The lambing season is here

The blog fell on the wayside, not only because we had a busy year with plenty of guests at Casa Ceoil, but simply because it slipped down the very long long long list of to-dos that we have. New projects, old projects, family commitments, and just life. But we are giving it another breath of life, and no time is better than when the first lambs are born.

So at the first most intense week of the year, I decided to get back to the blog. Intense as the lambing has started and this week, I have had two sets of twins and a single. Unlike other years, not only do I have a better eye for when a ewe is due, but I have lovely stalls organised for them. I keep them out as much as possible, but under a watchful eye as a gauge their due time by checking udders and a few more signs.

One set of twins were born in our top field, a favourite place for the lambing ewes. As my gear demands more hands than I have, I decided to facilitate the transport of the lambs by simply stuffing them in a bucket. Problem solving through a spur of the moment inspiration is my bread and butter on this farm. When moving my lambs I now always carry:

She doesn’t look it, but this one is a fairly fierce and protective ewe. Her name, simply…The angry one.
  1. Bucket of feed to entice the ewe to move away from the birthplace (often a difficult enough task).
  2. Large lamb bucket (in case of twins), with straw.
  3. Straw for the bucket and when I pick up the lambs (to avoid transferring much of my own smell and possibly cause the ewe to reject the lambs).

This prep makes the process a lot simpler. Not only can the ewe follow the lamb or lambs in the bucket easily, we can also move quick enough. One of my ewes bucks me every time I come close to her lamb, a good mother but makes it hard to handle the lambs. As this was the first lamb and it was also pre-lamb bucket inspiration, I had to walk backwards most of the field keeping the lamb between us, all to avoid getting headbutted by the annoyed ewe.

Billy the visiting billy goat

I’m also waiting for my pygmy goats to deliver, which I think will be early to mid-February. We had a loan of a very friendly puck from a very friendly couple in west Clare. While the puck was no trouble, I was more than happy to not own one, I have never come across such a strong-smelling animal. “Don’t pet him” was my neighbours’ advice, but it didn’t help, his pheromones were so strong it was enough to stand beside him and his smell stuck to you; a very strong smell of overly ripe goats’ cheese.

To our dismay the smell stuck even after washing your hands with dishwasher liquid and heavy scrubbing, never mind the clothes. Some research, after spending a day or so of constantly smelling goat cheese (and not the good kind!), I found the solution; wash your hands with a bit of toothpaste or goat’s milk soap.

Last year saw plenty of changes, while only one of our four cows had a calf, we discovered that this cow in particular (Oprah) is a high yield milker and a good foster mother. Oprah reared an additional two calves along with her own, plus is currently with two more, but she will, of course, get a break.

The land of rainbows.

Re-organising a bit, I decided to swap two cows for four calves. While it is periodically labour intense, we will have calmer periods as well. Another plus is that all the calves are heifers, so no crazy young bullocks for me. If you don’t know my history with the male side of cattle, have a read of my blog “Frenemies on the Farm” and you’ll understand.

Our poultry population has dwindled as well, thanks to Mr Fox. The only good thing the fox did, was to target the hen that was pecking the eggs and thereby saving me the hassle of trying to figure out which of my identical looking hens was the culprit. I never got to try the “fake egg” trick on them, but I have them saved in case there is another instance of egg pecking. Supposedly putting fake eggs where they lay will teach them a lesson.

There may be plenty to do, but the rewards are immense and few things are as satisfying as seeing the delivery of healthy animals. It startles me at times, that I am living this very down to earth and very real type of life, not something I expected growing up in the city. I would not change it for the world.

Winter calf sales

Calf sales 2017 (1)

The time to face more farm realities has come and gone, our lovely calves have left the farm to an unknown destination. It has gone full circle, we now need to scan our cows and check who is in calf. We know that Oprah will be calving around the 5th of May next year, but the others are still in question.

The weanling calves were fattened up a bit before a tour to the mart, a bit of extra feed they didn’t have to share with the cows. Apart from that they spent evening to morning with their dams. They still take a bit of milk, but there’s not much left to be honest and most of their diet is the same as the cows.

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Atlas and Goldie on their last few days on the farm.

The mart is as always, a bit or a roll of the dice, although you will get a good idea what the prices are. It is hard to gauge, you will find plenty of pure stock buyers and sometimes not that many farmers. The market of course also depends on the time of the year.

