Processing the Heifers

On Wednesday Richard and I, along with Bob and Jim (the two men who work for us year-round at the farm), processed the heifers. To give you a feel for the day, you need to meet my “heifer processing” teammates (at least, you need to meet them photographically!).  And,  yes, “heifer processing” is unquestionably a team sport.

Here is Richard, wearing the marigold sweatshirt my mother embroidered with his initials (he initially started wearing it as a bit of a joke, but he has now become almost unhealthily attached to this very, very bright item):

Bob, cattleman extraordinaire:

And  here is Jim, holding what used to be my pink and blue beach tote, but has now become the Vaccination Bag for the farm. Jim carries it around everyday and stores the vaccines for the newborn calves in it. He always refers to it as his “Pink Purse”, as in “All right, lemme just run get my Pink Purse, and I’ll vaccinate that calf here in a minute.” I chuckle every time he says it! Jim and his Pink Purse:

Now, to answer the questions I would have had 5 years ago before I moved to the ranch:

First Question: What is a heifer? A heifer is a young female cow that has not yet given birth to her first calf. After the heifer has her first baby, she becomes a cow. So, the heifers we were dealing with today are one year old, and they will be bred to a bull in the middle of April for the first time. They will have their first babies when they are two, which is pretty standard for Angus cattle. We also dealt with 3 Scottish Highland heifers today. They are all two years old, will be bred this spring and will have their first calves when they are three years old. Scottish  Highlands develop more slowly than Angus, which is why we wait an extra year to breed them.

Second question: What on earth does it mean to “process” a heifer? When we process the heifers, we send them through a chute in single file and give them the appropriate vaccinations (in the form of shots), as well as de-wormer (in the form of a spray…we use Ivermectin, which is extremely expensive, so we like to call it Liquid Gold). One of the vaccinations is a shot called TrichGuard to protect them from the sexually transmitted disease, Trichomoniasis, which causes sterility in cows. The other shot is Vista 5 VL5, which prevents a variety of respiratory illnesses. Heifers should be vaccinated one month prior to breeding, which was why the grand event of “processing” occurred now. In addition to the bare facts, processing heifers also always means a lot of the Unexpected!

The first step of our multi-phase plan was to get the heifers to headquarters. At headquarters, we have a complex of eleven pens, several alleyways, as well as the all-important chute. The heifers have been living in a pasture about 4 miles from headquarters with the Scottish Highland cows and their calves for the past several months. We have a pen adjacent to their pasture, so we have been feeding them their rations of hay in the pen for the past several days in preparation for moving them. Rather than having to struggle to get them out of the pasture, they all walked in calmly this morning since they expected to receive their hay inside of the pen. After they were inside of the pen, we simply shut the gate. Easy, right?

Well, let’s just say things very quickly got a lot more complicated after Easy-as-Pie Step One. Next we needed to separate all of the heifers from the Highland cows and calves, which involved a lot of running and lunging (the reason there are no pictures of this step). Once we completed sorting the cattle, we needed to get the heifers onto the trailer. We had 34 heifers, which meant 4 trailer loads back to headquarters. Here are Jim and Richard herding heifers into the alley:

Up the alley:

And into the trailer:

There is a reason that I only have photographs of  the fourth group of very orderly angel-heifers strolling onto the trailer politely. The other three groups were monster-heifers, and I think Bob and Richard  might have killed me if I had taken photographic evidence of their plight (there was a lot of screaming, arm-waving and maniacal running by humans and bovines alike). It took us 45 minutes to get the first group of heifers on the trailer, and they escaped TWICE. You would think we would have solved the problem after the first break out, but not so. We attach the trailer door to a post to keep it open while the heifers are loading, like so:

This normally works beautifully, but twice in a row, the heifers ran into the door-post joint at just the right angle to break the hay string holding it together. You can imagine the aftermath….door swings shut, and heifers head out at a gallop. The first time was kind of funny because it was unexpected and the cows looked so delighted with themselves for having found a way to thwart us. When we were outwitted by heifers a second time, I had to bite my lip to keep my mouth in a straight line. At that moment, an amused smile would not have been appreciated by the menfolk. Finally, we stationed Bob at the door to manually hold it open while we herded the heifers onto the trailer. A solution! Here are the Highlands, running for their pasture after we loaded the final group of heifers into the trailer. They were very excited to be released from the pen:

Once we had all of the heifers at headquarters, we had completed Phase 1 of the plan. At this point, I insisted on breaking for lunch, knowing how grumpy we would all become if we processed heifers hungry. Processing heifers is much more difficult that processing cows. Cows know the drill because they have been down the chute dozens of times, but the whole process is brand new to the heifers. In addition to their lack of knowledge, dealing with 35 heifers is like dealing with 35 thirteen year old girls. Moodiness and impertinence abound!

After lunch, it took Richard, Jim and Bob awhile to mix vaccines. I took the opportunity to relax in the sun with my lovely and very needy cats. Here I am resting against a hay bale with Yoda, Catherine and Bob’s dog, Bell:

Once we had everything and everyone assembled, we herded the heifers towards the chute. Here are the heifers in the holding pen next to the chute:

The entrance to the chute is at the top of the photograph, just about in the middle. As you can see, it is narrow, so they walk through single file. Here are the lovely ladies in the chute:

Richard, giving a vaccine:

I must say that Phase 2, the actual processing of the heifers, went much more smoothly than Phase 1. We were all immensely relieved, as usually when Phase 1 is difficult, Phase 2 is a nightmare! Sapphire was among the heifers we vaccinated, but we saved her for last. Rather than herding her, we haltered her and led her up the chute. I must admit that she was, by far, the most dramatic of all of the heifers…the way she wailed when she got her shots! It took a lot of petting to earn her forgiveness. We then gathered the whole family together for some post-processing photographs. Here I am with my girls, Garnet and Sapphire– the cutest cows on the planet, I am convinced:

And the family (Richard and I with Garnet, Sapphire and Onyx)!

You can tell Onyx is not quite as well-trained as his sister and mother yet– look at him pull on that lead rope!