Taking the rough with the smooth

Sometimes events can hit you without warning and no matter how prepared you think you are, there’s always something that can catch you out.

We had 3 lovely Dexter calves born this summer – first to arrive was Ursula on 21st May and her mother, Nellie, has regularly given us lovely calves. This was followed by Hattie giving birth to a bull calf we called Jay on 2nd June and finally Daisy delivered another bull calf, Joe, on 15th June

Hattie with Jay

However on 25 July, a few days after an extremely hot spell of weather, we found that Ursula had died without any prior indication of problems. She was just found lying dead in the field and her mother (Nellie) was obviously upset. In all our time here, this was the first unexpected death for any of our livestock so it was a traumatic time for all concerned.

While checking the cattle first thing the next morning, I noticed that Jay was looking out of sorts so the emergency vet was called out, They came promptly and after a quick post mortem on Ursula, decided this was a stress related condition often called Shipping Fever. They gave Jay an antibiotic injection to try to deal with this and we left him alone to rest for a few hours.

Sadly he was also found dead later that day so my concerns immediately turned to Joe, the last remaining calf born that summer. He appeared to be fine but I obviously couldn’t trust that given the recent experiences.

A nervous few days followed until it became clear that he was managing just fine so we could relax a little bit. That was easier said than done though and we’ve continued to watch him much more closely since then.

We’d never had any problems like this in 7 years of breeding Dexter cattle and hopefully we won’t see anything similar again

The 8th anniversary and another successful calving

At the end of May 2021 we reached the 8 year anniversary of moving from a previous suburban semi-detached life to our rural 15 acre smallholding in the North Pennines.

On one level we are now so settled here that this is just another anniversary and no big deal really. However when I take the time to consider how far we’ve come, I can fully appreciate the efforts we’ve made along the way, the many new experiences we’ve had in that time and the incredible support from family, friends and neighbours.

Sadly pressures of time with a day job plus the many smallholding tasks and managing our 2 bed holiday let mean that the blog updates are less frequent these days but I will continue to post updates as often as I can in future.

Calving

All 3 of our Dexters calved over an 8 day period in late May with Ruby and Hattie both having red heifer calves then Nellie having a red bull calf. We’ve never had a full set of red calves before and it’s more remarkable when considering that the black gene is more dominant in Dexters. This is best explained in the following extract from a forum post I found:

Red is a recessive – it only shows in animals which have inherited a red gene from each parent – so a red Dexter has two red genes. A black may have two black genes, or it may have one black and one red – the red will not show

http://www.dextercattleforsale.co.uk/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?t=131

Sadly it turned out that Daisy did not hold any pregancy from the bulls visit but that wasn’t unexpected because it coincided with her damaging her udder and ultimately losing a teat. She’s bounced back well thanks to prompt vet treatment and her calf from last year had been enjoying an extended period of milk production as a result so she should be back to normal for next year.

Sly looking good for his sale photo

We had previously known that all these calves arriving this year would mean too many animals in the herd but that can’t be helped. We hope to be selling Ruby plus her calf we’ve named Raquel along with a beef steer from last year in the next week or two but after that we’ll also have to sell Hattie and her calf that we’ve named Ivy.

Ruby and Raquel

That will leave us with just the 2 original cows – Daisy and Nellie – plus the male calf Nellie had this year and the steer that Daisy had last year. The hope is that this coming period of reduced numbers will help our grazing land recover and with luck should also make any hay we get this year last longer through the winter

4 years just flies by

In our area, there is a 4 year regime for cattle TB testing as a result of the generally low incidence of the disease here. It’s still a theoretical possibility that they might test positive but it’s fairly unlikely.

When our Dexters had their first ever bovine TB test in Dec 2016/Jan 2017, the event didn’t go too smoothly. As a result I was keen to make sure that this time everything was a little less stressful – both for the cattle and for me!

Over the last 4 years we’ve learnt a lot about the nature and behaviour of our cattle which makes it much easier when handling them. It’s still not a precise science but at least we are more likely to get the outcome we want these days

As it turned out, I got nearly all of them penned first time with just Ruby acting up initially. However this was easily resolved having spent some time recently getting her halter trained. It was just a matter of a bucket with some treats to occupy her while I slipped the rope halter on then led her into the pen where the other were already tucking into some hay.

