Mornings now consist of starting the fire in the cookstove. We let the fires go cold at night. It’s not cold here in the maritime west, but there’s a chill in the air with our rainy weather, if you’re cold, you’re cold. A fire feels good, it’s as plain as that. There is a certain comfort in building a fire in a stove that also burned the wood in the photo below showing my dad and my big brother. The sights, smells, and sounds of building the fire each day in the cookstove that has been a fixture, appliance? in the kitchen for so long evokes memories of these guys who have been gone from my life for far too long.
Each morning I grope the match safe on the wall with my left hand as I am rummaging around for kindling in the woodbox. I wish I could say it was one smooth movement but it’s not. Invariably I will have throughout the day brought more kitchen wood from the basement as I tended that fire, and the kindling is at the bottom now. Never waste a trip from the basement without carrying something, Right? Already I have moved the stove lids, and crumpled up a few pieces of newspaper. Next I add a triad of kindling, some wood a little bigger and I strike the match. I’d like to think the memories swirling all dreamlike in my mind are something really dreamlike, but truth be told, it’s probably because I want the water to boil so I can make some stump water. The dreamlike state disappears quickly as I look at the dishes in the sink. The reality is that I need to clear the deck, because it’s soon time to head to the barn and milk.
As soon as the fire takes hold I close the damper, scoot the teakettle onto its place of honor on the hottest part of the cast iron top and I concentrate on feeding the dogs and getting them out of my hair. This is my only quiet time really, and once the dogs are sated and let out to go do their business I can relax a little with a pot of coffee. Just me and the French Press. I ignore the dishes a little longer and peruse the blogs and websites I usually read each morning. Some are new to me, some are like old friends that I have been reading since I started reading blogs which was way before I ever thought of blogging myself. I consciously make myself check them instead of having them in my feed. That sure cuts down on my internet time. I would rather let my mind drift into mind stories about here. The cookstove does that to you in the dark of morning, it transports you for a minute or two all the while demanding your caffeine starved brain. I may think of that time visiting my brother and boyfriend on a logging job and taking photos of them pondering the drum on the TD-8, then that mind story quickly goes to photographing wild ginger blooms that day, then the fire cracks, brings me back to now, I touch the stovepipe to see how hot it is and close the oven damper to direct the heat to the stove. It’s raining hard, the chimney doesn’t draw effortlessly, it’ll be an open draft kind of day.
The stove is crackling a bit, and the rain is pounding, yesterday’s storm never materialized until now. The reminiscing moment is gone, in present time now I think of doing all the chores in the rain, and once again I have to circle back to the stove and think about it, the workhorse, in a couple of hours some wrung out flannel gloves will be the scent in the air mingled with the beef stock that is on the back of the stove, and the jerky drying in the warming oven. The work of cows, wood, water all mingled over time and part of the collective memories. Just work, nothing exceptional except the roteness of it all. It all circles back to the stove somehow. Taskmaster. Comforting.
It’s been a long time since I posted about how we handle the house calf, and there are as many ways to train a calf, or not train as there are stars in the sky I think. So take all this with a grain of salt, this is what works for us, and makes milking go smoothly.
Why train you ask? Well, for us, because of the way we share the milk with the calf we need to be able to handle the calf for many months. For us to be able to do that safely, we have to be in control. Don’t tell Raylan, but at five weeks of age, he can already take off with us, he just doesn’t know it because we started training him early, like days old early. Never underestimate the strength of an animal, even a baby one. I’m not saying either that you can’t take a cow that has never been handled and spend some time getting them tame. You can, and many people like to channel their inner Disney fill in the blank whisperer mode and wow folks with their lion taming prowess. That’s not me. I’ve been trampled, pushed into a wall, and numerous other things by tame cattle over the years, so if I have to handle the calf a couple of times a day I like to just start them early, and keep things simple and safe and stress free. We do not train our beef calves to lead or anything like that because if we need to handle them we can use the corral. They are always with their moms, and learn about the corral as part of their training. If we ever need to restrain one of the beefers they go in the corral and we use a headgate. Apples and oranges.
