For many of us as we get older there is a draw toward a more simple life and getting back to nature, especially once kids come into the picture. Take me and my wife, we both grew up in the country, her in Pennsylvania and me in NY next to my grandfather’s dairy farm. But as many young people do we both pursued education, then jobs, social life, all of which brought us closer to town. When I met my wife she was a single mother raising children on her own. As we decided to get serious we both realized how we longed for the lives we once had growing up in the country. That’s where my parents come in, they gave us 5 of the almost 60 acres my dad had the foresight to purchase many years ago when land was still cheap, but that’s another story. So with that we made a plan to build a home in the country and never looked back. As the years go by I have given in to many of my wife’s ‘hobbies’, starting with ducks, then chickens, gardening and now beef cows. This is where I finally stepped in and put my foot down.
Now we all know what putting your foot down means when you have a spouse you love more than life itself, but when she mentioned cows I knew exactly the time, effort and constraints it would put on our lifestyle. Hot or cold, sick or healthy the animals needed to be taken care of regardless of how we feel. With poultry that is not a big deal but the bigger the animal the more food and time they require. With that said I let her get one cow. We had a large chicken coup already built, 8’ x 14’ that we could walk in, keep a brooder in and lock up evenings to keep predators out. Over the years I made 2 additions to the “chicken coup” and turned it into a 36’x12’ barn with 6 stanchions and a 6’ hay loft overhead at a total cost of around $3,700. But I didn’t complain much, that’s the engineer in me loving to build.
So early on we started with one cow and a small building to get it out of the weather. I asked my wife what we’d do for water and food since she’s already purchased the cow against my better judgment. She was sure she’d be able to tether the cow out to graze and bring it buckets of water every day, this would be her and the children’s job as she was now a stay at home mother. I rolled my eyes and said “ok” knowing as soon as the weather turned cold that reality would set in. I am the engineer, too practical and over thinking things, she on the other hand is a woman who goes with what is in her heart (although she was a software programmer).
As the summer went on and the cow got loose several times she realized tethering was not what she thought it would be, a cow can eat, that is their job, they eat and create manure and this Irish Dexter could do both very efficiently. If she ate all the food in her circle and my wife didn’t mover her soon enough she let her displeasure be known. So tethering became more of a chore than my wife had counted on as did several 5 gallon buckets of water each day, finally I felt bad for her and intervened. Luckily we had a tractor with backhoe from building the house (knowing I’d need my own tractor to do firewood and couldn’t borrow dads all the time) and our land is bursting with springs, probably due to all the hardpan and clay below the 8 inches of soil. So I dug and made a small shallow well, capped it off and put a hand pump on top. Life just got a lot easier. Next we discussed pasture, at that time we only had enough money to put up a half acre of pasture, well even for a small cow that wasn’t nearly enough. Wasn’t long and she was busting through that too. Then came winter. Our grazing season runs from about May to October, and then we had to buy hay. She went through 3 bales of hay every 4 days, at $3/bale of hay and 6 months of feeding hay, well you can do the math. We were bleeding money everywhere with this cow, not to mention the chickens but at least they gave us eggs and meat.
Finally I asked my wife what her plans were for the cow, we weren’t getting milk, we weren’t butchering her (since she’d become more of a pet to my wife & the kids) so I needed to know why we were putting all this money into a hobby? So we sat down and made a goal. To keep from losing money like water down a drain we’d need to make some money from the cow, which of course meant cow(s). We looked into A.I. (artificial insemination) but that was going to be expensive with no guarantees, so dad threw his 2 cents in and said “nothing wrong with keeping a bull around”. Thanks dad, keep giving my wife more ideas, whose side are you on anyway? So to break even financially with the cows I knew we’d eventually need to be self sufficient, our own hay, pasture, and shelter. So the next thing I did was build more fence and increase our pasture size. Then me & dad went to auctions looking for used farm equipment. The next 2 years we put in loose hay with a sickle mower, hay rake and a hay wagon. I know the thoughts of collecting loose hay takes people back to days of yore where the family all worked together to make hay stacks and pitched in together, in the fields, working the land in Gods country, what a romantic notion of a simple life. Well let me throw a bucket of cold water on that idea for ya right now. Loose hay takes up a lot more room than baled hay, it’s itchier, dustier, it has to be handled twice, first pitching it onto the wagon, then into a storage area which by the way was at that time the chicken coup much to the displeasure of some displaced chickens.
