ready to move, as our neighbour let us use their property as well and because we couldn't trust the bull with our little girls!  We moved them in April 2017, and they are with the bull now.  Bella is also with the bull, but doesn't seem to be in calf, which is probably a good thing, she is a useful tame cow to have around at the moment, at least she knows her name and mostly does what she is told!  I can't face a decision about Bella's future now that we have lost Molly.



Pete asked if I still wanted to have cows at all, after this saga and as we didn't milk Molly.  The truth is that I really wanted to milk Molly, but we weren't set up and didn't need the extra stress at the time.  However, when things are organised, a house cow isn't much more work and the milk is amazing.  So by the time Rosey and Charlotte are ready to calve, we should have our milking bales organised and be able to milk again.  And eventually we want to raise pigs on the extra milk....

So this is not the end of the story at all.  Do you have a house cow?  How is she going?  

Getting started with homestead dairy

Monday, June 20, 2016

My favourite house cow blogs

I don't know many people in real life who have house cows.  A few acquaintances, but no good friends with whom I can talk regularly about cows.  Like many of my interests, I turn to blogs to find like-minded people who are happy to talk non-stop about cows, manure, hay, minerals, pasture, milking schedule and bottle-feeding calves!  As well as enjoying the topic of conversation, I also learn so much from these blogs, even though they are in different locations.  It seems like you can always learn more about house cows (aka family cows, dairy cows or milk cows).  I want to share my favourite house cow blogs with you today and I hope you can tell me about other sources of house cow information.

Jembella Farm
Sally writes from 16 A in South Australia's Barossa Valley, where she has " 2 dogs, 7 cows, 2 alpacas, 5 geese, 35 chickens, 78 sheep and a few bee hives".  Among the cows are three special house cows, Daisy, Bella and Lavender.  Sally raises foster calves with her house cows and her blog contains plenty of advice about house cows and calves - here's one of my favourites.

eight acres: favourite house cow blogs
Source: Jembella Farm

Throwback at Trapper Creek
Matronofhusbandry writes from her 180 A farm and homestead in Oregon, USA.  Sharing gems of wisdom about growing and eating real food, including an extensive vegetable garden, beef cattle, chickens and of course, her gorgeous cow. Jane.  Although the climate there is very different, observations about grass growth, paddock divisions, milking schedules are all relevant and useful.  I have learnt to much from this blog, and the photos are amazing. Here's all the cow posts, and a couple of my favourites:

Share Milking

Is my cow getting enough to eat?

eight acres: favourite house cow blogs
Source: Throwback at Trapper Creek

The Prairie Homestead
Based in Wyoming, Jill has shared her homesteading journey on her blog.  She has goats, chickens, and a lovely family cow called Oakley.  You will find plenty of basic information about house cows, most of it is summarised in this post - Owning a family cow: your questions answered

eight acres: favourite house cow blogs
Source: The Prairie Homestead

Homestead Honey
Teri homesteads in Missouri on 10 A.  She blogs about topics such as gardening, building a tiny house, living off-grid and homeschooling.  Most importantly, she also has a sweet cow called Creme Brulee, and many posts about family cow ownership.

eight acres: favourite house cow blogs
Source: Homestead Honey

The Elliot Homestead
Shaye lives on a few acres in North Central Washington, a giant flock of laying hens, meat chickens, hogs, sheep, turkeys, and a variety of produce in large, organic gardens.  She has recently welcomed a new dairy cow, Cecelia, after tragically losing a previous cow.  Lots of great info about cows as well as dairy products.

eight acres: favourite house cow blogs
Source: The Elliot Homestead

One Ash Homestead
Lee Ann and Alexandrea write a blog about their farm and dairy supply business i South Carolina.  Of course their blog is full of information about dairy cows and dairy products, their full story is in this post.

Which blogs featuring house cows do you love?

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Supplement feeding your house cow

I wish we had luscious green grass for our cow year round, but like most places, we only have green grass for short periods.  In winter, we don't get much rain at all, and our sub-tropical grass species die off with the cooler weather.  This is when we need to feed our house cow extra hay and grain to supplement the meager offerings in our pasture.  Understanding how much to feed is important, as you don't want a fat (or a skinny) house cow (see my post on house cow body condition here).

