Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bad chickens

Chickens have a nasty habit of picking on each other; sometimes they do it as part of establishing a pecking order, sometimes they are just plain ornery.

One benefit of having the brooder in the sunroom is that I am close by and check the chicks regularly. So when I heard repeated loud 'cheeps' I went out to check and found a mob of chicks attacking one of the Cornish X. I pulled her (or him, it is too early to sex the Cornish visually) from the brooder and investigated the injury - an open wound about an inch long.

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Chickens can display varying forms of cannibalism from feather pulling to toe picking to egg eating and they do it for a variety of reasons including being too crowded, not enough feeders/waterers, too much light, too hot, too fat or just plain bored. Often these nasty habits start with a few birds and are picked up by the rest of the flock.

However, if there is blood involved, it moves beyond nasty habits and picking at each other and into flock survival. A flock of chickens is only as strong as its' weakest member, so a survival mechanism kicks in and the flock mentality changes. The blood must be disposed before predators find it.

Regardless, the chick is now separated from the others and will live in her own pen for a while until she heals. She is quite tame and spent some time sleeping in my lap this afternoon.

In the meanwhile I need to take what I can from this lesson. Perhaps she cut herself or had some poop stuck on her that another chick kindly removed for her, maybe the blood in her feather quills was colorful enough to be interesting to peck at, I don't know how it started but I can look at why.

Though this is an isolated incident, it could indicate an issue with management and while it is never fun to admit that you might have made a mistake, it is in the animal's best interest (and my own in the long run) to take a careful look at conditions that may have exacerbated the situation. I cleaned out the waterers again (as they scratch around, the chicks can fill the waterers with shavings), refilled all the feeders, rechecked the temperature, adjusted the heat lamps and added in a new hunk of sod (to give them something interesting to peck at). I will keep a close watch on the flock in the next few weeks before they head out to pasture to ensure that everyone is healthy and happy.

Comment moderation

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Cheers!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

New spots

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The spotty pig has new spots!

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It started to snow again this morning with big bloppy flakes. March has been a dry month so far and today's snow combined with the half inch of rain we got over the last two days and we are just happy as can be. When you live in the desert with less than ten inches of rain a year, every drop is precious.

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The pigs sure didn't seem to mind but I imagine the cattle think they are entitled to a big bale of hay for having to put up with all the white stuff even though it will be gone in a few hours.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Flat trays and fresh flowers

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Last year, instead of just planting lettuce in plug trays, I ended up direct seeding a whole flat tray with lettuce seed. When it was time to plant in the garden, I grabbed a hunk of soil and teased the roots away and plopped the whole thing in the ground. Much to my surprise, these seedlings took off faster in the garden than the plug trays which were seeded in the sunroom and planted in the garden the same day. Somehow a single zinnia seed ended up in the tray and I just planted among a handful of lettuce seedlings in the garden. That zinnia was the most prolific of all I planted and really thrived, providing me with an abundance of pale pink buttons.

So, this year, I want to try the same thing with my zinnias and start a whole flat tray. I adored the zinnias last year and as any visitor to the ranch can attest, I put out fresh flowers in each guestroom, the bathroom and dining area. As Lloyd would say, "fresh flowers lighten the mood". The zinnias produced well into the fall and provide such unique, architectural interest, that even when I was between blooms in the garden, I could still put out a few zinnias.

Where am I going to put out a hundred zinnia seedlings? I haven't got that far yet but wherever they end up, it will be a sight to behold.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

In the sunroom

I'm a little behind in getting my seedlings started this year but since I haven't finalized what exactly I plan on growing just yet, maybe that is OK.

I started some tomatoes and peppers last week in zipper bags with a damp paper towel. Since I am still making my way through the seed in the seedbox, (which is anywhere from two to twenty years old) I want to make sure that the seed at least germinates before I devote precious seedling tray space to something that may or may not come up.

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The pepper seeds were ready to go so I divided them up and, with the help of fine-tipped tweezers, planted them in seedling trays. A light covering of sifted soil, a few spritzes from the water bottle, a label cut from an old milk jug, tucked in under a saran cover and placed on a warming tray and hopefully by week end I will seed some sprouts peeking from the soil.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The smell of spring

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After a long (but mild) winter of cow manure, wet boots, pig poop, stinky pond water, chick droppings, musty cellars, smelly gloves, poultry litter, all sorts of smells related to pulling calves and afterbirth, hay dust, dust dust and oh my, what did I step in my shoe smells terrible smells, to walk outside and take a full breath of the aroma of apricot blossoms with a hint of rain moving in from the west, makes you fall in love with this place all over again.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Branding date is set

Everyone's schedule this year was very difficult to align and none of the proposed dates really penciled out perfectly but we ended up settling on Saturday April 3rd.