All penned and ready for the first visit

The first visit last Friday involved 2 injections in the neck for each of them – one injection is Bovine TB and one is Avian TB – along with a quick calliper measurement of the skin thickness at the injection site.

Apparently the idea is that when the vet returns 3 days later, they can assess the injection sites on each animal to look for a reaction. The idea is that each animal should have less of a reaction (i.e. swelling) where the Bovine TB was injected than they do from the Avian TB.

Ruby demonstrating where the injections are done

In the end, the second vet visit on Monday went really smoothly with the whole herd happy to be penned in ahead of time while waiting for the vet to arrive. After getting checked they soon got the all clear and as a reward for good behaviour some more treats in their feed trough

Everyone is happy to get TB testing done

Rain + Pig = mud

On Friday morning we awoke to find a couple of inches of snow had fallen and settled too which was a slight surprise. It wasn’t quite cold enough for it to stay though and it rained occasionally for most of the day so everything turned first to mush then fairly quickly into mud

For most of the livestock this was not a problem, the cows obviously wanted extra hay delivered but that’s not a problem. They are really placid these days and always happy to see me arrive with a fresh bale

Their big moment is coming next weekend when we have our 4 yearly TB test booked with vet visits on Friday and Monday. I suppose there’s always a chance they might have it but we’re in such a low risk area that it’s very unlikely. I’ll still keep fingers crossed though…

We had more pressing activities to handle this weekend. In recent weeks, Esther has been re-enacting some examples of 1914-1918 trench warfare in her pen and the excess of water soon had a predictable result.

Top of the list of jobs for Saturday was to prepare her a new pen and get her moved into something more pleasant. She doesn’t usually have any particularly special requests, just a room with a view and plenty of fresh bedding which I think we managed fairly well

A scenic view across the East Allen valley

Once she made the move into the new pen she seemed happy enough and was soon testing out the house herself!

Esther loves her clean, dry house

A long overdue update

Despite working from home for the last 6 months and hardly ever leaving our holding, it seems to have been impossible to find the time for a blog update.

There are always a number of other tasks that seem to be more important or an unexpected event happens which throws any plans that had been made into complete disarray.

I’ve decided that the best way to initially catch up with blog updates is simply to review one set of events from the last few months. So here’s a general update covering our small herd of Dexter cattle

Calving

Our second cow – Nellie – calved on 14 June without any problems as usual and produced a healthy bull calf that we’ve named Sylvester (or Sly for short). That was an unusually long gap between calves for us with Daisy calving over 2 weeks earlier but we’re just glad that it all went well

Ike (R) and Sly (L) in June 2020

Once the calving is out of the way my thoughts always turn to hay making and I’ve learnt in recent years that the weather can become a bit of an obsession at this time of year.

Hay making

It’s hardly surprising that hay making becomes such a focus when you consider that we’re trying to organise a whole winters worth of feed for the cattle. Luckily our neighbour has all the relevant equipment and expertise so I just need to supply the physical side of things after the baler has finished

Turning the hay in July 2020

Thankfully all went well and we eventually got over 200 small bales safely into the barns with a number of others used as payment for delivery and collection of the bull we hired this year.

Hiring in the bull

The bull arrived in August and had visited our cows previously but was significantly larger than before so he’d put some effort into growing over recent years

He’s a nice calm chap known as Glen but being quite a size and having horns means that I tended to give him plenty of room.

Glen and Ruby his first love on arrival

On arrival he immediately followed Ruby around for a few days so, all being well, I’m expecting her to be first to calve somewhere around the end of May next year

When it came time to load him up for his departure that was also a good time to apply calm cattle handling measures rather than run the risk of an accidental injury!

Hoof trimming

And finally, to complete this update, we come to the hoof trimming in September. This isn’t needed very often but seems to be required about every 2 to 3 years when we find both Nelly and Daisy start having problems with the length of their hooves.

Being outside all year round means they never walk on hard surfaces which might help to wear their hooves down. However it’s a painless process and doesn’t take too long to complete.

Calving with native breeds

One of the reasons we originally decided to get pedigree Dexter cattle was because they are a native UK breed. This means they are well suited to the British climate and able to live outside all year round even here in the North Pennines.