To train the house calf we start out the first day with a simple baling twine “collar” just so we can guide the wobbly calf around, or catch them. At this point they are still with mama but you may need to act as a lactation consultant, and it’s handy to just be able to hold that twine collar and use it to steer the calf while you are gently guiding, and pushing forward or to the side on the rear.
In a couple of days the calf can graduate to a nylon dog collar that is a little more sturdy and doesn’t cut in if you have to grab the calf quickly. For the first few days they are acting on instinct and can startle at anything strange or new, or even get scared by their moms. The collar on the calf comes in handy. To adjust the fit, you can use a torch and heat a nail to melt more holes in the collar. We have several sizes because the calves grow so fast at this age.
Right now Raylan is already in a cattle collar, which has a bigger D-ring for clipping the lead rope on. Just a little detail like that makes daily handling so simple. We have several sizes of these and also a handmade leather one or two that we use.
Apologies for the blurry photos, camera phone, low light, moving calf. Sigh. The first order of business is teaching the calf to stand tied, this teaches the calf that they can’t just go anywhere they please. The sooner they learn this the easier it is. Sooner means the younger they are the better, three or four days of age is about right. Or you can plan on needing a very stout post. Tantrums will ensue, and you have to be present. Tie the calf to a sturdy post down low and with maybe about three feet of slack on the rope. Their first reaction is to pull back, they may fall over in a fit and act like they are gasping their last. We usually do this while we are cleaning the stall, and hopefully mom is out of sight. If the calf falls over, make him get up. I usually let them stand a few minutes pulling (make sure the snap is underneath their throat or they can choke) and then give them a touch or a shove on the butt to move them forward so they feel the release of pressure. It may take few times over a couple of days, but they soon realize if they step up on their own the aren’t feeling that pressure on their neck that they don’t like. The most important part of this is that once the calf thinks it can’t get away when it’s tethered this will transfer in their minds to just about every leading and tying scenario even when they are grown. That three feet is about all the slack they think they will have. Raylan may go straight up, or straight sideways in a burst of exuberance, but that’s it, a quick scolding and firm pull gets him back in line. Jane will once in a while try something funny, but hardly ever, and you usually know it’s coming and can be ready for it. And that’s all from her being handled and trained simple leading and tying at a young age.
The calf has to be restrained while I milk, so this is important to learn. Stand still and be quiet and you will get fed soon. Even if the calf nurses the cow instead of drinking from a bottle, the calf knows we are in charge of food. Don’t let anyone tell you cows are stupid. They are like big dogs, every move you make is training or untraining, they don’t miss a beat.
All of our stalls have these handy eyebolts for tying and cross tying. The eyebolt with a ring mounted with a bridge washer on the backside is very strong and good for securing calves and cows.
We keep our milking routine the same, we know what to expect, and the cow and calf know what to expect. In the morning the calf is led from his night stall to the milking area and tied, then we get the cow. While the cow is being milked the calf has to chill. After I milk, the calf nurses while the milk is processed. Even if I was bottle feeding the calf I still expect them to stand tied, and be led. It’s the same as basic obedience training for dogs.
I’m not a fan of leaving halters on any animal, they rub the hair off and are harder to fit a growing calf properly. I might caution that they could catch the halter on something and hurt themselves, but I’ve never seen that happen and it’s just as likely to happen with a collar too. The collar works good, fits for a longer time and it does come in handy if the calf is being a piss ant. To lead, a soft rope adjustable halter works the best. You just approach the calf, put the halter on, and set off to the barn. It really helps that the calf knows you are leading him to his food, his nice warm stall, or something good. Otherwise he has no incentive to do what you want. Relationship building is really important, we make sure that we don’t abuse the trust the calf or cow has. You want the cow or calf to come to you and allow you to put on their barn gear.
Soon the calf will be a large animal and with a little daily handling/training will remain tractable. All they need to know is what to expect from you, and a few basic commands. Just remember the main thing is to be firm and consistent.