If you are part of the regularly scheduled branding crew, particularly CF, RW and CSW, please let me know if you will be able to make this date. We talked to Tom P. already and he and the family have a wedding to attend so they will be unable to make it. Other family and friends of the ranch that are planning to come out, keep me informed of your plans so I can make sure we have space to accommodate everyone.

If you have never been up for branding but might be interested in helping out, let me know as well. It is an experience, that is for certain.

Cheers!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Building fence

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The crawler tractor holds the fence tight while Nathan staples the wire to the post

The last few weeks we have been constructing a new pasture area for the hogs that will give them more space to run and play and do all sorts of things that pigs like to do. The fence doesn't have to be very tall since they can't really jump up and over a fence. If we are interested in running cattle or other stock in this area in the future, we can always add a few strands of barbed wire at the top. Pigs are far more likely to escape through digging.

This design of this pasture fence has a string of barbed wire about three inches off the ground with a graduated woven wire fence above (smaller openings toward the ground with the holes widest at the top). In theory, if the pigs are rooting around and following a tasty root or just getting lost in digging a hole, they will run up against the barbed wire and be persuaded from continuing to pressure the fence. But, pigs are very smart creatures and if they want out, they will find a way. The grass is always greener so here's to hoping that they will be smitten with having so much space to run around, a big compost pile to snuffle about in, a place to wallow and a nice shelter to sleep in that they will be happy hogs.

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Lloyd, Jake and Nathan finishing off a short reach of fence

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Found it

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I spotted the stolen air filter cover stashed among the grasses down behind the chicken house. It would appear that the suspect in question was guilty indeed. Nathan was a bit surprised; he thought for sure it had been tossed aimlessly in a truck bed or was hidden among the tools not that the dog would have hauled it off. I knew all along that no frisbee-shaped item is safe in these parts.

You're not supposed to...

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Be sitting there.

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Oops

If you have been reading this blog over the last few weeks you know that we are in calving season for our small cattle herd. You would also know that we have first calf heifers this year that require regular checking throughout the day.

So when Nathan and Jake came down off the hill today and asked who pulled that calf out there, I knew we were busted. Chuck and I had been chatting in the kitchen and Lloyd was working in the shop so we all shuffled out to the barnyard and looked up on the hill and there was Peanut with a brand new red heifer calf.

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Good job Peanut, I will put a star next to your name in the cattle book. You don't need my help anyway.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Cornish X

The Cornish cross is a type of chicken, actually THE type of chicken. If you have eaten chicken in a restaurant or purchased some at the grocery store since 1960, this is the bird you have been eating. A cross between a Cornish and a white rock, these birds have been carefully bred to grow fast and develop a broad breast fit for the American consumer's taste.

However, there are some flaws with this particular hybrid, mostly that the birds can grow too fast which strains the cardiovascular system and that they start to pack on the pounds before the skeletal system can fully support the weight.

This is my first year raising Cornish X for meat birds and I must admit that I was a bit skeptical to order a batch since as a small pastured poultry operation, it almost seems sinful to raise the same type of birds used in factory farms. The birds were touted as lazy, sluggish creatures that fall asleep with their heads in the feeder. Frankenbirds. But so far, they are not.

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11 day old Cornish X (left) standing next to same age Welsummer chick

I find the Cornish to be a delight; they are inquisitive, alert and calm. They are always very curious about anything new in the brooder. I provide hunks of sod from the yard and the Cornish swarm it the instant I put it in the pen, scratching for bugs, pulling on grass and roots, climbing on the grass and leaping off across the brooder. They are very mindful of their surroundings too. When I walk by the brooder or a bird flies over the glass roof of the sunroom, it is the Cornish that tilt their heads to watch while the other birds continue focusing on the ground. They are also very friendly. I put my hand in the brooder and the other birds will run away but the Cornish come over to investigate, they grab my fingernails and poke my freckles. They settle down and let me pet them and are very calm when picked up. They dust, they dig, they run around and act chicken-y. Not at all the lazy, eating machines I was expecting.

Admittedly, the birds are still young and as they grow will probably slow down and I am going to do my best to grow them out slowly so they don't have heart or leg troubles. I am excited to get them out on pasture and anticipate that they will do well.