However, as they’re always outside that means they have to calve outside as well. This has previously gone smoothly for us and we try to ensure a late spring calving so the weather should be better.

As luck would have it, this has been a really dry and warm spell so last Friday evening was the perfect time for Daisy to calve. I’d barely switched off the computer from the day job and her behaviour started to change which is always a strong indication.

She managed the whole thing completely unaided as always although I had to watch closely because the whole process fascinates me. Even though we’ve had 9 calves before over the years, there is something special about it.

Isn’t nature wonderful?

Daisy has great mothering instincts and the new born calf immediately got properly washed all over.

The next challenges for the new born calf are getting on their feet and suckling for the first time. It is important that the calf gets to suckle soon after birth because the first milk has lots of antibodies and nutrients that they need for a good start in life.

Thankfully these events all happened relatively quickly and smoothly so we can be sure that this is a healthy calf and he’s got the best start possible

Figuring out how to get to the milk

Before you know it, the mother and calf are wandering around the field as if that’s nothing unusual – apart from the curiosity of the other members of the herd of course.

This is a bull calf and, with some assistance from social media users, Daisy eventually decided on the name Isaac or Ike for short. The initial letter “I” being a decision we made some time ago so he follows on from Elvis, Frank, Garry and Hattie

Learning to moo for the first time

A weekend of big events

Now that the weekend is over I can reflect with some satisfaction on the wide range of events that took place in a relatively short space of time. Each in their own way could have had a different, more troubling, outcome but in the end all have been completed fairly successfully

Esther Farrowing

One event that had been in the calendar for some time was the date for Esther to farrow her next litter. She caught us out earlier this year when the previous litter arrived a couple of days ahead of schedule and we had not yet moved her into the farrowing shed

I used to maintain that a benefit of using AI for our Tamworth pigs is that I can more accurately predict the farrowing date, within a day either way usually. However it appears that Esther is intent on teaching me that complacency can be a big mistake for smallholders.

We were fully prepared for the scheduled farrowing day (Tuesday) with the various accessories and implements on hand. Esther had other ideas though and popped them out in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Esther trying to catch up on her sleep

She produced a healthy looking litter of 6 in the end – 4 girls and 2 boys – and, after a tiring farrowing day, Esther now seems to be coping really well. Equally important is that the piglets have found both the heat lamp and the milk bar so all is well for now.

Sissy AI

It was also time for another attempt at AI with Sissy which I approached a little nervously given the resounding failure in the recent past. It has proved to be more difficult to identify when Sissy is in season than with Esther.

Recent regular checks on her – pigs are in season about every 3 weeks – have shown that Sissy favours a slightly longer gap than that. Just a day or so here or there but enough that if I’m not paying attention would mean that the AI attempts could be out by 2 days and therefore they won’t work.

Croxteth Golden Ranger has worked well for us before

Now that I’ve identified this about her, I’m hoping that the latest attempt proves to be more successful but I’ll have to wait three weeks to see whether she comes back on heat or not.

If this doesn’t take then the plan is to locate a suitable pedigree Tamworth boar somewhere fairly near. I’m sure that nature can handle this much more efficiently than I have managed in the past.

Frank departs

It was also the time of the year when we send off the latest Dexter steer for beef. This is always an event fraught with concern for his welfare (and ours) during the loading and transport.

Over time we’ve slowly found better ways of doing this with different arrangements of cattle hurdles and have now almost got it down to a fine art. But not quite perfect as it turned out..

After sneaking through a small gap in our preparations, Frank decided to take 3 laps of honour round the garden first before calmly making his was back into the pen and leisurely strolling into the trailer.

I had feared a repeat of his escapades with jumping walls but luckily he decided that he’d rather stamp pot holes all over my lawn instead.

Cattle departures and arrivals

Last weekend was yet another first for us – the departure of 3 animals from our relatively small Dexter herd. We’ve never sold live cattle before so loading them into a trailer and watching as they’re driven away was quite an odd experience.

We’ve done this so often when selling pigs as weaners so perhaps we take that side more for granted but as this involved cattle the event somehow gained a greater significance for me.

