Cow shuffle

We milk two dairy cows, Puzzle and Dory, who bless us with two calves each year. Last year’s calves were both bulls, so we castrated them, named them T-Bone and Ribeye, and raised them with an eye to taking them to the slaughterhouse this fall.

Originally we were going to wait until the very last moment, which around here is just prior to the start of deer season; after that the slaughterhouse is booked solid for months processing that year’s deer harvest. But it’s been very dry this summer and the pasture, while adequate, is looking pretty sparse. So we decided to go ahead and have T-Bone and Ribeye slaughtered now, figuring that any additional pounds they could put on weren’t worth the grass they’d be sharing with their mothers. Today was the day to deliver them.

Meanwhile, their mothers have been spending some time visiting with our friend Jimmy Ellis and his dairy herd. Last year we bought a Jersey bull in mid-August, kept him around long enough to have him breed the dairy cows, and then sent him to stay with Jimmy so that his own cows could be bred. That bull is now a year older and a lot more ornery, so we decided to send our cows to Jimmy so they could be bred, then send the increasingly dangerous bull off to auction.

We hoped that the bull would do his job promptly, so as not to burden Jimmy with boarding our cows any longer than needed. The cows, of course, have not cooperated, for any number of reasons we are learning about. We still aren’t very good at telling when a cow has come into heat. And even if we notice, there is only a twelve-hour window in which she can be bred successfully. Summer heat and being underfed can throw off a cow’s fertility cycle. And so on.

We thought that at least while boarding our cows Jimmy would get the benefit of their milk, which he could sell along with his own milk to the dairy. But it turns out that they both have high somatic cell counts due to mastitis (although not the kind that renders the milk undrinkable). So he has fed the milk from one of our cows to his calves, and kept the milk from the other separate so we could come by and pick it up every day to drink ourselves. In all this he has definitely shown himself to be a good friend.

Today before taking the calves to the slaughterhouse Maggie and I drove the three miles to Jimmy’s place to pick up the morning milk. When we arrived he told us that he wasn’t sure, not having seen it himself, but all indications were that Dory had been bred the night before (cows had been mounting her the evening before, with the bull knocking them off each time). That was welcome news, and we told Jimmy we would be by to fetch Dory on the way back from taking T-Bone and Ribeye to the slaughterhouse.

Back home, we dropped off the milk and went down to the field, where Chris had already hooked up the cattle trailer (also borrowed from friends). Chris and Maggie fetched T-Bone and Ribeye, eventually persuaded them to step up into the trailer, and we headed to the slaughterhouse. I suppose it tells you something about where we live when I say that it was a short drive, a couple of miles up Gum Lick Road and then a short left on Chicken Gizzard road. The steers were pretty calm, and seemed to appreciate the breeze that drove the pesky flies away from them.

Just as we were waiting to turn onto Chicken Gizzard road, we watched a truck pass that was pulling a trailer with two huge black bulls in it. Sure enough it turned into the slaughterhouse just before us, so we pulled to the back of the parking lot and watched as the owner helped the driver back her trailer up to the cattle chute and get them unloaded. It didn’t take but a couple of minutes, and after she pulled her truck away it was our turn.

I’m getting better at maneuvering a trailer, so it wasn’t too embarrassingly long before we were ready to unload. As Chris and Maggie proceeded with the job we were envious of the previous customer and her lively bulls, who had bounded off the trailer and through the chutes; our steers were so gentled that it took a lot of persuasion to get them moving at all, and even more to separate them so they could go across the scale one at a time. But it happened, and we got the final tally—the smaller weighed 612 pounds, the larger 738 pounds. Less than we were hoping for, but we still don’t know what percentage of that will turn into meat for us.

We like this slaughterhouse and have used it a few times in the past; it is fairly new, very clean, professional enough, and very close to the house. The biggest downside is that the guy running it is always in a hurry and can be abrupt, i.e. not especially interested in a thorough discussion of how you want your year’s supply of meat prepared. As Chris and Maggie waited to tell the owner that Debbie would be calling later in the afternoon with details of how to process the cows, they listened in surprise as he had a long and involved consultation with the customer before us about possibilities for cutting up her own animals. We decided that maybe it was worth sending a woman in person to work out the details, but it turns out that he may have just been in a good mood; when Debbie did finally call this afternoon, he was plenty nice and not abrupt at all.

Then it was on to the Ellis place, where we parked the trailer in a convenient spot and went off to fetch Dory. The bull accompanied Dory and the rest to the gate, and bellowed in a melancholy way as he watched her leave. We lingered a bit so we could get a quick tour of the new house that Jimmy son’s Wes had built on the property, simple and inexpensive and very much of interest to Chris who is already scouting out homesites on our own property. Then it was back home, and after a couple of weeks off from milking the kids are back into that routine again, happily so.

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