Shop the Animal

May 16, 2013 § 10 Comments


Fin and Rye milking Apple, circa 2007

So I’m in the mood for a little story-telling, and since I’m sorta on the subject anyway, here’s the tale of how we ended up with a baby-killing cow (another night in the barn and still no calf. But tarnation did I sleep wicked good!).

We got Apple in late summer/early fall of 2004. She was the month-old calf of a sweet little Jersey named Lily, and we brought them home approximately two weeks before Rye was born, and approximately two weeks after I’d broken a couple ribs when I decided to see what might happen if I threw myself over the handlebars of my bicycle and hugged a boulder.

So I was hobbled, Penny was hobbling, and we possessed only the most rudimentary shelter and fencing for our new hooved friends. A more logical family would have ciphered that this was not a particularly good time to bring home a couple of cows, but as I’ve mentioned before, I think much magic is squandered when we act on logic alone, and so it was that we came to own cows – one of which needed to be milked twice daily – only two weeks before our second child came calling.

Anyhow. Lily was an amazing animal, with none of the mothering issues Apple has somehow come to embody, and we got a couple more calves out of her before she broke through the door to where we had the grain stored (this was back when we thought cows needed grain, and if you think cows need grain, you’re either milking for money or you have the wrong cows), ate somewhere in the neighborhood of 40-pounds of the stuff, and basically made herself so drunk on the fermenting grain in her belly that it destroyed her liver. For four days Penny and I nursed her along, and Melvin came up twice daily to help me administer glucose IVs and try and get her on her feet, but it was futile and on the fifth day, I shot her. It was, and remains, the singularly most emotionally difficult thing I’ve done on this land, because the truth is, I flat-out loved that cow.

So then. Apple remains, for all the reasons I mentioned yesterday, but also because she represents a turning point in our lives. We have kept cows ever since, and will for as long as we are able, which I sure as heck hope is a long, long time. We currently have the nicest little herd we’ve ever had; in addition to Apple, there is Minnie, who just freshened with her first calf, and whom we are currently milking. There is Cinco, a two year old steer who is destined for the freezer this fall. There is Pip, the heifer we got out of Apple last year, a docile little Jersey/Devon/Shorthorn cross that we will probably breed next spring. And there is Snook, a yearling steer that will also find a place in our freezer come 2014. Soon, we’ll have a calf out of Apple, for a total of seven, which is just about the right carrying capacity for our pasture.

Other than our soft spot for Apple, we are fairly strategic about which cows stick around, and which don’t. We have culled a few over the years, one because it had chronic mastitis, and a couple others because they just didn’t hold condition on grass alone. We like cows that breed back easily, stay fat and sassy through the winter, and are even tempered. We are not loyal to a particular breed (that said, we do avoid breeds that don’t tend to embody the above qualities, such as modern Holsteins). More than once I have witnessed people choosing animals based on breed, rather than temperament, and then being mighty regretful when they’re chasing the fancy, pedigreed beasts through the pucker brush two towns over, or being kicked in the face every time they milk.

I suppose that’s my advice for the day, if’n any of you happen to be in the market for a bovine to call your own: Shop the animal, not the breed. Oh yeah: And if you got grain, lock it up real good.

§ 10 Responses to Shop the Animal

  • Kent says:

    Amazing history on how “Fat O’ The Land Farm” came into breeding cows. Sounds as if you’ve built up to a comfortable herd, and learning all the time from their unique temperaments. Good luck with Apple’s forthcoming calf!

  • Jennifer Fisk says:

    You are so right in this. Anytime you are acquiring a new animal you should shop the animal within the breed you like. If I were purchasing a cow, I wouldn’t look at a Holstein. In my mind, they are a large rack upon which to hang a fairly large udder from which to extract large volumes of milk which isn’t particularily full bodied. I would be looking at Jerseys and Devons but the individual would have to be right. When I buy a puppy, I only look at German Shepherds of working lineage but I have criteria for the puppy which I may or may not find in a particular litter. It is vitally important that the chemistry between you and the animal is correct.

  • Chris says:

    ‘much magic is squandered when we act on logic alone’ is a great line

    we have about the same size herd all of our girls coming out of Pearl. Your a few years ahead of us and maybe you’ve already experienced something like this, but I’m looking forward to having Pearl lick down her great granddaughter (pretty sure that Coral is prego, and that’s Pearl’s granddaughter). Pretty cool to see the generations stack up and tell your kids that you were born on the same week as that big beast there.

    Sad story about your Lilly. I had to shoot a big old Suffolk ewe in similar-ish circumstances.

  • Dawn says:

    Any opinion on Dexters? We have limited grazing in our area (sandy loam soil) so I’ve been thinking smaller is the wise choice. Any input is much appreciated.

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      I don’t know all that much about them, except they are reputed to be hardy, easy keepers. We have friends who have a small herd and really like them, in part because they do quite well on substandard pasture.

      • Lynne says:

        I am curious as to how you feed your cows when you milk or do you feed them? I have always fed grain when I milk to just keep them still. I do not use a head gate when milking. Do you?

      • Ben Hewitt says:

        Hi Lynne,

        We give them a little hay. Sometimes they eat it, sometimes they don’t. We do have a stanchion, although the cow we just broke in is being milked in a different spot, with just a halter. There are differing thoughts regarding how much grain it takes to really disrupt the digestive process. Some people think a little is ok, some think you really shouldn’t feed any at all.

  • dbelson says:

    I agree with Chris, “…much magic is squandered when we act on logic alone…” is quite brilliant. I will add that I think your last two posts are great examples of your story telling abilities, and the reason I (and probably many others!) look forward to what you share here.

  • Hollie B. says:

    Thank You for sharing more about your cows! I found mySelf thinking of them a few times yesterday after reading about the Mama cow who tramples her babies. I enjoy hearing about how You make things happen at your place because You’re so Real and practical about it all. Thank You for your writing. We will be getting cows in the not too distant future so I’ll be sure to heed your advice. Peace.

  • jsiegel115 says:

    Always. Always always always. Good advice. I spend a lot of time getting to know the animal before I take it home. It’s odd in this “see it, buy it” world we’re in, and I get a lot of looks, but I’ve not regretted it.

    Oh, and I usually bring home animals under similar circumstances. We’re not ready, but they’re here anyway!

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