Posted on Leave a comment

Cows drink us dry

As previously mentioned, we borrowed some cows from a neighbouring farm (cows return to Auchenstroan).  With them nicely settled in, I headed off to Edinburgh to meet a flamenco guitar master (for some guidance) and then a beer with friends.  All excellent.

I returned Saturday morning to a water emergency.  With the weather being warm, the cows had drained all our livestock water tanks.  Also, the burns that feed our tanks had dried up.  Nicole had taken some water over but the quad bike cannot tow that much and it’s also very slow to fill a bower from a tap.

So, it was out with the tractor, hook up the 600 litre bowser and set the pump up in the river.  We are on spring water here and during the summer filling a 600 litre bowser would empty our water tank (shared by our close neighbours).  So, it’s best to pump it up from the river.  One of my neighbours helped for which I was very grateful.  I also filled two 20 litre water carriers while I was at it.

cows queing for water
cows queuing for water

Once full, the bowser was towed to the tank and connected so the tank could be filled.  While that was happening (it takes two hours for the bowser to drain through the standard hose connector), I went to fill the trough with the 20 litre carriers.  At first, the cows were not sure what I was up to, but as I started pouring water into their trough, they formed an orderly queue headed by the brown cow pictured.

Once I had poured the two containers in, she dipped her head and drained the lot.  This could be a long day, I thought.  If you’re wondering why the troughs were not filling automatically, they were, but just not quickly enough.  The have a ballcock valve much like that found in a standard toilet.  The water flows in, but like an old tap.

Anyway, I zipped back and forth with the quad fetching water while the bowser offloaded into the tank.  On the second visit, the bull was at the front of the queue.  His head was almost as wide as the water trough.  He watched me with mildly suspicious eyes while I poured the water in.  His head was in straight after the first container, so I just poured the second one in next to his head.  He drained the lot and, sated, he wandered off.  It took about 4 trips before the queue started to thin out and 6 to get the trough back to full.  It also took three bowser fulls to fill up the tank (around 1800 litres).  Once done, I thought that was that.


Sunday morning is my turn to check the animals.  I found the cows had made the executive decision to move field trampling a fence in the process.  Not much could be done, so we opened up more space for them and they seemed quite happy.  And they still had water.

Monday morning, all the water was gone, again.  They had managed to move a trough off its stand and so tilt it and drain the entire system.  I inspected all the troughs followed closely by a number of cows.  All empty.

Tractor out, pump on, refill…

Only this time, there was no water coming down.  In a mild panic I worked my way up disassembling each connection.  No water, but I could find nothing wrong with the system.

I gave up – we asked the farmer to take them back a day early as it was hot and they needed water.

Now, we have had trouble with this tank but I thought it was repaired.  In fact, the tank had appeared to be holding water again, so I had filled in the repair trench (before it collapsed).  I dug it all out again, but everything was fine.  And then the water started to flow into the troughs.  It turned out to be a small hump in the pipeline which the water level had to get above to start flowing.  Panic stations were all for nothing.  Only now, one of the connections was leaking.

Thankfully, I have a box of pipe connectors so I was able to repair it.  The pipe had shifted a bit so I had to put in a piece to lengthen the pipe so it would reach the connector properly.  By the end of the day, I had refilled the tank, repaired all the pipework and the troughs were all full again.  This time, only sheep would be drinking.

Posted on Leave a comment

Cows Return to Auchenstroan

This year, the grass has gone mad.  I have never seen it so long and lush.  To say the sheep can’t keep up would be an understatement.  In fact, of late, they have only really grazed two of the five fields they have access to.  Sheep prefer to nibble at short grass, so much of the long grass remains untouched.

cows back at auchenstroan
cows back at auchenstroan

Our neighbouring farm keeps cows and a few days back, they appeared in a field next to our track (the cows that is, not the neighbours).  It was a good sized heard of around 25 with a mix of heifers, calves and a sizeable bull.  Opportunity yes, we thought to ourselves.