Fortunately there is some great information available.  I found the book  Keeping a Family Cow: The Complete Guide for Home-Scale, Holistic Dairy Producers (affiliate link), by Joann S. Grohman to be particularly helpful.  I first reviewed Keeping a Family Cow back here, when I borrowed it from the Brisbane library.  I've since bought a copy because I hadn't been able to read it all in detail the first time.  Now I can go through each chapter and take in all the information.  One chapter that I really wanted to come back to was the one about feeding your cow.  Its quite a long and complicated chapter, so I've summarised the key points below.

eight acres: supplement feeding (hay or grain) for a house cow and other cattle
Feeding hay in winter

  • The first thing to understand is that a cow is a ruminent, meaning that she has four stomachs.  This allows her to digest the fibre (cellulose) in grass (all herbivores have some kind of digestive adaptation, as this article explains).  In the cow, the rumen (first stomach) is full of bacteria that live on the cellulose and other nutrients.  The bacteria produce amino acids (protein), which passes through to the rest of the gut for absorption much the same as a human stomach. 
  • The bacteria also produce acetic acid (vinegar) which is absorbed by the rumen and directly converted to milk - therefore grass and hay make milk.
  • This makes the cow uniquely efficient - she (along with an army of microbes) can convert grass, of no nutritional value to humans, into highly nutritious milk.
  • Dairy cows have been bred to give more milk than their calf needs, they will continue to produce milk "off their back" - meaning that they will lose fat and muscle to milk production if they are not getting enough energy in their feed.  If we are not providing enough food, a lactating cow could die from malnutrition.  However, there is no need to feed as much as a commercial dairy farm if you don't need the excess milk. you can find a balance where your cow's body condition is maintained at a healthy range and you are getting enough milk for the family, but not maximum production (or at maximum cost).
  • If you have enough good quality grass and hay throughout the year, you don't have to feed grain to your cow, however, most locations and most cows will need some grain at some time to boost the energy available to the cow and maintain body condition.
  • Given the choice, its better to spend your money on good hay and a little grain rather than relying on grain alone.  The reason for this is that the two feeds require different microbes in the gut, which thrive at different pH levels.  Feeding too much grain will lower gut pH, which will then inhibit the bacteria that digest grass and hay to create milk production.  Your cow will get fat and won't produce as much milk.
our grass in February

  • Good hay is green on the inside of the bale, it has leaves (not all stalk) and doesn't shatter and fall apart.  It shouldn't be dusty or mouldy.  It needs to be stored out of the rain and out of the sun and it can last for years in dry conditions.  If you find a good hay farmer, keep going back to buy as much as possible, many farmers do not make good hay as they don't understand cow nutrition (they will leave it too long to cut when they will get MORE bales, but past the mature stage of the grass, so not as high quality feed).  The same goes for dead dried grass in the pasture - sure it provides bulk, but not enough energy or protein for the cow.
  • Cows will eat LESS poor quality hay because it fills up her rumen and takes longer to digest.  A cow will eat until her rumen is full and later rechew the food (this is when she is chewing her cud, you know how they just stand or lie around chewing and staring into space?).  

  • Do not feed grain on an empty stomach (better yet, do not let your cow's stomach get empty at all!  If she can maintain a steady population of microbes, her digestion will be better overall).  Grain is small and will pass right through the rumen without other bulk of hay or grass to hold it there long enough to be digested by microbes.  If you see grain in your cow's manure, you know its not being digested (the chickens love scratching through cow manure to find the grain!).
  • You can feed any kind of grain, we buy a milled mixture from a local grain wholesaler, it doesn't contain any additives.  Milled grain is digested better as its got more surface area than whole grain, however the oils will oxidise and it won't last as long.  We use diatomeceous earth to keep the bugs out, and store the mill grain in sealed drums.  Sprouted grains in another good idea for maximising nutrition from grain - I haven't tried that for the cows yet.  (I found some examples of growing fodder for chickens which could be scaled up - how to grow wheat grass for chickens and why you should grow fodder and how to do it).
  • Feed hay using feeders to keep it off the ground - we have round bale feeders and small bale feeders.  Cows will pick through and eat what they like.  Expect that 10-30% of the hay will end up on the ground, but don't consider that as waste, its organic matter for your pasture (and mulch for your garden).
  • If you are lucky enough to have grass available year round, note that grass of a particularly length is best for cow digestion - around the length the a cow would naturally bite off a blade of grass.  Pasture can be managed by rotational grazing to use the grass at the optimal length.  This also means that chaff (hay that is chopped into small pieces) is not ideal.

