Friday, February 20, 2015

How We Manage Forest Areas With Cattle

     The property where we have our farm is 10 hectares (24 acres), about half of which is forest. We also have access to part of our next door neighbor's property but since most of his open area has grapevines we only use the wooded portion, bringing the total forest area that we have access to about 12 hectares (29 acres.) We use an intensive rotational grazing system so that the cows only spend a few days in each enclosure. They spend about half the year on pasture and half the year in the forest.
The three curious cousins
      We use a movealbe 'electric' fencing system made up of plastic sticks that are about waist height and rolls of conductive string. We place the sticks 8-12m apart and then follow with two strings. We can go over cliffs and across streams, it's a very flexible and easy system although it can be a bit time consuming as it requires multiple trips around perimeter. A permanent fence would be ideal but this system allows us not only to be very flexible in the areas that we include but also allows us to go anywhere. If a new area would be available nearby, from a neighbor perhaps, we could just carry our sticks and string over, set it up and herd the cows in. It's also significantly cheaper! It runs off of a 12v (car) battery which we recharge weekly.
A fence creeping up into the woods
     In many areas there are small creeks or streams that provide water for the cows. These are animals that can tolerate periods with little water very well. When it's rainy, natural puddles can be enough for them. When the days are drier though, and no natural water sources are available we bring a light, fiberglass bathtub to them and then bring cans of water daily. Depending on where the fence is located we can drive the water jugs as close as possible and take them the rest of the way in a wheelbarrow. 120 liters (in this case 6x20 liter jugs) is enough for 5 adults and 3 calves for 24 hours when hay is provided.

     The type of vegetation varies widely from area to area but there are oaks throughout (and the acorns are an absolute cow favorite,) some eucalyptus, Acacia (another Australian introduction, which is edible for them, unlike Eucalyptus.) The underbrush is made up primarily of brambles and a small spiky bush called gorse (which was a new and very unwelcome thing for this Georgia girl.) Wild chestnut trees are also common and in the fall the nuts are a delicacy for the animals! The cattle are able to eat most of the vegetation with the expection of eucalyptus. That said, there are some things that they prefer to others and will only be eaten in moderation or after their favorite things are gone. For this reason we supplement their diet with a bale of hay daily with the exception of the first day that they are in a new area. In the first year that we were on this farm we did not provide this daily hay supplement and found that the animals would get impatient and have a stronger tendency to escape the fence even when it seemed to us that there was quite a bit left that they could eat. To compare it to a person, we are able and might enjoy eating artichokes but if you were put in a room with a few cookies and some spegetti and lots and lots of artichokes you might have a few artichokes each day but when the spaghetti and cookies were gone you wouldn't be very happy to go on eating artichokes all day, every day. By giving them a daily ration of hay they are able to spend more days in a given area and eat more of the vegetation. In the meantime, those extra days mean more walking around and lying down which diminishes the dangerous underbrush that contributes to hundreds of forest fires every year in Portugal.

Blackberry: Before
Blackberry: After. 
     Other interesting benefits of having cattle in mountainous areas is their ability to provide fertilization to the soil, which is especially helpful for young trees that an owner may want to plant as a part of a plan to improve the forest overall. Additionally, as the hay is spread each day it leaves seeds behind that, with the help of cattle clearing the forest floor, help a grassy carpet grow in place of the underbrush.

     It is our ultimate goal to be able to find other land owners in Portugal who have forest areas that would like to host cows. Fire prevention is a primary benefit of having the animals there but we shouldn't forget that they are also a source of food. As the cows go around clearing the area and making it more useful, safer and passable for logging trucks they are also reproducing, making them ultimate multitaskers! Barrosã meat is highly valued for it's unique flavor and texture. It's possible that breeds other than Barrosã could be used in this system but in my opinion they are particularly suitable. It is believed that Barrosã are one of the closest living relatives to the wild ancestor of the cow, the Auroch, making them heartier and more resistant to difficult conditions. For more than 10 years, every one of our females has given birth, outside, with no human interventionism. They are also goat-like in their ability to handle difficult terrain and can tolerate winter as easily as summer without needing any man-made shelter.
Happy family in the woods...

