First of all, when I said I wanted more practice working cattle, this wasn’t what I had in mind. Take that as a warning: be careful what you wish for.
Where do I even begin? This is the kind of story I thought I’d find in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. She made living locally seem so easy! If I have given anyone the impression that farming is easy, I am sorry. This post is here to correct that.
Yesterday’s big task was moving the yearling calves. These are the calves that were born last fall. They’ve been weaned so they are no longer with their moms, but they aren’t full-grown yet. They are the equivalent of temperamental teenagers.
Cows are very predictable animals. They all respond in the same way to different stimuli. Their ultimate goal is to get away from people. Unless they feel trapped, they will always move away from you. If they do feel trapped, they will look for an escape route. Your job when working them is to close those gaps to force them where you want them to go. They also do their best to stay with the herd. That’s why it is much easier to work a group of cattle than one individual. We often try to take 2-3 and sort them out once we have them in the trailer or the barn, just because it makes our life simpler.
Calves are not so predictable. Their instincts are not fully developed and they operate mostly in panic mode. They also don’t respect the electric fences like adult cattle do. A steer or cow will rarely jump a fence. Calves have no qualms about plowing right through them. Anything to get away from whatever frightens them. Sounds like fun, right?
The yearling calves were in one of the pastures that straddles the creek. It is a messy pasture, wooded and full of briar patches. We needed to move them from the pasture, down the lane and into the pig pen. We are down to just four full-grown pigs at the moment and the pasture has become quite overgrown. We wanted to put the calves in there to help the pigs out.
We – Ethan, Steve and I – went down in the morning with a plan. Ethan would work the gate at the pig pen (we couldn’t leave it open for fear the pigs would escape!) while Steve and I brought the calves up. I would call them and Steve would work them from behind as needed. We knew that the biggest challenge would be getting them into the lane. Once we did that, we’d be fine.
I started calling and then came merrily along. Everything was going as planed until we came to the lane. The calves balked. The just stopped and refused to move. I kept calling, but they weren’t having it. Steve started to slowly work them from behind, but they panicked and ran through a large patch of briar bushes and off across the creek. (Seriously, who designs a pasture with a creek in the middle of it?!?) We decided to let them calm down and try again after lunch.
Around 1:00 I headed down to evaluate the situation and see if I couldn’t call them through on my own. They were still on the other side of the creek, but after about 15 minutes of calling, they worked their way over and followed me down to the lane. Once again the balked. There was no one there to push them so I just kept calling them without success. They just stood and stared at me. Eventually they got bored and wandered away, but at least they were on the right side of the creek.
Dean and I gave a tour to a group of students from Arcadia University while Steve and Ethan worked on other tasks. Around 3:30 we regrouped and headed back down. There was no “try again later” this time. We needed to move them, even if it meant chasing them. I went ahead and put on Ryan’s waders just in case I had to run back and forth across the creek. At that point I was still optimistic that they’d cooperate, especially if there were 3 of us.
We did the same thing. I called, Steve worked them from behind and Ethan stood up close to the gate to prevent them from running off again. They must have sensed he was there because they panicked long before we got to the lane and ran across the creek. At this point calling them was pointless. They were worked up and we knew we’d have to chase them. Ethan dashed across the creek and chased them back over where Steve and I tried to work them towards the lane. This was extremely challenging given the terrain of the pasture. It’s hard to move quickly through thick trees and briars. Once again they wound up back across the creek. I chased them back this time but somewhere in the process they split into two groups. We focused on the larger of the two groups and finally got them into the lane.
Now they were headed down the lane to the pig pen, but the gate was closed and no on was out there. I couldn’t get around them without driving them right into the temporary fence we’d set up so I made a wide circle through one of the pastures to get ahead of them. I got the gate open and Steve pushed them forward into the pen. We went back for the rest who, of course, had run back across the creek.
We repeated the drill. Once again it took a few tries, but we eventually got all but three into the lane. I ran ahead through the pasture, but they were moving too quickly for me to get ahead. As I approached the gate, one of the calves – no. 78 – spooked and plowed right through the temporary fence. There was nothing between him and the market. I ran around the pig pen to try to get behind him, but he sprinted off across the creek.
We got the rest of the group into the pig pen and summoned Ethan to help us get the renegade. We all agreed it would be easier to push him into the steer pasture than to try to get him back into the lane. He decided it would be fun to hide in the middle of a briar patch. We eventually got him out and penned up safely.
And then there were three.
Our first attempt yielded the usual results. They panicked and ran across the creek. We all agreed we’d give it one more try and then call it a night. We figured we’d just leave the gate to the lane open and put some hay in the lane to try to lure them out. But we wanted to give it one last go.
You know that saying “quit while you’re ahead”? Yeah. We should have followed that advice.
Ethan and I crossed the creek and started to push them along the fence. This is what we’d done every single time and every time they reached the corner and turned left to continue moving along the fence, across the creek and towards the lane. But not this time. No, this time they turned right and plowed through the fence into Dean’s unfenced yard. Calling it a night was no longer an option.
It was getting dark and we needed the 4-wheeler so Ethan and Steve headed off to collect it while I searched for the calves. A few minutes later Steve called to tell me they’d found them. It was late and we were tired so we decided to set up a fence to contain them rather than continue chasing them. This meant I had to take down the last fence (it ran across the creek and I was the only one in waders). I gathered the supplies while Steve and Ethan kept an eye on the calves.
We got the fence set up using flashlights on our phones and the headlights of the 4-wheelers. Around 8:45 we finished up and headed back to the shop. At this point I realized I still had to wash and pack the day’s eggs so they’d be ready for the farmers’ market.
Now you know why I was bone tired last night.
Needless to say calves now outrank chickens as my least favorite animals. That’s saying something. Also, farm fit is not the same as half-marathon fit. Last night destroyed my delusion that I’ll be able to complete the Hershey Half next month without training. I’m in trouble.