Friday, March 30, 2012

Love gets in the way

When Paul and I first decided to buy Highland cattle and start our little farm, it was for the sheer joy and fun of it. What's not to love about these gentle, shaggy, horned cattle? We had some grass - too much, at the time, to handle (armpit-high before mowing, those were the days!) - and they ate grass. We both love animals, and I wanted to experience true country life. It was a match made in Heaven. I loved on our two pregnant cows, combing them blissfully after each horribly stressful day at work and terrible commute to and from. We both really, really fell for the two girls.

Later, we realized pasture pets don't really make a lot of sense. Highlands are, after all, beef animals. We like beef. Others in our lives like beef. We wouldn't ever eat our first two cows, but their offspring? We could handle that. Boys would be beef, girls we'd sell as brood stock. It seemed like a good plan, and soon, a business was launched.

After a while, the younger of our first two cows showed an attitude we didn't like. She didn't have the best conformation for beef or for show. We fell out of love with her and off she went to the freezer (and others' freezers). It was business, not personal.

But Sheila? No way. True, she can be a bit of a butthead sometimes (except from about 7-9 months of pregnancy, when she's a dream), and her feet aren't the best ever (but so many Highlands around here don't have the best feet, that's what trimmers are for, I rationalized), but she has an awesome beef body, throws nice, big calves, looks amazing, etc. I (half) joked about wanting to give her a middle name, much like another Highland-raising woman we know does, so that she'd be deemed forever off-limits for slaughter...she'd have to die here of old age. I loved her, loved her, loved her. She was my favorite.

Oh, my, how love obscures common sense and gets in the way of business decision-making!

The fact is, Sheila is not a profitable animal. In her (nearly) 8 years of life, she should have, by now, produced 5 calves. Instead, she's produced 3, two for us, and one before we bought her. Instead, she's failed to breed back for us three times - confirmed - and now we suspect a productive bulls, not duds. We have no idea why. The vet told us (during her second disappointing pregnancy check last year) that she felt healthy, and while her cervix seemed a little "meaty," he was able to pass an artificial insemination (AI) pipette through it without issue. Being open when she should be bred back is a cardinal sin for a cow.

The sad, simple fact is our (my, really) love for Sheila has not only prevented us from making a reasonable business decision in a timely manner, but also cost us extra money in feed (eaten by bulls we hauled in and housed at our place at the wrong times of year), vet bills (for negative pregnancy checks - plural), stud fees ($125-$150 each service), and income (an open cow means no calf to sell or raise for beef). Anyone else in their right minds would have culled her no later than the second time she came back open (which would have been this past spring). Lord knows Paul and I weren't in our right minds then, being still in the thick of grieving our twins. But "real" cattle people would have culled her the first time, not the second...which would have been back in (gulp) 2009. Sigh. If we'd been thinking, we could have used the money we would have gotten from selling her beef toward another, more productive female of our choice. It sort of makes me sick to think about it rationally.

So, that brings us to now. We're a little behind, as usual, in taking care of business. Our plan is to haul our two cattle panels home from the leased pasture, set our v-squeeze back up and Biotrack Sheila, Roxy and Xoe to confirm who is and isn't bred to Eiger. All bets are placed on Roxy and Xoe being bred, and Sheila being open, but we'll let the results of the blood tests confirm our suspicions. I realized today I've been procrastinating tracking down the vacuum tubes, needles and needle holder-thingy (which I'll have to buy from a vet) because I don't really want that truth confirmed. But dang it, I also had to face up to the truth of Sheila's costliness as I gathered documents and receipts and spreadsheets for our accountant to use for our 2011 taxes. It was a difficult reality to see, but I did.

If by some off chance Sheila is bred, we'll let her have her calf and wean it before beefing her. But the bottom line, she's destined for the freezer*, and soon. Believe me, I will be still be sad to see her go. She was our first, was my favorite, and I never wanted this fate for her. This has been a hard lesson learned. I'm sure it's only one of many more to come.

Part of the fold, as seen through our living room window last Sunday morning. From left to right: Roxanne, Eiger the visiting bull, Cowboy, Sheila.
*If you're hankering for some healthy, grassfed Highland beef, be sure to check our farm website soon for the order form. :)


  1. Sorry, lady. I know that those kind of calls can be really tough. We recently slaughtered a wether that I wanted to strangle for being such a pest, but when it came time for the kill guy to do his thing, I still had mixed feelings about it.

    He's in the freezer now. I'm still trying to work up the courage to eat goat. :\

    We'd love some of your beef. I'll have to check back and see if your butchering schedule and our financial schedule meet up at any point. ;)

  2. I stopped giving animals names, and last time we had a steer, I put one of the old dairy cow tags around it's neck so he became #64.

  3. Wow, I feel like I just read my highland biography! I was ready to call it quits earlier this year. 3 Cows on hand only 2 bred last year and possibly non of them took. We butchered Martini as we could not handle her unless it involved brushing or graining her (we couldn't keep her in a chute to AI her) she was an excellent jumper. Two years into highlands and 1 calf on the ground - yikes! Expenses glalore. After selling a side of beef I see where the money is. Of course "hobby" farming is just pretend farming for people who have the means to not make any I do enjoy the cows though. And I love beef! Here's to more steers - cheers! Wanted to let you know that I totally understand, and I think you guys have done a really good job. :)

  4. Amy - Replace "cow" with "goat" and the story repeats! Down to the darn hooves!

    My best wether went lame so he will be at the butcher next week. No 4-H kid can show a goat on three legs, so we will get a very nice kid for our freezer until we find the occasion for him. Since my best customer for meat is the CC folks, I figure we're in very good company!

    We're all maturing into the responsibilities of raising meat animals. We are doing well I think. Keep on farming!


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