Cows with new calves kept out of pasture: Why?
May 27, 2008 1:37 AM   Subscribe

Moo: Our local farmer, who raises beef cattle organically (no antibiotics, no fertilizers on their home-grown feed, etc., etc.), keeps all of his cows with new calves in a plowed (dirt) field for about two months after the little ones are born. Why?

I haven't seen him on the fenceline and he always looks awfully busy in any case. I'd guess he runs about 200 head of cattle and I think there were probably about 20 new calves this year.

The current theories of Mrs. Maxwelton and I:

1) He wants to strictly control the diet of the cows and calves during some critical time period in the calves development.

2) He wants to use up excess fodder from the winter storage, which would be cut hay and some maize he grows for fall harvest.

3) Perhaps that particular plot is convenient for keeping track of the critters, and having to feed them is a small price to pay to avoid having the keep track of them.

4) His main grazing field is too dangerous for calves. It's flooded during winter; if he allowed grazing in any of his other fields, he would be sacrificing the first cut of grass hay.

I expect it's either #1 or #4. We don't have too much tansy ragwort out here, so I don't think it's to keep the youngsters from ingesting a toxic plant, but that could also be a reason, obviously. Other farmers locally seem to let their cows drop calves and raise them in their regular grazing fields, for what it's worth.

Maybe I'll see him around, though I welcome any insight from y'all.
posted by maxwelton to Pets & Animals (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
IANAF but I know a few.
It's easier to keep track of younguns in a ploughed field, cos they would be hidden by the grass if they were lying down (ie sick or injured) in a normal paddock.

It's probably a combination of that and all your other factors.
posted by indienial at 2:01 AM on May 27, 2008

That plowed field is probably getting well fertilized by having 20 calves and their mommas confined to it. Probably won't hurt its fecundity when the time comes to plant a feed crop.
posted by mumkin at 2:23 AM on May 27, 2008

In Australia at least I'd always assumed it was for reasons of parasite control. For example, the cattle & scrub tick life cycle requires pasture in which to lay their eggs - without grasses on the ground, the eggs or larvae die or get consumed by predators. Likewise, the Australian Blowfly requires dung to lay eggs in; dung is eaten / buried / incorporated faster on tilled ground than it is on pasture.

Keep these parasites down, and calves grow quicker / happier and require less chemicals.
posted by Pinback at 2:38 AM on May 27, 2008

I am probably the least knowledgable person on the planet when it comes to farming but there was a story in the new yorker some time this or last year that delt with a pig farm. the hogs were being isolated in a hermetically sealed stable that even got fed filtered air. the result was that their immune system was incredibly weak - so weak in fact that the farmer couldn't enter the stable when he had a cold. there were benefits and reasons for doing this whole stuff but I can't find the article online. perhaps someone else can help out here.

alas, exposing the little steaks to dirt and grime could have a positive effect on their immune systems ...

this again is speculating from some guy on the webbernets who squeeks like a ferret when his fingernails get dirty.
posted by krautland at 3:27 AM on May 27, 2008

My immediate thought was that he was wanting to fertilize the field. I live in and near a lot of cattle farms, and while I can't vouch for their organic stance, I see tons of newborn calves in the regular fields. If tracking animals was that difficult, I'd doubt I'd see so many left open out here. Depending on how old the calves are, they'll be drinking milk one would assume so not much of the diet there to watch, except what their mothers eat.
posted by Atreides at 7:26 AM on May 27, 2008

Two months on one field (3 acres?) for 200 cows is too much fertilizer, IMHO.
posted by furtive at 8:30 AM on May 27, 2008

furtive: unless I'm misreading the question, the plowed dirt field contains 20 cows with their calves, while the other 180 head are in grassy pastures.
posted by mumkin at 9:10 AM on May 27, 2008

Is this a traditional practice?

Cows get their ability to fix nitrogen and digest cellulose from symbiotic bacteria in their digestive tracts. They are apparently not born inoculated with these symbionts, and I've been assuming they get them from chewing at grass which has picked bacteria up from the pies of other cows while they are still nursing, but putting them in a plowed field would seem to make that much harder to do, not to mention the possibility of getting undesirable strains and species of deep soil bacteria (Clostridia or Actinomycetes, say) established in their rumens instead.
posted by jamjam at 9:54 AM on May 27, 2008

Is clostridia less prevalent in cows than in goats and sheep where it is near universal?
posted by buggzzee23 at 10:23 AM on May 27, 2008

I wish I knew, buggzzee. I've read there are hundreds of kinds of them-- different strains are responsible for tetanus, botulism and gangrene, for example; presumably those are not highly represented in the guts of cows or goats or sheep. The bacteria in the root nodules of legumes are rhizobia.

The excrement of cows is pretty runny normally; I guess it could be a design feature partly to allow it to run down onto the udder and inoculate calves that way.
posted by jamjam at 11:44 AM on May 27, 2008

Thanks for all of the ideas. This field is about five acres, I think. The residents are the momma cows and their calves; yearlings and others are left out in the main pasture. I suspect some fertilization is possible from the dung but it's a fairly large field with a relatively small number of cows in it. (Every little bit helps, I guess.)
posted by maxwelton at 11:55 AM on May 27, 2008

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