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


     Bambi was different from the beginning, from before the beginning. Most of the calves are born at dawn in the middle of a field, sometimes in the frost or rain. By the time we see them later in the morning they are up walking around and nursing. They are usually fearful of us and their mothers reinforce this with aggressive and protective behaviors. When a female is born we try to get near her starting fairly early on. Most of the females will stay and breed and so it's good that they get comfortable with us so there's no drama when it's time for the vet or when animal control comes to take yearly blood samples. When a male is born though, his fate is more or less sealed. He'll be sent to slaughter before his second birthday so there's really no point in teaching him anything or getting attached; and that's how it was until Bambi.
Two day old Bambi
Many of you know Bambi's story. His mother, Camila, was a sturdy and seemingly healthy cow but days before Bambi was born she started limping. We brought her into the stable and away from the herd so we could keep an eye on her. The vet came and found a lump in her hip. It's very possible that she fell on the mountain and this caused the mass, but the vet said it was also very possible that it was some kind of tumor. Either way, there wasn't much we could do but keep her happy and well fed and hope she healed. Bambi was born a few days later, in a warm stall on a bed of straw, a prince from the very beginning. I had never had the chance to be so close to a newborn calf before, I had only watched them from afar or sat quietly in the field until they would com up and sniff me and then run off. Bambi was different though, his mother was sick and not particuarly protective, and while I would be careing for her I would pet him and play with him like a puppy. I wished so much that he had been a girl, and Filipe would gently remind me from time to time, ''It's too bad he wasn't a girl, huh?''
     About a week after Bambi (he wouldn't get that name until later) was born his mother, Camila, went down and wouldn't get up. We pushed her, we pulled her by the horns, we even tried whipping her, which was desperate on our part and we immediately felt ashamed. The vet brought us a contraption that locked onto her back hips and, using a winch, lifted her back end off the ground.
Filipe giving Camila a leg massage while up on the winch
The idea was that with half her body up she could push up in the front and stand on her own. Occasionally she did this, but most of the time she hung limp with her back end raised high enough for Bambi to nurse. Remarkably, she was able to withstand this terrible situation for quite a while. The vet said her digestion would shut down in a few days with her spending so much time lying down, but she pushed on, and even more remarkably, continued producing milk for several weeks. We spent several hours a day lifting her, giving her massages and medicines, and in between, wrestling and then resting in the hay with little Bambi. One morning we went out to feed them and Filipe said that she wasn't going last much longer. He called the truck to come and get her and an hour later she died.
Going outside for the first time
In the days and weeks that followed I devoted myself to Bambi. I would wake up at all hours to    warm his milk and bring him his bottle. I fed him cabbages from the garden and homemade oat treats. Filipe said he was costing us as much as a real baby and that was fine with me because he was my baby. 

     As Bambi got older we talked from time to time about the fact that he would have to leave at some point. We were very matter-of-fact about it. He was growing very slowly due to his difficult start, not having enough of his mother's rich milk, and so it always seemed a long way off and it was safe for me to say that when the time came I would be stoic and zen and practicing nonattachment and all that.
     Since Bambi was born two years ago, we have had the opportunity to hand raise two other calves for other reasons, but they aren't like Bambi. Maybe it was his temperament or maybe I was just more devoted to him and gave more with him early on, but as an almost full grown bull he was as gentle as an old horse. He could be rough with other young males and he made sure the females knew that he was ready when they were, but around people he always behaved himself and liked to sidle up for scratch on the neck.
Bambi and my mom- summer 2014
     As the time grew closer for him to leave Filipe and I started to talk about not sending him off. We made excuses, ''he's so gentle and that's such an important quality in a bull.'' ''He's small, but he's growing fast now, he'll probably be pretty big.'' We bargained with ourselves and eachother. And then we would steel ourselves again and remind the other that this is a business, that there really is no place for another bull, especially a runty one. And we went back and forth and back and forth. We both wanted to keep this special bull and we both knew we should send him away.
      The day finally came. Today, Wednesday. On Sunday Filipe called the truck that would take him and another calf to the slaughterhouse. When the guy asked how many animals would be going Filipe said, ''Two, maybe one, maybe two, we're not sure yet, actually.'' My heart jumped. I wanted to beg Filipe to keep him, but I knew if I did he would and I wasn't sure it was the right thing and not just the selfish thing to do. So I always told him to do what he thought was right when the time came. On
Me and Bambi on Monday
Monday I took some photos with Bambi but we didn't talk about it. On Tuesday we stood by their pasture for a long time just watching him graze, but we still didn't talk about it. Filipe was late getting home Tuesday night and I was in bed, I heard him come in but I went back to sleep, I didn't want to talk about it. It seemed like no time at all had passed when the cellphone alarm went off and even though I'm not a morning person I woke quickly, full of heartbreak. Filipe leaned over in the dark and gave me a hug and we stayed like that for a while until he whispered in my ear, ''Happy birthday.'' My heart lifted tentatively, ''What?''
''I have an early gift that isn't expensive but will probably be very costly. Would you like a Bambi for your birthday?'' I beamed in the darkness, the kind of big smile that you can almost hear.
''Thank you,'' I said quietly.
''Oh well, we already put so much money into him we might as well keep him.''
     So Bambi is back out in the field eating hay and enjoying life. As he gets bigger we'll have to figure out how to fit him into the system we have. In all likelihood we'll send off the current bull and Bambi will take his place. I've lost a lot of animals in my first four years farming, some by accident but others by design. Two or three years ago I would probably have insisted Bambi leave, to prove to myself and others that I'm tough, a true farmer. These days I realize that while I have to make sacrifices (we sent off two very sweet calves today, one that I had also hand raised) it's also important to be gentle with your heart and give yourself a break when you can.