So, we asked our neighbouring farmer if he’d like to graze his cows in our fields for a bit.  He was delighted to do so and brought them over yesterday evening.  After an excitable period of exploring, the cows settled down and this morning, they looked really happy.  Well, it’s a big field with lots to eat, who wouldn’t be happy?

They will be with us for a few days by which time we expect they’ll have scoffed most of it.  We are really pleased because grazing cows is really good for the land too.


Posted on Leave a comment

Running to stand still

nicole planting new veg patch

Where to start! We are finding out that owning land creates lots of work. Owning animals just adds more! We keep thinking we are getting there, but then we dream up new projects.

veggie patch complete

One example is the veggie patch already featured on this blog. It’s pretty much finished now. I added the rose arches over the gates as the final touches. No roses yet, they’ll go in in the autumn. Nicole has been busy planting it up. I keep saying I’ll help but I always seem to end up working on some other project. It’s starting to look fab with good crops of turnips, carrots, parsnips and sprouts. We’ll also have kale, courgettes and beetroot. They were sown direct and are not quite showing yet. All this planting was helped by two thunderstorms which gave everything a good soaking. More about water later.

rows of onions and salad
rows of onions and salad

Nicole has also been busy moving self seeded daisies out of the other veggie patch and into the borders next to the new veggie patch. So, soon, it will be surrounded with flowers. All that planting created the room for all our onions which Nicole finished planting today. We even did a bit of a landscaping (after yesterday’s storm) but the midges soon put a stop to that.

So, what have I been up to that has stopped me from helping? Well, the weather went from wet to dry overnight, and stayed dry. This is great, except that the grass growth was slow and our field water dried up, Annoyingly, the big tank we put in last year has sprung a leak somewhere and I think I am going to have to dig a hole to find it, a big hole.
Anyway, we have two rivers that are merrily running through our patch. So I suggested we extend one of the paddocks down to include a bit of river. The cows would certainly appreciate that!

So I have been off doing that, knocking in posts and fencing it all. The fencing is now all done but there are two stone dykes that need some repair where they have fallen down. If our sheep got to those, they’d be up and over in a flash. I think the cows would probably give it a miss though. So I’ll be repairing those later in the week.
It’s also infested with bracken which is poisonous to cows and sheep. So we’ll be down dealing with that too!

Talking of cows escaping, coming back from the garage one day last week (my new car had some faults needing fixing), I realised that one of the cows was the wrong side of the fence. In fact, Bluebell had taken down a bit of fencing and we reckon she’d been out for a day or two. We headed down to round her up wondering how it would go. Highland cows are pretty stubborn at the best of time. However, she was waiting by the gate. When Nicole opened it, she wandered back in of her own accord. Miracle!
In between all that, we had the sheep sheared on Thursday last. You may remember that Nicole and I did a sheep shearing course a couple of years back. Well that and the experience of shearing three sheep made us decide this was best left to the professionals. Finding shearers for small flocks can be a problem, but this year, on a recommendation, we managed to hire a top shearer.

They arrived with a professional rig on a trailer with two shearing stations and two shearers and a third person to roll up the fleeces. Our plans of leading the ewes in one at a time from the paddock evaporated in an instant. In fact, we ended up charging around and catching and rounding them up. We only just kept up with the two shearers but, of course, we then had to collect the sheared sheep and get them back. It was borderline panic for the duration, but they are all sheared, and it was a great job too. The sheep must feel so much better in this heat.

After that, we had to inoculate the lambs. Rather than rounding them up, we caught them one at a time. Nicole gave them the injection while I held them. The girls struggled like mad doing their best to headbutt me (by flipping their heads backwards). The boys, harder to catch, seemed only to shrug with vague indifference when the needle went in. Some of the lambs were very flighty – once they know you’re after them, they can move out of the way pretty quickly. Nicole’s pretty good at sneaking up behind them and catching their legs. One managed to wriggle out and tried to run past me. I’m not quite sure how I did it but a stuck an arm out and caught him and quickly had him in a hug. Which would have been great had I not, in my moment of self satisfaction, then stepped on some sheep poo ( we were on a hillside) and slid landing flat on my back. I held onto the lamb though, who was safe on my chest. We have to do it again in four weeks, perhaps we’ll pen them up. They might be a bit heavy to carry by then.

