Cows are interesting creatures. They can prosper off of land and food that few other animals can manage. They are very hardy and survive all sorts of extremes of weather. They are very focused animals. They like eating and spend most of their time doing that. They do not like being on two sides of a fence. They want to be together as a herd and they do operate under the principle that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. While they might appear docile, they can be aggressive when protecting their young. Watching two bulls fighting over a herd of cattle will change your opinion of cattle forever. I knew none of this forty-four years ago when I first got my feet muddy as a cattleman.
In the summer of 1972, a year after graduating from Harvard, I was living on a small farm along the shores of the Bay of Fundy. I had taken $6,500 given to me by my mother and bought an old farm of 140 acres. The first year was been spent getting the old house livable. It was an interesting experience and more details can be found in our book, A Taste for the Wild, Canada's Maritimes.
That same summer of 1972, I bought a few head of cattle. We had lots of pasture and enough farm equipment to make hay. It seemed like a reasonable step at the time. At least it was not law school. Of course it did not take long to learn that cows are not very reasonable. Our cows got mixed up with a neighbor's dairy cows when the dairy cattle broke through one of our fences. We did not know enough to even tell the difference between our cows and his. With the dairy farmer's help we got them sorted out. I should have stopped while I was ahead but I was young and foolish.
About a year later I got married and by then I had decided that I wanted to try serious farming but I had figured out that the foggy shores Nova Scotia's North Mountain was not the place to be successful. I had learned a few things in the short time with the cattle. Number one was that putting up hay in square bales was a lot of work.
We ended up buying a farm twenty miles north of Fredericton, New Brunswick. We sold our first set of cows before we left Nova Scotia . Then we bought some Charolais-Angus cross heifers (young females), six purebred Angus cows, and a few head of mixed breed cattle that were already on the New Brunswick farm. That would have likely been enough but I headed out to Manitoba and Saskatchewan that winter and brought back a tractor trailer load of cows and a bull. It was not long before we were having sixty calves a year. It was an immersion course into being a cattleman.
All those cattle required lots of hay and some barns. We built the barns and became experts at making round bales of hay. Most years we put up six hundred big round bales weighing around a ton each. Our mature cattle wintered in the woods so we did not use the barns to house them in the winter. We used the barns to take care of the yearlings and for calving later in the spring.
Cows have to be fed every day when they cannot get enough food from grazing. In the winter that meant snow removal was a big chore. It was close to a mile back to the woods where the cattle spent the winter. Usually one big round bale a day took care of the cows. Almost another bale was required for the young animals and the bulls.
In February and March the cows were brought in close to the calving barn. Most nights for those two months, I had to walk to the barn and check the woods around the barn to see if a cow was calving. It was around three tenths of a mile from the house and I usually made a trip at 8PM, midnight, and 4AM. If I found a new born calf, I would "walk" it to the barn between my legs and the mother would follow. They would be put into an inside pen for a couple of days until I was certain they were doing well. A calf born in a snow storm or cold rain required extra attention. We lost only a couple of calves over our ten years of farming and never had to have a vet come to the farm. We lost one cow to calving problems in the ten years.
Still there was plenty of excitement. Cows require lots of attention to details like fences. It is also a challenge to balance the amount of pasture you need for your cattle. Some years when it rains less, there is less grass in the pasture. As soon as the snow is out of the woods in April, it is time to start fencing. Fencing meant getting covered with old woodsman black fly repellent. Fencing was my least favorite part of farming since it was impossible to do it well enough to be cow or moose proof.
There are as many cow tales as there are cow tails. The first time we weaned the calves, we made the mistake of going to dinner at a friends house. We had not gotten a bite of the main course when the phone rang and we heard the dreaded news, "the cows are out." Trust me there are lots of things more fun than chasing black cows through knee deep snow in the dark on a very cold night. It was more fun that trying to find a group of heifers that had been chased off one of our farms by kids on motorcycles. That took a month before I got them to follow me back to pen where we could put them on a truck and bring them home.
We had one cow that learned to jump a fence almost flat footed. I did not believe until I saw it myself. I sent her off to become hamburger. Perhaps the funniest adventure was Rosie, our milk cow. She was supposed to be my wife's milk cow, but she ended up mine. I was told that she was halter broken so we led her off the truck with a rope and halter. She then proceeded to drag me around the dooryard until I could get a rope around the bumper of our big four-wheel drive truck.
After we sold our cattle in 1982, we kept a few cattle for some buyers who did not have room for them. I was pleased that I did not get any calls that the "the cows were out" while they stayed with us. I was happy to see them go. Here are a few pictures of the farm and some others of our first farm in Nova Scotia.
Maybe cows are a little like a boat. You are almost as happy to see the boat leave as you were to see it arrive. When I hear about someone getting a few cows, I restrain myself from saying anything. Some things you just have to learn about the hard way, and cows are one of those things.