Twin Calves

This time of year is so busy for us. It’s calf season! We have a fine bunch of mamas this year. Anyone who has cows knows a couple of things about mama cows. One, they like to hide their babies from us. Two, they are extremely protective of their babies with some mamas becoming outright homicidal when you get too close to their babies. This time of year can be stressful, as we try hard to keep track of who has had their babies and get them tagged while also trying to get eyes on the calves every day.

Seeing the calves every day can sometimes be easier said than done. We do our best, but we currently have the cows in a wooded field. Mamas who like to play hide and seek with their babies will pull their babies off into the wooded area to hide them from us. So far, we have been able to put eyes on each calf at least once per day, and we are checking them twice daily.

Yesterday morning, B went to check cows and found that one of our mamas had twins! She was missing when we checked cows the night before, and he found her yesterday morning with her two babies. Immediately he knew that she was not producing enough milk to support both babies. With the help of a friend, he was able to catch one of the calves and brought her to the house to bottle feed. The mama will produce enough milk for the other calf. We don’t have twins on the farm often. Here are some interesting twin facts for you:

In beef breeds, twins occur about 1% of the time. There is a higher rate of twins in dairy breeds.

In other farm animals (sheep and goats) it is extremely common to have twins. In cows, however, having twins can be a bad thing. Having twins is hard on the body, and a cows body is only made to have one baby at a time. Having twins means a higher rate of abortions (miscarriages in cows are called abortions) both in early pregnancy and in late term pregnancy.

Cows that are carrying twins have problems during delivery more commonly than single calf pregnancies. These mamas will generally need help during delivery. Cows that are carrying twins will more frequently go in to preterm labor, and the calves aren’t mature enough to survive.

It is pretty rare to have identical twin calves. In twin calves, you are 25% likely to have two bull calves, 25% likely to have two heifer calves, and 50% likely to have one bull and one heifer. 90% of the cases where you have one bull and one heifer calf, the heifer is infertile.

An infertile female twin is called a Freemartin. When a female and male calf share a uterus, the male hormones will cross through the blood supply to the female calf and that will cause abnormalities in her reproductive organs, making it nearly impossible for her to have babies. There are ways to check if she will be infertile, including a blood test. Typically a Freemartin cow would be raised for beef.

Twins are genetic. Twin heifers are more likely to have twins.

When we have twins on the farm, we always pull one calf off of the mama in order to ensure that each calf gets his best chance. In twins, it is common for one calf to be a lot stronger. This will mean that the stronger calf will get all the mama’s milk, and the weaker calf will likely starve to death. The alternative is that each calf will get half the milk produced by mama, but it will not be enough for them. Mamas to twins rarely produce enough milk to support two babies.

We look forward to seeing our babies grown this fall and winter. Calf season is tough, and can be stressful, but it is worth it.

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Adding Sheep to our Farm

Farming isn’t easy. As I have talked about in a previous blog, there is always work and chores to be done, always animals that need our attention. Over the winter, we have trialed having pigs and we have added chickens to our farm. Ultimately we decided not to keep pigs, and to expand our chicken flock.

After much consideration, B and I recently decided that we needed to add sheep to our farm. There were many factors that we considered when making this decision, and this was not a decision that we made lightly. We are, of course, keeping our cows and chickens. We just added some sheep to keep things interesting… Or something like that…

As mentioned, there were several factors that went into our decision to get sheep. For starters, sheep are a much smaller animal, and therefore they are easier to herd and work than the cattle. Working sheep vs working cattle is a completely different ball game. The cattle are obviously bigger, and it only takes one crazy cow to get the whole bunch worked up. When the cattle get riled up, they are big enough that they can trample you and have potential to seriously harm you. When the sheep get spooked they are much smaller and more skiddish. They are more likely to run away from you. Another factor that we considered when making our decision is the fact that since sheep are smaller, they are much easier in general on the ground and on the fences. This means less wear and tear, and ultimately less repairs on the fences than with the cows. A small downfall of the sheep, however, is that with the babies being smaller we did have to add some materials to our fences to keep the babies from being able to get out. The babies can fit through the smallest gaps in the fencing!

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One of our new mama sheep. This is the third baby to be born at Wrinkle Farms.

