I have learned that one of the keys to sustainable (real) farming is that animals are born and bred on the farm. I’ve been told that a farm’s stock really hits its stride in performance after one full generation. Allow me to put it this way, we have to start with breeding stock from somewhere. Well, even if the environment that animal originates from is just a few miles away, there are numerous factors that would only be found at that farm versus our farm. Some of those factors can be types of forage, other vegetation, climate, micro-climate, feeding protocol, bodies of water, proximity of other Animalia, to name a few.
We had started off with a little Jersey cow from a farm in South Georgia. Ellie was in milk and was being used only as a nurse cow. We were going to use her as a nurse cow as well for three Holstein calves, but she was not interested at all. She had just been drug across the state and had these calves turned loose on her. After she kicked all three a few times, the calves gave up, so I started milking her. Even though her udder was full and tight, she wouldn’t let the milk down for me. Apparently, a cow can pretty much “let down” her milk at will. I guess this would be a necessary trait for a herd animal where other nursing calves might try to steal from anudder udder (oh I kill me), so that she’d have enough to feed her own baby. I was able to squeeze some milk out of her, but she was holding it back and all I could guess is that she was in a totally different environment and she had not gotten know me.
I have a set of parameters that I wish operate in, one of those being that my animals eat what they were designed to eat. Cows, goats, sheep & rabbits are herbivores. Chickens, pigs, and humans are omnivores. Cows are not supposed to eat corn, chickens aren’t supposed to be deprived of meat (larva, grubs, etc.). To feed animals food they were never meant to eat, leads to unhealthy food and a damaged environment. So this is another factor with a dairy cow though. Breeds such as the Jersey, have become genetically dependent on a diet of grain to produce the milk a dairy expects. Taking a cow that has spent their life on grain, and has basically been predisposed to needing the grain for adequate milk production, is going to go down in productiveness when the grain is taken out of or greatly reduced from her diet.
Okay, I said all of that to say, I love the Dexter breed because they’ve not been adulterated and altered into being dependent on a grain diet. The breed hasn’t been commercialized. The worst thing man has done to this clever, thrifty cow is to encourage a type of dwarfism to make them even smaller. Thankfully there are some good breeders out there, working to improve the breed. For me, this breed is the most appropriate for our needs. Per pound, they are one of the most efficient breeds at converting pasture forage into meat AND milk. I don’t say grass because, grass is only one type of forage found in a field. There’s legumes, brassicas, and even weeds that provide a balanced diet for the ruminant.
Back in December, I traded Ellie for a Dexter heifer we I named Carla. Carla was never handled because the gentleman who owned the farm, raises Dexters primarily for the purpose of producing meat, so she never had any human contact until I came into her life.
We have come a long way with her in that we can now put her in a milking stanchion and she doesn’t take off running at the sight of a human. She is possibly the first Dexter in our county and yesterday, gave birth to a healthy heifer calf! As I headed out to the barn to start the day’s chores, I could hear a soft crooning coming from the pasture. It was a particular sound I had not heard a cow make before, so I headed out to the pasture. Kiera, our other Dexter we acquired a month ago, met me at the gate. She headed to the barn without giving me a second look. I followed the lane that is defined by electric twine, my way illuminated by the glow from the lights from the neighborhood that borders us. About two hundred yards out, I spotted Carla standing and looking down at a little black smudge in the grass. As I eased up, I could make out the shape of the smallest calf I’ve ever seen, (not that I’ve seen that many). Now I could see why Carla was so vocal, the calf was on one side of the fence and she on the other. This calf is so small that she could walk under the fence wire without even touching it. I pulled up some posts and moved the fence over so Carla could get closer to her baby. I stood by and marveled at this awesome moment, and then I began thinking about names. I decided to mimic the Practice Tim and Liz at Nature’s Harmony Farm use. Who ever is the first to see a new baby, is the one who will get to pick a name. Little did I know that the day was only going to get more interesting.
I had to go do one last job for a former lawn customer, so with Katie’s help, I shooed Carla to the barn. I then scooped up the little calf and carried her through to the other end of the barn so Carla could see her. I left the barn door open so cow and calf could step out at will. When i returned a couple of hours later, they were still in the barn. As I went about the chores, I kept an eye out for them to step out. The calf had apparently been napping, and after sufficient rest, she came bouncing out of the barn. Carla was close behind. I figured i might as well let them out to the pasture with the other cows. The new calf fearlessly ran out with her mother still close behind. Carla was a nervous wreck it seemed when the calf met the other cows (I was too), but it had to happen eventually. Well nobody gave the new member of the herd much of a welcome. They gave her a sniff and a look over before going back to ruminating or napping.The tension mounted when the calf approached Kiera. Kiera is the dominant cow and when she approaches the water trough, or a patch of grass, or a pile of hay she demands that any other bovine to get out of her way. Any slow to yield, get thump from her horns. Well, when this little calf walked up to Kiera, there wasn’t nary a reaction. Kiera is very close to calving herself, and her swollen udder beckoned to the little calf. Carla was practically dancing on her toes as her calf attempted to suckle Kiera, but to OUR relief, Kiera just stepped away.
After i released the breath I didn’t realize I was holding, the calf then walked directly under the wire and out towards the pasture that I was excluding from grazing until later. The calf took no notice that her mother wasn’t with her and frankly, she didn’t seem to care. Carla did and she stood at the wire bellowing. This calf took no notice of her mother’s distress and she just kept walking. I picked her up, Carla was now doing an imitation of an elk’s high-pitched call, I shoved the calf under the electric wire to her mother, and then promptly turned and headed back out to the open field. I tried several more times to get the calf to change course, but she was just determined to head in this particular direction. So I scooped her up and carried her up to the barn, unfortunately, Carla didn’t recognize her in my arms. She kept looking out to lower field. I tried to entice her by carrying her calf past her, but I may as well have been invisible.
I finally came to a conclusion when I felt a wet heat running down my arm. This precious little calf had just urinated on me. I was so needing some help. I took the calf to the paddock behind the barn and pulled my phone out to call Katie. Straight to voicemail. Try again, same result. My shirt is soaked in calf urine, mama cow is going bonkers, and baby just wanted to go exploring. Thankfully, Katie arrived home and came out to the pasture to help, and we were able to get them back together with solid fence to hold this expeditious calf. Our friends Daniel and David Hammond came over to see the new calf and gave their congratulations.
“Shall we cancel you milk order for Monday?” Daniel asked. “Not quite yet” I replied. Our next big challenge is going to be to actually get some milk out of Carla. I think THAT is going to be fun!
My reward for you dear reader, after 1500 words, is a photo of our first calf ever, Morning Glory.