Nicole is on top of the sheep worming. We don’t blanket worm them. Nicole collects samples and we have the vet do an analysis so we know who to worm and what to treat them with. There are a few dirty sheep bottoms out there, often a sign of worms, and one of Nicole’s less exciting jobs is keeping their rear ends shaved (it’s called dagging) so that we can avoid fly strike.

In-between all that, we have been trying to comb the cows. They haven’t had much attention of late and Bluebell is not entirely sure about being combed. This is not helped by them moulting their winter coats which creates humungous knots. They are hard to get out, but amazingly satisfying when you get one.

And if that’s not enough, some of the chickens got infested with lice. So, we had to catch them and Nicole cut all the eggs off and we treated them to kill the adult lice. Sounds easy, but catching chickens is incredibly hard! You can wait till night time and get them out the chicken house – they tend to be quieter then. Bu these days, in mid June, that would be around midnight and we are fast asleep by then.

And tomorrow it’s Monday and back to the day jobs! We’re still waiting for that elusive day off! I haven’t even had time to take pictures of our sheared sheep or new paddock, but I’ll try and get some tomorrow and add them.

Posted on Leave a comment

Yoke training Bluebell & Texa

After losing wee Ivor we noticed the dynamics between Bluebell & Texa had shifted slightly, they were skittish and seemed uneasy, they hung around the gate where we had carried Ivor away, and spent a lot of time looking into the distance.  It was heart breaking and we were sure they were pining for him as we were.  However it is easy to put a human spin on things and transfer our own feelings onto animals.  Yes, they must have wondered where Ivor had gone, yes there was undoubtedly a reshuffling of the pecking order, but they were also getting on with the business of scoffing haylage and generally doing what cows do.  Animals tend to live in the moment, unlike us humans, so we tried to remain positive and not be upset or emotional when around them .  As their  “pack leaders” for want of a better word, we had to be calm and strong in their presence and carry on with our day to day care, “business as usual”.  This was easier said than done, and I admit, we found it hard to follow our own advice.  In fact we failed spectacularly in the days following  Ivor’s death,  truth be told, both of us completely lost our confidence.  It’s difficult to explain, but at one very low point, we even considered selling Bluebell and Texa, so convinced were we that we weren’t cut out for it.  We still somehow blamed ourselves and didn’t feel we could give them what they needed.  Thankfully this low point only lasted two days, by Monday we had a plan, we would continue to keep cows, we would continue to do our best to care for them, and we would continue to yoke and crush train them as we’d planned to do a few weeks beforehand.

To do this we would need to take things up a level.  We already had a good rapport with them and we were gaining their trust, they allowed us to comb them (everywhere bar their faces).  We were at a good stage to take the training a step further.  We thought we would use the approach we’d used with our sheep a few years ago.  At this point I should say that there is a serious reason for gaining an animal’s trust, it’s not just for our benefit to be able to pat and stroke them, it’s best for the animal too should they need medical attention. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to round up a sheep for example and then restrain it, all to give it a three second injection.  The whole atmosphere becomes fraught and it is pleasant for neither party.  Our sheep were relatively easy to “train”, (being new to sheep at the time, we were very pleased with our efforts!)  we halter trained them over the winter during our first year of keeping them and now they trot around after us like friendly dogs.  We wanted to adopt the same approach with the cows, but at the same time we were aware that one thing is penning up a sheep, but it is entirely a different matter penning up a huge animal like a cow.  There has to be more psychology involved, particularly with Highlands who are not only big, but have very long horns too!  One thing we noticed when we first got them, was that we had to be careful when using cow nuts as rewards because they get very excited and a few times we’ve had to step away quickly to avoid them careering into us in their eagerness to get a mouthful of the cow equivalent of sweeties.

Texa doing well!