With our sheep, we chose to have what is called hair sheep as opposed to wool sheep. A common misconception is that hair sheep are a cross between goats and wool sheep. This is not true. Hair sheep are their own breeds. The difference between wool sheep and hair sheep is that hair sheep have more hair fibers to wool fibers, and wool sheep have more wool fibers to hair fibers. This mostly makes a difference in their coats. Hair sheep shed, and as a result do not require shearing as the wool sheep do. They will typically keep their coats until mid to late May, and then begin shedding their hair. This will cause a “patchy” appearance in their coats this time of year, as some of the hair has started shedding while some of it lingers. Some hair sheep do not shed as quickly as others, and will still need a little bit of help with that process. This was important to us because this makes the hair sheep more suitable to our climate in SWMO without us having to work them with the shears.

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Our first two babies born on Wrinkle Farms. These two babies were born on Mother’s Day.

It is believed that there are more sheep breeds in the world than breeds of any other livestock species (with the exception of poultry.) Worldwide there is an estimated 1000+ breeds of sheep, and there are 50 distinct breeds of sheep in the United States alone. There are two breeds of hair sheep that are considered to be the “most common,” although there are several breeds. Two of the most common breeds are Katahdin and Dorper. We chose these two breeds for our herd.

The Katahdin sheep are a mix between several different British meat breeds: Suffolk, African Hair Sheep, St. Croix, and Wiltshire Horn sheep. In the 1950’s, a breeder by the name of Michael Piel worked on developing them, and he named them after Mt. Katahdin, which was near Piel’s Maine farm. The Katahdin are well known for being a low maintenance breed, and they are extremely hardy to climatic extremes. One of the most interesting facts about these sheep is that they are naturally resistant to internal parasites. These sheep are typically raised for meat.

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The Dorper sheep is the second largest sheep breed in South Africa, and they were developed there in the 1930’s. These sheep are bred by crossing a Blackheaded Persian ewe with a Dorset horn. These sheep are typically either all white, or they have a black head. The Dorper is well known for their thick skin, which makes them hardy to harsh climatic conditions. The Dorper has the most sought after sheep skin in the world. These sheep do lack the parasite resistance that is common in a lot of other breeds. They do not shed as well as other sheep breeds, but they are considered to be a superior breed in the United States, and they are one of the most popular breeds of registered sheep in the U.S.

Our dorper sheep are actually a cross between dorper and katahdin. Because they are a mix of the two breeds, you get the best characteristics of each breed.

With there being so many different breeds, and factors to consider, this was a big decision for us. However, we are excited to add this adventure onto our plate and see where it takes us.

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Building Chicken Coops

To say that I am not a carpenter is a huge understatement. I am quite sure that I have never built anything in my entire life. When B and I first started the idea that we would separate our chicken breeds from the others, we wanted to find a chicken run and house that was simple and cost effective. If you aren’t careful, you can spend a LOT of money on a chicken coop and run.

We decided to do some research on designs that we liked, and proceeded with building our first coop. The first coop we made was supposed to be for full grown birds…. Ultimately it was a failure. At least, it was a failure for what we intended it to be for.

For our design, we wanted to stick to a simple box where our birds could roost for the night, lay eggs, and be sheltered from the weather. The first coop that we built measured 6 feet long, 4 feet tall, and 2 feet wide. We intended for this coop to be split in the middle, and shared between two runs so that two kinds of chickens would share this space. Hindsight is 20/20, and we quickly realized this would not be nearly enough space for full grown birds. Even for the few we planned to have in each chicken run. Along with the design flaw of the first chicken coop, we immediately noticed a couple of things that we wanted to do differently with our second run. I stress again that neither of us are carpenters or builders.. With the run itself, we stapled cattle panels to 2×4’s, and bent them into a “tunnel.” We then attached the board to the back side, attaching our chicken coop to the backboard. We covered everything with chicken wire, and we were done. We recycled a door for the front of the coop, with the idea that this would be our entry and exit into the run/coop.

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Our rudimentary “first try.”

Our second run/coop was a little better. For version 2.0, we put three T-Posts down each side and ran a cattle panel on each side, securing it to the T-Posts. We then put three more cattle panels covered in chicken wire over the top in a “tunnel.” We used wire for the front and back, and then we decided to move our tiny little “first draft” chicken coop over to the second pen. We removed the divider in the middle of this little coop, and viola. We now have a grow out pen for our chicks that we have hatched that aren’t big enough to go with the grown hens but are too big for our brooders. The smaller coop is much more suitable for our smaller chickens in their grow out pen, and we built a new chicken coop for the adult chickens.