The main thing I got from all of that is that we should be buying the best hay we can find and adding a bit of grain to our cows' diet when we see them start to lose body condition.  As much as I would love to have everything "grass fed", we can't provide that at the moment, so we have to make sure our cows get what they need from their feed.

What do you think?  Do you feed hay or grain?  Is your grass green and luscious?  

You can find more house cow information in my eBook here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What time of year is best to have calves?

Its mid-autumn and our nine angus-cross heifers are currently calving.  This may seem an odd time of the year to have calves, and certainly in the temperate areas you would expect to see baby calves and lambs in spring, but in the sub-tropics we can do things a bit differently as we don't have a cold winter.  The problem is that cow gestation is around 9 months, so you really don't know what conditions are going to be like by the time the calves arrive.

eight acres: what time of year is best to have calves?

Ideally you want your cows to have their calves at a time when they are going to have plenty of grass to eat to make lots of milk to feed their calves.  In temperate climates, springtime is ideal as spring rains will bring grass and the calves will grow fat over summer.  For us, spring can often be the driest time of year, and summer brings drought, heatwaves, or flooding rain and paralysis ticks. Sometimes we have lots of green grass in summer, but its not reliable.

In the sub-tropics, autumn is cooler, but also tends to be drier.  We find that grass is starting to go to seed, dry out and does not have as much nutrition as green grass.  By winter we've usually had some frost and our tropical grasses are all dead and dried out.  There's really no great time for us to have calves, but autumn is a bit better than other seasons and we always make sure we have hay ready to feed if the grass is too poor.  Of course, all of this is different if you have irrigated forage to feed your cows!

eight acres: what time of year is best to have calves?

With our dairy cows we don't worry so much about the season, as we can help our cows look after their calves.  However, we really have to think ahead 9 months and make sure that we will be available to milk the cow twice daily for at least 6 weeks after she calves.  Again, its difficult to look ahead 9 months and predict whether it will be a good time to have a calf!

One more thing, cows tend to hide their calves in the grass and pretend they don't have a calf.  This can make it difficult to find them!

eight acres: what time of year is best to have calves?

When is the best time to have calves where you farm?

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

When to call the vet

I was recently contacted by a friend with a sick steer.  She described his symptoms and I was concerned that is sounded quite serious, but I hesitated to recommend that she called a vet.  Unfortunately the animal later died, which confirmed my suspicions, however we were both comfortable that she did all she could to save him.

I hesitated for a couple of reasons:
  • Calling a vet out after hours can be expensive, often more than the animal is worth (and I checked that this was livestock rather than a pet)
  • There's not always much a vet can do for sick cattle other than give antibiotics and hydration, which may not have saved him
This incident made me think about how we decide when to call the vet and I wanted to share a few thoughts on this topic.

eight acres: when to call the vet

For pets we always call the vet, no question about it.  And for dogs and cats there is far more the vet can do anyway (and paying hundreds and even thousands of dollars to save a beloved animal hurts, but its worth it!).  On the other hand, we have NEVER taken a chicken to the vet, any sick chickens are examined, isolated and given a 50:50 chance of making it to the next morning (unlike Fiona at Arbordale Farm, who always nurses her sick chickens far more tenderly!).

Cattle are in the middle.  Usually if its something we recognise, like three-day sickness, we just keep an eye on them  If they are just a bit lame, we'll just watch them to see if it gets worse.  If its something we're not sure about, we will call a farmer friend.  If you are new to cattle, I recommend that you have a few farmer friends that you can call when things don't look right.  Neighbours that can come over and have a look are the best.  You just need someone experienced with cattle who can give you an honest opinion (once we asked our neighbour to come and shoot a sick cow and he told us to call the vet, the cow made it with the vet's help and we sold her, so it was a good call).

If the animal is important or valuable, like a cow or a bull, and if the problem is obvious and life-threatening, such as a prolapse, we will call the vet.  Usually this is on a weekend day because that's when we check the cattle.  Vets in our area charge around $200 to come out and have a look at an animal.  The actual treatment fee is not much compared to the call-out fee.  The first time we called a vet to our property, I didn't know what to expect.  We had taken the dogs to the surgery though, so they knew we had an account there and were happy to come out.  If you have cattle and don't know your local vet, you should drop in and say hello, find out if they do call-outs and what the fees are, so you are prepared, because animals always get sick on Sunday afternoons!

eight acres: when to call the vet

Even when the vet arrives, sometimes they don't know what's wrong with your animal.  Or they know what's wrong, but there's nothing they can do (e.g. cow with a prolapse that cannot be corrected).  Or its just too expensive (e.g. paralysis tick anti-venom).  In this case, you want to be ready with a back-up plan in case the animal gets worse.  You can ask the vet to euthanise an animal, but it is expensive, and a slow, scary death for a animal that is not tame (speaking from experience here).  I would much rather use a gun to euthanise an animal (see my post here), so if you have cattle you should either have your own gun or know someone who can help at short notice.