We were probably a bit late with our sales, while our calves got a chance to bulk up a bit, it is slightly out of season for farmers in terms of filling up in stock. Our cattle are outdoors, while most beef cattle will be put in for the winter to avoid losing their bulk. While this makes more commercial sense, we are happy enough for ours to be outdoors as not only does this facilitate our work, but is a more natural state for the cattle.

It is still not hassle free, even in Ireland there is a shortage of grass this time of the year. The fields still look green, but the grass is short and sparse. Our cattle get a supplement of silage, which are large round bales of wet or damp cut grass wrapped in plastic. It doesn’t rot but rather has a slightly fermented smell to it and is often warm at its core.

Cows and calves together would go through one bale in 3-4 days, while the cows alone stretch it out to about a week. This is another aspect of farming, the break even and profit margin. Do you keep calves over the winter and hope for better prices? Will the higher price cover or eat up the cost of supplemented feed? Would you keep a calf ,the right calf, raise it and hope it gives good stock in the future?

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Nuti, a placid and food greedy little heifer.

These questions do batter my city girl sensibilities, but are of course part of farming reality. It is also a great learning experience to look at your food in the eye, to consider the quality of their lives, to make choices about what you eat.

So my four beautiful calves went to the Ennis mart on a Tuesday, but no joy, the prices weren’t good enough. They were sold las Saturday in the Sixmilebridge mart, at prices that were marginally higher. But again, the calculation of feed and time settled the sale. There was no point bringing them back, hoping to sell them privately, feeding them, but still having them loose bodyweight in the cold temperatures of the season.

As said, the prices are always hard to gauge. Funnily enough the lighter bull, 270 kg, went for a higher price than the heavier one, 300 kg. It could be the colour, the shape, the similarity to other bulls bought by the beef buyer or farmer. My girls, the heifers, went cheaper than the bulls, which is something I need to look into as they both were better quality stock. At the end of the day though, bulls carry more weight than heifers once they are bulked up properly.

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All tucked into the trailer on route to the mart.

When the calves were leaving in the farm and I could see them placidly munching away at the hay in the trailer, I did feel regret. I thought back at the effort Goldie’s birth was (read “A life or death situation”), and how happy I was at the easy arrival of the others. A farmer in the mart looked at me and noted that these calves were right pets and very placid. He laughed when I agreed and said it would be all fine once I had the check in hand. Not really true for me, I have to say.

Since I’m not planning on becoming a vegetarian, I can take pride in the care my calves got. I also thought back on my childhood in Africa, where cattle are protected, loved, cared for and eaten with a natural attachment and detachment that the modern world has lost. Cattle is food, fortune and status in Africa, where one aspect doesn’t diminish the other. You enjoy your status, use your fortune and eat your food.

Now is the quiet time until the new arrivals next spring. Better enjoy it while we can.

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Goodbye my lovelies, we will miss you!

 

 

A bit about cow fertility

Cows in heat Aug 17

We have moved into a new stage of watching our cows. Last spring we had to keep them under surveillance to make sure they calved safely, now I have to check them regularly to alert. make sure they are ready to be bulled.

There will be no bull, so the minute I see the signs of heat the AI man needs to be called and the cow penned. No one wants to miss the chance to get the cow in calf.

I was unprepared the first round and didn’t inform Kevin until days after, but to be fair I had not been informed I needed to keep my eye on them. After that I have been more alert and attentive.

The second round was a bit of a laugh. I will be honest and admit that while I had read up on the symptoms of the cows in heat I had totally missed out on a few details of the mechanics. Again, to be fair, it is my first go at this and somehow everyone takes for granted I tolthat I know the obvious…which I obviously don’t.

Early one morning I informed Kevin that a cow had mounted another and he immediately got on the phone to the AI man, who arranged to come in the afternoon. I put in the cow in the pen and as the afternoon came near Kevin asked me which cow I had put in.

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Checking the heat detectors on the back of the cows.

 

“Did you put in Sheila into the pen?”, Kevin asked
“What do you mean Sheila?”, I asked him slightly confused
“The one that is ready for bulling, of course. Is Sheila in the pen?”, he asked again.
“For bulling? Why on earth would I put Sheila in the pen?”, I answered.
“I told you to put her in, the AI man will be here soon and she needs to be penned”, he said a good bit irritated by now.
“You do realise that Sheila is the pony, don’t you? You mean Gypsy.” I said as the conversation finally made sense.
“I don’t know what silly names you have put on the cows. We never named our cows.”, he said exasperated.

Well sorry, but I do.