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Our second run, under construction.

For our new coop design, we went with a 4x4x6 box for our hens. Each box is plywood, reinforced with 2×4’s for stability. Each coop has a roosting bar inside, and a couple of brooding boxes as well. Some people out a brooding box for each chicken in their coops. We did not do that. Most of the time (almost 100% of the time) chickens will only use one or two of the boxes inside the coop. It was unnecessary to put more than two in each coop for the amount of chickens that we have in each coop.

Now that we have got our design down, we can focus on making minor improvements and adjustments. For example, we will go back to add a better roof for the coops so they last longer. We have looked at a lot of commercial chicken coops, and they are quite costly. Of course it does help that we have a lot of the wire, T-Posts, and cattle panels on hand. A lot of this design was considered because these are the materials we have free access to, simply re-purposing the supplies we currently have.

When looking at commercial chicken coops/houses, we have found them to be way too small and not cost effective at all. A lot of “good” ones cost $200+ and are quite tiny. We love having the ability to play around with our design to make improvements and build houses for our babies with materials that we have on hand.

Selling Our First Calves

As we are going in to spring, it is now time to begin thinking about selling our calves. This seems like quite the process to me, but B is a seasoned pro. Every year buying and selling calves is a risk. Last year was an especially hard year because SWMO was in a drought. Luckily, we had enough hay to feed our cows through the winter. That is not always the case, and wasn’t the case for many SWMO cattle farmers this past year.

The bottom line is we got lucky this year. We were in a position where we already had hay put up when we started buying our cows last summer. B had cut the spring hay, and we ended up with a substantial amount. This allowed us to figure out how many cows we could feed for a year with the hay we had on hand. We then proceeded to buy our cows, as a lot of people were selling their cows because they couldn’t feed them adequately through the winter.

Not all years are like this, however. Like I said before, we just got lucky. Even though I would say this year has been a good one for us, we have still lost a few cows. They always say, if you’re going to have cows you’re going to lose some. The loss has also rolled over to our chickens, as many of you may have read in a couple of my other posts. The calves we have lost this year have been to pneumonia. With the rainy and cold weather, the cows have had a hard time staying dry and warm which lead to pneumonia.

The loss has been hard for me to cope with. I wasn’t raised on a farm, and didn’t realize how much work comes along with taking care of the animals. I mean obviously I knew that it WAS work. However, it’s not work that I’ve ever experienced first hand. Losing the cows that we have lost can be stressful, as that is our source of income. The more we lose, the less of a paycheck we get when we do sell our cows.

As we are gearing up to sell our babies, we must decide when is actually the best time to sell them. As we get closer to spring, more people are buying cows and the price is up right now.

We are so glad to finally be seeing spring weather. The cold has really taken its toll on our animals. Even with the spring, we have some last minute complications. With the weather constantly changing, it’s hard to tell how the cows will respond, either with being perfectly fine or needing a dose of antibiotics for pneumonia.

Snow Day on the Farm

As a kid, we all loved getting snow days. School was canceled, and we all got to play in the snow: building snowmen, snowball fights, sledding, etc. As an adult, however, we don’t really get snow days. A few weeks ago we had some bad weather in our area, and I was called off work. My husband, however, was not called off work. On a farm, the work never ends and there is no such thing as a snow day. If anything, there is more work on a snow day.

During the winter, our daily chores include feeding hay and grain to the cows. With our snow days we do typically feed extra hay to the cows, as they can lay in the extra hay and have some kind of warmth and protection from the wet and frozen ground. We have to count and check our cows daily to make sure that none of them are sick or hurt. If a cow gets sick, they can go downhill quickly. It is really important to do the daily checks so we can catch illness immediately. Mineral tubs are important to check daily as well, and refill as needed.

When the temperatures are below freezing, we also have to add chopping water to our list of daily chores. The cows need water, and we usually take a couple of extra hours to chop the top of the water so the cows can get a drink.

Now that we have started adding smaller animals to our farm, there is extra work that comes with that as well. The ducks really like to make a huge mess in their environment. Our daily chores now include cleaning up their messes, and providing them with fresh food and water. We are ready for the ducks to be a little older, when they will be more free range. Even with them free ranging, our daily chores will include cleaning up their messes AND will eventually include roosting them at night.

