Holy Cow

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It’s been a week since we brought Lola home. Holy cow have we come a LONG WAY!!! Thankfully Lola and May have become very good friends. You can see I’ve made separate pens for them, even though May finds a way to sneak into Lola’s area sometimes (goats!), and when she does, she rips apart Lola’s hay and throws it all on the ground (goats!!!)

I think it was the third day Lola was here that I decided to try taking her out to walk on her halter. She was getting antsy confined to the stall, and was doing ok in there with me haltering her and tugging her around. By day 3 she had come to associate me with good things, like handfuls of grass, lots of brushing time and also she just loves alfalfa cubes! I was nervous to find out if the halter would keep her 500 pounds of beastliness under control. She’d been tossing her horns at me a little bit in the stall, and I chalked it up to her restlessness but feared the worst that she might beginning to become aggressive.

A Highland Breeders group on Facebook erupted over controversy about my question on how to halter train a young highland; some said tie her up and let her figure it out over the course of several hours, some said be kind and patient, give her space and take your time. I ended up doing a combo of both. What also helped me summon my courage was a couple of articles I read in back issues of the Bagpipe, the journal of the Highland Breeder’s Association, which our neighbors Mark and Tracy gave me to peruse. One was about safe handling of cattle, and another was an article about Cow Camp- young kids training young highlands to be handleable and walk on halters in a weekend. If kids can do this, so can I!

First I brought MayMay out to her tether. Then I put on Lola’s halter/lead and opened the gate to the stall. I wore gloves to prevent rope burn in case things got crazy. I brought handfuls of grass with me to coax her out. She had no idea what this pulling on her head thing was about, but oh, there’s grass in your hand? I’ll come forward a few steps, and so on. I reached close enough to the massive trunk of one of the old apple trees and tied her to it. She began to “Roomba” the grass around the tree immediately, not paying attention to the halter anymore. I stood back and watched to make sure she didn’t get tangled. Sure enough, soon the spunky spark hit and she tried to run, but then hit the end of her lead and faceplanted into the grass. I watched her, and she stood up and composed herself. This happened once more, and then she understood she could not do as she pleased when her halter was on. She taught herself, or maybe the apple tree taught her. I untied her and gently pulled her to next test spot a 100 feet away, I had to pull quite a bit, but she was showing already an understanding of the power of her halter. She also really had bonded to May and wanted to go nearer to her, so we walked over to where May was tethered at the watering trailer. I tied Lola up again, and she did not repeat the faceplant lesson or do any pulling, she had learned amazingly quickly! After she grazed a while, enjoying the luscious grass growing where the calves and turkeys and geese had fertilized it last year, I grew bold and decided to see if she would walk with me. Lola was more interested in eating the grass than walking, but we did a little strut down the path, and she even got a skip in her step and did a little joyful kick, which I noted- it wasn’t at me, on her other side, but I don’t want to get in the middle of a joyful kick!

Every day since then, after my egg chores are finished and the afternoon chores are done, I have been spending a couple hours with May and Lola out on walks. A few friends have come out in the last week, so Lola is getting innoculated into a world with lots of variety each day and different people, which is awesome. We’ve hung out and drunk beer with Lola and May. I’ve brought them to the pavement road to walk on it, and continue to take new paths around the farm to keep things new and exciting so she is learning that all these new things are ok.

Some days I bring the brush and curry comb her as she grazes. When I hit a particularly fine scratchy spot, she stops and holds totally still and then her extremely long tongue comes out, curling and swiping across her nose, over and over. I can’t wait to see her summer coat emerge, as she’s brindle and this means her tiger-ey stripes will become more obvious as her winter fuzz sheds out. Almost everyday she and May and I go out to the hayfield. I have to bring the camera next time, it is so gorgeous in that pre-dusk light, a glowing highland heifer and a stoic goat galloping with me across the new spring grass.