The reason we wanted to train them to use the yoke and crush was because at some point we knew we’d have to put them in there if they needed injections etc. I have to admit, I had another motive as well; the frustrated hair dresser in me was desperate to comb out their fringes which have got very straggly over the winter.  We also saw the crush training as an opportunity to feed up Bluebell who was still slim after her pregnancy.  So, with this in mind, we came up with a strategy. We’d put some nuts in separate buckets, one for each cow.  Bluebell got a full ration, Texa got a sprinkling.  We’d hide the buckets behind a wall before entering the field to avoid the excited scrum.  We’d then put the girls in position, one would go into a pen, and the other would be positioned by the crush.  Once in place and the atmosphere was calm, each got their bucket.  As they were in separate areas there would be no fighting over buckets.  The cow we were crush training got her bucket in the crush so she started to see the crush and yoke as something positive.  Each day we would alternate so both cows got either penned up or led through the crush.  We hoped that it would take no more than two weeks, and I am pleased to report, that we managed it!  Admittedly the first time we put Bluebell through the crush she somehow ended up coming through back to front, not sure how that happened.   But they seemed to enjoy the “game” and as the days went by we noticed they started waiting in anticipation, either in the pen, or by the crush, clever girls!

Posted on Leave a comment

The not so good life

Writing a blog is so much easier when life is rosy and there are good things to report.  Sadly at the end of January our wee highland calf Ivor passed away.  Then a few short weeks later a badger got into our hen coop and helped himself.  It’s at times like these that the “good life” doesn’t seem so good and putting pen to paper to write about this side of “the good life” is hard.  Words become a struggle and do not flow as easily, all the sadness which we do our best to process and work through comes flooding back as we recall each painful memory.

However to quote the farming cliche, “where there is livestock there is deadstock” , life goes on, so I thought I would be brave and put pen to paper and update you on recent events.

As you probably know from previous stories it’s been an unusually cold winter, snow has lain on the ground on and off since November, as soon as a brief thaw occurred, this was followed by yet another load of white stuff.

January 18th was no exception, it had snowed through the night and at 7.30am as I trudged through it feeling like the Michelin man in my 30 layers, slipping and sliding over the uneaven ground covered in ice and snow and compacted mud, I headed over the hill, first to the sheep, to fill up their hay feeders, count them, make sure none had slipped over unable to get up again, smashed the ice in their water troughs and gave the lambs ear rubs.  I then climbed over the gate into the cow field (too muddy and snowy to open gates these days!) to do much the same.  But that day as I walked down the slope towards the big round feeder which the cows have been glued to all winter, I saw a small rust coloured heap on the ground next to it.  My first thought was “Ivor”!!  But as I continued down the slope, I told myself to be sensible, I always think the worst, it’s not a good habit of mine this worrying,  it must be a pile of haylage.  But as I drew nearer my worst fear was confirmed, it was little Ivor, lying on the ground, cold and dead.

I would like to say what happened next was a blur, but the truth is I remember everything vividly and the memory of finding Ivor lying in a heap and the next few hours has etched itself firmly in my mind, coming back to haunt me whenever it  pleases.

Adrian came, the vet came, our neighbours came, Ivor was still a little bit alive it transpired, the vet tried to get a temperature reading but he was so cold that no temperature registered, she tried to find a vein to give him life saving fluids but they had collapsed, I remember Ivor giving a faint moo and Bluebell, his mum, replying, our hearts were full of hope as well as despair.  We were united in our efforts yet broken inside.  At 10am Ivor passed away, in our kitchen by the aga.

Words cannot describe the sadness we felt and huge sense of loss.  The rest of the day felt like a dream, a different reality.  We couldn’t process what had happened and were barely able to function.  If it hadn’t been for our other animals needing our attention we probably wouldn’t have functioned, at all.  The “what ifs” hung over us like dark shadows, could we have done something to prevent this?  Had we missed something?  Why did he die?  Highlands don’t get hypothermia!  Where had we done wrong?  We just couldn’t work it out.  We checked up on our cows twice a day and spent time combing them and talking to them, we knew they were eating, they were motoring through their feed, and Ivor had been scoffing haylage happily.  I was with them for most of the day before, ironically building an area to pen them up should we ever need the vet.

