Farm Diary – cow breeds, cowsheds and a photo of the library

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Questions

  • What do I use for winter housing?

I spent the morning looking at the existing cowshed structures and seeing how we could use it for a year or two. There’s a big space that’s currently used for storing hay bales that looks perfect for, well, storing hay bales.

 

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In order to minimize hay transport I need to find feeding areas alongside, and there are two. In fact in layout it looks a lot like Salatin’s central post barn with a shed either side, except the central post barn has walls from a 200 year old stone building.

 

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On the east side is a clear feeding pen. It has been used for this in the past and has some wall structures to store hay.

 

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On the west side is the old cowshed, with little cubicles in which to chain individual cows. We aren’t using those, but on the other side of the cubicles is a narrow and long stretch that could be used to house younger cows.

 

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The cow cubicles could be removed on one side to create a larger feeding and lounging space to the east. We’re going to ramp up cow numbers over a few years so we won’t need it in 2011, but it is an option for later years. Part of me is loath to do that – the structure is solid and old, made with concrete and a lot of wood. I can’t help but challenge myself to find a better use for it.

Another option for 2012 or beyond is to build a new post barn over half of the courtyard. It gets protected from the weather on three sides by the existing barns and is large enough to house a lot of cows. We can use the adjoining barns for food storage.

Finally I can covert the large wine chai to a cowshed, with flexible open pens. I’m not sure I have enough hay storage space nearby, but the main building is large enough to hold a lot of cows.

So I do have several options for 2011 and beyond.

 

  • What breed of cows do I raise?

I’m looking at this from a customer perspective. Instead of looking at what sort of cows will work well with what I want to do, I looked at what sort of cows I can actually sell. If I want to sell direct I can raise just about anything, but I need to be able to convince people to buy it. The trouble with relying on the direct method only is that I have no customer base. I can produce the best tasting grass-fed cows on the planet but it will take years to build up enough demand to run a full farm of direct sale cows.

This is a problem I have been thinking about for a year and there’s a general answer. For direct sale I want to raise the cows that produce the most tender meat. That means British breed cows like Aberdeen Angus, Devon, Galloway or some dairy breeds like Jerseys or their crosses. Jerseys don’t produce much meat but it is tender.

But to run the farm at any capacity in the first few years we need to run a herd for wholesale. And there’s only one choice here – Blonde d’Aquitaine. It is by far the dominant cow breed in the Gers and is a local specialty. What that means is there is a network of buyers and destination markets geared towards getting Blondes. There are several negociants I could call to sell cows in a hurry.

It’s still an economic crisis here but six month old Blondes sell for 850 euros for males (down from 950 a year ago) and 700 for females. Because the prices are low, farmers are guarding their females instead of selling them. Prices for other breeds (Limousin, Gasconne, Charolais) are a couple of hundred euros less per cow. Now if I was further north the prices would be different – Limousin or Charolais would be the local dominant breed. But in the Gers it is Blondes.

So the wholesale herd decision is made, but I am yet to figure out what to stock the small direct sale herd with. There is supposed to be a farm with some Angus not too far away, so I will go looking soon.

And this is where I sit down when I need to read and research things like this.

 

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I need to do a Project Warm post to explain the library and Kevin’s great contribution to the farm, but for now here’s the club chair where I try to resist the urge to fall asleep.

 

  • What marque of tractor do I use?

I am choosing based on two things: how reliable the tractor is and how good the service from the local dealer is. I had a visit the other day from a Valtra tractor dude. I like the idea of a Valtra, a Finnish marque that makes simple and reliable tractors. He was very nice and answered my questions well. I’ll make a visit to see him and his tractors soon, maybe next week. The dealership is in Saint-Jean Poutge, about twenty minutes drive away by car, but more that by tractor. He claims they charge about thirty euros more to visit you to do service work. I think that’s a bargain but I value my hours more than most.

Another option is Landini, an Italian brand that has a dealership in Éauze nearby. A neighbor has switched from buying Massey Ferguson to buying Landinis so I will go visit the dealership with him.

 

  • What do I do with my paddocks?

I’ve got around 68 hectares of usable farm land and what do I use it for? I can run a lot as pasture, with some special summer feeds and late-season feeds, but I can grow something more. Like what?

 

Progress

Apart from the barn photos and thought, I visited a couple of neighbors to work on a couple of things. The local senior hunter gave me the green light to rebuild my dams despite the animal presence (ragondin, or coypu). Apparently in winter they wander around anyway. He also gave me the name and number of the most reliable JCB (tracto-pelle) driver in the commune who can dig me a trench for my water and power supply or help rebuild the dams if I choose not to get a JCB of my own.

Bob Hayet is a Dutch farmer who lives nearby and is married to a fantastic French lady. He’s a mine of information about how systems work and runs the accounting on his farm. His house is also old school and a joy for me to hang out in. I spent a while today wandering around his modern barn watching its layout and how they feed and deal with manure. They have a couloir (corridor) along one length of the barn to run a tractor along to ease labor. At first the wife was against spending money on a corridor but after a few years the savings in labor were so great that she’s sold on it.

They use their tractor a lot in the cowshed. I want to minimize tractor usage so I prefer Salatin’s idea of having the feeding gates alongside the hay store but I’ll see how this all fits into my buildings. Cowshed cows stay in the cowshed and have no option to move outside. They build up the manure into a deep compost bedding, which is what I want to do.

At this time of the year he runs some cows inside and some outside. They run their young heifers inside so they don’t go nuts outside and break the fences. They keep the cows they are fattening up for sale to butchers inside. And they keep the cows that are about to give birth or who have just given birth inside. In all they seem to be running about half their herd inside and half outside.

He also avoids calving in the summer. He says it is too dry. Now I think that would help with scours, and I also think it will depend on pasture condition where birthing happens. I didn’t get a clear answer as to whether all his mothers give birth inside, but I’m guessing not. Maybe just his heifers. It is something I’ll have to ask about more. I invited them both over to Laspeyreres to check out my barn situations and paddocks.

Bob reseeds paddocks that need it and he uses a herbicide (Roundup) to clean them off before disking and cultipacking and seeding. I asked him what he’d do if herbicide was not an option and he’d disc multiple times in August when it is dry. So you’d replace checmicals with diesel usage. I’m hoping that good pasture management can improve pastures without the need to reseed. We’ll see how that goes.

And finally, the locataire’s silage bales are still on the farm, although the texture is a little woody for silage.

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