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Horns of Plenty

September 8, 2009


Miss Della, I am her humble servant!

I haven’t posted about Della much lately since I am still smarting from her losing her calves last year.  It’s not that Della isn’t a huge part of my daily life, it’s that like a beloved dog – you really don’t want them to go beyond the perfect age.  And for Della that would be about 6, still young enough to have lots of life left in her, and old enough to not be too much of a pill during milking 😉  But, Della will be 12 in March.  She isn’t ancient by any means, but I know she won’t live forever either.  I do not want her to get any older.  But, the reality is that I need to get started on a replacement for her.  I thought I had that taken care of when Jetta was born, regular readers of the blog know that Jetta went to Iceland, and I mean the Iceland that is plugged into a wall outlet and gets real cold…  There is no room here for mean cows.  Period.

My big news?  Della is finally settled.  Through a chain of events and bad timing my late spring calving cow was having calves the first week of September.  I was not liking that one bit.  I know it is common practice to have cows calving year-round but that is the “store bought” mentality – everything under the sun, availability at anytime of the year.  Drying her off when the grass was the lushest and then expecting her to milk through the winter  and still keep good condition.  Not for me.  It’s too hard to work against nature all the time, I get enough of that as it is.  The dark days need to be a time of rest for us, and our animals.  I know I don’t sound too heroic, by not wanting to trek to the barn and bring back a pail of milk before it freezes – but for this farm and this farmer, that will be the stuff of stories about Pa Ingalls that can read next to a cosy fire. 

But, I am digressing.

How did  Della get to calving in September when she started out having calves in late May?  Good ol’ cause and effect.  Most of Della’s calves have been half Hereford because we run Herefords and the bull was always handy.  I did not need to AI her because I had no desire to raise more dairy cows.  She was pretty predictable, bull calf one year, heifer the next.  The year she was AI’d for a  Guernsey heifer – I got a heifer.  All was well in the family cow department.  Meanwhile, due to land-use changes in our area, neighbors fields that were available to us for hay, became unavailable.  So we decided to liquidate some of our herd and just keep the number of cattle that our place would support.  Soon it became apparent how expensive it was to keep a bull, when we really only needed one for 6 weeks of the year.  So we rent a bull from a reputable guy.  He’s here for 6 weeks, and then that is it.  But the bull’s time here never seemed to coincide with Della’s freshening and heat cycle, so we used AI.  Every cycle missed moves the calving date by 3 weeks.  Slowly, by degrees she was freshening in late summer – just when she needed the best feed, the grass was starting to fall apart.  Not where I wanted her to be for optimal nutrition, for her and us, who drink her milk.  

I think sometimes in these modern times we live in, we forget how nature worked and we tweak here and there, and pretty soon we have arrived at a place that we didn’t really intend to be.  I know I can buy in hay and grain to prop up my cow during the winter, and I have done that – but I want to apply the permaculture principle of stacking to my home dairy undertaking.  By that I mean I want to achieve more than one objective and not be tunnel visioned.  I believe by managing my family cow in a holistic way I can have my cream and churn it too… .

My home dairy objectives:

♣  I want a healthy cow. 

♣  I want my healthy cow to raise a healthy calf. 
     The easiest way to achieve this is to let the calf nurse.  The milk is fresh, and the calf    devolops strong jaws for future grazing.

♣  I want the best raw, CLA packed milk I can get, so I can stay healthy.
     To achieve this, the cow needs to be grazing on good pasture.  Minimum height – 8″.  The taller the grass, the longer the grass roots are and that means the roots are reaching down to bring up needed minerals.

♣  I’m lazy, I want my cow to harvest her own food as much as possible.
     Grazing again fits the bill.  The cow is the best judge of what she needs.  Feeding hay is like eating canned fruit during the summer when fresh is abundant.  Making hay and canning are hard work.

♣  I’m really lazy, I want her calf to harvest its own food too. 
     I want my calves to nurse on raw milk from their mother and graze as soon as possible.  If they are born in the late fall and winter they can be at a disadvantage from the cold and inclement weather.  I want them to have the best start as possible, since I am intervening here and stealing some of the milk.

To try to achieve these goals, there are trade-offs, most stem from putting the cows health and well-being before my convenience of having fresh milk during the off times of the year.  Most of my goals listed above can be achieved by having my family cow calve in late spring at the same time my beef cows are calving!  Wow – am I a rocket scientist or what? 

A cow needs optimum nutrition the last two months of her gestation, since the calf needs to increase its size by 80% at that time.  Optimum nutrition for a cow is a good stand of grass that she can harvest herself.  Stored food (hay or preserves) is for the time of year that things aren’t growing.  A steady diet of stored food for cattle or humans isn’t optimum.  Feeding stored feeds is expensive – I know, I get a lot of “feedback” from saying cows shouldn’t be owned unless you have pasture.  But more and more cows are being kept like horses – I truly don’t see how people can afford it. 