We had long conversations with farmers, I ordered a truck load more books on cow husbandary and tortured myself googling calf ailments.  We didn’t sleep for all the questions hanging over us and the choking sadness clutching at our hearts.  Eventually  though we started to piece things together.  Ivor had been born late in the year to a young mother.  This meant he had entered winter a bit younger than is ideal.  Bluebell wasn’t fully grown herself and didn’t have the ample milk supplies a fully mature cow would have had so when the weather turned unusually cold Ivor was at a disadvantage already.  Added to this, as the temperatures plummeted, at five months old he was at that critical stage between coming off milk and moving onto forage so his rumen wouldn’t have been working at full capacity yet, and it’s the action of the rumen which keeps cows warm.  It’s like a built in central heating system.  So it seems, like many of these things, it was a series of small things which in themeselves seem not too significant, but combined, can be lethal.

Despite these explanations making perfect sense during daylight hours, I still cannot shake off a sense of guilt and regret which haunts me at 4am.  The fact is, we are ultimately responsible for our animals, the buck stops with us, we are the reason for them being alive, and we are responsible for their deaths.  Maybe in time we will harden up, but I don’t think we’re the “hardening up” sort of people.  We might become more philosophical perhaps, but when animals in our care die, whether it is planned or unplanned it never comes without a huge sense of responsibility and ultimately forces us to question the big things, life and death and our role in the lives of our animals.

Posted on Leave a comment

Cows Tucking Into Haylage

Cows and haylage

Following on from our Sunday morning “board” meeting and our decisions on where to site our cow management area, today we moved to phase 2.  This was made possible by the speedy delivery of a haylage spike for the tractor that I had ordered on Saturday.  Our original plan had been to roll these bales of haylage to where they are needed.  Ha – ha!  They weigh nearly 500Kg.

haylage bale on tractor
haylage bale on tractor

I had picked up two bales of haylage on Saturday and they were parked on the ground.  I assembled the spike and fitted it to the tractor.  A practice run moving a bale of straw (a big round one, not a small one) went well.  So, I moved onto the haylage.  My first attempt failed, I hadn’t lined the spike up very well and the tractor couldn’t lift it.  I tried again, got it right and off I went with the large bale down to the cow field.

I put the bale down on an area of track so the cows would have hard standing when they eat.  Much better than standing in six inches of mud.  I took the tractor back and then, with Nicole being back from work, we had lunch.

Nicole with haylage
Nicole with haylage

After lunch, Nicole and I went down to make it all ready.  We stripped the plastic and netting off the bale and tried to tip it onto it’s base.  It seemed so easy on This Farming Life on the TV.  We had a go and, having managed to move it at least 2 inches, we stopped to ponder and then I headed off to get the tractor.  That made life much easier and with a gentle nudge from the front loader, the bale was in place in no time.

Next, we rolled the feeder down the hill, over bumpy frozen ground and icy sheets.  At least it was downhill!

And now it was time for the best bit – we went off to get the cows.  They had, of course, migrated to the top of the field, as far away as possible.  They do like it up there.  Nevertheless, armed with samples of haylage, we soon had their attention and they started to follow us down.  Now, Bluebell and Ivor are calm as you like.  But Texa gets very excited and does an excellent impression of a charging, bucking bronco.  She usually skids to halt beside us looking slightly surprised and also gazing intently at any food we might be carrying.  I dropped a little haylage which kept her happy and we kept going.  After that was eaten, Texa bucked and charged again causing  Nicole to drop all her bundle of haylage.  Texa doesn’t mean to hurt us, she’s just excited and happy, but when you are standing on an icy hill watching her careering towards you, you do worry she might misjudge slightly!

Texa tucking in
Texa tucking in

Anyway, we soon had Texa down at the feeding station.  Of course, Bluebell and Ivor had found some tasty grass so off I went to fetch them.  I persuaded Bluebell to follow me without too much trouble.  She loves haylage.  Then, we heard a plaintive “moo” from behind the wall.  Ivor had stayed behind and was wondering where everyone had gone.  Nicole went off and fetched him.

