Wednesday, March 20:
The equinox is upon us; the ice and snow, however, have only loosened their grip, not relinquished it.
Snow fell on us today as we harvested the last of the carrots in the low tunnel and tore out the early-emerging weeds where the protection of a single sheet of six-mil plastic had nurtured them to jungle proportions. There were two forty-foot by thirty inch beds in that tunnel which have provided us with carrots all winter, crisp, sweet, juicy, pith-less carrots such as we had never tasted before we began to winter harvest; the weeds were so lush today that it was something of a treasure-hunt to find the carrots before we pulled the weeds. A full wheel-barrow of clover and wild lettuce made half the dinner for the three pigs in the big barn, and they relished it.
There is still one bed of carrots to last us until the early spring vegetables begin to mature. These carrots are smaller than the others because they had less protection from the winter weather; in fact, the inadequate plastic over those hoops often blew off, allowing the beds to be covered by snow. We made the mistake, in the first place, of situating two tunnels with no space between them; not only did each block some of the light that might have reached the other, but when it snowed, as it has done many time this winter, the snow piled up in the narrow channel between the tunnels and was very difficult to move. We had also to be careful of the long bed of garlic planted right alongside the eastern tunnel; we didn’t want to walk on it, but it was almost impossible not to do so when we were sweeping snow off the tunnels. And we didn’t want the overhang of plastic to artificially warm the soil of the garlic bed in case the alliums should come up early, expecting warm temperatures, and be fatally disappointed.
The two baby bulls we brought home week before last are doing well in the stalls in the white barn. These are small, dry, straw-lined box stalls where each calf has room to move around freely but from which they cannot reach one another to share germs (see our page on calf rearing). The top half of the loft door on each side of the barn is open, admitting plenty of fresh air, but drafts are minimized by the deep eaves of the roof and the stacks of hay bales on the north side. A bucket of clean water and a truss of hay are provided for the babies at all times, and warm milk twice a day.
We are trying on innovation with these little bulls. Up to now we have followed the recommendations of virtually every source, and against our preference have offered a handful of grain to our calves morning and evening for the first few weeks of their lives. Only just for so long; after weaning they are grass-fed only, but every book we had, and practically every farmer we asked, insisted that calves should be fed grain when they were young. To put weight on them, one farmer friend said recently; and, I more than suspect, to medicate them as well, since commercial feeds are routinely medicated and dairy calves are so notoriously apt to get infectious illnesses. The whole idea is completely counter-intuitive, since if cows aren’t really designed to eat grain, baby cows, which are designed to take their calories from milk, must need grain even less than their mamas do. I can hardly tell you why we followed this strange advice, except that the calf attrition rate was in the beginning so high that when we finally had a protocol that seemed to work, we were afraid to alter it in any respect.
No longer. We believe we have a working understanding of the rearing of baby bulls now – not so much as to make failure impossible, but sufficient to be getting on with — and we have asked ourselves why our sources advocate giving grain to baby calves; and the answer we have come up with is that it is cheaper to feed grain than to feed milk – or calf formula. Were this not so, dairymen would not be feeding cows grain to get milk. But we have a plenitude of milk, or at least so much that we need not be stingy with the calves. Normally — that is to say, up until now — the calves have been feed twice a day, at milking time, a half gallon of warm whole milk apiece, and they drink it eagerly. As of last week we are giving them a third feeding, mid-day, of a quart or more of skim milk or butter milk, with the addition of a good dose of yogurt or whey for probiotics and carbohydrates. We are watching closely for any sign of scours – dangerously loose bowel movements – as a result of the change in feeding, but so far we have seen no negative results, and the calves continue to take their regular feedings with undiminished appetite.
Why have we not thought of doing this earlier? The increase in calories may result in larger frames and fleshier carcasses in the young animals, which can only be an advantage in bulls intended for beef.