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Gypsy with her calf Atlas

We have our striped Galloway, with the apt name of Gypsy Rose Lee, for the first burlesque stripper dancer. You might have heard of the musical “Gypsy”, starring Bette Midler. She gave birth to Atlas, the white striped grey bull calf.

Oprah and her calf Goldie probably don’t need much of an introduction, as they are mentioned often enough in the blog. Oprah taught me how to milk and Goldie softened my hardened heart to cattle.

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Missy Moo, our smallest and most gentle cow.

Missy Moo, our smallest and most calm cow is a right pet. Her calf, Ash, is a lovely ash coloured bull calf that everyone finds just beautiful.

Our last cow just got her name, Nutella, but her calf is still nameless. The kids and I are a bit blank, but we will get there. All calves were sired by the same Charolais bull, and it shows.

So, I had put in the cow and not the pony into the pen, but to Kevin’s chagrin it was the wrong cow. One of the signs of heat is cows mounting each other, in my naïve logic I thought that the cow doing the mounting must have the hormones raging; never did I expect that cows in a normal state would feel the need to mount another cow just because the other is in heat.

While Kevin fretted about the arrival of the AI man, I exchanged the cows with plenty of time. The AI man literally flew in and out, the whole procedure took less than a minute and hopefully in 283 days we will have another calf.

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Nutella, she finally got named.

Another fact I didn’t know, and am not fully convinced of yet, is that you can choose a bull that can give calves that “are easy to calf”. Does it mean the calves are smaller? Are they more slippery? Do they position themselves better? And how in the world (except for size) is that defined by the sperm of a bull. I need to investigate this further, so feel free to enlighten me.

All cows but one have been in heat and are hopefully in calf. To facilitate the surveillance, an heat detector sticker has been put on every cow, just to make sure we don’t miss the chance to get them in calf and that the ones in calf really are.

The AI procedure doesn’t always take, and there is only a small window every three weeks to get a cow in calf. Fingers crossed that it all goes well, and while we might fret I am happy that the calves will not be born too early in the year. Warmer weather definitely made for easier and safer calving. So, we are holding our breath and awaiting for the signs of heat in Oprah, the last one to get in calf.

 

I never expected the paparazzi

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Until lately, I have in a very small scale, experienced what it might be like to be persecuted by adoring fans or the paparazzi. It has calmed down a bit, but I am still conscious of what door I use to exit my house.

No, I have not overnight become a media star, my blog is not that famous and it is much simpler than that, although almost equally ridiculous and unexpected. It all has to do with the abundant TLC I give our animals on the farm. I still have many of my city girl sensibilities left, they have not yet been erased by the harsh reality of farming (see Farming reality slapped me in the face post).

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“The kind one”, our most placid ewe checking me out and looking for a treat

So it is no surprise really, with the level of coddling I give my animals, that they watch me and often follow me wherever I go. Our farm is small and many of the fields are facing the house. Depending on what door I exit, I am constantly greeted by one group of animals or other.

Now that that the pasture is plentiful their attention has lessened, but when I fed them animal nuts daily up to late spring, I could hardly leave the house without having hearing intense baaing from the sheep until they’d lose sight of me.

If I by chance am carrying any type of bucket, even now, there is literally a stampede to get at me. The sheep are bad enough, as the larger ones could easily knock you over; or as it also happened, they would run in between my legs and lift me off the ground. No, I do not relish riding an ewe and particularly not ones with wet wool.

At times, even without a bucket, they decide I am somehow feeding them and follow me around the field until I get to a gate. They then proceeded to stare at me and continue baaing, which clearly means “Feed me! Feed me now” in sheep.

The cows and calves are calmer, but once they spot the bucket I would imagine myself the middle of a rugby field with the ball in my hand and the other team coming against me. It makes me laugh to see them run at full speed towards me, but quite scary as well as I wonder if they will stop in time before they maul me. After being shoved and pushed around a few times when I was trying to empty the bucket in front of them, I quickly learned to be a good bit more imposing with my normally very calm cows. Lack of respect from their side would end in me being trampled.

 

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The cow rugby team coming against me. Scary!

Thankfully the cows are lazier than the sheep, and they will not follow me for long. On very hot or rainy days, they won’t even bother to look my way.

The ducks are smaller and easier to handle, but no less loud when they see me and know it is time to fill their buckets. They run towards me like a feathered cloud giving their cute quacks. I feel bad at times passing their pen, without any treats to give them as they follow me in their loud and cloudlike fashion.

