Both of my sets of grandparents had Holstein milk cows at one time and sold milk commercially, though they had rather small herds by today’s standards. By the time that I came along, though, my paternal grandparents had gotten rid of all but a couple cows that they kept for family use. Back then, most small farmers didn’t rotate pastures, so the cattle had access to the barn whenever they wanted it. Whatever the season, in nasty weather, sometimes the cattle would just hole up in the barn and spend the afternoon chewing their cud.
My father had beef cattle from the time I can remember and, during the late spring, the bull usually had the run of the barn and the small pasture, while the cows were separated into the main pasture. When it was time to turn the bull in with the cows, he was turned into the main pasture also, and none of them had access to the barn, except when we opened the small pasture occasionally to let them trim it up. If the pasture got a little short, we took some hay to the pasture and fed the cattle. We did the same in the fall, when the pasture began dying back for winter.
Once hay feeding started in earnest, though, the cattle were given 24 hour access to the barn, where they were fed hay at least twice daily. We tried to give them all they would eat, yet just enough to tide them over until the next feeding. That way, the hay trough would be empty when we fed the next time, and ready to be filled again. Anything too coarse or unpalatable to them they’d leave in the trough. We’d throw that coarse hay in to them for bedding before adding any fresh hay. During that time of year, they often spent nearly all of their time in the barn except when they went to one of the springs for water. Thankfully, one was located only a couple hundred yards from the barn.
My wife, who I didn’t know at the time, lived only a couple farms back the ridge. Her dad also had dairy cattle, but they had at least one pasture that was separated from the barn by the county road. During the times that the cattle were in that pasture, they’d have to open the gates and drive them out the county road a few rods and into the barn lot at milking time. Most travelers on the gravel road were fellow farmers and didn’t mind if they had to wait five minutes for a few cows. A couple, though, were self-important souls who’d yell and cuss and insist on trying to drive through the small herd, endangering their fenders, the animals and whoever was drover at the moment, usually a kid.
When the calves were little, or the weather cold and rainy, he’d often put hay in the troughs in the barn and keep them in the barn lot overnight. In extremely cold weather, he’d close the doors and keep them in the barn all night. When his herd was at its largest, this often meant driving a few up the ramp of his bank barn and keeping them in the upstairs of the barn. Water had to be carried from the cistern a few feet away in buckets, so the kids, usually my wife, were kept busy for a while. During the big snow storm of 1950, he had to keep them in the barn for a full week. Of course, the normally bare wood floors upstairs had to be thickly bedded with hay to keep cattle waste from flying through the cracks and into the downstairs. Even then, certain downstairs areas weren’t particularly safe to be in when an upstairs cow decided to answer nature’s call.
What brought all these memories to mind was seeing the neighbor’s cattle standing in the cold rain as we drove by headed for town. He has a big barn for equipment, but no shelter for his cattle. They both have good jobs off the farm and could afford at least a simple loafing shed if they’d just do it, yet the poor cows stand in the cold. I wouldn’t have cattle if I had no shelter for them. (I’m not including animals that are pastured through the warm months and then sold or slaughtered before the weather gets horrendous.) I know that the sheer numbers of cattle and broad ranges out west preclude such things, but we’re rarely talking about large herds or large areas here in West Virginia. I know, too, that you can coddle your cattle so much that you can actually make them sickly. However, I think they should still have some protection from the worst of weather. Many people don’t even give them access to a brushy draw or a pine thicket, but keep them penned in windswept roadside pastures so they can just throw hay over the fence to feed them. To counter the idea to “keep ‘em tough,” it’s also been proven that any kind of stress on a cow makes it more like to get sick, plus it can slow growth in younger cattle.
Call me self-righteous, but I still wouldn’t have cattle if I didn’t have shelter for them, and it angers me to see that other folks that are willing to let theirs suffer. © 2013