You also need a plan to dispose of the dead body - either digging a hole or burning it are the usual methods.  Again it helps to have a machine that can dig the hole, or know someone who does!  Farming is all about networks!  Unfortunately, if you have livestock, you will eventually have deadstock.  Its much easier to handle if you remember that livestock are not pets.  You get to know them and care for them, but one way or another they are going to leave your property, dead or alive.

Even if the vet isn't able to save the animal, we always learn heaps from a vet visit.  Take the opportunity to ask lots of questions and find out what you could do to identify the problem earlier, prevent it in other animals or just care for the animal your self next time.  Our vets are always really friendly and happy to teach us more about our cattle.  That's how we learnt how to remove paralysis ticks from calves.

Caring for livestock is a big responsibility and the least we can do is be prepared for sick animals, even if that means not always calling the vet.

When do you call the vet?

You can find more house cow information in my eBook here.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Raising a baby house cow

Our first house cow Bella came to us from a dairy farm and had already had two calves.  She came with her second calf, Molly, who is also a full Jersey cow.  We raised Molly to be our second house cow.  With Bella now having an uncertain future after having difficulty with her last calf, we decided to raise some future house cows.

I think they two most important inputs are human interaction (to ensure the cow is tame enough to be milked) and good nutrition (to raise a healthy robust cow).  While Bella is extremely tame, from what I know of her early life I don't think she had good nutrition and she now has health problems that prevent us using her as a house cow.  Molly is extremely robust AND tame.  Can we produce another good house cow?

(Catch up on our house cows here Part 1Part 2Part 3)

eight acres: raising a baby house cow
Charlotte and Rosey at 4-6 weeks old

As Bella's calf had died, and she had previously taken a foster calf, we got her Jersey heifer calves to raise.  I don't know why we thought two calves would work, but I guess it was worth a try.  We had a series of problems with Bella (oedema and mastitis) and the calves (scours and paralysis tick), which didn't help.  Eventually Bella accepted Charlotte as her foster calf and we've had to bottle feed Rosey.

It has been interesting to compare the progress of the two calves.  At first Charlotte was very tame.  The dairy farmer had separated her from the other poddy calves because she was too tame and kept tipping over the milk buckets.  She actually walked right up to him when we went to collect her.  Rosey was not tame at all.  We chose her because she looked pretty (bad farmers!) as she is a Jersey/Aussie Red cross, but she was the calf that kept running away and was very difficult to catch.

Charlotte stayed tame for weeks, especially at first when we were bottle feeding both calves.  Since Charlotte has secured her own milk supply and doesn't need humans anymore, she doesn't come for a scratch.  We really need to work on getting her tame again, I think when she is weaned we will feed her a little grain so she associates us with food again.

eight acres: raising a baby house cow
Charlotte with foster mother Bella

Rosey, on the other hand, knows her name and will run over to us, because we are her milk supply.  At first we milked Molly everyday and Rosey had a few litres until she was about 3 months old.  Most dairy farmers will wean replacement heifers at this age, but there's no reason to stop given them milk.  Since we are now only milking Molly once a week, Rosey gets the excess milk in the weekend.

Charlotte has grown a little faster, probably due to her more regular access to milk, but she also had a less severe reaction to the paralysis tick when they first came here.  Rosey seems to be doing well enough and we will keep giving her milk while we have it to spare.  I worry more about Rosey not having a mother to lick her and love her, in fact Bella is quite awful to her and will head butt her out of the way at any opportunity.  I make sure she gets plenty of human love instead, and I hope she will be accepted when she's bigger.  Bella still gives Molly a good lick bath. they have a whole herd hierarchy going on.

eight acres: raising a baby house cow
Orphan Rosey

It is a myth that calves stop drinking milk voluntarily (I see this perpetuated by vegans that have probably never met a cow).  Calves will drink until their mother literally kicks them off the udder to feed her next calf.  Full grown cows, and even bulls, will drink milk from another cow if they get the chance, and calves will happily drink for as long as they are allowed to (which is extremely detrimental to the poor cow providing the milk).  Weaning is a VERY noisy time as mother and calf bawl to each other for several days.  When reunited the calf will try to drink again even after months of separation.