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all for the love of cowscowscows

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Yesterday was my favorite kind of day, the result of my longing for something specific. As you know I’ve had plans to get a young highland heifer for a couple months, plans to get a specific little 8 month old girl cow named Ella. But we came home with Lola instead, and I am so glad. Let me give huge thanks here to my friend and adopted big sister Angelica of Angelica’s Garden who bred and raised and sold me this dear Lola, and my friend Cris of The Chicken Lady’s Great Adventures for bartering with us to borrow her powerful farm truck. And too, to Andrew for agreeing that this heifer was a perfect early birthday present for me! (She is also a legit farm expense, double bonus.)

I truly feel that cows are one of the most important forces for the future of permaculture and small scale sustainable farming. They eat GRASS. They make milk and meat from GRASS. All hail the amazing cow! While I love my ducks and I adore pigs, cows are supreme in being a nearly zero input animal on a pasture based farm. They eat and thrive from a resource which grows no matter how much we don’t want it to. I can’t grow vegetables very well because of the grass’s desire to thrive, so why not raise cows who can utilize that problem?

The morning of getting Lola didn’t go very smoothly, even before we arrived at Angelica’s. I had plans to get eggs cleaned before we left, so the shells didn’t get stained. It’s always better to get those duck eggs done as soon as possible after laying to ensure they are all pearly white. 4 hours later, they were all finished and I decided to put off candling the previous day’s eggs so we could get going. I drove to my friend Cris’s place to pickup her heavy duty truck and headed back home to get the trailer hitched up. With Andrew’s help, I backed the truck up to the trailer’s hitch, but then the trouble began. The jack on the trailer was broken, so he was using a tractor jack to hold the trailer up. When we went to get the ball and socket together, the trailer lurched forward and NOT onto the socket/hitch, and to make things worse, the trailer jack flipped forward when this happened and scratched Cris’s truck tailgate. Thank god neither of our faces were in the way of that momentum. Shit. Now we had to figure out how to get the jack under the trailer nose which was now on the ground. I used a 2 x 4 as leverage, hopping on it with all my might as Andrew struggled to get the lip of the jack under the edge of the trailer nose. Talk about dangerous you guys! But we got it up after propping a few boards to add additional leverage, and getting the longest 2 x 4 board we could find. Farm physics in action.

Next came getting the trailer lights hooked up, so people driving behind the trailer on the road would know when I was braking or turning. Pretty important. I have been behind trailers without signal lights and that is very dangerous especially when you aren’t aware they have no signals or brake lights. Andrew had a setup from when he used the trailer to haul in our 4 pigs a few weeks back, and it took some duct tape and connections but that got done.

Now I had the fun task of getting the 16foot trailer behind the how-ever-long truck from where they sat facing the wrong direction, out of there and into the driveway. I don’t know how I did it, but I did. There was not a turnaround available, so I had to shimmey and shake, reverse and readjust over and over and over to get that trailer backed up, maneuver within a 1/2 inch of a boulder and the pig’s electric fence, but I got it! I parked up near the road and we went to double check the signals and brake lights. The right turn signal wasn’t working. Back to the electronics and messing around with that. Time kept ticking by and suddenly we were supposed to be there right now. I felt defeated and frustrated over this malfunction. Was this a sign we shouldn’t be going to get a cow? I called Angelica and left a message that were behind schedule. Our window of time to go and be back was narrow as we were heading an hour away, and had to be back to do chores a couple hours after that. Thinking through the route, I realized there were very few right turns and these were all rural roads, not a freeways. So being responsible and decisive, after initially feeling indecisive,  I said fuck it, let’s go, we have to go. I can always claim I didn’t know the signal wasn’t working if I get pulled over. So off we went. I called Angelica when we were half way there and heard mooing and commotion in the background. She said they were still trying to catch Ella, so no worries on being late, they still had work to do. Apparently they had got her, but then Ella broke a rope and got free. Oh boy.