I am planning to experiment with other varieties of meat birds this summer and I will revisit my philosophy about the Cornish X in a few weeks but for the time being, I don't feel guilty about raising these birds. After all, Cornish X produce the type of dressed bird that the customer is seeking at an economical rate and if I can offer the chickens the highly quality of life during their time with us where they can be outside in the sunshine, chasing bugs and digging up worms then great.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Out to pasture

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Big cattle shuffle day today. We loaded up the heifers that had already calved (5 of the 8) with their calves and trucked them over to Kirkbride where the rest of the herd was over the winter. Then we combined the heifers with the yearling herd and the brood herd and sent everybody off to pasture. The old brood cows know right where they are going and take off right away to the green grass. The new calves though don't know the area. Groups of 5 or 6 calves kept walking back up the road towards the hayshed and going through the fences and calling for mama who was now over several hills. There is not much sense in trying to herd calves back to the pasture. We just left them be and within a few hours the cows will remember they have a little one around here somewhere and go off looking for it.

Everyone seems pretty happy to be out on pasture which is good because even though the grass is just getting started, the weather has been and is going to be mild and well, we are out of hay. In a few weeks we will bring the whole herd back in for branding and then it is back out on the range.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Scratches

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This is Muzzy's heifer calf. I like to call her Fuzzy of Muzzy but Nathan calls her Scratches. She is really sweet and calm and very inquisitive. She has also learned that if she walks over to you, you will pet her and if she doesn't move away, you will just keep petting her.

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Today was the last day of feeding up at the hayshed (note the empty barn behind Nathan) so we made sure to give her lots of pets and belly rubs. Hopefully we will still be in her good graces when branding time comes around.

Dig it with a stick

One of the only radio stations we get down at the house is KWSO, from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. So when the alarm goes off in the morning we listen to drumming and singing from Pow Wows but they also feature a couple minutes of language lessons each hour. In the spring, some of the lessons are about edible plants: currants, camas, huckleberries, deer meat, biscuitroot. After introducing the vocabulary, there will be a few sentences using the words and phrases: "we thank the creator for providing this bounty" or "always listen to the elders when they are speaking". Our favorite phrase translates to "Dig it with a stick" in reference to biscuitroot and other tubers.

So now that the biscuitroot is in full bloom, each time we see an especially dense patch, both Nathan and I exclaim, "Dig it with a stick!". So today on our way back from feeding cows we decided to dig some. We didn't have a stick per se, more of a wrench and a pocket knife.

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Biscuitroot was an important food source for the local tribes. The swollen root could be eaten raw, dried and ground up similar to flour or boiled and served as a drink. The greens have a parsley-like flavor (the plant is in the carrot/parsley family). Nathan found a golfball sized tuber the other day but I have never been so lucky to find one that large, it can take years for the root to thicken that much, especially since the plant favors dry, poor soils.

We did find a tuber about the size of an acorn or so but ate it before I thought to take a photo. The root is very mild and the texture is quite soft. Overall, a delicious reward for the amount of careful digging required to pry it from the ground. Next time, I'll skip the pocket knife and just go "dig it with a stick".

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Mechanic work

Nathan and Lloyd spent the day working on "Old Yellow", on of the older pickups that has been lying crippled in the barnyard over the winter (not so helpful when we need to turn large equipment around). They got her all put back together but come time to close the hood, oddly enough the frisbee-shaped cover for the air filter was missing....

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We never did find where Zoe stashed the filter cover but Lloyd fashioned a temporary cover out of some type of fiber board and we were back in business. We're still keeping a lookout for the original.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Trebuchet

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AC was out this weekend working with her dad on building a trebuchet for a science project. It was really cool to watch it come together piece by piece. They put a lot of hard work into it and the craftsmanship really shows down to the smallest details like beveling the edges and rounding off the corners. AC was really good with all the tools from the band saw to the grinder to chisels and antique drills.



I wish I got to do fun projects like that when I was in school. I'm hoping she brings it back out to the ranch soon so we can play with it some more. For her project, she had to launch a hacky sack about 20-25 feet into the target area but I am pretty sure we could launch a golf ball clear across the canyon. The best part? The dog will happily bring it right back and we could do it again!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Science post: Genetic throwbacks

Last year we bred our cow herd to three different bulls. The main brood herd was serviced by two black Angus bulls (solid black) while our replacement heifers were bred to a red Angus bull. The results have been an interesting science flashback to junior high and the use of Punnett squares to predict genetic outcomes.

We refer to the genetics of an animal in two ways. The genotype refers to all the hereditary information in the genetics (BB, Br, rr) - essentially the unseen part. While the phenotype refers to how that information is expressed - the type of genetic information we can tell simply by looking at the animal (black cow, black cow, red cow).

