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Every Farm Needs A Brush Hog

by @ 9:52 am on June 15, 2014.

This is another of those convoluted stories that does, eventually, make a point. Several years ago now we made the leap and switched to milking just once a day. This was a pretty big leap of faith on our part, and was done after reading articles about and then talking directly to Cliff Hawbaker. Cliff is a very nice man, a guru in organic, grazing, and once a day milking. His herd of 300 cows is split between two farms.

Once we made the switch to once a day, it was clear not all the cows in our herd were going to be up to snuff. The herd had never been bred with a purpose – if it had an udder, it was milked. Back then, the SCC counts were much higher than they are now, and even so Ernie’s dad had trouble keeping the herd under violation. So the herd we inherited was not anything to brag about. Our genetics have come from tie-stall dairies, aimed at big cows and high production. This was great when we poured the grain to them. We found once we switched to once a day, you could just about split the herd into thirds. The top third was wonderful – fat, shiny, milking great, and very low SCC counts. The middle third was just that, and the bottom third had SCC’s that shot through the roof and they looked like death warmed over. We’ve culled out that bottom third. We still have a few with high SCC counts, but we’re gaining fast.

Anyway, the point is that Cliff has been doing this in a big herd for around 7 years now. He says the only reason they generally have to cull a cow at this point is they just don’t like her personality. We knew the quickest way to up our genetics was to buy some heifer calves off him.

The first year (2013) we came home with 8 heifers and 2 bulls. That was a disaster. We weren’t smart enough to realize we needed to treat these calves differently. They did GREAT in the calf barn on milk. They were some of the nicest calves we’d ever had. But once we weaned them, we took them over to the heifer barn. And it was all down hill from there. In hind sight, we took the calves off milk and then plunked them into the same small lot we’ve kept calves in for years. It was what we’d always done, so it was what we did. The calves fell victim to a combination of parasites and coccidia. Even once we got them wormed, treated, and outside on grass, much of the damage was done. Our ignorance cost us 7 of the 10 calves. The three heifers that lived are now growing well and are beautiful.

This year we resolved to try again. We went back to Cliff’s this spring, and came home with 10 heifers and 2 bulls (plus 2 larger breeding age bulls to replace our working herd bulls).

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This time we were ready – the calves went out on grass right away. We still lost 2 already. One bull was never right from the time we brought him home. Sometimes that happens. The other was one of the most beautiful, healthy calves of the group. We went over to feed and it looked like she’d been standing drinking at the trough, and just dropped dead. We looked HARD at the rest of the herd, and saw no signs of alarm in the rest of the group. I think her death was just bad luck getting a calf with a bad heart. (Several months later we’ve had no more losses yet.) But we still weren’t out of the woods. This time, the grass got so far ahead of the calves it was above their backs and headed out. This irritated their eyes, and pink-eye flared throughout the group. An older group of home-bred calves is sharing the same space. They are bigger, and not a single one has pink-eye.

We have known we needed a good brush hog for a long time. The roses are taking over the farm, for one thing. But it always seemed like something else was more critical. We kicked it around and around and this time decided to try and sell one of our antique tractors to fund a brush hog. It’s not just the calves. Even the cow pastures are getting way ahead of what the cows can keep up with.

We ended up financing a Bush Hog. I hate to take on more debt, but a brush hog has become critical. We got it last week, and started by trimming off the calf lots. I do think it has helped with the pink-eye problem. Sadly most of the calves in this group will have limited vision in one if not both eyes. And I hate that. But otherwise they look good, and we did learn from this group. Every time we royally mess up, we do learn. They’re hard, expensive, and disheartening lessons. But no one said this would be easy.

We plan to try again with another group of calves next year. Hopefully by then we’ll finally have it right.

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