So at that point we were into $1,000 in fencing for pasture and $2,500 for equipment not counting the tractor which I already had. So next we decided to get a bull, after my wife did some horse trading of sorts we ended up with 2 cows and a bull. Well there went that pasture, time to put up more fence. And we knew loose hay wasn’t going to cut it, it was time to double up on meadow which meant clearing more land, plowing, disking, seeding and of course, buying a haybine and baler. So for very old & worn equipment we sank another $2,500 into proper hay making equipment. Now this was a steal at that price but I soon realized why. A worn baler is a fickle thing, everything has to be just right otherwise it won’t tie knots, makes banana bales and worse case throws off timing and thing start breaking quickly & loudly when that happens. Yes, I know from experience when you’re dealing with an old piece of equipment and you think it should be cleaned & get ideas of scraping off years of old grease & dirt, stop right there. All that old grease on a 50 year old piece of equipment is probably holding something together that you had no idea could be held together with old, crusty grease and once it’s gone it’s gone. Now as I’ve stated before, being the engineer I am I love to fix & build things and see how they work, but an old baler can really push the limits on anyone, especially with mother nature calling for rain in a few days, that really takes the fun out of it.
Then there’s manure. What to do with it? Sounds easy right, you just put it on the garden & it goes away. Well just like the idea of keeping one cow around for fun, it’s not quite that easy. In the warm weather when the cows are in pasture there is no manure problem, no mess to clean up, no work. But once the cows are kept in the barn, then it becomes an issue. There are probably more ways to winter cows than I can count, you can have a shelter and corral to keep them in for the winter where they just walk around, eat and drop manure. We didn’t like that due to the amount of hay that is lost if you throw them bales or even have a wall feeder for hay, either way half of it ends up on the ground and is lost to them laying on it like bedding not to mention by the time spring comes they are covered from the belly down in their own wallow. Because we wanted to waste the least amount of hay possible, we chose to stanchion the cows. This of course creates more work scraping the barn floor & dumping the manure in a pile at the end of the barn. And there is a lot of it, especially if you throw in some bedding straw for them to sleep on. After the first winter I put down a cement floor, it made the job of moving manure around a lot easier. Then what do you do with the pile you made all winter? A wheel barrow & shovel won’t cut it, you need a spreader. Luckily for us this was another cost we dodged the bullet on, dad had an old wheel driven spreader he got years ago to make into a firewood wagon but never did. One winters work of removing the old boards & replacing with new and it was good to go. We spread it on the garden and meadows as soon as we can in the spring after thing dry out a little so we don’t tear up the fields. But manure management is not something to overlook, like I said before, the bigger the animal the bigger the mess.
So at this point we have 2 cows, a bull and new calves, almost 3 acres of pasture (which will need expanding), a bunch of equipment and a proper barn for shelter and storing hay. Now I don’t mind throwing hay from a wagon into a second story hay loft, but that gets old quick too, so here comes another investment, a portable hay elevator. Now we have calves that can be sold to help slow down the bleeding of money we’ve put into our ‘hobby’ but how do we get the calves which are now young stock, to the buyer? You guessed it, more money into a trailer. Where does all this money keep coming from? Well I can tell you it’s been a slow work in progress over the last 5 years, but it’s an investment into our future, eventually all this equipment will pay for itself and maybe we can even make some money to have a vacation with the kids or put toward college for the kids, or toward expanding the herd if my wife has her way. And if you ask would I do it again if I had it to do over? Yes I would, no one ever said the simple life was the cheap life, not by a long shot but by getting somewhere the hard way it builds character, appreciation and memories all which would have been lost if we had the money for a ‘ready_to_go’ farm or gave up after that first summer.