major farming mistakes

In the bucolic bubble

We incubated baby chicks in two batches this spring, and now they are feisty grown birds. The males are feeling their testosterone.

A mature rooster goes about his breeding duties with clinical efficiency. It’s hop on, bite a piece of neck for stability, thrust, and hop off. No fuss. The hen gives a little indignant shake and clucks away.

With these callow cockrels, it’s considerably more chaotic and comical. (Alliteration!) They chase and grab at the hens but never get a good grip, and end up tugging on pieces of skin or a couple of feathers, the hens screeching a cross between “I’m being murdered” and  “not in a million years, pal.” Most times, they escape.

I can’t lie. I find this entertaining. We have friends who also keep chickens who coined the phrase watching Chicken TV. It’s a pretty good show.


After a wet spring, the rain stopped abruptly (in May!) and we edged into drought territory. Nothing like Texas (these images are heartbreaking),  but plenty bad. The garden was a disaster, my cistern was dry for more than a month, the pasture became dominated by weird weeds, which the cows wouldn’t touch, and Johnsongrass, which they would eat at least. Some of my neighbors were already feeding hay before the first of September. The irrational thought that it will never rain again seemed entirely sensible to me for all of July and August.

But  suddenly two weeks ago, the clouds parted and we’ve had plentiful and steady rains.  My herd will be happily grazing well into November.  I like to think this is because of my pasture management, but am not ready to take credit yet….

We’ve had eight calves (the latest born just ten days ago) and all are doing well. The mommas too. Seven of the eight were male, which is pretty weird, and a little disappointing, since my prime directive is to grow the herd, but having seven steers to market next  winter will be good for the cash flow.

The fall has been much greener than the summer. My hives are bustling, and the recent rains have salvaged something like a fall honey flow for the bees. This weekend I’m hoping to get work started on installing a wood stove to reduce and (I hope) eliminate the outrageous propane bills we’ve been paying for seven years. The cows are getting good and fat, and the garden is teeming with volunteer greens, arugula especially.

Tonight the state of Georgia will execute a man for a crime few believe he committed. At the United Nations today the president announced that “the tide of war is receding,” even as new bases to launch Predator drones are being built in the Horn of Africa, where a quarter of a million people will likely starve to death,  in no small part due to my country’s intervention. (Everyone should read that article, by the way).

The wider world we’re bringing three kids into is getting uglier, greedier and more dangerous. For the moment we are living in a little bucolic bubble where they bounce on a trampoline for hours at a time, amidst tame chickens foraging in the grass, and calm cows staring at them through the fence.

Winter is coming, and I know I can’t protect my children from the outside world forever. It’s autumn. Things wither and die, and new life comes along.

Some days I’m not so sure about the second part, but for now I’m determined to enjoy this little autumn interlude. I think I’m happy.

Waiting for the dead truck

In the last year I’ve become a little too familiar with DARS, the Dead Animal Removal Service. The Dead Truck, in local parlance. The dispatcher always calls you “hon” on the phone. The driver of the truck hauling the trailer with stiff limbs sticking out the top is a college kid who navigates with GPS on his IPhone. A great service. I’m glad it’s there. Just wish I never had to use it.

But I do today. Again. Number 23, a cow I really could never stand, got sick suddenly, and now she’s gone.

On Sunday I watched her drinking from the tank and thought she looked great. On Monday I found her wandering far from the herd and had a weird wild look in her eyes. Tuesday she laid down and couldn’t get up. This morning, Wednesday, I had my neighbor Dave come shoot her and drag her out for the dead truck.

Tuesday might have been the day to do something, but can’t really beat myself up about it. I had no way to get her loaded onto a trailer, and the vet would have charged a fortune, if I could have gotten him to come out. Standing a 1200-pound animal up in the mud on a slope would have been a hell of a chore.

So she is gone. She was from the original five cow/calf pairs I bought a couple years back, and she was by far the worst. Nervous and unpredictable, I could never walk near her without being on my guard. She had very low status in the herd, and always ate last. And something happened to her calf this summer. Either she miscarried, or had it and lost it in the tall grass to coyotes. Whatever happened, she didn’t “clean up” well, and dragged that placenta around for a couple of weeks. I speculate that she slipped the calf she was carrying this winter, but my neighbors don’t think that is likely. Her udders were massive, and would have led to problems down the road. I was going to see if she could calf one more time and then sell her, but never got the chance.

I allow myself sometimes to indulge in anthropomorphic comparisons with my cows. Number 19 is a fearless, intelligent cow, but as a mother leaves much to be desired. She is a fallen woman from a country western song, in love with dim lights, thick smoke, and loud loud music. Or to bring things up to date, would be most likely to become a crack whore. Numbers 25 and 119 are solid citizen cows, even temperament, attentive mothers.  Number 23, may she rest in peace, was a good mother cow, fiercely protective of her calves, but nervous to a fault. She would be the mother most likely to develop a Zoloft habit.  Her calf from last year inherited her crabby disposition and her propensity for causing trouble. She managed to get pregnant by a bull that was left with the herd a little too long, and actually became an underage mother, delivering a runty calf in September to the surprise of everyone, including (I think) herself. She would have nothing to do with that calf.

All this trouble I trace back to the problematic Number 23. And yet I feel like I’ve done her a bad karmic turn. I was pretty much helpless to do much of anything, but I still feel awful about leaving her in the mud to die.

So, I will say that I  am deeply sorry.

Here’s hoping DARS comes in a timely manner. Last year, when my donkeys died, it took five days for the dead truck to come.

Still more adventures in clueless farming

On Wednesday I completely lost it with my cattle, then was charged by the bull. And it rained.

My herd–seven cows, four yearlings, seven calves, and a borrowed bull–were grazing near a field leased to a neighbor. As is often the case when they’re next to something they like, in this case fifty acres of corn stubble, a couple of calves sneaked under the electric wire. The wire’s current, supplied by a solar fence charger, had been weakened by three consecutive gray days, so the mamas thought nothing of crashing through the wire after their calves. First one, then three, and then the whole herd was out.

Usually I can lure them back with some feed on the back of the truck and indeed most of them came across the wire, which I had dropped–but then one turned around and the rest followed.

My fuse was short to being with that day, and the high winds and pelting rain didn’t help, so I started running to cut them off and turn them around, all the while shouting like a lunatic. “You fucking stupid cows” in dozens of permutations.

Well. That only succeeded in getting them a little wild. When you can see the whites of their eyes, it’s time to go inside for coffee. Instead, I decided to set out on foot after the bull, who was wandering away from the herd with a couple of cows in tow. In the past, I’d been successful in getting around him and turning him, and he has never shown any hint of aggression, but the combination of howling winds and bellowing farmer brought out the bull in him, and he turned, bucked three or four times, then charged, about five steps’ worth, which still left him fifteen feet or so from me when he skidded to a stop, tearing up deep chunks of soil.

It was a display, and not an attack, but it got my heart pounding and my brain thinking two thoughts: 1. Damn, he can MOVE! and 2. How stupid! One-on-one with a bull in slippery corn stubble, without even a stick, a hundred yards to the nearest tree line. If he had attacked … well, I don’t want to go there.

Actually, make that two thoughts and a question: How long would it take the family to come out looking for me?

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