The two babies are 6 months old now, so it will be another 18 months until we find out if either of them are good house cows.  I think Charlotte has had the best nutrition, but Rosey has had a pretty good start and the best we could do for her (a shame Bella wasn't more helpful!).  Rosey is currently the more tame of the two, but I'm sure we can work on Charlotte again as she started off so tame.

What do you think?  Have you ever raised a house cow?

You can find more house cow information in my eBook here.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Cows with horns?

I know there is a bit of confusion around cattle and horns.  I've heard a few people say that they thought only bulls had horns.  I suppose that makes sense... but its wrong!

Most cattle are born with horns.  Both male and female.  You might not see many cattle with horns because they are usually removed at a young age.  There are two reasons for this, firstly the horns can grow back into the animal's skull, and cause problems.  Bella had horns like this and we had to remove them when she was an adult, causing her considerable distress.  The other reason is that cattle with horns can injure other cattle when they are loaded onto trucks, so any cattle that are destined for feedlots and/or abattoirs are generally dehorned, as are dairy cows who have to stand next to each other to be milked.  They also have the potential to harm humans.

You might have noticed that our beautiful Molly cow does have horns.  We chose not to remove her horns because I think its a painful procedure for young cattle and not necessary if they are living on a small farm.  Yes Molly does toss her head around sometimes when she's frustrated and she could unintentionally hurt us (I like to think she wouldn't mean it), however she is very tame and we just have to manage her appropriately.  I believe that Molly has lovely straight horns because we fed her well, with lots of minerals and her mother's milk until she was 14 months old.  We don't have all the details of Bella's early life, but I gather that she only had milk for 3-4 months and probably wasn't fed well.  Prior to mass production of milk, dairy cows always kept their horns and their correct conformation was one way to judge the health of the cow (we have a few old dairy books with images of beautiful horned dairy cows!).

Polled cattle
Some cattle have been bred very carefully to have no horns.  There are called "polled" cattle.  The angus steers and cows that we have at the moment are all polled.  Generally their progeny should also be polled.  I think this is the best option, as you don't have to hurt the animal to remove horns and you don't have management issues.  However, cattle without horns cannot defend themselves or their calves against wild dogs.  If you know you have a problem with dogs, it might be good to have a few cows with horns.

If you breed a polled animal with a horned animal, you may get offspring with horns, polled, or with "scurs" (not to be confused with scours!).  These are wobbly horns that are not attached to the skull.  They don't need to be removed for transport as they don't pose a danger to other animals, but they can easily break off too.

When we had the braford cattle I learnt that its very difficult to breed a polled brahman (bos indicus) crossed with a bos taurus (such as a braford, which is a brahman hereford cross) because the genes for horns are different in the two species, so its difficult to line up the recessive traits and breed a true polled animal.  Unfortunately brahman cross animals do well on our property, so it might be difficult to find the right polled animal for our place.

True horns are actually attached to the skull of the animal.  If you remove them when the animal is very young, they are not quite attached completely.  There are various "dehorning" tools, most of them involve scooping the horn out of the animal's head.  There is a lot of bleeding.  It looks painful and I don't want anything to do with it unless its absolutely necessary.  We removed Bella's horns because they were growing into her head, but apart from that we haven't removed any horns and as a result we sometimes don't get as good prices at the sale yard when we send horned cattle.  They can actually devalue the entire truck load as they could have bruised the other cattle.

We have only ever had polled or dehorned bulls and I would prefer not to have a bull with horns.  There is just an extra unpredictability with bulls and I don't want to give them any extra power to hurt me!

So if you see cattle with horns, don't assume that its a bull!  But don't get into the paddock to find out either!  What do you think?  Do you dehorn?  Buy polled?  Or manage horns?

eight acres: why do some cattle have horns?
Our mini-bull doesn't have horns

eight acres: why do some cattle have horns?
Polled Angus steers - no horns

eight acres: why do some cattle have horns?
Baby house cows - starting to grow horns

eight acres: why do some cattle have horns?
Miss Molly cow - definitely has horns,
but her calf Chubby had a polled sire, and she doesn't have horns