When we pulled up, Angelica and her husband were in the paddock with the herd of cattle, everyone was exhausted, exasperated and out of breath. They’d made a place the corner and block in Ella, but Ella was not having it. Meanwhile, 4 of the adult cows had brand new adorable little fuzzy munchkins leaping about, 3 or 4 other lady cows and their monstrously massive bull Eenis were just standing there mooing. Ella kept hightailing it off to the big pasture anytime we tried to guide her towards the corner of doom. I said hey if we can get Lola (the older heifer who she had been thinking about selling, and I had secretly been thinking I should get, as well as Ella!) I’d be happy to buy her instead. Plus if we just couldn’t catch Ella, maybe this was a sign and also was just impossible. Low and behold, Lola volunteered herself pretty much right away. She nearly snuck past Eenis on the side, but we blocked her and got her in the corner.

Now what? I had brought two halters, and knew I needed to have one of them on her before we loaded her up. Halters give the feel of some sort of control over the situation. I think the idea is if you have power over the head of the cow, she can’t run off or trample you? So, I climbed into the corner pen with Lola, pretty nervous as she is not a little calf. She has horns, and while she is acclimated to people, she had never had a halter on, she and her herd had just been under a new kind of stress, and also I am a stranger. But in I went anyways. She was dancing and pacing around, trying to get back with her family. I used a trick I learned on a video for slipping on a halter using a stick, this is the kind of cattle halter that opens and tightens from one spot, but is one solid piece of rope (not the blue one I had in the picture.) It took a few tries and she tossed it off a couple times, but then once the halter was snuggly fit around her face, I was surprised that it seemed to have little control over her. Her power was amazing, but what did I expect from a 500 lb heifer? The good thing was she calmed down, was not aggressive at all, and she let me stroke her neck. It was seeming that this indeed was meant to be! Mike backed the trailer up skillfully to the pen (thank you! that is HARD!) and the way the back trailer door swung right and the gate opened left was perfect. Lola walked….right…in.

We all marveled at what had just happened. I was in the trailer with her, and she let me put on the blue halter. We talked about whether to tie her or let her be loose in the trailer, deciding to keep her loose. We discussed the setup I had made at home for Ella and I realized I was going to have to change everything. Lola had demonstrated a proclivity for leaping over 4 foot fence. Money was exchanged and off we went with this half-wild brindle colored beauty, hoping we could get home not too late for chores, get them done, rearrange the cow setup and also get her out of the trailer and into her pen all before dark.

Thankfully it doesn’t get dark as early as I remember now that it is nearly May. All the aforementioned tasks were done, Andrew returned Cris’s truck and we decided to use two lead ropes on the two halters and to open the trailer and hope for the best, that the two of us and our force could pull Lola over to her new stall. Our dogs were so extremely excited, being cattle dogs, at the sight of Lola when we opened the trailer. We told them to back off, and then we coaxed her out. She leapt off the trailer and with some nervousness we cajoled her along and got her in the pen. Oh and ” hilariously” the trailer wiring for the brakes and turn signal lights had fallen down and been totally scraped off on the road. Awww time for a beer and cow TV! What a day!!

Lola is a year and half, and so is a year ahead of my original “highland-milking-idea” plan. She can be bred this fall for a spring calf. I really really hope this wild hair of mine pans out. The worst would be if she for some reason wasn’t fertile or didn’t settle. Another worst would be if she is an aggressive mother, or will not tolerate me milking her. So far, even under stress she is showing very good tendencies towards being an excellent milk cow. Lola’s curious, gentle, friendly and she lets me touch her almost all over already, and this is day 2. Might I also point out the obvious that she is also just a gorgeous being?! Even if the milking idea for whatever reason doesn’t work, she can either be a brood cow or worst worst case scenario, she can become beef. This is why cattle are so valuable. I definitely want to eventually have what is called a “fold” of highlands and produce beef from that renewable resource, with an extremely renewable resource; grass. I hope Lola will be the first of this fold and with me for many, many years. Highlands are long lived and hearty beasts, it’s not uncommon to hear of 15+ year old cows still regularly calving.

This morning Lola was still safely in her stall, and doing well. She’s eating hay and drinking water, checking out the salt block and sniffing through the fence at her new buddy MayMay (who is indifferent of course.) All day long I kept going to check on her between catching up with candling and cleaning another 700 eggs, bringing her handfuls of grass as token gifts of friendship. I was rewarded by a Moooooo this afternoon when she saw me, oh my heart nearly burst! I went to her and then she licked my face and hands!!! It’s official, I Love Lola!