As for the haylage, the cows love it.  The best part is that Nicole will no longer have to lump a bale of hay across the field every morning.  Plus, we should have enough hay left for the sheep now for the rest of winter.  This huge bale should last the cows a week or so.  And of course, they won’t go hungry – they have as much food as they need, on demand.

tucking into haylage
Ivor, Bluebell and Texa tucking into haylage
Posted on Leave a comment

Happy New Year

Auchenstroan snow

Happy New Year to all our readers.  Hope it’s a great one.

With Christmas and New Year past, we are now making our plans for 2018.  We are looking more and more into natural farming and managing the soil.  I say “we”, the bulk of the research is being carried out by Nicole who has her head buried in books by Graham Harvey (Grass Fed Nation being her favourite).

With this in mind, we are trying to move away totally from bagged feeds, especially those that are grain based.  We are alarmed by stories of how factory farming is now using glyposphate to dry out grains prior to harvesting along with various pesticides.  These deadly chemicals are leaking into both animal feeds and also the human food chain.  You can give the animals a great place to live, but if they are eating crap food, then ultimately, that’s what we can end up eating!

So, we have earmarked an area to grow sugar beet and this will replace sheep nuts next year.  We are looking for a local source of waste vegetables which we would feed to our pigs (though we may be taking a year off from raising pigs this year).  We’d need around 150Kg a week so it would need to be a pretty good source.

In the meantime, work goes on at Auchenstroan.  It is our first winter here and it’s a proper winter with ice and snow.  We really like the cold spells.  The mud freezes hard and so the animals can get around more easily (and are not up to their knees in mud).  It’s dry and the cows are particularly thankful for that as they have no field shelter.  And it makes it easier for us to zoom around on the quadbike stocking up the hay where it’s needed.  The only problem is that the water troughs freeze over, so we need to keep de-icing them.

Today, we worked out where to put our cow management area.  Ivor has his operation booked for 1st February.  We need to have him halter trained and used to the cattle crush by than.  We also have purchased some large bales of haylage (the animals have been motoring through the hay this winter).  They are seriously heavy and I have had to order a tractor bale spike so that we can move them.

Anyway, having put the cattle crush in a field at great risk (of the tractor sliding down a hill), today we moved it (at great risk) and we are really pleased with our new set up.  It’s accessible for us, the vet and the cows. We can also put their haylage feeder there so it will be easier to train Ivor as he’ll be standing next to the crush munching away.

In the summer, we will build a shed next to it and have a proper cow area which means they will have warm and toasty winter quarters.  Knowing highland cows, they will probably still sleep out rough (unlike our sheep who are virtually living in their shed at the moment coming out only to browse their hay racks).


Posted on Leave a comment

Highland Cows Come to Auchenstroan

bluebell and ivor

On Sunday, our highland cows arrived.  We have been waiting ages as one of them turned out to be pregnant, so we postponed their arrival until the calf was born.  It was a great experience, offloading them and moving them into a nearby field.  We have to thank Jim and Fiona for bringing them over (we don’t have a big enough trailer).

Having learned from our pigs experience, we allowed them some time to settle.  At first, they spent much time by the gate where they had come in.  But the grass was lush and they were soon tucking in.

We had been receiving training in handling cows and have spent time with Texa and Bluebell before their move.  We had combed them and tried to get to know them.  We think they recognise us, but they are, for the moment, keeping their distance.

ivor the highland coo
Ivor the highland coo

The calf, Ivor, is a right little cutie pie.  He is torn by curiosity and wariness.  He studies us, approaches, then changes his mind.  Every now and then, he tears round the field.

After a couple of days, we opened the access into a larger field.  This one has a steep bank with overgrown grass but also the new grass from where the hay was cut.  We lead the three cows up to the new grass.  All three skipped for joy, it was lovely to watch.  Ivor, of course, tore round as there was lots of space for him.

They also came face to face with our tups which are in the field next door.  Both cows and tups were very curious about each other.

They seem to be settling in well, despite the constant rain we seem to be having.  We are working on getting them to trust is so that we can approach them.  They need combed from time to time, well, maybe not “need”, but it helps.

It is great having highland cows.  They are majestical, magical beasts.  It is a magical experience just sitting with them.

highland cows bluebell ivor and texa
Bluebell, Ivor and Texa