Spring? Green!

June 3, 2018

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Spring is the shortest season in Wisconsin.  I should be used to it by now, but the transition from winter to summer, startles and amazes me every year.

The first outdoor market of the season, April 14th, was so cold, I wore insulated bib overalls which I only used once all winter because they are so warm.  Memorial Day weekend,  only 6 weeks later, was in the 90s F with high humidity.

Plant growth explodes.  April 20th was the last snowstorm of the season, falling on little green growth.  Now, on June 1st, forage is waist high.  One more paddock to graze and the cattle will have been over everything once.  I’ve been moving them every 5 days.

It feels like I’m behind on everything, with too much forage.  But if you don’t have too much forage on June 1st, you will definitely have too little on August 1st when the weather turns dry.

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The top photo is of my Phoebe girl, a twin I helped get started in life.  She always comes over to get a scratch from me.

The next two photos are of two year old steers, who will be butchered this summer.  The background shows yearlings and fall calves.  And green, beautiful, beautiful green.

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Spring 2018: Farm Update

May 1, 2018

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Braden finished his movable chicken pens and I helped him move his broiler chickens out to pasture.  We have had the coldest April on record, so there isn’t much pasture, but the chickens seem happy in their new home.

Braden put his own spin on a Salatin style, movable chicken pen.  I hope to post with more detail in the future.  The pens are moved daily to fresh pasture.  The pen is keeping the predators away from the chickens, and the chickens are really thriving.  He is still planning on having freshly frozen chickens for the May 26th market.

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I helped Daniel rototill the garden and she has started moving her indoor started vegetables outdoors, and also started direct seeding some of her crops.

I rototilled the sweet corn plot and plan to plant next week if the soil continues to warm. We should have delicious sweet corn around the first of August.

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Winter/Spring farrowing has gone well, and I have lots of healthy feeder pigs.  My fall-calving herd has wintered well on our home-raised hay, and are chomping at the bit to get on fresh pasture.

Cattle aren’t particularly smart, but they are masters at body language.  They know exactly what it means when they see me repairing electric fence.  I’m sure they are salivating as much as when Pavlov’s dogs hear a bell.

 


Winter 2018

February 4, 2018

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Winter 2018, mild, mostly frozen, animals and people doing well.  Above is one of the hogs exploring, and below are some of the cattle resting on their bedding pack, with hogs exploring at the left of the frame.

I wrote that last week.  Winter has decided to come back hard in February, with below zero wind chills and several inches of snow last night, February 3rd.

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Thank you to everyone who has purchased meat, or boxes, or halves, this winter.  Your business is appreciated.

I added several new products, (Brats-links and patties, Breakfast sausage patties, Cottage Bacon, Canadian Bacon, Ham Hocks).

I also tweaked the Classic Pork boxes.  Check them out and let me know if something interests you.

 

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I am farrowing several litters in one of the hoop barns with farrowing huts.  The sows get to choose which hut to farrow in, and also make their own nest inside the huts.

When it is this cold, I never have any trouble with a sow choosing to farrow outside of a hut, which can be a problem in the warmer months of the year.

I haven’t lost many piglets, even though its been colder than I would prefer, (below 20 F).

Except for one very big Landrace sow who chose to carry way too much bedding into her hut and farrowed on a very cold night.  All her piglets died.  My theory is whereas the other sows made a nest with at least a little room for the piglets to nurse, see photo below, this sow was so big with so much bedding, the piglets were simply unable to start nursing due to lack of room.

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2017 Spring Calving, Fatty Udder Syndrome

May 21, 2017

 

Some years we can’t remember helping a single calf nurse.  This calving season has been difficult, with one problem after another.  Sometimes we have had more than one problem pair in our corral, which is where we keep the pairs separated if they are having problems until they can be on their own.

Admittedly, a big source of our problems this year has been our decision to keep and calve very old cows.  Cows that are productive into old age is a nice problem to have, and one that I largely attribute to a better nutrition and feeding strategy.  Better rotational grazing has improved the green season nutrition, and unrolling round bales of hay has improved the winter nutrition.  Unrolling the hay instead of feeding in feeders reduces the competition with younger, stronger, cows, and it is also easier to chew as the hay is loose after unrolling instead of packed densely.  Older cows teeth wear down, resulting in more difficulty chewing which can become a nutrition issue.

