Wind and Fire

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The August winds have hit us with a vengeance this year. I am not a fan of wind, but if it means we will have good or even “normal” rain this summer then I will tolerate it. I have yet to experience a normal summer on the farm. In my first year we had double our usual rainfall which caused a lot of problems with the crops and animals. In my second year, we had half our usual quota, which was also a disaster. Hopefully it will be third time lucky!

At this time of year, when the veld is parched and brittle, a howling gale usually brings fire. There have been some devastating fires across the Free State in the past week, with an estimated 150 000ha worth of grazing destroyed and many animals harmed. My heart goes out to everyone who has been affected.

Fire came to our valley yesterday. We are surrounded by mountains and crop lands so we tend to be a bit more protected than the Free State flat-lands where there is no chance of containing a fire in strong winds. There was still a lot of damage though and at least three farms near us burned down completely, except for the houses. All the grazing is gone. Such a terrible loss.

Billowing smoke as the fire is fuelled by the wind.

A huge thank you to all the farmers in our district fire association who helped to fight the fire. I attempted to take some refreshments to the fire teams, but I did not get very far because the fire reached the road and I got scared. The dogs were with me on the bakkie and I didn’t want to drive them into the thick smoke.

More smoke…

The fire reaches the road…

Thick smoke…

Vastrap fire fighters.

There was nothing much for me to do, but go home and watch from a distance and pray that the wind would die down.

View from our house.

I also had to pack to leave for Joburg that afternoon. I will be in the city for a few weeks until mid-September. I left with a very heavy heart, not only because of the fire, but also because I’ll miss the best of spring on the farm. The blossoms are just starting to bloom and in a week’s time the peach trees lining the farm roads will be resplendent with pink flowers.

Peach tree blossoms.

Blossoms at the bottom of our garden… not sure what kind of tree this is!

Green leaf willow branches blowing in the wind.

A peach tree I planted last summer.

In the meantime Tsidiso is going to have to carry on with the vegetable garden construction without me. He is very creative and seems motivated by the project so I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops while I’m away!

Making good progress on the veggie garden.

Tumi and Patch looking on as the fire rages in the distance.

Goodbye Vastrap – see you in a few weeks!

Hanging with Hope

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You have probably gathered by now that we love our Boran cattle. They are so beautiful and serene. Having them on our farm has really added another dimension from a business perspective, but also for the pure enjoyment of them (see Boran: God’s Gift to Cattlemen and How life has changed: weekends at cattle auctions. Our Boran stud was significantly expanded late last year when Vastrap Boran (VST) acquired the whole of Mollshoop Boran (MHB), one of the most well-known Boran studs in the country.

Quentin loves cattle farming above all other farming, because cows and bulls have personalities. Each one is an individual. A character. But that doesn’t mean that they like us. No, a cow will usually run away if you try to get close to her out in the open veld. Unless they are being worked in a cattle crush, most cows and bulls tend to mind their own business and stay clear of people. One has to be careful though, because cows can get quite aggressive when they are protecting their young calves. I avoid walking between cattle and their calves when our blind dog Paris is with me (see How Paris “Sees” the World). Even our little beagle Coco can be a liability because she is so curious and likes to bark at the cows!

The Boran tend to be a bit more friendly than other breeds of cattle and some of them are very tame. At Vastrap, there is no bigger character than Hope (MHB 04-11). She is one of the top cows in our stud herd – a polled cow (no horns) with a strong head that has already bred three stud sires – but she is also the most friendly. She loves a good tickle and scratch especially if you bring her a treat of lucern pellets.

Magnificent Hope MHB 04-11.

A little tickle and scratch to say hello.

Can’t get enough of them pellets!

We love taking people to meet Hope and she especially loves kids, because they give her more food and they are a whole lot cuter than us!

Ashley meeting Hope for the first time.

Dylan saying hello to Hope.

Wait-up! I haven’t finished eating yet!

When we had visitors a few weekends ago we took the kids out to feed Hope again. It was a freezing cold morning and the kids were all bundled up in their winter kit. But the cows were happy because they had just been put into a newly harvested maize field, which tastes delicious and nutritious compared to the dead winter grass.

Cold cows enjoying the left-over maize.

Some pellets for you Hope?

Haven’t had enough yet?

She looks hungry Quentin.

Here Hope, try some delicious lucern pellets.

She likes a good pat and a rub while she is eating.

Thank you Alexander… munch, munch, munch.

