Sunday, October 24, 2010

British White Cows

Yesterday, many from the Heymans clan came out to the farm on the pretense of going to the St. John's football game. It was spearheaded by Steve's dad, who in the end listened to the first half on the radio and then decided not to go to the second half, because it didn't seem like much of a contest. It probably didn't help that it was in the 50s and drizzling on and off all day.

One of the family members in town was our nephew Paul who built the log cabin. He is now working as a  handyman, self-employed and loving it. He and Steve were talking about machinery and projects, and Paul mentioned that he wanted to look at some dump trailers. I remembered that I'd put a notice in the newsletter for Common Ground Garden CSA (the Sisters' community supported agriculture operation that ended it's season this past week) for an open house on the farm that offers their beef share. I really wanted to go out and look at the cows.

Let me just step back and say that I never thought I'd write a paragraph like the one above. Truly, the things I now know and the place I now live is an astonishing surprise to me.

Anyway, instead of going to the game, Paul, Steve and I headed out to Avon, Minn., only 6 miles up the road. First we looked at dump trailers, and Paul told us about the ones he'd seen at the State Fair as well. Neither place was open, so we just looked around without getting prices or anything. I could now explain to you the relative merits and workings of a dump trailer.

Then we headed out toward St. Anna, and west 2.5 miles toward Albany to Rolling Hills Traeger Ranch. I'd been to their Web site before, first looking for a photo of a British white for the newsletter, and later because I found it so interesting. It is a single mother with three daughters (age 15, 13 and ?). They have 140 head of beef cattle, mostly British white but also some Holstein crosses. They breed them and feed them on grass pasture their whole lives.

We were met by Christina, the mom, who grew up on a dairy farm and is incredibly smart about cows. Her whole life, it seems to me, is spent thinking about manure. She keeps her cows out on the pasture as long as possible, after others have brought their cattle in, and leaves the hay out on that pasture as well. It's been baled, so she has to go out to the pasture every few days and feed the hay to the cows.

Most farmers bring their cows and the baled hay back to the farm so it's easier for the farmers to feed them. But Christina wants the manure from the hay to stay where the grass was grown and fertilize the pasture for next year.

To the same end, she keeps them in paddocks throughout the summer, moving the paddocks and cows around. This way, they poop where they eat, and the whole field gets fertilized.

The British whites are beautiful and docile cows. Even the bulls are docile, and Christina's girls ride the one bull we saw around. Today, though, the two older daughters were wearing their best black cowboy hats and mostly carrying around kittens they were hoping to give away that day. Each year, they give away a heifer calf through a competition. The winner agrees to raise the calf on grass only, and breed it, and donate back the first heifer calf that is born. You get to keep the bulls (to raise 18 months and then have butchered for meat) and after the donation back of the first heifer calf, the cow is yours free and clear.

Of course, that is what really intrigued me, and why I wanted to go see the operation. After leaving, I was feeling a bit discouraged. Although they're lovely and docile and I adore the idea of raising a cow, it also seemed like a messy, hard job. Paul and Steve, however, were more sold on the idea. They were ready to put up fencing and get me started.

We left with packages of beef too, of course. I bought sirloins and stew meat, and will let you know how it turns out. And I will be going back to buy more from her freezer and talk more to Christina, and get to know those cows a bit better as well.

All in all, many paragraphs on this page I never thought I'd write. And continued good field trips within 10 miles of our house.

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