Unfortunately, older cows udders break down over age and the teats become larger, sometimes resulting in teats so large a newborn calf fails to get started nursing.  We get the pair into the corral and the cow in the catch chute and help the newborn calf nurse.  Usually one or two nursings will be enough for the calf to get the idea and start nursing on its own.  When we see the calf nursing on its own, we turn the pair back out to pasture with the herd.  Annoying, but doable.

But the problem which has baffled us this spring and a couple of times in the past few years, is when a heifer calved without problem, but failed to produce any or enough milk for her newborn calf.  Until a few years ago, we had never seen this problem.  But it has happened again, and this time with this beautiful heifer, 527, pictured above.  We called our local vet and she took the heifer’s temperature and palpated her udder, assuring us there was no discernible health issue.  The udder is soft, not hard as if it had mastitis.  And there is no pussy discharge, just nothing.  The vet didn’t have a theory, which is frustrating, but also a relief that the heifer wasn’t sick and we weren’t having a disease problem.

So we started brainstorming.   What is different about our herd?

Genetically, the base breed going back to my Grandfather’s cattle was Shorthorn.  We used some Lincoln Red genetics in the 80s and 90s, an ill-advised foray into Maine Anjou genetics in the 90s, and finally, when we could no longer find good Shorthorn bulls, we started using Red Angus genetics around the year 2000 and have been very pleased with the results.  Our cattle are moderate- framed, thick-made, and able to finish on grass, which worked great when I began to direct-market grass-finished cattle around 2008.

Red Angus genetics didn’t seem to change the udders of our cattle very much.  I would say the conformation of the udders would be a little better and they give a little less milk.  Shorthorns are known for producing a lot of milk for a beef breed, so it makes sense that Red Angus would decrease the amount of milk, but not by much. I don’t think the problem is genetics.

We have improved our pastures and especially the rotation and resting of the pastures as we’ve implemented our own version of mob-grazing.  And we’ve started grazing some hay pastures during the summer slump when some of the cool season grasses are growing very slowly.  The end result is our cattle are gaining better than they ever have, with some of the fastest-gaining calves gaining close to 3 lbs per day from birth to weaning.  We recently viewed an old vhs tape of our cattle in the 80s, and the difference was remarkable.  Without video evidence, we never would have believed how much better the pastures and how much thicker our cattle are now.

Why am I writing about how fast the cattle are gaining?  Sometimes I have an insight or notion which I’m not sure where it comes from.  Maybe I read something sometime.  I don’t know.  But I woke up one morning with a theory that the reason these heifers have no milk is that during a critical stage in their mammary development, they were gaining weight so rapidly, instead of normal mammary development, their udder became fatty.

I asked the vet and she didn’t think it made much sense.  We even stopped in one day and visited our old retired vet from Mineral Point, and he didn’t think this theory made much sense.  Undaunted, I was going to put this theory onto the internet and see if any of you concurred.  But a little research, and a few key articles later, of which I will link to, I’m 99% sure this is what is happening to these heifers.

The reason we need to decide on a theory is because it will affect our decision making.  If for some reason these heifers are genetically deficient in milk, we would want to purchase bulls with higher milk epds, (expected progeny difference).  But if my theory is correct, and these heifers are actually receiving too much nutrition, then we would want to select bulls with lower milk epds.

The first article I found that pertained was written by University of Illinois extension in 1999.  They talked about the five different stages of mammary development and how sometimes mammary development is isometric, (growing at similar rates as the rest of the body), and other times mammary development is allometric, (growing at two to four times the rest of the body). A key allometric stage is prepuberty, 3 to 9 months of age.  This paragraph was particularly illuminating:

“Prepubertal nutrition can have a significant effect on future milk yield. Raising heifers on high planes of nutrition during prebubertal mammary growth has been shown to have a negative effect on milk yield. Feed restricted heifers can have up to 30 percent larger mammary glands at puberty. Furthermore, mammary tissue on heifers fed ad libitum was over 80 percent fat, while heifers fed a restricted diet have around 65 percent fat, and 13 percent more parenchymal tissue (tissue that will eventually become milk producing tissue) compared with heifers fed ad libitum. It should be noted that mammary parenchymal tissue grows into a layer of fat referred to as the fat pad.”

