Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Great Beef Cow Experiment Parts I and II

Part I

Earl has a scar on his forehead above his right eye. It's fading over time and you wouldn't notice it now unless you were looking, but for a year or so after he got it, Earl couldn't go to a party without someone doing the math on its size and proximity to his eye and brain and asking him, "What happened to you?" What happened was the second-to-last beef cow we tried to milk going psycho-ballistic in the parlor one day.

The Great Beef Cow Experiment began about a year before I met Earl. He was calling the breeder to come breed his heifers and thinking about calving ease. Calving ease is a column on the sire chart; some bulls beget bigger calves than others and smaller cows and heifers will have an easier time in labor if their calves are on the small side. Beef cows, who give birth out on pasture unassisted, generally have small calves. At the time, Earl was selling his bull calves at auction and they're worth more if they look like beef cows. A female beef cow/Guernsey cross wouldn't be worth as much as a straight dairy-breed cow, but her milk would be high in butterfat and she'd get a good price at the beef auction if turned out to be unmilkable. But Earl didn't really believe in unmilkable at the time. He has calmed down some crazy heifers in his time, and the three heifers he was thinking of breeding were from gentle Guernsey lines. And it would be interesting, you know?

Flash ahead nine months. The heifers calve with no trouble. Two heifers and a bull calf. They join the Guernsey calves and are a little stupid and skittish, but not outside the box.

Flash ahead two years to the first summer Earl and I are married. The first of the heifers has calved. She does not like to be milked. If Brandon or Biggie is milking, the phone rings between five and five-thirty in the afternoon. The Angus (her given name long forgotten) is in the parlor and ready for Earl to hook her up. No one else can get near her. This has been the case with other heifers, but Earl has been able to settle them down in a few days. The Angus does not settle down. Every milking involves kicking and tying her legs together with baling twine (just for the ten minutes she's got the unit on). After two weeks, she begins to recognize the routing and relaxes the tiniest little bit. Earl thinks there might be hope for her yet. The DHIA tester comes and samples the cows' milk. The Angus is milking at 5.8 percent butterfat. The next highest cow is Blossom at 4.9. We are hopeful.

And then a few days later, just before the second beef-cross heifer is due to calve, The Angus comes into the parlor, steps up into her stall like she knows what she's doing, and then proceeds to try to kick in Earl's skull when he tries to hook her up. Not a swat to make the pesky unit go away, not a startled reflex. An out-and-out, again-and-again air-let-out-of-the-balloon freak out session that leaves Earl dizzy and bleeding from the head. Fortunately, the next day is a Thursday--when the truck from Addison County Commission Sales is in our neighborhood--and a quick phone call makes the Angi, all three of them, go away. The Experiment is over. We declare success--we are still alive--and move on.

But it's not really over. We have a six-month-old Hereford/Guernsey heifer, the result of the breeder running out of Guernsey semen and Earl not wanting to wait a cycle to get Binka bred. The calf is originally named Bun but by the time she has her first calf and joins the milking string, no one is calling her anything but Fat Butt.

Fat Butt is a little unclear on the milking concept, but she likes to get her grain in the parlor and only needs to have her feet tied together for a few days until she relaxes into the routine. Even I can milk her, despite being pregnant with Cliffy and a little skittish myself. Fat Butt's monthly DHIA butterfat tests range from 6.2 to 5.9. We milk her for a few months, and then her beef-cow sensibilities tell her it's time to start making less milk for her baby and she decides to start kicking the unit off. And then she decides she doesn't want it hooked up in the first place. And then she doesn't want to be in the parlor for a second longer than it takes to finish her grain. This time we can call Paul Stecker to come get her for his organic beef business. Fat Butt sells for steak price but we are still ready to close the beef cow chapter for good.