With the black Angus, black is the dominant color so if you breed a red cow (rr) to a purebred black bull (BB) you will always get a black calf.


r r
B Br Br
B Br Br

In this scenario the bull will always throw the dominant gene for black color and since you need two recessive genes to express that coloring and only one dominant gene, the calf will always be black.

What has been a little surprising to us this year is the genetic throwbacks we are getting with our heifers. These heifers were born before we moved to the ranch so we have no records that show their maternal lineage but I know for certain the sire is black Angus (BB). Since our herd is so heavily influenced by black Angus, we would anticipate similar results to above.

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So when we end up with a red calf, what has changed? We are breeding a black animal to a red animal in both scenarios so why is the outcome different? The answer has to do with unknown genotypes in the cows.

With a purebred black bull (BB), the sire will throw a dominant gene (B) 100% of the time. It doesn't really matter what the dam throws because it will be always be overshadowed or matched by the sire. The resulting phenotype is 100% black calves.

With the purebred red bull, he will always throw recessive genes so the situation is reversed and it is the dam that provides the genetic information that will ultimately determine phenotype in the calves. Though her phenotype is manifested as a black cow, she could have a genotype of BB or Br.

So in the case of the red calf, the Punnett square looks like this:


B r
r Br rr
r Br rr

In this mating there was a 50/50 chance for the phenotype of the calf to be black or red. In this case the calf turned out red (rr). We know that the dam is all black, but does this mean that the grand-dam was red? Not necessarily, she could have been black (Br) too and thrown the r gene to her daughter where it went unexpressed until passed down to her granddaughter where the recessive gene paired with another recessive gene to finally express the red coloring. The red cow could have even been further back in the lineage since with each generation there was a 50% chance to pass on that recessive genetic information.

So far we have had two calves from our first-calf heifers that have been red and since the rr/Br pairing only results in red calves 50% of the time, there could likely be more cows that hold the recessive gene. I honestly hadn't put much thought into genetic expression in the herd and was just planning for all black calves but now that we have seen this type of genetic throwback I am thinking that we may have a lot more cows that carry that recessive genotype and could continue to express that phenotype over time if we keep using red bulls. Very interesting...

Well that concludes today's science lesson. Cheers!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Chicks

Went in to the post office today and picked up our first delivery of chicks for the season. We ordered from a hatchery in the valley and they arrived today at noon so they were only 30 hours old when we picked them up. I ordered some more laying hens (25 birds) to boost egg production as well as a batch of meat birds (25 birds) and they all made it safe an sounds and the hatchery even tossed in a few extras just in case. It is kind of nice to have a variety of colors bouncing around in the brooder.

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Most of the all yellow birds are the Cornish cross meat birds and the other colors are they laying hens.

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This little one (hopefully a female, called a pullet since I paid extra for sexed chicks) is a light Brahma. She looks similar to the Cornish, being that yellow color we think of when we think of baby chicks but it has the fuzzy feet of Brahmas and will lay brown eggs.

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This little one supposed to be an Ameraucana and will lay blue or green eggs. Possibly she is not a purebred Ameraucana but an "Easter Egger" chicken which is really just a crossbred mutt that carries the blue/green gene. Regardless, if she lays blue eggs that would be most excellent.

The pullets should start laying eggs in July and the meat birds will be ready for processing in May.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

New and improved hayshed

Nathan and Lloyd completed their hayshed project. Previously the hayshed had no manger, just holes cut out of the side of the building so the cows just stick their heads inside and grab a mouthful.
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However, not only did this cut down on the amount of usable floor space for storing hay (the cows can reach in surprisingly far), but over time the dirt around the building was pushed down the hill exposing and undermining the foundation.
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The new plan calls for: pushing soil back up the hill to cover the foundation and creating a level surface, building a long manger along the outside of the building and extending the roof line of the little hay shed so when it rains, all the water does not pour into the manger.

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Once Lloyd scraped and leveled the soil, they built the manger. And as is always the case around here, creativity and ingenuity make the best of the materials we have on hand and they come up with a design that uses old guard rails and posts. Then the manger is half filled with field stone and topped with a clay like soil to bring the bottom up to a comfortable eating level for cows (and provide more support to the foundation now that I think about it. Those guys, they are pretty bright).

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Next they added boards above the guard rails to prevent cows from climbing into the manger (Dirty Seven's tan steer made a good habit of that while the manger was under construction) and then braces to support and extend the roof line. With the last piece of re-purposed tin in place, the project is complete and we can move on to the next task (fencing in new pig pastures).

