I’ve always loved hiking in the woods. When I was a Girl Scout camp counselor back in the 1970’s, early morning was my favorite time for walking and talking with nature. The world was just waking up at that hour and I felt like I had the whole place to myself. I still feel that way about early mornings. Now that I’m in Seneca Rocks, I’ve discovered that taking an early morning stroll across the pastures is the best way I know to greet the day. I never know what I’ll find.
This morning, I cut up two apples for the donkeys. I didn’t want to disappoint them if they trotted over, looking for a treat. After pulling on knee-high, insulated rubber boots (an incredibly useful gift from my friend), I headed out across the meadow in back of the ranch house at the base of a mountain. There are two round bale feeders in that meadow and I wanted to see how much hay remained in each one. Last night, I’d climbed into each feeder – they’re open at the top and sides – and shoved the hay from the middle of the feeders to the sides where the cattle could reach it. This morning, the hay was gone from inside the feeders although some remained on the ground outside the feeders where it had fallen when the cattle pulled hay to the side. At least that hay is accessible to the cattle and it will be eaten soon.
There are two main ways of feeding cattle hay in the winter here. One is to drop a round bale of hay into a round bale feeder, like the two I’d inspected this morning. From my observations, it seems that the cattle are able to tear apart the round bale more easily when the twine is removed from the bale before placing it in the feeder. Some farmers use a sort of netting to hold the round bales together and others go one step further by encasing the round bales in plastic. Although some farmers drop the round bale in the feeder so the curved side faces up, I prefer to use a method I saw a family friend use. He maneuvers the tractor’s spear so that when he tips the metal spike, the round bale falls neatly off and lands on its side in the feeder, sort of like a checker piece. This way, the cattle have equal access to the hay from each part of the feeder.
The second method of feeding round bales to the cattle in winter is to unroll the bale with a special tractor attachment. I’ve done this – it was SO neat! I just love the fact that my friend lets me do the typical “guy stuff” around the farm and takes the time to teach me how to do it. The round hay bales are stored in a pole barn – it’s basically a huge covered patio. The front of the tractor has a metal spike attachment, about 30″ long. The back of the tractor has a set of pincers. First, you use the spike to spear the round bale of hay and move it from the pole barn to the ground. Then, you have to back up the tractor (something I’m slowly gaining comfort with) so that the pincers are positioned in the center of each side of the round bale. Once the pincers are in place, you close them tight into the hay bale. The pincers are then raised, which also raises the bale. You put the tractor in fourth gear and drive to the section of pasture in which you wish to unroll the bale. Lower the pincers until the bale is in contact with the ground and drive slowly using first gear, glancing back to make sure the bale is unrolling. (There is a right way and a wrong way to load the bale onto the pincers, sort of like toilet paper – do you want it rolling off the front or near the wall? But unlike toilet paper, only one way will suffice to unroll a round bale of hay.) Every so often, you have to lower the three-point attachment that controls the pincers so the hay continues to be in contact with the ground.
There is something inherently powerful about hauling around a one-ton bale of hay with a big old tractor. I mean, if I can do that, what else am I capable of?
This morning on my walk across the pastures, I noticed the remnants of previously-unrolled bales of hay. Cattle not only like to eat the hay, but when it’s spread on the ground like this, they like to use it to nest in. I think that’s kind of neat. The imaginative side of me wonders what would happen if I put big cow-sized hay “nests” on the ground for the herd. Would they nestle down inside of them?
Unfortunately, cattle also relieve themselves on the hay that’s been spread across the field. That results in a lot of wasted hay. Although some farmers think unrolling round bales is a more efficient way to feed the cattle, I disagree. I think there’s a better way. I think the round feeders can be designed so that the hay falls to the sides of the feeder, where the cattle can grab it easily. I also think the feeders can be designed to keep the bale off the ground so it doesn’t spoil. I sketched a few ideas for new feeders when I got home after my walk. It’s rather nice having a brother who’s an engineer and a friend who’s a machinist/welder/mechanic. Between the three of us, I think we’ll create a rather ingenious new feeder that uses hay more effectively.
