Here is the first instalment of a four part series, where I plan to introduce you to each season on the farm. You’re in for a bit of a long one, so you might want to grab yourself a hot drink and a comfy seat. To kick us off, this is Winter…
December clearly illustrates the split between arable and livestock on the farm. While the growing crops are watched from a distance, the cattle become a much more hands-on affair.
At the beginning of December (sometimes November, depending on the weather), cowsheds are emptied of machinery and refilled with straw beds and their bovine inhabitants for the following 5 months. Once the cows and calves are brought inside, the cows are scanned, by someone who comes with an ultrasound scanner, to determine whether they are pregnant and if so, roughly how far along they are. This year, surprisingly after the drought over the summer, every cow who was supposed to be in-calf, was!
With that good news, most of the calves were weaned, to give their mothers the all- important 2 month break to prepare for the next calf. 5-6 weeks prior to calving, the cows begin to make colostrum, the first feed a calf will receive which will help build their immune systems by providing them with essential antibodies to help fight diseases. Colostrum is vital to the long term health of the calf, and so it’s important that its production isn’t compromised by the cow still feeding their previous calf.
At the same time as weaning the calves, all the cattle are bolused (given a tablet to swallow) with a bolus containing a specific set of minerals and vitamins to suit their stage of pregnancy/growth, which have been chosen after testing our forage to find out which ones are naturally in short supply on our farm. Along with this, all of the calves are also given a wormer, along with any cows who are elderly or compromised healthwise in any way, to rid them of any parasites which might interfere with their health and growth over the next few months. Their weights are recorded, in order to ensure the correct dose is given and so that I can work out how well the calves have performed over the previous year, such as what their daily liveweight gain has been (I’m that kind of strange person who loves recording everything and comparing figures!).
I enjoy watching it all unfold on the cctv, especially seeing the different characters amongst the animals whilst they’re being handled (and seeing which cows need to go on my “red list” for being a bit crazy). It’s extremely noticeable that after being weaned, the cows return to their shed and carry on with their day as if nothing has changed, probably breathing a sigh of relief in the process! Whereas, a few of the newly weaned calves (who are 10 months old) stand and protest about the lack of milk, only to receive silence from their mothers. The first night is a bit of a noisy one, especially since our house isn’t far from the shed! But, even the most well fed of the calves only shout sporadically for a couple of days before realising that A. they’re not getting an answer, and B. the food on this side of the shed is much nicer and they don’t have to battle their way through hoards of cows, twice their size, to get to it!
January is the calm sibling to the hectic December. It’s the month of waiting, where we try to keep everything content, keep the newly weaned calves growing steadily whilst they wait to be sold, and make sure no curveballs come our way before calving begins in February.
This January, it was time for our Tb Test. We have to have our cows tested every 4 years as our area is classed as “low risk”, for now. Thankfully, everything was clear. In case you don’t know, the test is spread over 4 days: first, the cattle are injected into their neck with two types of Tuberculin, Avian and Bovine, then the vet comes back 3 days later to measure the injection sites to see if there is a lump (an immune response) on the injection site of the Bovine Tuberculin and if it is bigger than the lump on the Avian site (signalling that the animal is possibly infected with Tb and is therefore a ‘reactor’). The days between the injection and the measurement are extremely nerve wracking!
This time, one of our bulls decided to make it even more ‘interesting’. The wily old b*gger decided he wasn’t feeling particularly cooperative that day and wouldn’t be setting foot in the cattle crush (sort of like a large dog cage, to hold the cattle still and keep everybody safe). So, he had to be tested whilst eating some food out of a bucket; luckily he decided that was acceptable. As you can probably imagine, if a tonne of bull doesn’t want to do something there isn’t much chance of persuading him otherwise!
At the beginning of February, we waved off the first batch of store bullocks (castrated, weaned, male calves), who were sold to another farm to be finished for beef. Their pen was then repurposed as the “maternity ward”, for the imminent arrival of newborn calves.
On the arable side of the farm, things start to pick up pace again in February. The land begins to be prepared for Spring-drilled crops and most of the Autumn-sown ones are awoken with their first dose of fertiliser, to get them growing now the soil temperatures are rising. Some years, this won’t be done until March, but as it’s been an unusually mild month it’s a case of strike while the weather’s right, as March might end up as a washout!
The middle of February is technically the beginning of our calving season; kick off has been a bit slow this year, but they are starting to get going now. The first calf to be born on the farm brings with it an abundance of hope and renewed excitement for the year ahead. Everybody visibly lightens at the sight of new life, it reminds us that everything is part of a much larger cycle, which is just beginning again.
This year’s season began quite uneventfully, which is always welcomed! Well, apart from one cow who thought she’d calved into the water trough…
At around 11pm she started running back and forth in front of the trough, bawling at the top of her lungs, despite showing no tell-tale signs that she’d calved. She was causing such a commotion that my very confused father had to poke around in the trough to try and satisfy her; unsurprisingly, there was no calf to be found. He decided to stay out with her until she had calved and thankfully, after 20 minutes of her hurriedly checking the straw after each contraction (just in case the calf had been swallowed by it), a healthy heifer was born; with a little help from my dad near the end, as she’d thoroughly tired herself out with all the stressing. You wouldn’t believe that this is her 6th calving!
With the cctv cameras from the cowsheds feeding back to my bedroom, I’m on “maternity watch” every day for the foreseeable. Although, I fear I may be sacked soon, as I’ve missed the last 3 calvings and only noticed once the calf was already trying to stand! There are a lot of cows yet to calve though, so I’ve got a fair bit of time left to prove my worth (hopefully!).
Winter is very important on a farm. Its role is to cleanse the land, killing off parasites, pests and diseases with its low temperatures, creating a clean sheet for the emerging crops and the following grazing season. A mild winter, although kind on the human components, is detrimental to the farm as a whole. This winter, we seem to have had a bit of everything weather-wise, so let’s see what the next seasons hold and whether winter has done its job!
If you’ve read this far, thank you. I hope you’ve enjoyed the insight into farm life throughout winter; on our farm at least. I’m already looking forward to writing Spring’s update, I can promise there’ll be some cute calf photos to go with it! Although, if you feel you need a fix before then, I’m sure there will be some on my Facebook page throughout the next couple of months.
I’m going to have a go at sharing a blog post at the beginning of each month. So, unless I find I have something to say in-between, I’ll see you in April!