I want healthy milk and meat from my cows so they have to be healthy.  And for the  most part if cows have ample pasture/feed, and access to good minerals and water they maintain their health fairly well.  They become parasite and disease resistant. 

The Jar Nazi thought I was a little crazy for wanting to put my butter in jars and then freeze it.  But, one look at that deep yellow butter tells me I am not crazy.  Despite all the commercials to the contrary, animal fats (butter, tallow, lard, egg yolks) can be good for you if the animal is allowed to graze and eats a variety of foods.   To get beautiful butter like that, I have to “harvest” that cream when the grass is the best and when the cow is giving the most milk.  I don’t want to short her calf, since I expect that calf will either become a cow or I will eat the calf if it is a bull.  Cream also churns easier in early to mid lactation.  The fat globules are smaller and stick together better.  I know I can force my cream into butter by using well, uh force, in the shape of an electric churn or some other powered device, but I like to hand churn and I like the subtlety of “feeling” that butter come in 7 minutes.  Churning for an hour does not turn me on.  We all remember the story Heidi, to heal the girl from town, she needed to breathe fresh air and eat dairy products from goats that had grazed mineralized pastures in the spring and summer.

I have gotten off track here as usual, but it really is all interconnected.  Della came back in heat last September just like clock work, and at first I was in a hurry to breed her back.  She didn’t take, and I was able to step back and realize that if I waited until this summer to re-breed her, I had a chance to get her back on the calving schedule I wanted.  Milking her when she was going to cycle every three weeks was awful.  When she is in heat she means business – she knows how to use her horns to open gates that are latched.  (Why I taught her that – I’ll never know)  She is bound and determined to head for the mythical bull.  She does however respect fake electric fence so it wasn’t too bad, but it was no picnic either. 

For awhile I toyed with milking one of my beef cows and drying Della up.  Then I realized that she would get too fat, without a pregnancy.  Fat cows don’t breed too well, so I kept milking her to keep the weight off of her.  So as of now I have milked her for a full year.  I am milking once a day, and she is giving 2 gallons a day.  At this time my plans are to dry her up as soon as cold weather hits.  As usual I am hoping for a heifer, but really just like having a baby – I just want a healthy calf.

Thanks Della!

della - baby

Della’s baby picture.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. September 9, 2009 1:22 am

    This post was so informative, as are all your posts. I don’t eat meat or milk, but it is important to me to know that there are those who tend their animals as thoughtfully as you do. Looking at each angle, and thinking about how what is best for the cow is also what is best for you is an insight that (sadly) many people do not seem to have – or care to find. I do applaud you for your work.

    • September 9, 2009 4:29 am

      Mangochild, thanks so much for the kind comment. Looking at the farm, or life for that matter as a whole just helps everything fall into place. However, we are taught starting in school to achieve specialization to the detriment of many other skills. My farm is like a big quilt project – I need to press my seams in the right direction so quilting in certain areas will go easier. I quilt by hand – if I quilted by machine that subtle skill is gone or deemed unimportant.

  2. Marcia in Wyoming permalink
    September 9, 2009 3:59 am

    YEA! So glad for you. Our new Jersey/Guernsey cross heifer calved mid August. I also would like to have an earlier in the season calf next year. I’m thinking of having her bred in October which would hopefully be a late June/early July calf if I did the math right. I haven’t seen any signs of heat yet. Is two months time from calving to breeding ok? I get SO much information from your blog…THANKS! Marcia in Wyoming

    • September 9, 2009 4:35 am

      Marcia, thank you – I am excited and relieved that she is bred. 2 months from calving is when you would expect her to be bred again. A October 1st service would give you a July 8 calving date. That is just an approximate date, depending on if your cow goes over her due dates or not. She should be coming into heat anytime now if everything is going OK with her. 🙂

  3. Doris permalink
    September 9, 2009 4:34 am

    Any time you want a break from milking, call me.

    I totally agree with your objectives. So, I have a 10 month old cow, Guernsey/Angus, and some folks say I could breed her at 12 months, and others say I should wait till she is 15 months. With your goals in mind, what would you do if she were yours? Considering what you have said, really she should be bred in August/Sept? Which means if I don’t breed her now, I wait almost two years to get milk. The folks I bought her from suggested I breed her to a zebu for her first calf and that I breed her at 12 months. And you’re right a cow that wants to be bred is a misery. You obviously know lots more about this than I so would love your input. Thanks.

