Dairy Farmer's Journal: Spring Work
Stan started working on fixing the fences early. We had three heifers that spent the winter outside in the paddock just below the barn and he wanted to get them on to some fresh grass before we took them to summer pasture. The first round of fence fixing usually involves strapping on a work belt filled with fence staples for where the wire isn’t electrified, insulators and nails for where it is electrified, fence clips to hold the wire to the insulators, a hammer and a pair of fencing plyers. Stan carries the post maul, a14 pound piece of cast metal attached to a wooden handle that can give you a workout, and gives each post a tap with it. If he finds a broken post, he walks back and gets one off the post pile behind the shed - 6 foot split black locust (Robinia psuedoacacia) posts, very sturdy and long lasting fence posts. When the fence that needs fixing gets beyond the range of an easy walk back, he breaks out the fence fixing trailer.
The fence fixing trailer began its life as a truck. Stan bought the frame and turned it into a one axel trailer, with a very heavy hitch. He put a plywood seat with a strap in it for our daughters when they were tiny, and the first outing of the year was a day long marathon of fence fixing with a picnic in the middle. Now, when the trailer goes out, it’s often Stan by himself, or our son-in-law and grandson and there are no picnics. It is a marathon, but they come back to the house to eat and refill the water bottles.
In the midst of all the fence fixing, there are also oats to be planted. We don’t plant oats for grain, but use them as a cover crop and chop them for silage. Occasionally, due to weather and other work, they get ahead of us and then they will be combined and taken to the local feed mill to be exchanged for mixed grain, but that seldom happens. As a cover crop for the grasses that will be new hay meadow, they sprout early and grow tall enough before the grass to give the little seedlings protection from weather and birds. The fields that are plowed down for the oats were millet pasture the year before. As we don’t raise corn, we use the millet both as a late season pasture and to break the sod of a piece that needs to be refreshed.
After the fences are done and the oats planted, comes turn out. The heifers that will be spending the summer on pastures at my brother’s farm and Stan’s brother’s farm go out first for a week or so of a refresher course on fence etiquette. This involves reintroducing electrified barbed wire to those who were out last year, and a crash course in “Fences and Why You Stay in Them” for those who weren’t out last year. The experienced heifers are usually not a problem. There might be an overenthusiastic run through a closed gate, but they tend to be more interested in the grass on this side of the fence after a winter of hay. Those who haven’t ever been out are a different story. They are unaccustomed to the freedom of being able to run, and the wires seem so unsubstantial, until they run into them. The jolt from a fencer will make your arm tingle for a bit if you grab onto it. Heifers hit them most often with their noses. One would think it would bring them to a screeching halt. Unfortunately this is not the case. In fact, some heifers seem to find the sensation of great interest and worth repeating. A few years ago, we had a heifer who decided to taste the wire. She didn’t just stick her tongue on it. She wrapped her tongue around it. The fencer has a pulse, with a pause between that should have more than given her time enough to unwrap her tongue, but she was stupefied by it. We eventually turned the fencer off for a very short time and she unwound and backed away. Truth to tell, she never was much of a bother after her experience.
After the heifers are fully refreshed and trained, we load them into the cattle trailer. The easiest way to accomplish the loading is to back the trailer up to the little side door at the back of the barn and run the heifers into the barn, divide them into two groups of four or five and get them into the two sections of the trailer. The pregnant heifers went first this year to spend the summer in a five paddock rotation at my brother’s. There are now eleven there, all due in late summer to early fall. Loading this bunch into the cattle trailer wasn’t too bad, as they’ve all been on trips to pasture before. This does not mean that there weren’t one or two that wanted to skip the ride, or ride alone, or just be onery, but all in all it didn’t go too badly.
The next bunch were the younger heifers, not yet bred. They spent last summer either out in the old orchard here or in the barn, and had no experience with the cattle trailer. This can make for a more interesting job of loading. First, there was the running them back into the barn. There were some on the other side of the little rill in the paddock below the barn and Stan sent Sadie, the head cow dog, down to get them. She attempted to run around behind them, but they seemed to be more interested in following her than letting her herd them. Every time she would work her way around one, the rest would switch ends and come up behind her. At one point, I do believe I saw her throw her front paws in the air and say “WHAT???” Stan finally called her off and went down to get those that weren’t following Sadie back to where I stood. We got them shooed through the gate and then quickly pushed them into the barn before they had a chance to think about it. Stan shut the barn door and I moved around a group of four that had stopped about half way up the barn floor. We moved them quickly back to the alley way and, amazingly, into the trailer. Stan shut the door that divides the two sections and I stepped back, only to find a heifer taking a tear at me. I wedged myself into a corner and she turned into the alley way, leaped into the cattle trailer and launched herself over the closed divider, getting stuck with her front half up with the enclosed heifers and her rear in the back section. Stan gave me a look, gave her a look, said a couple of choice words, climbed back into the trailer and pushed her rear end (and what, one asks, does the back half of a 650 pound heifer weigh when one is lifting it over a four and a half foot door? And one answers, “TOO (grunt) MUCH!) into the front section with the rest of her. The remaining heifers had inserted themselves into stalls that already had rather large cows standing in them, and had to be extracted, a job best done from the front I went around to the manger and chased them out, one by one, first on one side of the barn, then on the other side of the barn, then back again. Finally, with them all standing in a clump on the barn floor, I went to chase them down to the alley way, and there stood Sadie, smack dab in front of them. They balked. Stan yelled at Sadie, I yelled at the heifers. They bolted, leaped the gutter at the end of the barn, did a ninety-degree turn into the alley and stopped dead at the trailer. Stan had at this point, had enough of heifers and gave one a sharp crack on the rear. She jumped and accidently got her front feet on the trailer floor. One more crack and she was in, the rest following rather abruptly. I didn’t bother to wave as Stan pulled out the driveway. I didn’t want them to think I was going to miss them.
With the heifers out and off to summer camp, as our then four year old granddaughter once said, it was time for the cows to be turned out. This is usually easy, and amusing. Watching those big old bossies with their ample udders run out the back barn door kicking their heels in the air brings a smile every time I watch it. This year was no exception, until one particularly large cow missed the open gate to the paddock, lowered her head, popped the gate to the lane way and took off. The three quarters of the herd that was coming out of the barn behind her lit out like a burry of jack rabbits, large, lumbering jack rabbits. There is nothing graceful about an adult cow. They have large deep bodies, long skinny legs and those udders. As heifers some few may achieve a certain deer-like grace, but it disappears rapidly when they mature. Stan, coming out the barn door and seeing most of his herd galloping down the lane to the little woods paddock said, “Oh, for heaven’s sake!” or something along those lines and put his hands on his hips in disgust. I just laughed quietly and went back to the flower bed I intended to rescue from the dandelions. It is sometimes best not to comment.
With the oats in, the fences fixed and the cows and older heifers out, early spring work is done. Now begins late spring work, which this year involves getting the haying equipment ready for that week near the end of May when first cutting will start. There’s always something to be done.
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