Tonight our friends and neighbors, Mark and Tracy came by to meet her. They even brought a “Congrats on your new Cow” gift basket with alfalfa cubes, a curry comb and a cow mug. What darlings!! They have a gorgeous fold a couple miles from us and are such sweethearts. We met by us intrusively stopping by their place last fall to inquire whether they had any cattle for sale. I’m also so grateful to have them so nearby with experience and love for these awesome Highland cattle.

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MayMay and her buddy

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The sandhill cranes fly over frequently. The ducks, gathered around their swimming tub, all stop moving and are silent, tilting their svelte little cocoa-colored heads to the sky to watch the cranes fly over. Then two seconds later one of them starts, Quack, quack quack. And then the chorus begins amongst all of the ladies who also have something to say.251070_10150211497256448_7690742_n

MayMay finally returned to home after spending the winter at my friends’ farm with their buck. It doesn’t appear she got knocked up though, which she did the year before last too. She’s getting up there in years, I think she is now 7, but she is still extremely youthful and she is surely still plenty obstinate. Maybe too picky for her boyfriend? Honestly, I don’t know where a goat will fit into my life nowdays, which is absolutely so bizarre to say. I had my goat years, that’s for sure. I did my time. I don’t really miss having a herd, at the end they really drove me bonkers with their insistent yelling, their hard headed pushing and stubborn pulling, their beating on each other and constant trouble making. Having May back is way more wonderful than I thought it’d be though. I don’t have to milk her, we just hang out and go on walks. I tether her out in the morning where I can keep an eye on her from my egg room and she is happy grazing and browsing, then she’ll lay in the sun and chew her cud.

May’s got a combination of a dog and cat attitude towards me. When she sees me across the yard, she desperately calls to me, but when I go to her she storms off, restless for I don’t know what. On our walk yesterday, she patiently followed me, but when I sat down in the grass she began pulling on her lead to go back immediately, then came back and rubbed her head on my shoulder in a very affectionate manner. Oh goats. This is just her way, and I am trying to just appreciate her as she is. May and I have a lot in common, and she is my teacher. I too am moody, impatient and restless. Teach me, goat.

Tomorrow May is in for the shock of her life, as we are bringing home Ella (who I may be renaming “Goodness”, but don’t tell Angelica’s son who named her!) I’m not sure how these two will get along, and I can keep them separate if needed. I like the idea of a heifer and a goat being buddies, but obviously I can’t force it. I hope they will offer each other a sort of ruminant camaraderie. As far as goats in my future, I can already see May having a problem when it comes to fencing. A goat will not respect a single strand of electric fence like a cow can, so unless I am able and willing to string up multiple hot wires in rotational paddocks (which I really don’t want to do,) May cannot be pastured with cows without risking her getting out and heading straight for all the baby trees growing around the farm. But will these two possibly get so attached that Ella/Goodness and May won’t want to be apart? I don’t know. We shall see.

My plan is to be spending quite a lot of time in the afternoons working with Ella/Goodness, teaching her to trust me, walk on a lead (see her pretty blue halter??!! should be gorgeous with her russet ruby colored coat), be handled all over and just be my sweet girl, who will hopefully be my milk cow in 2017. She’ll be 1 year old late this summer, so that means a year from then I will get a bull for her. Highlands mature slowly, so it is very important for young heifers to not be bred too early. If in August/September 2016 I get a bull for her, then 9 months from then she’ll be 2 1/2 when she hopefully calves in late spring 2017. Cows are a very long term proposition. I could have tried to buy an older pregnant cow to be a more instant-milker project, but as I am new to highlands, I want to be able to work with a youngster and go into this journey together. Plus Angelica has beautiful and healthy highlands and this heifer is from her very best cow. I want to thank her SO MUCH for selling me this beauty and I sure hope this all works ok. We will see how my idea unfolds!