Part II

When we started the creamery, we had no idea what we were doing, so we thought it might be a good idea to scale back a little in the cow department. We were only milking 26 cows when our truck brought the first glass-bottled milk to market in April 2001 and it was all we could do to find people to buy it. But word got out about the milk, stores started to call us and we had nowhere near enough milk for our orders. Organic cows aren't a dime a dozen, but we picked up a few cows here and there, some Jerseys from Tunbridge and Westminster, a pair of Guernseys from Johnson, two great Jerseys from Butterworks Farm up north in Westfield, including Nectar, whose great depth of body and beautiful well-balanced udder was inherited by her twin daughters, Honey and Ambrosia and then passed down from there. But it still wasn't enough.

And then we saw an ad in the Agri-View for organic Jerseys over in New York State. There were fifteen of them and they were a good price if you bought them all together. Usually when you buy a cow, you go visit the farm, talk to the farmer, see the animals, think about whether they'll transition well to your style of management, and then send a check and arrange trucking. But we had a little baby and it was summer and Earl was flat out and we bought those Jerseys without seeing them. And that's how we got Charcoal, the FBC (the BC part is for Beef Cow).

Charcoal actually wasn't that bad to milk. She's half-Jersey, by the looks of it, and stupider than she is crazy. Her first calf, Charlize, is half-Guernsey and only a quarter Angus and she's jumpy if there's something to be jumpy about, but mostly she's just a regular cow. Since then, though, we've been breeding Charcoal to Angus and letting her raise her calves in little pastures around the farm. Charcoal and her daughter, Cheryl mowed the creamery lawn, the area behind the corn crib, the Jerusalem Artichokes below the house, and the former thistle patch next to the equipment shed. Despite being close by and getting a little bit of grain every day, Cheryl is crazily afraid of people. When she was breeding age, somehow Earl managed to get her into the barn for the breeder, but she didn't take and she didn't want to stay in the fence and then Earl traded her to our neighbor for some lumber.

But Charcoal had another calf in February. Chubby is 3/4 Angus and his sire, I'm guessing, was sitting down after the first word in the regional Angus Spelling Bee. Chubby doesn't understand the fence. Chubby doesn't understand people. He has no idea what either of these two forces are or even how to go about expressing his confusion. He runs away from people and through the fence. He runs toward people and through the fence. For a few days this summer, Earl had Charcoal, Chubby and our next-summer's Bull, Fermin, in a pasture within spitting distance of my garden. I could see them out the windows by our kitchen table, and I watched them like a hawk. Fermin did get out and into the garden one night, but he stayed in the pathways, eating the clover my smart-garden-friend, Shannon, planted for soil conditioning and weed control.

When Chubby broke free the next day and went on a full-farm adventure, it was time to rethink his compatibility with our operation. Aside from the cuteness of two-year-old Oliver looking out the window and calling, "Oh no. Chubby out. Chubby out. Mama. Oh no," the charm is lost on us. Chubby would be a strain on our marriage if Earl and I weren't in accord about how little we like him and how conflicted we are about what to do with him. On the one hand, he is a pain in the ass and a quick phone call would make him go away and net us a few hundred bucks. On the other hand, he's huge for his age, fattening beautifully, and be absolutely delicious next summer. Earl thought maybe someone would want to buy Charcoal and Chubby together if he listed them on the WDEV Trading Post, but no one called. Earl has been talking to his friend, Tom, about taking him, and hopefully Tom won't read this and we'll be Chubby-free in a few months, when he's weaned.

What to do with Charcoal is another story. She's not a bad cow, but not worth milking in the barn. She grazes areas that we would otherwise have to mow. Except for some hay in the winter, she doesn't cost us anything to have around. Maybe we'll breed her to a Guernsey next time round. Or maybe we'll have amnesia, brought about by too many kicks to the head, and think that maybe a Scotch Highlander would be a better option. Stay tuned for Part III.

1 comment:

Sarah J said...

Sure...I mention this post to Jay and he says something about being offered one of these lovelies. :) No naughty cows at our house please. Unless it can fend off coyote and bear for us.