    I am serious, I will be happy to come milk your cow and do what ever chores you think is equitable in exchange for milk once or twice a week. Oh, dang it, I think you live somewhere down by Portland, well I guess that’s a bit far for me. So, if any one has a milk cow near Seattle, I am available.

    • September 9, 2009 4:53 am

      Doris, that is so funny although milking is my “me” time! No one bothers me then so I like that. Just me and dogs and Della. Although this year we have all been missing having a milk cow calf to train and play with. The beef calves are aloof and not too friendly.

      You won’t hear from me to breed that heifer so early. I go the other way for a no pull calf. I bred Della to calve at 27 months, so she was in the 18 – 19 month old range. She has given me beautiful calves every year. I found out from my AI guy that the bull she was bred to before has been culled for having too many large bull calves that needed to be pulled on mature cows. No wonder she had so much trouble. Most recommend breeding for the first calf to be born on the cow’s 2nd birthday. I guess it just depends on the heifer, how big is she for her age, will she be too fat for breeding if you wait (not likely if you don’t overfeed grain), and how long can you hold out without milk. The economic benefits of having a calf sooner than later can be quickly be gobbled up by calving problems, which can be accompanied by a later rebreeding and then you end up with the same time frame but with lots of stress. First calf heifers are nervous, and unsure and if they have a good time of it, you are well on your way to stress free calvings in the future. Twelve year old humans can have babies too, but it is usually not the best thing… .

      Can you breed her to a low birthweight Angus or something that isn’t so exotic? Think about what you want to do with the calf, eat it, keep it for a future cow. BTW where did you find a Guernsey near Seattle??

      • Doris permalink
        September 9, 2009 4:23 pm

        I do get that about “me” time. . . . love the smell of the cow, and the warmth and gurgle of her tummy, it’s kinda comforting and restful.

        We picked her up in Yelm, and traded her for a couple of goats. She has gotten to where she trusts us and will let us scratch her itches, but boy is she loud when she is in heat. We haven’t been grain feeding her, but she is slick and shiny black, and very round. If I bred her to a Zebu, the calf would prolly be a dinner guest (or as you so aptly mention, go to Iceland) regardless of sex, the point being it would be a smaller calf for her first time around. According to what I have read raw apple cider vinegar does a lot toward preventing problems in birthing as it allows the tissues to soften and stretch, my experience with the goats back that up along with making sure they are properly mineralized.

        I am wondering how big her bag is likely to get and how many gallons of milk she might produce. I imagine that increases as she matures. If the calf is left on her then her bag would never get too full? At least that is how it is with the goats unless they have some issue with their mammary system. I imagine a lot of the info that I have absorbed with the goats will be transferable to the cow, but I don’t want to take that for granted. Still I feel like a greenhorn.

        So do I have to listen to her bawling every 21 days if I don’t breed her till next fall? I can’t imagine a T-Rex being any louder than her. Some one suggested I find a ‘matchbox’ bull, one that throws 50 lb calves rather than 100 lb calves.

        Thank you, I really appreciate your perspective.

        So you actually milked Della through? (year round?) I’ve read that goats do that but cows won’t. I missed the post on Jetta, so will have to hunt it down, just wanted to mention tho, that Jarvis (New England Folk Medicine) says that raw apple cider vinegar will sweeten up a cantankerous bull or horse, ask my hubby, it worked on me, lol. Anyways, too late for Jetta now. Gonna find that post.

        • September 9, 2009 6:29 pm

          I met some people at Crystal Creek seminar one time that were from Eatonville, and they had Guernsey’s but I didn’t get their names. At the time I wasn’t looking for another one.

          The only reason Jetta got a bye as long as she did was because of her preferred status as a future milk cow. But she was mean and vindictive to the entire herd, not just us. Old, ornery and open are the way to determine if you need to cull or not. It seems mean, but if the farmer can’t trust the animal to not hurt others, that animal doesn’t really belong on the farm. I’m not a fixer, I have friends like that with barns full of “problem” horses that can’t be ridden but still just keep draining the bank account. Cows fight but they sort it out, but when you have one that will walk across a 20 acre pasture to gore a timid one that didn’t see it coming – it is time to go. She was a beautiful cow, but just didn’t fit with this program. I didn’t feel that she was safe enough to take to an auction either, because with her tempermant she may have hurt someone or been mistreated because she didn’t behave. Sometimes when we have animals we have to make those kinds of choices.

          And as of this week I have milked Della for an entire year. Her production is way down. But that is OK, I have a 4 month old calf that is getting her milk, so about the time he is ready for weaning, I can just dry her off and give her a break. Mostly it will be determined by her condition. Would I recommend milking a cow that long? No, but it was the only way for me to keep her weight down so she would rebreed, because is she didn’t rebreed… . Not Iceland, but I would have to get a job to support her 🙂

        • Doris permalink
          September 10, 2009 9:07 am

          Details, girl, I want details, lol. Meaning exactly what is way down in gallons and what is her production when she is producing full out? We had cows when I was a kid, so I get the basics, but these details are what I am dying to know. Of course things are subjective, but at least I get a ballpark figure idea so can be prepared for what may come.