Ok, are you convinced yet?  I also found this article published in Asian-Australasian Journal of Animal Science.  Both articles are written pertaining to the dairy industry, as most dairy heifers are raised in confinement on a diet that can be regulated.  They suggest a feeding strategy which restricts the diet at critical times during mammary development, and then more feed at other times so as to not waste time and money as the sooner a heifer is producing milk, the more profitable the industry feels the dairy producer will be.

However, I’m wondering if the dairy industry is thinking about this wrongheaded?  A big problem in the confinement dairy industry is how quickly cows are “burnt up”, (culled for one reason or another).  I used to think the reason that cows fell out of production so fast was because of the way they are managed as cows.  But actually, dairy cattle are on a fasttrack from birth.

Maybe the dairy industry should go to a policy of raising their replacement heifers slowly on a high forage diet.  Maybe they shouldn’t worry so much about rushing a heifer into production by age two, and instead should be satisfied with a heifer calving at two and a half or three years of age?  Most of the big dairy farmers in my area are outsourcing the raising of their dairy heifers.  There may be an opportunity for farmers to do a better job with this?  I don’t know.

As far as our problem, so far we have had a very few that exhibited this problem.  I would hate to change the way we are managing our cattle and pastures as the whole herd is doing so well with our rotational grazing.  I’m thinking our problem is rare and only affecting a very few heifers that may be very early maturing, thereby coinciding the allometric mammary growth phase at just the wrong time when they are gaining 3 lbs per day.  Not sure, but I will continue to monitor.

 


Grazing Hay Fields with Cattle

July 11, 2016

 

 

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I’ve always made dry hay for my cattle and swine for winter feed.  I make big, round bales when it seems the weather will cooperate.  In this part of the country though, when it’s “hay-makin’ weather,” as the old-timers would say, it’s past the best quality point of the hay.

Based on the maturity of the grass, late May to early June would be the best time to make hay.  But we seem to get rains every few days until late June or July when the hay would be way over mature.  One solution many farmers in this area use is to make haylage or balage, the former is silage made from hay, and the latter is hay baled wet and wrapped in plastic.  I’ve never wanted to deal with all the plastic and also prefer to not transport and move and feed all that extra water.  But, I’ve struggled in the past, getting hay rained on, making hay that is too wet and having it ruined, making hay when it’s too mature, etc.

Last year I made a lot of hay that was too mature.  My cattle are used to eating very high quality forage in the grazing months and they don’t want to eat this hay very well.  You can see on the right of the photo below all the hay I have left over which I will largely use for hog and cattle bedding in the winter months.

Not wanting to repeat this mistake, I started brainstorming solutions.  One possible solution that Joel Salatin uses is to graze his hay fields until he’s ready to make hay, thereby keeping the quality high.  Since all my fields have a good perimeter fence, and it would just take some electric fencing to subdivide the fields so I could rotationally graze, I thought this would be a good idea to try.

 

 

 

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My cattle were tired of eating hay and they were eating the permanent pasture and woods down to nothing, so I decided to turn them into the first hay field April 14th.  It seemed too early and I feared I would damage the forages in the field.  But one strategy I planned to use was to only leave them on the forage for a week or less.  Keeping animals on a forage for a week or less should prevent overgrazing.

Overgrazing occurs when a plant’s regrowth is bitten off, because a plant is the weakest when it has used its root reserves.  A plant is using its root reserves to regrow when there is no green or very little showing, because when it can, a plant will use photosynthesis to meet its energy requirements to grow.
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Well the experiment worked very well as far as the cattle were concerned.  They had plenty to eat.  And the forage wasn’t damaged at all as far as I could tell.  But it regrew so well, and the grass is so intent to go to seed, that it was tall and mature by the time I came back with the cattle to graze a second time on June 7th.  It had been rested since April 21st, so that is nearly a 7 week rest.