And all this started with a simple walk across a meadow! Back to this morning’s stroll…
After inspecting the feeders, I wandered over to another meadow to check on the cattle. The two donkeys were leading a procession of Black Angus to another, more protected, section of meadow and I walked in that direction to see if they’d like some apple chunks. They did, although the donkeys didn’t come as easily as they had prior to their visit with the farrier a few weeks ago. I’d used apples to bribe them into the work pen, where they were sedated and had their hooves trimmed. They did not care for that at all and I think they still equate me and apples with the farrier’s visit.
However, Spot (my “pet” cow) took notice of our activity and walked over for her share of apple. This time, though, it was light outside and I knew this huge black form heading in my direction was kindly old Spot. And there was a woven wire fence between us. (Imagine me smiling.) I’m embarrassed to confess that this little bit of metal made me feel much more at ease when Spot sauntered over. She slurped up the apple chunks with her tongue and proceeded to wash my hands, too, making sure to get all the apple juices off of my skin. While she licked the apple container clean, she let me pet the left side of her head. She’s not overly fond of having the fur behind her ears scratched, but she likes having her head stroked.
When Spot realized that the apples were gone, she walked off to join the herd. About five calves and yearlings had watched her with me and I can only wonder what they were thinking. “Hey, that old cow wasn’t afraid of her – AND she got to eat something that she obviously likes!” “Yeah, I wonder what it was?” “I dunno, but maybe it’s worth trying – maybe I’ll like it, too!” Will I need to take out a basket full of apple chunks sometime?
That got me to thinking…we’ll have to plant an apple orchard for the cows. I can just hear the local farmers asking my friend what in the world he’s up to. He’ll tell them, “I’m planting apple trees.” “Yeah, I can see that. But in your hay field?” “Well, the apples are going to be for the cattle. Makes sense to have all their feed in one place, doesn’t it?” Maybe he can plant pumpkins, too. Cattle love pumpkin! I’d read that in a children’s book years ago and we tried it out after Halloween last year. Yep – they thought the pumpkin was wonderful. I guess even cattle like a bit of variety in their diet!
On with my walk. A family friend had mentioned that sometimes the cows will give birth to their calves apart from the herd in an isolated area of the biggest pasture. I headed in that direction to see if there were new additions to the herd. On the way, a rustle of leaves on the mountainside caught my attention and I saw a red fox struggling to make its way up the steep incline toward its den. I spied a small black shape, motionless in the grass and walked over. I talked to it and as I got close, the bull calf’s ears twitched. He was a week old and his mother was grazing nearby. I think she trusts me near him because she doesn’t chase me off like I’ve seen her do with some cows and nosy calves.
In the distance, I saw a cow standing near a very tiny black shape and walked that way. I’ve learned that cattle prefer it if you don’t walk directly toward them, like a predator. If you walk as if you’re passing off to the left or right, they seem to feel more comfortable as you draw near. I also talk gently to the cattle as I approach so they know I’m coming. I don’t like to be surprised and I doubt cattle do, either.
This cow was a brand-new mom standing over a still-wet newborn. Oh, the calf was so precious! It had curly, jet-black fur moist with amniotic fluid. Its mother was still licking the calf dry. I noticed a little afterbirth hanging below the cow’s tail. Surely this little one couldn’t be more than a couple of hours old, if that. I don’t think it had even tried to nurse yet, hadn’t wobbled on tiny legs to its mother’s side.
I remembered what it was like when my first child was born, how delightful it was to learn how to mother her, to meet her needs. I don’t know if cows experience anything similar, but if they do, I didn’t wish to intrude on this bonding time and walked away, singing inside, smiling outside, so glad to be alive and here in West Virginia.
What a privilege it was to be the first person to lay eyes on this little calf!