Primrose, a first time mum, and her calf Petal who was born in June plus Quinn a one year old steer. All 3 were red and coincidentally all descending from Nellie – one of 2 original Dexters.

3 red Dexters, penned and waiting for collection

By the following morning it was as if they’d never been here. The remaining herd of 6 were happily strolling around our front field. The only visible sign that anything had changed was the fact that our herd is now predominantly black again.

Just 6 Dexters left now and only one is red !

Now we were all set for the arrival of this year’s hired bull – Rory – who is fairly young and dun coloured. He looks to be a fine fellow but perhaps slightly smaller in stature than expected. We’re wondering if he’ll need a stool to stand on.

Rory has arrived!

We’ve never had any dun Dexters here before and I assume it’s not a particularly dominant gene within the breed since there don’t seem to be many around.

Maybe we will get a dun calf born around mid-June next year but I guess that might be quite a long shot

A hard decision that had to be made

Now that calving has finished for 2019, our small herd of Dexter cattle has reached a total of 9 which, I’m only too well aware, is too many for the available grazing land.

It’s a heart-warming sight to see them wandering around their summer grazing now but that won’t last long later in the year. If we don’t consider the longer term impact then our land would suffer with the extra wear and tear received during the winter months!

While we managed well enough through last winter, at that time we only had 6 head of cattle and 2 of those were calves born that year so they had less impact. Not forgetting that last winter was relatively easy for us when compared to the year before.

Quinn, Primrose and Petal
Quinn (with horns), Primrose and Petal

This time around it’s very clear to me that we need to reduce numbers and after careful consideration the decision is that a selection of red Dexters will have to go. Nothing against their colouring of course and we were very pleased to get 2 more red heifer calves this year.

We’re now bracing ourselves for the potential departure of Quinn along with Primrose and her new calf Petal. Hopefully they can find a good home with some local smallholders who will spoil them rotten!

This will be our first time selling any cattle so we’re a little down about it because they are all home-bred. However, as with the many¬†other tough smallholding decisions, you just have to deal with it and make sure you do the best you can for them.

Primrose with Petal
Primrose and Petal

Properly easy (and quick) calving

We’ve barely got used to getting our first calf for 2019 last Tuesday but now all 3 calves have turned up. Compared to last year when the calving was spread out over a few weeks, this time around the whole business has been completed in just 4 days!

We’ve got 3 lovely heifer calves with red ones from Nellie and Primrose plus a black one from Daisy. I’d read online that the black gene is more dominant in Dexters but apparently Nellie and Primrose didn’t get that memo.

Daisy always gives us black calves so her’s is probably no surprise and so far hers have also always been without horns. However this is the first heifer she’s given us which makes a really nice change.

No male calves from any of them is a bit of a first for us but for the moment we’re just transfixed at the speed with which the calves become mobile. In no time at all they are wandering the field with their mothers following after them, nagging them to be careful and slow down!

Daisy with Hattie (left) and Nellie with Ruby (right)

Daisy was first to deliver early last Tuesday morning and her black calf has been named Hattie. Not wanting to be left out, Nellie decided during Thursday afternoon that it was time to join in and her red calf has been named Ruby.

The last to deliver was Primrose this morning and our earlier worries about her being a first timer were completely unfounded. After checking her at about 8am this morning, we discovered just after 11am that she had calved. I was particularly happy to see that she was showing great mothering skills by cleaning the new born and we’ve named her calf Petal for now.

Primrose with Petal tucking into her first meal

As always with our Dexter cattle, no assistance was needed for any of the calves and we could simply be curious bystanders watching the events unfold.

Sadly, our limited amount of land just won’t cope with this many animals so we’ve decided that Primrose and Petal will most likely be sold later this year.

Our cattle stay outside all year round – they’re a native breed and very hardy so the conditions don’t bother them. However that does mean we can’t consider keeping more than 6 animals at the very most through a winter.

Any more than that would mean our fields suffer too much damage and as a result the grass would take a long time to recover the following spring, assuming it recovered at all that is!

She will go to the bull again when he arrives around August/September but we’ll need to reduce the numbers so selling her with her calf seems the best answer. Perhaps we may even sell them with one of our 2 beef steers for company and that would be a nice little starter herd for somebody.