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In honor of cows

Posted 12/6/2012 8:27am by Leaf Myczack.

Nine years ago, we moved to an 11 acre strip of pasture that had been divided off from a much larger piece of former cattle farm. The pluses were that there was a house and barns, albeit in terrible condition, that were on this waterless property. It was the proverbial "handyman's delight," and for my family, it was an exciting challenge. The negatives were just mentioned-waterless! There was one shallow dry basin, a former stock pond. The land had been recently mowed, and walking through the short weed and grass stubble, it was quite evident that the land had been terribly overgrazed, and was in very poor condition.

We started the restoration process much like a pebble dropped in water. We began at the core, the house, and turned a thoughtlessly built box into a comfortable and sustainable dwelling with minor add-ons, and without the installation of central heat or air conditioning. We then spread out in rings, permaculture fashion, planting shade trees, and windbreak trees, vegetable gardens, fruit trees and berry bushes. Our soil healing spread out further, to chicken houses and chicken pastures, and beyond. In some areas of the farm, only narrow paths penetrated the weeds and briars that the former pasture was now birthing. Reclaiming the land by hand was slow and careful work. The further out from the house, the slower and smaller the short-term effect.

From the beginning, we began to bring water to the dry farm. We immediately installed a rainwater collection system on the house and woodshed. We installed pre-formed cisterns, and also built stone cisterns as the water collectors spread out over the land. We hand dug small ponds, and we used diesel powered track-loaders to dig larger ones. Rainwater collection was eventually installed on every single sky facing surface, including our solar panel rack. The soil, rejuvenated over the years through careful natural permaculture practices, was once again the living, dynamic substance that readily supports life. It was time to bring back the grazers, but in a careful and controlled manner, lest we crush and deplete the life of the soil once again.

We introduced large mammals back onto the land cautiously. We started with a mule and pony in 2008, used as small draft animals. Each was worked individually to plow our larger growing plots. After Molly, our old mule, died (she was 35), we replaced her pasture niche in 2010 with a 6 month old beef steer bought on shares with friends.  We had never raised cows, although we had certainly killed and eaten a number of them in our farming career. "Chuck" was a baldface Angus, (black with a white face) and although he was rightfully leery of us, we eventually were able to scratch his "sweet spot," the neck flap, and we became friends. As noted animal behaviorist, Temple Grandin, so poignantly states, "Just because we are going to evenyually kill them, doesn't mean they have to be treated badly."

When we began to envision the farm after Chuck had become meat in the freezer, we realized we had become attached to having cows on the farm. There is something special about these big, gentle, gassy creatures, and the relationships between cows and their keepers. We didn't just want to keep killing and replacing calves each year, that would not satisfy our cow-learning desires. Passing-up a bred beef heifer, we instead took a big leap and bought a milk cow with a new bull calf.

The cow is a beautifully colored Jersey-Holstein mix with just 3 useable quarters or milkable teats. She would never stand in a commercial dairy barn on the milk line, but she was perfect for a family milk-share cow. When we first saw her, she stood in a nasty mud/manure paddock, amid discarded metal junk piles of a really rundown dirt farm. She looked resigned, but not happy, for this situation beyond her control. I walked up to her, touched her gently on the side, then stooped and milked a couple of squirts out of each teat. She didn't flinch! Her calf, a fawn colored little Jersey bull, was lethargic and laying down. The farmer kicked him to get him up for inspection. I could feel my stomach turn and the blood pressure start to rise. Also present was a little orphaned, shaggy, brown-colored beef calf that had been put on her to nurse as well. As we loaded the momma cow (this had now turned into a bovine rescue) into the stock trailer, the little guy looked totally bewildered. Our summer intern, who was along for the learning experience, made a very strong case for not leaving him behind, so we bought and loaded him as well. Following the trailer back to the farm, I felt like I had made the worst livestock business decision possible, but I had faith in the ability of the farm to "heal" the big cow. I was wrong about the first part, and right about the second.

It is now 15 months later. The little Jersey bull died shortly after arriving at the farm, but Ida Rose (momma cow) readily adopted the little chocalate-colored calf in his stead. "Choco" is now a big round and wooly 700 lb grass fed steer. A now 13 week old Holstein steer day nurses on Ida Rose now. "Hey Boy" is getting what offspring of commercial dairy cows never get anymore, a mother to lick him, nurse him, and graze with him. He is so thriving and already weighs over 150 pounds. And Ida Rose is still lactating and daily producing fresh milk for us, our 2 milkshares, as well as nursing her thoroughly adopted little Holstein calf. All this is made possible with only pasture grazing, supplemented with our own hay, and a mineral salt block. This is a true field test of the vitality and nourishment residing in our living soils.

In the presence of this little cow family, I have become the 4th cow. When herding the cows in from the fields in the evening, I sometimes find myself walking in the line with cows ahead and behind as we all quietly file along, our feet all making soft crunchy sounds on the dry grass. It is the perfect evening ending chore as dusk descends to envelope the land. At the barn, each cow is put in its stall for the night, and then they get brushed down. This mimicks the cow social behavior of licking each other. The cows stand perfectly still with noses almost touching the ground as the curry comb grooms their soft winter coats of thick hair. This attention to their social and physical needs has allowed me to established a rapport with these animals that greatly increases everyones safety in the barn. Docile, stress-free cows are a lot less likely to injure a stockperson or each other when working in amongst them in tight and confined quarters.

On December 4th, we were informed that the conservation easement in place on the adjoing land had been changed, thereby abruptly terminating our winter pasture grazing rights. This left us in an acute bind as an especially dry and warm fall, punctuated by hard freezes, has left the cool weather forage grasses on our 11 acres in poor shape.* The only workable solution acceptable to the overall deed-holder of the entire land parcel would mean that we would have to give up our cows. This we are not ready to do, as they are at the heart of our meat, milk and fertilizer program for the farm.

So together, we and the cows will be leaving this lovingly tended patch of earth in search of new, more suitable  pastures. Our loyalty is owed to these big gentle creatures who can convert the sunlight and rainfall entering the plants into nourishing food for our bodies. We like getting our meat, milk, butter, and cheese from cows whose names we know, and whose presence on our farm enriches our lives in so many different ways.

*The deedholder later granted us a three month grazing extension to see us through the winter months.


UPDATE June 6.2013  -

Since the above blog was written, we have been systematically dismantling our farming infrastructure in TN., in preparation for moving our farming/teaching operation northeast to the mountains of Floyd County, VA. We were gifted 10 acres of land in the northwest corner of the county. This land adjoins a much larger tract in the headwaters of Laurel Creek belonging to our good friend Swede McBroom. The work of environmental education and our permaculture demonstration project will be greatly enhanced in this new location.

Pastures have and are being prepared, a seep spring has been cleaned out and is in use. A new all weather access road (driveway) has been installed to the building site where a new, smaller, and more efficient dairy barn is under construction. Overnight of May 25-26, our three hives of bees were successfully moved to their new beeyard on our Virginia homestead.