I have always loved cows. I grew up far from any cows, but whenever my family had occasion to drive in rural areas – usually when visiting our grandparents and cousins in upstate New York – I loved seeing them in their pastures. For me, a pasture with cows lazily eating grass or chewing their cuds completes a pastoral scene. I love seeing them lying down, I love watching them with their calves … well, you get the picture.
As I have explained (Lessons from farming), we ended up owning a farm as our first home because I thought we needed a house for our new family and my husband figured if we could get a house AND a farm, so much the better. We got into the cattle business in much the same way we do everything – more or less on an impulse. And it wasn’t really a cattle business, it was more the case of a few beef cattle sharing our property and enhancing our everyday experience.
The first time we ever saw Scottish Highland cattle was in the Stanley Park Zoo in Vancouver. We were there on holiday; we happened to go to the zoo, and were enchanted by these shaggy cattle with the signature horns, cavorting in their enclosure. They were a treat to watch. At that time we had had our farm – and our first child – for 5 months, and hadn’t even discussed the possibility of acquiring animals. We liked having the land and we were busy enough in our spare time learning to garden, along with home ownership and parenting.
Then the next spring we saw an ad in the paper for Highland cattle. It turned out that a very few people who had hobby farms in the region kept Highland cattle and one of them was looking to sell some of his yearlings. Since we had all this land and some unused barns, it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. We could have these marvelous creatures in our own pasture. Of course, technically we wouldn’t have a pasture until we had some fencing, but happily my husband and our neighbour were – at that time – keen on those kinds of challenges.
We started with a herd of two: a highland yearling heifer and a highland yearling bull calf. Shortly after that we acquired our third, a dual-purpose shorthorn named Clare, named for my mother, who bought her for us. She thought we were out of our minds, but she did buy us a cow and got great mileage back home telling stories about our farming experiences. Our threesome expanded yearly as calves came, and we learned a lot about bovines:
Lesson 1: Cows require fencing, shelter, grass and/or hay, grain, and an endless supply of water. Almost all of this requires human labour. And, like delivering the mail, it’s required in all weather.
Lesson 2: Cows love vegetable scraps, especially corn hulks and stalks and similar culls from your garden. They come running for their treats, which is a pretty funny sight.
Lesson 3: Hearing cows softly munching grass outside your bedroom window under a full moon on a still summer’s night is a totally awesome experience.
Lesson 4: Baby calves seem to know that if they go under the electric fence and curl up in a little ball for a deep, all-in, baby sleep, their mother can’t bug them. She can sure try, mooing incessantly until we’re convinced her calf is hurt or dead, but the calf is in charge.
Lesson 5: Deer flies might just as well be called cow flies. Fly season is tough on cattle; they need some shelter, even if it’s trees at the field’s edge.
Lesson 6: Dress for the weather. Highland cattle have thick coats that allow them to thrive outdoors in midwinter in Atlantic Canada. Our shorthorn would go out with them as they happily nosed under the snow, oblivious to a cold wind, and she’d stand there shivering, wondering what in heaven’s name they were doing out there.
Lesson 7: Our theory was that if we only raised cows for beef, the calves would do the milking. That worked until one of them got mastitis. That’s when we learned that milking (for her relief only) was very hard. I should qualify that: my husband found out it was very hard. Learning how to do it from a book required many rereads and many tries on a very impatient and sore cow!
Lesson 8: Cows don’t like to take pills any more than kids. Occasionally we had to give them these enormous tablets, which we were to place into the back of their mouths with a special throat plunger for cows. One cow in particular would keep spitting it out and we’d repeat the tedious process over and over again. Eventually the tablet would stay down … except that the next time we’d go out to the barn we’d find the tablet in a corner somewhere. She had learned to keep it in her mouth until we’d left and then spit it out!
Providing medical or other special attention to a cow requires ingenuity. Usually, you can attract them into a stall with a pan of grain and hope to rope them to a post while they’re still concentrating on their food. This was critical for giving the tablets and especially for the several hours it took to extricate around 100 porcupine quills from the faces of two curious cows on one occasion.
Lesson 9: Grass-fed beef is not as good as grain-fed. Unlike the other meat we raised, we learned after our first year of home-grown beef that a few weeks of grain feeding at the end makes a significant difference for beef.
Lesson 10: Bull meat is really unpleasant! Our cats ate very well the year we had to dispatch Jeremy.
As you can see, with our cows there was never a dull moment. Sometimes scary, sometimes cold or wet, sometimes physically demanding, but never dull. Usually, very satisfying. I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to share part of my life with our very own cows.