This hayshed remodel will make a big difference in the coming seasons as it is one of the few places on property that we can feed out through the winter since it is spring fed and does not require pumping or hauling water. We currently have 13 yearlings over there and they barely occupy half of the feed bunk space.

It is hard to describe, but it feels good to be updating the buildings and making them more usable. It is a very tangible task; there was no manger, now there is and it is more useful for our purposes. Now we can store more hay and feed more cows if needed. Oh boy!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

All is well if it ends well I suppose

Since this is the first year we have calved heifers and each birth is different, I am doing my best to take mental notes of the lessons learned. Today I learned a lot of lessons. As a quick warning, everything does turn out OK but I do talk frankly about life on the ranch.

Heifer #52 calved today. Nathan was out this morning with the phone company and Lloyd had a meeting to attend. Just as Lloyd was getting ready to go one of the heifers started pacing around on the hill like she was getting ready to calve.

Within an hour or so I could see her water bag and walked her down the hill and in to a small pen area next to the barn. By this point she was no longer interested in having her calf but rather focused on how she could escape. I had hoped she would settle down and get back to business but that wasn't happening. The way the pen is set up, there is no real way to restrain her with one person unless she goes into the chute and calving in a chute can create a whole host of other problems. I'd been trying to call Nathan but cell service out here is more of a nice idea in theory than practice. I was just about to call the neighbor when I heard Nathan coming down the driveway.

We were able to restrain her head in the back part of the chute (aptly referred to as the 'butt gate') and the rest of her body is in the alleyway that leads to the chute. This way, Nathan can safely move behind her and reach in to grab the calf's legs and loop chains around the feet. When you pull a calf, you walk one leg forward, then the next and back and forth until the calf is out (if you pull on both legs the shoulders get stuck).

The calf was out up to the ribcage and with a few more pulls (as the cow pushes) it would be out but the cow's legs went out from under her and she laid down. Worried she would choke herself, I opened up the butt gate to free her head. No matter how hard we pulled, the calf would not budge and each time we did the calf's eyes would bulge and tongue would stick out.

What happened was that the way they cow was laying had twisted the calf so its' hips were stuck. The only way to free the calf from hip-lock (which could also be pinching the umbilical cord, cutting off blood supply) is to get the cow to reposition but since she is is this alleyway, she can't really move. Nathan will go pull the pins on the sidewall to give her more space and I will pull the calf.

As soon as the cow gets enough wiggle room to reposition, she stands up and lurches past Nathan. I'm trying my hardest to pull the calf out but she is too strong and I have to let the chains go. The cow bounds down the hill, calf hanging half out of her. In horror we watch as she plows through the electric fence, the wire wrapped around the calf and fiberglass poles rattling behind her. Shortly thereafter, the calf falls out and the cow keeps going.

Nathan and I check the calf and she seems to be OK considering everything she has been through: tugging on her legs, pulling hard while her hips won't move and her eyes bulge, bouncing along as mama thunders down the hill, zapped by the fence before it shorts out and finally being dropped and not breaking a neck. We rub down the calf vigorously to stimulate circulation and breathing, though she really seems fine and is just laying there blinking at us.

Nathan picks up the calf and brings her back to a small corral while the dog and I head up the hill to bring back the cow. Even though the calf seems fine at this point, it doesn't make much of a difference if the mother rejects her and with a first calf heifer who had a bit of a traumatic birth experience, that thought can loom in the back of your mind. However, the cow walks into the pen, see the calf and mothers up right away, licking her and mooing.

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Instances likes these can be so overwhelming and emotional I just want to break down and cry but there is no time. A quick hug from Nathan and then we are back to work. He gathers the posts and restrings the fence while I put the pins back along the panel hinges, normalize the calving area and try to find the calf chains that have fallen off in the muck somewhere. Life goes on and all is well if it ends well.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Halfway there

Today we reached the mid way point for our brood herd of 26 since we now have 13 calves on the ground.

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Dusky had a grey white tail heifer (to match Dirty Seven's calf) for calf #12

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Postal had an all black calf (I haven't had the chance to sex it just yet) for calf #13.

We have 6 heifers left to calve, so while there are still some sleepless nights ahead, we are entering the home stretch.

Monday, March 1, 2010

So many black calves

Hmm. Counted 14 calves today. Somebody calved but it is so hard to tell when all those little black calves are running around and bouncing into each other. I think maybe it was Spits who calved. We shall see.

On another note, where are all the cute white-faced calves? Last year, almost a third of the calves had some kind of white markings on their face. This year there are only two so far which makes it really hard to track individual calves.