Moxie, Elsa, Pee-Wee, and Mel

Or: A Cattle Update

My cow Moxie did not get bred back after calving in the summer of 2015. I had a bull, Leo, at the time, but Leo was small and was kept from her by two much larger steers (both drunk with power). I didn’t realize Moxie hadn’t been bred until long after Leo and the steers went to slaughter — and also after her 2015 bull calf and foster calf had been castrated. Thus, there was no calf born on Fairhope Farm in 2016, and no way to ensure one for 2017, either. The dairy where I had always bought bull calves had gone out of business. I figured I was stuck.

I mentioned this one day last August while throwing hay bales with Rick, my hay man.

“I can bring you a bull,” Rick said. “I got a yearling. No problem.”

I was immediately nervous. Bulls are dangerous. Jersey bulls are particularly dangerous. I raise my Jersey bulls from day-olds; by the time they are big, they know me and my routines — and I know them. The thought of bringing a strange, full-grown Jersey bull to the farm was frightening. However, I could see no other way to get Moxie bred, so I agreed. Nervously.

There were delays. The yearling was sold. No, the buyer backed out. Rick would bring him this day. No, it would be that day.

I fretted — I knew I would be out of town the weekend of October 15 for Jon and Amanda’s wedding. Damon, who is not experienced with cattle, would be caring for my animals. For safety’s sake, the bull had to be off the farm by then. A cow’s heat cycle is roughly 21 days. It would be best if the bull were on the farm at least six weeks, so there were two potential opportunities for breeding.

Rick finally pulled in to the farm with a trailer the afternoon of September 5. I stepped up on the bumper to peek in at the scary bull.

Big dark eyes looked up at me out of a worried baby face. The bull was small and scrawny, so thin he looked like a hound dog. When I turned him out with my girls, even Elsa (who is a petite heifer; below right) was larger.

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Neither Elsa nor Moxie was impressed with their new suitor. I began calling him “Pee-Wee.”

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Pee-Wee had unfortunate conformation. Despite his boniness (I could count all of his short ribs), he had the usual bull neck — but zero hind end. No muscles at all.

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He had been locked in a stall indoors most of his life. I told myself all he needed was groceries and exercise.

However, for now even Elsa felt free to push him around impatiently. Pee-Wee was so anxious and deferential I worried if he would ever get up the gumption to do more than stand apologetically with his hat in his hands.

In the meantime I was thinking about future breeding. I needed a calf now, to keep Moxie milked out and breed her in the fall of 2017. After a lot of advertising on Craigslist, I finally found a Jersey bull calf ninety minutes away. It was another sad reflection on farming today. The calf was three weeks old. He had been earmarked as a future herd bull — but after looking at their milk check, the dairy had decided to fold instead. They were happy to sell him to me for $75.

I drove upstate one afternoon after work to get him. I named the calf Mel Gibson, and prayed he would have a nicer temperament than his namesake.

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Being older than the usual newborns, Mel caught the hang of nursing very quickly and soon was thriving.

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Fall moved in. The view at the lake house was spectacular.

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However my big focus (apart from planning for the upcoming wedding) was to get everything at the farm mowed one last time before winter.

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The cattle were eating hay. It was gratifying to see Pee-Wee becoming rounder, sleek, and snorty. He was not yet threatening, but I now could sense that I had a bull in the barn.

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Rick returned to pick him up October 11, just before the wedding. Pee-Wee had been on the farm five weeks; I was sure they had been the best five weeks of his life. Rick said he was going directly to the sale barn.

It is always hard for me that I can’t control the world.

Fast forward to January. In the months since Pee-Wee’s departure, one or the other of the cows has come into heat several times. I’m not sure which girl didn’t settle. Maybe both. Elsa has been the one flinging herself around in a frenzy, but hysteria when pheromones are in the air is normal heifer behavior. Moxie is more sedate at nearly eight years old.

Last week I sent off a milk sample from Moxie to the lab in Oregon. They received it Friday.

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I should know tomorrow night if she is bred. Fingers crossed.

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