Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Remembering the Farm – Cows II

Having grown up with cattle from a toddler, I was never afraid of them.  Dad had a small field of oats south of the yard that the pail-fed calves ran in.  Their mothers were milk cows and the calves got skim milk after the cream was separated out.  The calves were taller than the oats which was taller than me.  Mom knew where I was because she could see the calves moving through the field and knew I was following them.

Lack of fear can get you killed.  I was about 6 or 8 when the dog and I wandered through the herd during calving time.  A black and white heifer had calved for the first time and she was on the prod.  She flattened me and I have no recollection of how I got out of there without serious injury.  For the rest of her life she had no use for kids and dogs (or women in skirts as she chased my mother once when she was wearing a skirt).  She would put up with dad or any other adult.

We kids used to go “camping” in the pasture which began about ¼ mile north of the yard and had several good poplar and willow bluffs we could play in.  We had a 6x6x6 teepee tent that our grandparents Johnson had given us for Christmas which we took with us.  But we had to make sure the cattle were in another part of the pasture, to avoid the Black and White Cow (that was her name).

When I managed the farm at Cumberland House in the late 70s, during calving time I took the night shift as they all had cattle of their own.  One morning they came to work and found me high up on the 10’ shelter fence clinging for dear life with a wild-eyed crazy heifer pacing below me.  When they finished laughing they ran her into a pen and rescued me.  First calf heifers can be problems as once in a while one will spook because she has no idea what is happening to her or because she wants to protect her calf.

Mostly Dad’s cows calved on pasture on their own.  Calving problems were almost nonexistent as I do not recall Dad helping any.  Initially the cow herd was mostly milk cows that Dad bought, meaning beef cows with a touch of Guernsey, Jersey or Ayrshire and the rest Shorthorn or Hereford.  Bulls were Hereford until 1958 when Dad bought a Red Poll bull and three Red Poll cows to get a little more milk in the herd.  Eventually many of the herd had some Red Poll blood.  Then he bought an Angus bull which we kept for quite a few years for some reason.  After that it was all Simmental.  Initially half-blood and three-quarter blood but eventually purebred as the breed became established and purebreds affordable.

Initially there was a planned breeding period.  The bull went out July 1 to August 31.  The cows calved on pasture beginning in early April.  They got salt and bone meal (Ca, P) all year round.  The rapid growth of grass in May and June got the cows back in shape to rebreed beginning in July again.  It worked great as long as the pasture was good and the cows came through winter in fair condition.  

The problem was that as the bulls got better (Simmental) the cows got bigger and more productive.  The winter feed regime didn’t change so the cows were thinner in spring and took longer and longer to rebreed.  The last few years the bull ran with the cows all year round and calves were born whenever.  This created a huge amount of work for dad because the cattle managed him, not vice versa.

Up to the end of the 1950’s, everyone we knew kept their cows inside barns all winter long.  A huge amount of work, hauling feed in, hauling manure out up to 200 days of the year.  We were no different.  There was an old pole barn with a shiplap roof that may have been shingled at one time.  I am sure it was built around 1906 when the farm site was established.  That is where the cows stayed, tied in their stalls, let out once a day for water, pumped by hand from the well. 

The old barn, about 1952
 Dad’s Uncle Joe moved to Edmonton from Cavell in 1951. In 1953, Dad moved their big two-story house to the farm and put it on a cement foundation.  It was remodeled to become a second barn for milk cows, young calves, a few pigs and a team of horses.  The rest of the cattle were allowed to run loose in the old barn which was knee deep in muck by spring.

The stackyard by the barn c 1972.
 My kids might recognize their mother and uncles
The old barn finally collapsed the summer of 1959.  Dad had no choice that winter but to run the herd in the sloughs and poplar and willow bluffs, about 3/8 mile north of the farm, close to where the dugout was. (If cattle are grazing in snow they can get enough water from snow but if they are fed dry feed then they have to be watered).  We hauled feed to the cattle twice a day with the team and sleigh and cut ice on the dugout for them to drink.

Dad was more than a little nervous about the cattle being outside in the cold.  One night there was a bitter SE wind and it was 40 below.  In the middle of the night, Dad got up and harnessed the team, loaded the sleigh with grain and headed up to the cattle.  They were comfortably nestled down in deep bedding in the slough bottom out of the wind and much warmer than Dad was.  He said they never moved, just looked at him like he was crazy for disturbing them.  Dad didn’t even unloaded the sleigh; just turned around, put the team in the barn and went to bed. He never worried about them again.

In later years the team and loose feed was replaced by the pickup truck loaded with bales.  The trees eventually thinned out (cattle are murder on trees) and replaced by a windbreak shelter fence.  The cattle still drank from the dugout but several years of manure build up around the drinking holes and lack of good spring runoff left only a few feet of very murky water some years.  That is why it was cleaned out with a drag line the one year it was almost dry.

Feeding a twilight
My brother Stan took the last two pictures. To be continued


  1. Fascinating reminiscences - I'm enjoying them! I never knew much about cattle because by the time I was old enough to remember anything about the farm my dad had switched to raising pigs, and not long after that he had to give up livestock farming entirely because of a lung problem. Grain farming must have seemed like a cakewalk after the 24/7/365 commitment of livestock.

    1. Everything to do with cattle at our place was done the hard way, maybe the hardest way possible, just on principle. Why I still liked cows after growing up there is beyond me, other than I knew there had to be a better way.

  2. Very interesting. Most people don't realize how dangerous cattle can be, although beef cattle aren't as evil as pure-bred dairy. You can bring beef bulls to a fair and tie them in an open stall. I was amazed one year when I attended the Wisconsin State Fair -- it was beef cattle judging day and there were these humongous Simmental and Charolais bulls in the barn standing there calmly with just an ordinary rope keeping them from going anywhere. I thought at first they were steers, but, nope, the evidence was clear there were no missing parts. No way would anyone trust a mature dairy bull to behave that calmly.

    I haven't looked at numbers recently, but every year something like 20 people die in the US from farm accidents involving cattle. Most are crushing accidents that occur when loading or moving cattle, The victim gets slammed up against a gate or fence. The worst that ever happened to me when working with cattle was getting cow-kicked really good when hand-milking a Guernsey.

    I still have days when I fantasize about Ayrshires. I've always thought they were the most elegant of the dairy breeds.

    1. The most dangerous breed of all is Jersey. Jersey bulls are deadly. but all dairy bulls are dangerous as you say. AI has saved a lot of lives, I think, compared to the days when all dairy farms had to have bulls. Yes, Ayrshires are the loveliest of breeds. One of my profs said (back in the 60s) that Ayrshires were selected the same as movie start, on conformation of the udder.

  3. Great post - really enjoyed it. Oral history like this should be recorded for posterity.
    Not what was going on between nations; but how actual people were living at a specific time and place.
    the Ol'Buzzard


Comments are encouraged. But if you include a commercial link, it will be deleted. If you comment anonymously, please use a name or something to identify yourself.