Despite having some serious garden space devoted to hoophouses, we use them mostly for season extension, and reliable ripening of some warm weather crops. But we let them rest during the winter months with the covers off. Sort of like Eliot Coleman’s movable hoophouses, except we don’t move them, we just expose the soil and cover crops planted inside to real weather for the winter months.
In our maritime climate we usually (usually) can harvest hardy greens and some cabbages all the way through winter. But last year November was about like this, and bam, we were down to the temperatures in the teens overnight. My dahlia bulbs froze in the ground, that was how cold it was. Some plants survived, but only survived as mushy looking stumps. All our winter cabbage was turned to mush, and even the kale looked like someone took a blow torch to it. The kale survived but there were no leaves left to harvest, just woody stalks that would hold over until spring. Just like that we were out of greens, when normally we can harvest greens of some kind all the way through winter. But… .
Sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake or just plain lazy…we have two small hoophouses that we built for chicken brooding when we were selling pastured poultry. We offered eggs, broilers and turkeys. A hoophouse seemed like the perfect brooding setup for us, natural light and warmth, inexpensive, and away from any of our wooden buildings in case of fire. And in the case of PPBO (pastured poultry burn out) we still had a some nifty hoophouses.
We don’t sell poultry products anymore but we still use the hoophouses for chickens. One to raise the babies in, and one for the laying hens. Rather than do the whole pastured poultry thing with a small flock and not liking the fixed dirt yard for hens, we deep bed them year round and have turned them into our garden compost makers. But that is fodder for another post.
That freeze last year really kicked me into gear. Rather than just leaving the brooder empty all winter, why not grow in it again. We have used it many times as a prop house early in the season, just because sometimes we don’t have the covers on the large hoophouses, and the 20′ x 20′ hoophouse really heats up with just a few hours of sun and provides the natural light the plants need.
So this year when we rotated out the old flock and moved the young pullets, we stripped the brooder of its deep bedding and watered the crap out of it. You have no idea how dry soil in a hoophouse can get without irrigation. Since chickens like to be dry, this hoophouse hasn’t seen water of any kind since we replaced the cover in 2009 after the 2008 snowstorm that wreaked havoc here on the greenhouses :( For a less sunny view of the greenhouses read here.
The next task ahead of us was breaking up the soil that had been compacted for a couple of months each year by twenty to fifty chicks. Chickens are hard on the ground. We don’t have a walk behind tiller so it was pure shovel work. We weren’t so concerned about breaking up all the ground, just enough space for planting some winter greens. We were planting transplants instead of direct seeding so it could be pretty rough. A shovel and a little hoeing and raking worked just fine.
One concern we have with winter growing/harvesting is that our hoophouses are oriented north/south because we want the most light during the growing season. But during the winter, the end walls cast some shade which is a fine trade-off to me for our needs. But we have to take that into consideration when we plant. So to that end, we only shaped beds on the northern most two-thirds of the hoophouse.
We planted in September which is a little late, you want your plants to be mature enough to harvest, but not too mature or they may succumb to freezing, and on the other hand you don’t want them to be too small because they will just stop growing until the days lengthen in the spring. Each year is different too, what works one year may not the next.
While the hoophouse is warm enough to sprout and grow tomatoes in fall, the cloudy day and nighttime temperature only runs about one or two degrees warmer than outside. Ventilation is the hardest part this time of year for the plants. Low light, cool, and moist conditions make plant selection a little tricky. We went with a pretty simple selection of greens to see how they would go into fall and possibly overwinter. The lettuce is already done, tatsoi isn’t too far behind, while Tokyo Bekana and Joi Choi look promising for a while longer. The workhorse of this planting is the kale, and we added a new leaf broccoli, Spigariello to see how it performs. It’s pretty hard to beat kale in the maritime northwest for a hardy green, though.
