Our New Dexter Calf, Cattle Decisions, and General Farm Updates

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January brought a lot more cold weather to Biggers Farm. It also brought the addition of a Dexter bull calf courtesy of Misty Ridge Bess and Old Orchard Hrothgar. He is our first Dexter calf born on the farm. It is amazing how easy Dexters calve. On New Year’s Day my husband and I noticed that Bessie’s udder was pretty tight so we figured she would calve in a day or two. The next morning there was a calf on the ground. Bessie had already cleaned him up and fed him. At the time we did not know if the calf was a heifer or a bull. Bessie was a little nervous and still recovering a bit, so it was a few days before we discovered we had a bull. Although we were just happy to have had a healthy calf and no delivery complications, I have to admit we were hoping for a heifer this time. Our herd is not yet as large as we would like. We are going to try to train this calf as an ox.

As some of you might know, we were working with a Jersey-Holstein cross to be our farm ox. That did not work out for us. We have not been impressed with how the Jersey-Holsteins do on a pasture based system nor have we been impressed with their intellect. The one we were trying to train learned some of the basic commands quite quickly, but after that it became apparent he really was not interested in working with us. He started running away every time he even saw a halter. We switched where we are feeding the cattle hay recently, and it took us FIVE times of trying to show the Jersey-Holsteins where the new hay was before they figured it out. They would just come back to the top of the mountain and moo for food when they had all they could ever want waiting at the bottom of the hill. We literally had to wave it in their face before they got it, and the only reason they made it that far is that I called our Dexter heifer, Linda Lou down. With the Dexters all you have to do is yell.

Since the Dexter bull calf was born on the farm, and we have been handling him since day 1, he will be more bonded to us. We learned a lot trying to train the Jersey-Holstein. This spring and summer we will also have more time to spend training him. I also need to research how to make a harness for him to train with. They are very expensive to purchase, so I want to see if making one is feasible.

Part of our decision to not raise any more Jersey-Holstein crosses is based on the fact that they seem to be incapable of getting fat on grass. Industrialized farms have bred cattle to be finished on grain. You have to be careful when buying cattle if you want a grassfed operation. Our Dexters stay fat on just grass. A lot of the heritage breeds do very well on grass, so more and more people are choosing them. That said, raising a dairy calf or two can still make sense and be a good option for the small landowner who wants some beef for the freezer and maybe sell a steer to pay the property taxes. For a grass based beef and dairy operation like we wish to have in the future, we will be better off with just the Dexters. We also only intended on raising cattle other than Dexters until we reached the goal of having a decent sized herd of Dexters.

I’m hoping that we will stop getting a snow storm every other week. We have a lot of cow work to do, and we need to butcher another pig. We need to put brass horn knobs on our heifer, Linda Lou before she calves. I want to leave her horned since she has such a pretty set of them and she could be shown at some point in her life. She is a gentle cow as well. We also need to dehorn our bull using a bander and very thick rubber bands that are often used for bloodlessly castrating a calf or goat. On top of that we have a Jersey-Holstein that we need to finish bloodlessly castrating. Unfortunately when we “banded” him, one of his testicles had not dropped or been pulled down. Now we have to use a device called an emasculater. It is really just a set of clamps that crushes the scrotal cord. We might just start using those to fix bull calves. They seem to be a bit more fool proof and a lot of old farmers around here swear by them. Hopefully the weather cooperates and we can get another pig butchered soon.

I broke the meat grinder blade, so I am waiting on a new one in the mail, so we can make sausage. We really need to purchase a faster, more heavy duty grinder next year. Most of our pigs next year will probably go to the processor so we can sell the meat in restaurants and such.

We have a bit more good news besides the calf being born. The article I wrote on pastured pork was published in the January/February 2011 issue of Backhome Magazine. We are also expecting another Dexter calf on March 1 so maybe we will get at least one heifer this year. Right now I am working on a comprehensive guide to heritage cattle. Heres hoping I can find an interested publisher. Sometimes it helps to look at the bright side of things. I have to say this winter has made the finishing of our house go slow. We have to fix our water out system. We had some help and it did not get glued right. We finally got the insulation in and will soon have 6” tongue and groove pine on the walls. Some times it is hard to imagine that the house will ever be done. There are so many building code rules to follow and so much to learn. Also we have been trying to build the house well, not just to code, and not go into debt doing it. I know it will be worth it in the long run but it can be a bit hard sometimes. I think that if it wasn’t for building codes we would be done by now. We are lucky that our county building inspector has been easy to work with since we are building a house that is not of a conventional size and has a loft with a captains ladder. I think by the time we are done furnishing the house we will have spent around 40-45K. This is not too bad considering we built the frame with 2 x 6s , full OSB sheathing, Hardie Board Siding, a 50 year subfloor, hardwood floors, and R-19 insulation in the walls. We wanted our house to be easy to heat and cool. All but one of the lights in the house will be solar. Most of the labor so far has been done by us so our labor costs have been low. We started pouring the foundation in June 2009. That was hard. We used twenty 94 lb bags of Portland concrete, roughly 6 tons of gravel, and I forgot how may lbs of sand. The gravel was dumped where we thought we were going to build but decided not to. That means we had to use a garden wagon, fill it with gravel, empty the gravel into buckets, pour that in the mixer along with some sand and Portland, pour, and repeat. It certainly got us in better shape and saved us a ton of money on getting a cement pump truck up here.

I hope everyones winter is going well. It is always exciting to see others pursuing the farm life. It can be hard when you are first getting started but just remember that the hard work is worth it and you can do it. We need more people farming. We all need to eat and for so long folks have been discouraged from picking farming as a career. The average age for a general farmer in North Carolina is 59. For cattle farmers it is 69! We need a new generation to take over when those farmers are unable to farm anymore. Keep up the good work!