Maybe too long, as the top and bottom photo show the cattle back in that hay field.  In the bottom photo you can see the neighbor’s alfalfa field in the background which he harvested for haylage twice as I grazed twice.  The calf in the bottom photo is a fall calf which probably weighs around 500 lbs to give you a reference.  The heifer in the foreground of the top photo is 20 months old weighing over 1000 lbs.

The good news is even though you can see all that tall orchard grass headed out and mature, the grass and alfalfa and clover down lower was mostly new regrowth and higher quality which the cattle enjoyed grazing.  The other concern for me would be potential eye problems with the cattle reaching through that tall grass to graze.  But there have been no problems.

The second and third photos in this post show another hay field from the same vantage point.  The second photo is May 16th with the cattle grazing.  The third photo is after I cut the field for hay on June 27th.  It was rested from May 20th to June 27th, a little over five week rest.

Even though there was quite a bit of tall orchard grass which is what makes the hay look so light in color, there was fresher regrowth down low.  I baled it up and have fed one bale to the cattle.  They are munching on it, so I’m thinking I may have made better quality hay than last year, even though I made it later by the calendar.

One benefit is it was very easy to make dry hay as the weather and ground had dried out quite a bit compared to a month earlier.  I plan to give it another five week rest and then take a second cutting which should be very high quality.

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Fall Calving, Fall Farrowing

November 15, 2015

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100% or above calving percentage through four fall calving seasons, but it has not been without some work on my part.   I don’t want to overstate my contribution, as a good herd of cows will wean 90% without any effort from their farmer, but that last 10% usually requires some effort.  100% calving percentage means every cow has a live calf and raises it to weaning.  90% means 9 out of 10 cows wean a calf, etc.

The first two fall calving seasons I did absolutely nothing and the cows weaned 100%, but I had a feeling I was using up my luck. The most recent two have had problems, including death loss, but twins have made up for the losses.

This season started with a small calf born dead out of my oldest cow, 465, who has been in photos on my blog.  It was most likely born early, but it looked fully developed.  I’m going to sell the cow, because she doesn’t have a chance to contribute anything until next fall, and she’s eleven years old.

Had a few live calves and then one morning I checked and a cow, 612, was with two calves, but as the sun rose she started walking away from where she spent the night and calling to her calves.  They both tried to follow, but I could see she was only concerned with one of them, and that has been our experience in the past.

So I called my Dad to come with his ATV and help me get the cow into the pen by the barn.  I picked up the calf that was being abandoned and carried it in on the ATV.  With patience we were able to walk the cow and calf into the pen also.

Something didn’t look quite right, as there was a large difference in size between the two calves.  I checked the other cows and 8110 had a small new calf with her.  I conferred with my Dad and realized what had happened, something out of the ordinary, but something we had seen before.

8110 had twin calves in the night.  612 was in labor and her maternal hormones were kicking in.  She “claimed” one of the twins as her own and probably let it nurse.  She then had her own calf.  8110 walked off with one calf by the time I checked them and found 612 with one of the twins and her own, larger calf.  It also helped my diagnosis that I knew 8110 had twins the year before.  There is a genetic component to twinning.

At this point, it had been enough trouble getting 612 into the pen that I was willing to let her nurse both calves if she would let them.  The larger calf was strong enough, and 612 was calm enough, that I was able to push the calf in the right direction and he started nursing.  612 quickly began to claim both calves, so I decided she would get to nurse two calves and kept them isolated for a few weeks so that there was no chance of one of the calves being separated.

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I have nine fall litters doing very well.  The weather has cooperated for the most part.  There is no sign of the piglet scours which plagued my herd last summer.  As I hoped, I believe my herd has developed immunity to the disease.


Annual Pollinator Mix, 4 Week Update

May 16, 2015

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It’s doing well.  Click on the picture for a larger image.  Most of what you see is the oat cover crop, but I’m happy to see many of the different flowering forbs up and growing as well.

In the background you can see the cattle.  I turned them into the first of many hay fields to graze.  They are loving the tall orchard grass and alfalfa, as they had been grazing their permanent pasture for a month.