If I made any mistake here with the plantings, it’s spacing. Air circulation is a must with winter crops. So I’ve been steadily harvesting the lower leaves of each planting to improve the movement of air between the plants. It’s been quite some time since I planted in the fall in the hoophouse, mostly relying on what was in the garden to tide us over, or not. To really compare garden versus hoophouse we planted some of these crops outside and some in. What I see now in hindsight, is that I wasted my time planting lettuce in here, our garden lettuce did much better in the fall, without the huge temperature swings. A few 90F degree days in September really bothered the lettuce in the hoophouse due to the fact that 90F degrees outside is 90F degrees, and inside the hoophouse even with the door open and a north/south orientation it can easily reach 100F degrees. I would have been better off using the space for more hardy greens, but that’s why gardeners experiment right?
Now four weeks into Jane’s fourth lactation we’re settled into a routine. I am forever grateful to Ruthless for stepping up and taking over the reins. It wasn’t just the milking she had to do since I hurt my knee, it was taking a newly fresh, high production dairy cow who had a difficult calving through the first weeks of lactation. Anyone who has a milk cow knows the first three weeks are the worst in the best of lactations. Week one is hard, week two is less hard, and maybe by week three you feel like you know what you’re doing. The udder swelling goes down, the lochia stops, you can relax about metabolic issues, the cow quits thinking everything is going to eat her calf, and your arms start to finally feel like arms instead of jelly.
My hat is off to her. She never complained, and she never gave up. It’s hard work for a seasoned hand milker let alone a person who has never milked. The slower you are the harder it is. Kudos! Best. Kid. Ever.
Jane also provides pure gold. It’s kind of nice to be stocking back up on butter and ghee and having an unlimited supply of dairy to cook with and feed with.
A high producing dairy cow suits us just fine. Jane is at about six gallons per day. Jane needs to feed her calf first and foremost, and he can take about three gallons per day between two feedings which gives him a good start in life, and leaves us with three gallons for the house. A cow will reach peak lactation at three months, and then some cows tend to taper off, or some are persistent producers. Jane is a persistent gal, she reaches to about eight gallons per day and then tapers back off to six. At least that is how all her previous lactations went. Calving in fall this time, things may be different, without lush pastures available when she peaks, maybe she’ll hold at six. Eight is too much and six is about Goldilocks for me. Just right. I want enough milk to be able to make all our butter, raise her calf, maybe two pigs and offset the cost of home-grown eggs.
Of course none of this is free, but I have to tell you folks, you can’t buy dairy products like this in the store. That expensive Irish butter that everybody goes goo-goo for is nothing compared to Jane’s golden butter. And there isn’t a whole lot of fossil fuel being burned up to make our butter at home. Having cattle doesn’t pay unless you have good pasture. Many people think that because they have grass growing they have quality pasture. Ummm, I would have to say that’s not usually the case. We have good pasture because we have had cows for many years, so our pasture is good. You can’t have one without the other, and you can’t create a good pasture in a few scant months. It takes a lot of time and care to make a palatable pasture.
Looking ahead, now that I have gotten over the initial stress of Jane’s eventful calving, I am trying to think positive thoughts that she may be able to have another calf, after a long rest. Even then there are no guarantees that she will have a heifer, or that she won’t need help again. Time will tell. But for now, I am glad to be back on the milking stool twice a day, and super glad to be making butter again.
After the calf pulling which probably took five minutes from start to finish, we moved to another set of problems. The calf had a torn umbilical and was in danger of a hernia, so he had to be stitched.
You can see the bloody area on Raylan’s stomach. So besides being a drowned rat, he need some extra attention to the navel which is already an area to watch, as it is a direct line to the animal’s bloodstream and can cause joint or navel ill until the cord dries several days after birth. Clean birthing areas, and iodine dipping immediately at birth are standard procedure. His umbilical hernia made this even a more problematic area to keep an eye on.