Our baby chicks are quite the project, making sure they are fed and watered, warm and happy. We happen to have a perfect little place for them in the barn where they are pretty well protected from the outside weather and critters. This helps a lot. With hatching our own chicks it takes longer to get eggs from them since they do not start laying until 5-6 months. However, we are excited with our new adventure of hatching our own babies.

The incubator itself is a daily chore as well. We found a good deal on an incubator that is a manual turner. This means the machine does not turn the eggs for us, so we must check the eggs every 4-6 hours and turn them ourselves. We also check the water levels in the incubator to make sure there is enough humidity for our growing hatchlings. The batch we have in the manual turner right now will be the first batch hatched from this incubator. Up until now we have been using a smaller incubator that only holds 24 eggs. This first batch will basically be our trial and error run.

Our full grown chickens do require daily chores as well, even though they are free range. We have found that when we feed our puppies the chickens will swarm them and eat the dog food. We now feed the chickens at the same time in effort to avoid this. Their water freezes on the cold nights too, of course. Checking for eggs is a daily chore, although our stubborn chickens like to lay their eggs all over the place. Thankfully, we have got most of our chickens roosting in their coop at night instead of on the back porch! B is working on some new coops this week which will give them a lot of space to move around, but they will be more contained and protected from hawks, raccoons, and other predators… (I’m looking at you, neighbor’s dog!)

Even on snow days, a farmer’s chores never end. They are on call 24/7, and the work is always there waiting for the next day.

Telling the Bull goodbye

A few weeks ago, we decided to part ways with our bull. We have had him for almost a year now and he just got done breeding all our ladies. I don’t normally sell bulls this fast, but this year it dosent make any sense to hold onto him till next fall breeding cycle.

Ultimately, we decided to sell the bull for several reasons. Our bull has gotten a little more aggressive over the last few months. Aggressive bulls are hard on our fences. In the last two months he has busted the fence a couple different times. One night, we got home to find him close to the house because he had busted loose. It’s scary trying to catch a bull at night when you can’t see what you’re doing, and the bull weighs about 2000 pounds.

Another reason we needed to see the bull go is because he has gotten so big that he runs the risk of hurting our cows during breeding. At this point he actually runs the risk of breaking our cows’ backs, hips, and back legs. He is so heavy and the cows are not big enough to handle his weight. He can actually push the cows down into the ground when breeding that it breaks bones. With his weight, he also runs the risk of hurting himself while breeding. He also can break his penis or rip the sheath when breeding a cow too small.

Since deciding to sell him I have thought about what direction we would like to go next fall with bull choices. I really like the way Brahma bulls crossed over angus cows look and how well they handle the heat and grow. I also have been thinking about going with a Hereford bull to give lots of growth to my calves and also make the more desirable white face black cows.

There is one final option I have thought on: renting one of the above bulls. The cost for me to buy a bull is around $2000-$4000 every 4-6 years as I would want to sell before they get too big to breed. Rent would only cost me around $500-$700 a year and I would only have to feed the bull for 90 days instead of 365 days.

One thing is for sure what ever choice we do decide we will get the best genetics we can afford so we can have the best calves possible.

The Slow Down

Winter brings a slow time of year. While there are animals to feed, and some chores outside to take care of, that typically only takes a few minutes of each day to complete. This leaves me with the task of trying to find other ways to occupy my time, including indoor chores.

In June, we are expecting our first child. With this adventure getting closer each day, I have been tasked with cleaning out our upstairs bedrooms to make space for the baby.

Over the years, the two upstairs rooms have become storage space for my grandparent’s collections. Both of them have several collections upstairs, and it has not been an easy task sorting through all of it. The main reason this is such a difficult task is because of the sheer amount of stuff that there is to go through. On top of Grandpa’s gun and fishing lure collections, there are also collections of antique dishes and other stuff that has been in boxes untouched for years. The task of going through all of these items has been especially hard on Grandma, as she has a hard time letting go of some of Grandpa’s things.

Despite the setbacks, we have made progress. One of the bedrooms is almost ready to go. That bedroom will become the office. We have successfully moved the roll top desk upstairs, and have a couple more things to move out before we get all the office space set up.

The other bedroom will, of course, be the baby’s bedroom. We have already started accumulating some of the bigger baby items needed. Tiffanie has also began collecting some of the smaller items, a pack of receiving blankets here, some bottles there. We are ready to have the room cleaned out so that we can start setting things up for the baby.

While it does make me sad to go through some of Grandpa’s things and ultimately throw it away, we are ready for this next chapter to begin.