          Interesting I read yesterday that a bawling cow can mean her feed is insufficient. So it may be that I need to throw her more hay, my pasture needs a lot of work for improvement, so if you haven’t already written about it, I would love to hear what you would do (on a shoestring budget) to improve an acidic pasture that is infested with thistle, and buttercup. I am thinking of getting two pigs to help rototill and eat the thistle roots along about October. I’m getting the idea that planting ryegrass soon would be a good thing to do also.

          I’ve come to the same conclusion, inviting problem livestock to be dinner guests is kinder in the long run that allowing them to become someone elses problem and them slowly dieing from neglect, disease and/or parasites.

        • September 10, 2009 2:32 pm

          Doris, Della peaks at about 6 gallons a day, however I like her to slip back to 5 or even 4 to keep her in shape. At first I am keeping 4 -5 gallons a day and the calf gets the remainder but as the calf needs more, I take less. Now at 365 days into her lactation (too long) she is giving 1 3/4 to 2 gallons a day. She is on full unlimited pasture, and during milking she consumes 3# of grain and about 10# of hay. Your half Guernsey will give much less, I have two and they don’t really have the milking capacity that Della does.

          Our cows are quiet, and if they bawl, I have to listen to see what they mean, “calf not back from joy-ride, I need milking” or “Somebody has jumped the electric fence and is getting more grass than me”, or several cows bawling at once mean that someone they don’t know is probably trespassing. But yes, definitely food and water are biggies -and probably the first place to look if you think your pasture needs work.

          The best shoestring way to improve your pasture is to intensively graze it. I know it doesn’t sound right, since we are trained we have to buy seeds, amendments and fertilizers – but timed managed grazing will give you the best results. Check out this site for tons of info.

          As for the weeds, look at why they are there instead of eradicating them. If you improve your grass and soils through grazing management they will leave. Each weed has specific requirements that are being met. WEEDS AND WHY THEY GROW (Acres USA) will give you lots of info along those lines. If you get rid of the weeds you see, but don’t change the conditions of the soil, you will just have to deal with them again and again.

  4. peacefulacres permalink
    September 9, 2009 4:44 am

    As usual, I’ve been enlightened! Ha-Iceland….ok, I am a little slow….well….. a lot! I thought to myself…..boy how did they get that cow to Iceland….I truly fit my name, Ditzy Di! Josie is pretty perky today. She looks so different, skinny and trim. Our bond is greater than before and my heart has been captured by this gentle giant.

    • September 9, 2009 5:00 am

      Diane, so funny – some of our meat customers prefer a euphemism. Jetta was a bad egg! Beautiful but too hard to handle.
      That’s great news about Josie – she is probably glad that is all behind her now. They can surely be sweethearts. 🙂

  5. September 9, 2009 5:35 am

    Great post as always. I like your COMMON SENSE!!

  6. September 9, 2009 6:50 am

    Congrats! Hope all goes well. So, do cows behave differently when they are pregnant?

    • September 9, 2009 7:08 am

      Well for the most part no – but those heat cycles are crazy!! Della becomes Atilla when she is in heat, and then in 18 hours she is back to her old self again. I do have to get out her maternity halter though 😉

  7. September 9, 2009 7:37 am

    I love coming here, because you put into words what we practice, but I never seem to know how to write about it.

    You should and could write a book, there are those who would love to pay money to you to learn from you.


  8. Tami permalink
    September 9, 2009 11:09 am

    YIPPEE from Colorado!!

  9. September 10, 2009 11:07 am

    I never thought cows were beautiful until I met Della.

  10. Bonnie permalink
    September 27, 2009 12:46 pm

    For a first time heifer, you might consider a highland bull. There are several in the Seattle area, and the birth weight is nice and low without being a miniature cow. (I don’t have a Highland bull, but I do have Highland cows–they are great).

    • September 28, 2009 6:47 am

      Bonnie, good advice, but I don’t have any first calf heifers? Our Hereford line is good for low birthweight calves too. Around here it is common to use Angus for first calves. Your Highland’s sound great!

  11. Sheri Landreth permalink
    January 19, 2014 1:01 pm

    Thank you so much for this post! I realize I’m reading it a few years later, but lots of great info here! I’m trying to decide how to proceed with re breeding my Jersey who calved the weed of Jan. You’ve given me a lot of food for thought!


  1. Knowing what side my bread is buttered on « Throwback at Trapper Creek

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