While the mom and babe got acquainted with each other, I settled up with the vet, and got my instructions for aftercare. Routine really, make sure the calf gets colostrum, keep an eye on the umbilical, watch for milk fever in a high producing cow, watch for signs of uterine infection which is common in cows with dystocia, etc. etc. We also discussed Jane’s possible ruptured prepubic tendon and what that means for future calving :( Prognosis is not good. With Jane’s internal organs all shifted to one side she doesn’t have the muscle strength to push out a calf, hence the problems with this birth. Granted twins are a tough job on a cow, but Jane is young and should be in better shape. Thinking back, I remember when Dickie was born Jane struggled to get up and after about 15 minutes she finally did get up. I can’t even imagine how much ripping something loose like that would have hurt. At this point, breeding Jane again is up in the air, and keeping a cow as a pet isn’t affordable either. Eating her is out of the question. Sadness all around. I was planning on a long lactation and getting Jane back on a spring calving schedule, now it’s a wait and see type of deal. I will have her checked next summer to see if she is sound for breeding and proceed from there with new information.
At times like this you must focus on the task at hand. As soon as the vet left, our first order of business was to try to get the calf to nurse, or if he was too weak, milk the cow and bottle feed the calf and get him jump started.
He was very weak, and unable to stand. He tried, but his hind end just wouldn’t cooperate. So his first milk came from mom via bottle. And then it started to rain. He was a little rattly from the fluid in his lungs, so we put him on towel that we had dried him with, and dragged him to the barn with mama “helping” us. He’s a big boy, it was all Ruthless and I could do to get him to the barn. Back getter for sure, live dead weight that you have to be careful with is hard to move.
It was a full 24 hours before he could stand and drink from his bottle with someone spotting for him, getting him to drink when he was that weak was out of the question. He would valiantly try, but his back legs and hips were weak and sore from the pulling. He would get on his knees and try to stand the back-end up, and end up spread-eagled on the front or doing the splits on the back. At a certain point you can only do so much, every time I saw him start to keel over, it seemed he was heading that umbilical area straight for a cow pie. We kept their loafing shed as clean as possible, but you know how that goes.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I dread going to the barn, for fear of what awaits me at dawn. Down cow, down calf, you just never know. Then a big sigh of relief when everything is in order. The second morning, we found Raylan doing the splits again. No telling how long he had been paddling in that position. So I milked, and we got him up to feed him. We were pretty discouraged, it was almost 48 hours since his birth, and he still couldn’t stand on his own. To our delight, when he finished his bottle, he butted the bottle and didn’t fall over, and when we backed away he followed us under his own power. Yeah!!! So we milked more into his bottle and fed him more, and then we turned them out.
I love having a house calf, they are chore for sure, but they are so sweet, so smart and fun to have around. He “helped” me pop the garlic cloves last week, and he’s really helping in the milking department, as I can’t milk yet with my bum knee. Any milk he nurses is that much that doesn’t have to be milked out.
Well, the big news is Jane had her calf…actually she had two, two weeks early. And the other sobering news is that I twisted my knee about two days after Jane’s difficult calving and this is the first day I can sit at the computer with my knee bent. Ugh. So while I had good intentions about blogging and such, it just wasn’t going to happen. I haven’t been able to move my cows, milk, or do much of anything. Stairs everywhere I look, and let me tell you it’s a long way to the garden and greenhouse on crutches. But each day is getting better, Hangdog and Ruthless know the drill, and I have been able to at least feed them, so while they are filling in for me besides all their regular chores at least they don’t have to worry about cooking too.
Jane was due October 20th, and I had semi been getting ready. Milk fever boluses ordered, vet called, stocked up on molasses, and fresh cow homeopathics, stalls cleaned and freshly bedded, and buckets and bottles at the ready.
I was also transitioning Jane back onto her rolled barley ration too, and reestablishing chore time. Vacay was about to be over for both of us. No more languishing in the pasture for Jane, or hitting the snooze for me. Routine is everything to cattle, and by bringing Jane in at night and feeding her, I could give her a good look-over and check her for signs of calving. Observation is everything in farming, subtle clues are so important. On Tuesday, October 6th I noticed Jane’s udder was quite a bit fuller since I had last laid eyes on her that morning, and her pins had dropped considerably. What the heck? October 20th was still two weeks away. I know that a cow can calve two weeks or so either side of her due date, and usually a cow is pretty consistent, early, late or on time. Jane had been on time with a heifer, and late with two bull calves. Could it be? Early? Heifer? Happy heifer dance. I thought birth was pretty imminent so I got up every two hours that night to check on Jane. Nothing but interrupted sleep for both of us.
