No farmer is a real farmer without livestock. After practicing with goats, we made the decision to take the plunge and bought three feeder calves. This was done partly to qualify for a farm income credit on our taxes. If you have a farm, you used to get all kinds of perks from the IRS. The only qualifications are that you have land, you’re trying to make a profit, and you’re stupid enough to try your hand at something you have zero abilities to do. So off we went to get cows.
Before you can have cows, you need some way to keep them where you want them to be. Namely, you need a fence. Fencing is expensive. By far the cheapest option is electric fence. And the cheapest electric fence is a New Zealand electric fence. The concept is simple. You use a big capacitor to put about 50,000 volts into a wire that is suspended above the ground. The charge enters the wire in a pulse that travels around the circuit before being discharged to the ground. If something, let’s say the wet nose of a cow, contacts the wire, the 50,000 volts are discharged through the cow’s nose, through the cow’s body, and through the cow’s feet and into the ground. Cows (and most people) don’t like 50,000 volts coursing through their bodies, so once shocked, they avoid the fence like the plague.
New Zealand fencing is meant to be used to create temporary pastures inside a permanent fence. I used it for the primary fence and was mostly effective doing so. The system is simple. Fiberglas posts about as big around as your finger, and sharpened like a pencil on one end are pushed into the ground every 10 or so feet. Stainless steel clips are fitted onto the posts, and a wire is strung through the loops of the clips. The posts are good insulators, so the current doesn’t ground. Wires can be strung at two or three elevations all along the fence ending up back at the beginning. An plastic insulated gate handle is used to connect the circuit. When you want to go through the fence, or work on it, unhooking this handle breaks the circuit and the fence is de-energized.
So to fence off 12 acres, I install about 300 posts, put 2 clips on each post, clip the wire through the loops, tied in a couple of handles to make a couple of gates, hooked the whole thing up to the charger which I had inside my spring house and voila, I got a fenced pasture. The whole thing cost about $1400 in 1990, which is not cheap, but is a heck of a lot cheaper than permanent fencing. I actually gave the whole fencing system to my buddy who had horses when I moved away from the farm at the insistence of my present wife. For all I know, he still is using it.
It’s comforting to hear the steady “Click, Click, Click” as the charger energizes the fence. We were cheap and didn’t have the charger with the battery backup, so if you didn’t hear it, then you had to worry. I found, though, that once the cows learned about the fence, they would stay in it power or not.
I also learned the hard way to put in two gates. I left about 10 ft outside of the fence so that I could walk around it. I don’t recommend trying to step over an energized fence if you value your valuables.
You should also put up a sign that says to any neighbor kids who used to ride their quads over a corner of your fields, “Caution, Electric Fence Ahead”. As you probably guessed, I found this out the hard way, too. So did the kids.
So after fencing the field and a small section of creek that flowed through one corner, I was ready for the herd to arrive.
Our first cows
To get cows, you have to go to a livestock auction and buy feeder calves. A feeder calf can be either a dairy cow or a beef. You buy them in the spring and keep them until late fall. The price is based on weight. A calf weighs about 150-200 lbs. The cost per pound on the hoof is about $1.50 per lb. After the calves are fed out, they usually weigh about 400 lbs, but the price per pound is lower, about $1.00 per pound. So three calves will cost you about $700. After they’re fed out, you will clear about $1600 for a cool profit of $900. The same guy that sold us the calves bought them back in the fall, so that made things easy. Oh, I forgot, feed, trucking, and, god forbid, vet bills, and you’re lucky if you break even. But what you’ve been able to do is to fill out your Schedule F on your federal taxes for Farm Income (or Loss). All of your fencing, and other expenses are on the “Loss” side. Do this for a few years and you’ll realize that you’ll never make a profit. What you will do is offset your income from your real job and enjoy the pastoral view of your herd grazing on your land.
Our first three cows were two Holstein calves and a white-faced brown beef calf. We set up the fence and the truck backed up to our gate, shooed them out into the field, and drove off. We were ranchers! Ben Cartwright had nothing on us. We just let them alone for a couple of days during which they came up to the fluorescent orange fencing and sniffed it. After getting zapped with 50,000 volts the cows retreated to the center of the field, staying in a small area as far away from the fence as possible on all sides. The next trick is getting the cows to let you near them.
Cows are naturally curious animals. They are also scared to death of practically everything. So you can’t just walk up to them in the field and say “Hi cow!”, or fence or not, you’ll have cows bolting through the countryside. A better way is to use a five gallon bucket with a molasses-grain mixture that the cows go wild over. You walk out into the field toward the cows. They move from their safe spot to a spot equi-distant between you and the fence and stamp nervously. You set down the bucket and leave. Soon enough, their curiosity gets the best of them and they come to see what the bucket is. When they find it contains the sweet grain, they fight over it, then cry when it’s gone. They keep coming back to the bucket hoping that it will somehow refill itself. When you come into the field the next day with a new bucketful, they don’t go nearly as far away, and when you leave, they come running for it. By the third day, they are coming to you. And if you ever get cows that get out, you can get them back by just showing up with that bucket.
So now your cows are comfortable in their new environs, and are comfortable with you. You give them names. They come to see you, first in hope that you have the bucket, then because they genuinely like you. It’s sad when you have to send them off in the fall. My ex used to call our farm “Summer Camp for Cows”. The biggest of the calves, she named Mabel. This cow loved her. She used to brush it and scratch it between the ears. We got rid of our cows in the fall because we didn’t have a barn to keep them in. For the dairy cows, it is also about the time when they should be bred. Dairy cows who are ready to be bred will mount each other as there is no bull around to take care of business. We, of course, knew nothing of this the first year. I saw the ex-wife bending down to pick some clover for Mabel and the cow decided that the time was right to show her love to her favorite person in the whole world. I hit the ex with a pretty good body block to knock her out of the way before Mabel’s weight came crashing down on top of her. Her tomb stone would’ve read, “Loved to death”.
So there were a lot of tears when it came time for the cows to go. In the end, I think we broke even on the cows and went into hock on the fencing, but it set us up for many enjoyable years of raising cows. It also gives me many, many cow-related stories to tell which is the whole point after all. And I had standing among my engineer friends as I was the only “real” farmer.