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When to wean

November 4, 2012
eight month old calf - still suckling

eight month old calf – still suckling

At this time of year we aim to be completely prepared for winter.  All winter feed is in, water supplies insulated against the coming frost, shed clean and tidy. For once I think we can tick all of those. By now (early November) we are just putting off the inevitable day when the herd comes indoors. It’s a matter of waiting for the ground to become so wet that the large weight of a mature cow supported by four quite small feet starts to damage the turf. We aren’t quite there but the heavy rain falling right now is bringing the point ever closer.

It’s at this time of year that Red Polls really earn their keep (in theory anyway). Through the spring and summer, feasting on lush pasture, most breeds will thrive. Now that the grazing’s poor the Red Poll’s reputation suggests that they will not only survive but can gain weight on relatively poor feed. We don’t starve them of course!

There’s still plenty of grass left from what was a very grassy summer. However, at this time of year it’s wet and has a low nutrient content. We’ll be feeding a little hay very soon – the cattle let us know if they are hungry – they shout at us.

We’ve been talking about weaning the calves. There are three things we argue about: first what’s best for the wellbeing of both cow and calf. The calves would prefer not to be weaned at all, but by the time they have a hoofing great, eight-month old calf sucking on them, the cows look like they could use a break, especially as they are all pregnant and really need to use every last bit of food to maintain themselves and build a new calf.

Second, what would be best from a management and profit point of view? As soon as they are weaned, the calves start to eat expensive food rather than stripping their mothers.

Finally there’s the question of our neighbours. Weaning is noisy. However and whenever we do it, both cows and calves make a lot of noise. Even though they are separated only by tall steel hurdles, we all still find this distressing. But we realise it’s a natural process which has to happen sometime; better our eight or nine months than the two days that dairy calves get.  The noise lasts about 36 hours and it is pretty loud. Very loud actually. Close up, a cow’s bellow is a rib cage shaking thing. Most years it disturbs someone enough for us to receive a complaint. I’ve had a discussion this week with a neighbour who is suggesting dates when she will be away from the village… that would be fine, but what happens if someone else asks the same thing?

For most, the noise is part of the deal of living in a rural village; hopefully a small price to pay for having a herd of attractive cattle grazing fields that otherwise would be growing cereals or horses.

Ah – just realised we aren’t ready after all – still a decision to be made about a source of additional protein and energy to get the cattle through the winter.

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