Still nothing the next morning so we went about our chores as usual, and when I came back to the barn from moving the beef cows, I saw Jane lying down in this position with a hint of a water bag showing. Finally! We started the vigil, Jane taking no notice as she was in active labor.
She pushed a bit, and then the water bag came out, and kept coming. Ruthless and I exchanged worried glances, and she asked me, “Is that normal?” I shook my head No. “Not really, too big, and odd-shaped.” I’ve seen quite a few births, but have missed more because the beef cows usually have some privacy when they calve, so I was hoping to myself I was wrong and needlessly worried. The beef cows rarely have problems, so we don’t pester them like we do the house cow. I’m not saying we ignore them, we know who is going to calve and when pretty much, we look for the same signs as we do on the milk cow, but I don’t worry as much, there is so much less to go wrong without all that pesky milk production breeding.
What I saw that doesn’t really show in the photo were a few cotyledons, the places where the bovine placenta attaches. You usually don’t see that until after the calf is born. Crap. I immediately went to the house and called the vet. He was a little nonplussed because we had just spoke the day before when I called to see what days he would be on vacation or available towards the end of the month. I explained the placenta with no first bag of waters and he quickly said, “I’ll be there ASAP.” Of course, ASAP means 30 minutes at least if he leadfoots it here, he lives that far away and then there is traffic even on the back way.
Once Jane stood the water bag started to leak and she started looking for her calf, all perfectly normal in the course of a calf being born. But there was no calf. When the vet pulled in we breathed a big sigh of relief. I was pretty heartsick knowing that the calf that went with that big bag of amniotic fluid was most likely dead. I always start out hoping for a heifer when Jane is bred, then as the months go by, I start hoping for a good outcome for mom and baby – a healthy calf of either sex and robust mama cow. And then this happens and I get to the point where I am just worried about Jane remaining upright and alive. Since Dickie had been born, things hadn’t been quite right with Jane, she was oddly lopsided, normally a cow carries her full rumen on the left side, and when the calf starts to grow in the last trimester you see the calf on the right side. Jane has every thing on the right, and it makes her list as she walks. Needless to say, it had worried me but she seemed fine, so I hadn’t really done anything other than mention it to the vet, who without looking didn’t really offer any advice. It was equal parts worrisome and not worrisome.
The vet arrived in 30 minutes which seemed like days and seconds all at the same time. Stress is such a time warper. He gathered his calf jack, ob chains, gloves etc. and got to work. First exam revealed a calf in proper position but not moving away from the vet’s touch. Dead. Which explained the huge amount of amniotic fluid and cotyledons presenting before the calf. He secured the ob chains and the calf jack and proceeded to pull the calf. He appeared to be dead, and no amount of reviving did any good. While Jane tended to her dead calf, we talked again about her lopsidedness, and the vet speculated about a ruptured tendon as the cause. He wanted to examine Jane further just to make sure she wasn’t carrying another calf, and sure enough his hunch was right, and the good news was that this calf had its own intact placenta. The bad news, he was presented back feet first. Not good. Another pull. So I steadied Jane while he attached the ob chains to the second calf and positioned the calf jack. I let go of Jane while he pulled lest she fell and injured one of us. I was off to the side when the calf came out, and I thought I saw a slight movement like he blinked his eye. But I am sure you have experienced that moment when you wish for something, you almost think you see it.
I did see movement, he was trying to breathe but his lungs were filled with amniotic fluid, taken in at that critical time when the umbilical breaks and the baby starts to breath. He pulled the sac away and got the calf moving and wiped as much fluid from his nostrils as he could. The vet advised leaving him hang a minute upside down a while to drain more fluid while he regrouped to tend Jane further and to get the calf going.
To be continued…