At times I had to consider what I was up to and which would be the best door to leave the house from. While very cute at times, having 20 sheep baaing every time they see you definitely gets on your nerves after a while. I would take the roundabout way, just to avoid their demanding attention.

The positive of all this attention is that it is very easy to round up the animals. I can get both the sheep, cows and ducks into almost any pen or shed, with a little patience. As long as I am carrying a bucket they don’t care where I’m going or where I bring them. It is very handy at times.

 

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I need better shoes, I have had enough of being stepped on by sheep looking for a treat.

 

Kevin no.2 asked me a couple of weeks ago if I spoke some secret sheep language, as they followed me without any problem at all; this after he and Kevin had spent some time trying to chase them into a pen. I guess that is the upside of being a celebrity on this farm.

In all this paparazzi-type of attention I have forgotten to mention my most celebrity-like accessory, my very own body guard. Our dog Bella seldom leaves my side when I am working around the house, farm or polytunnel. Even when I write my blog she lies beside me, perking up the minute I make for a door. Undemanding and constant, my own unobtrusive and constant shadow.

Ah! The life of celebrity, but in a farm-like way.

 

Cheesy chores

As I mentioned in my last post (Raw milk in the house) I am now making cheese with the surplus milk we get from our cow Oprah. I decided not to milk the ewes, no matter how pushy my kids get trying to convince me. I did give it a go, out of necessity to feed a lamb, and I have to say that while I managed, it was not the easiest thing to do; pressing milk out with only the tips of my fingers from very small teats. We are also not set up for milking the ewes and I refuse to go hunting for the one ewe to milk every morning. Maybe next year.

Hand milking Oprah

It all starts with the morning milking.

Instead I am slowly perfecting my cream cheese recipe. The one flavoured with chives is the most popular, as the plain one tends to be simply too plain. I have also tried my hand at mozzarella, with medium success but great for a first try, and a very popular ricotta, which my girls had with jam on pancakes.

The key to cheese, apart from extreme hygiene, is understanding the consistency of cheese curds at various stages. Too hard, too soft, just right, all depending on temperature, acidity and how long you leave them in the hot whey.

Making the ricotta was due to my strong dislike for waste. After making the cream cheese and mozzarella, I had a huge amount of whey left and thought that there must be use for it. As we don’t have pigs or hens at the time, nor did I want to make bread, a very successful alternative was to strain it through a very fine cheesecloth and ta da…a small amount of ricotta. Very tasty as well.

Whey is very high in protein and you can supposedly use it for a range of things, all from bread to cooking pasta and rice. The problem is that I just don’t have the fridge or freezer space to store it. I will continue researching, maybe there is more it can be used for. Leave me a comment or send me an email if you have any suggestions!

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A little cheese gift for the neighnbours. The chive falvoured one was the most popular.

You don’t actually need milk directly from the cow to make your own cream cheese, store bought milk will also do the trick. Is it worth it? Probably not.

You need and awful lot of milk to make a small bit of cheese, but it can still be a fun thing to try out, just for your own curiosity or for the kids to learn where food comes from. Give it a go and follow the recipe below.

Recipe
3 litres of milk
2-3 tbs of Lemon juice (maybe more)
3-4 tbs of Natural yogurt (I use natural full fat greek yogurt)
Salt (plenty of it)
Flavouring (optional, such as finely chopped chives, garlic and/or other herbs)

You will also need
Cheese cloth (muslin)Mixing
Strainer
Mixer or bowl (for hand mixing)

Make sure all your utensils are disinfected but odourless.

Boil the milk, once it is boiling add the lemon juice one spoon at the time and stir constantly. This is where practice is a must, as you must decide how hard you want your curds. The more lemon you add the harder they are. Once you are happy with the curds and that all the milk has separated. Strain the curds, wash them at least twice to wash out all the whey (liquid from the milk) and lemon juice.

Mix the curds with a couple of spoons of yogurt, by hand or in a mixer, once it is smooth add plenty of salt and your optional flavouring. Finally, put the mixture into the cheesecloth and hang it up for about six hours. Store it in a container and keep it in the fridge.

This recipe has been adapted from Sharmis Passions blog. Have a look if you want a more detailed recipe and step description.

As all three cows have now calved, I could start my own cheese production, but I have to say that I am more than happy to just milk the one cow and make cheese once a week or so. The other two cows will likely get a calf each to make use of the surplus of milk they produce, and I am sure it is a solution that will suit us all.