And then last Sunday after Quentin’s birthday lunch we took another ride out to see Hope (see A Whiff of Spring!). Thankfully it was MUCH warmer. But Hope liked the pellets and attention just as much as ever. She can’t get enough of those pellets and we can’t seem to get enough of her… the things we do for amusement on a farm!

I’m not leaving this bucket until the last pellet is finished!

A Whiff of Spring!

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Weekends at home on the farm always seem like a real luxury and this one was no exception. I spent Saturday and Sunday cooking, gardening and entertaining friends – three of my favourite past times.

I laid out the plan for my new vegetable garden on Saturday afternoon. There is a big piece of ground above the house that is perfect for a vegetable garden, but it is totally unmanageable as it is. We have very heavy clay soil and it is always a struggle to manage the weeds and keep everything watered properly without structured beds. After more than a year I finally have a vision of what I want and I’m very excited to see the final product. I need raised beds, pathways, lots of compost to improve the soil and space for beautiful flowers and fruit trees so that there is a nice view from our guest bedrooms and the kitchen.

Entrance to the vegetable garden with metal arch made by Johannes in Clarens.

The rocks and stones to edge the raised beds will come from the mountain behind the house and I will use some of the left-over gravel from our building project on the house to fill in the pathways.  I found the metal arch for the garden entrance in Clarens, one of the most well-known and beautiful towns in the Eastern Free State. There will be two yellow heritage climbing roses on either side of the arch. I was also thrilled to find two cherry trees, a plum tree and a fig tree at our local nursery in town, which really spurred me into action!

Picture climbing roses, gravel path down the middle, stone-edged beds on either side, plum tree in raised stone circle in the center and lots, lots more!

It is Quentin’s birthday on Monday so we had some friends round for a celebration on Sunday. It was the most beautiful warm day – hard to believe it was snowing a week ago! Quentin dropped Ashley back with her mom in Johannesburg on Friday and he came back with the new table for our outside courtyard. I am so excited to finally have a dedicated space for outside entertaining in summer. It couldn’t have been a more perfect day to celebrate Quentin’s birthday and to initiate the table – sunny, still and almost spring! The pergola that will cover the table is not complete yet, but we were very happy to get some sun after the chilly winter we’ve had. Here’s to many more lunches and dinners at the new table!

New reclaimed teak table with temporary plastic chairs and unfinished pergola.

No flowers in the garden so lemons will have to do!

Anyone for desert? Apple cake, cheese cake, to-die-for chocolate brownies and vanilla fudge ice cream.

Happy birthday my love! xx

A Calf is Born

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I posted these photos on Facebook in May before I started this blog. They received such an overwhelming response that I wanted to share them again. In fact, this series of photos is part of the reason why I decided to start this blog, because I realised how many special stories there are waiting to be shared about our life on the farm.

I originally planned to share the photos in early August at the start of calving season, but then events overtook us and we ended up with the little calves in our kitchen last week (see Calving Season has Begun! and R.I.P Little Calf). Hopefully this will be the last calf-related post for a while and you can rest assured that this story has a happy ending! It is also apt because Ashley is visiting us at the moment and she was with us when we watched this little embryo calf being “pulled” from its surrogate mother. It was a real miracle and we were so privileged to witness it.

Quentin arrived home in a very big hurry one afternoon in late May shouting for Ashley and me to come with him. There was a cow in distress and she needed help with the delivery of her calf, which was in a breach position. This was the first I had ever heard about “pulling a calf” so I was naturally intrigued. The calf would not have survived without help and Quentin really wanted to make sure that he/she was not harmed, because it was the first embryo calf from his prize Boran cow Jackie MHB 05-08. We prayed that he/she had not been in distress for too long.

Francis is the hero of this story. He is one of the chief mechanics and drivers on the farm, but he also happens to be an expert at pulling calves (go figure?). He kept his cool throughout and took such care to make sure that everything went smoothly. Notice too that Ashley was in her favourite farm gear – her flower girl dress from our wedding that she did not take off all summer while she was visiting us! I just love this series of photos and I hope you appreciate them too.

Two hooves peeking out…

Francis is the expert at pulling so he takes the lead.

The strength of five men…

… pulling hard on the rope tied to the calf’s legs!

It’s a girl and she is breathing!

Francis checks to see if she is okay.

Mom says hello with a lick.

Say hello to Jackie VST 12-04!

Ashley takes a closer look.

Hip, hip hooray for a job well done!

Sibella and Coco: A Love Story

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We had a very busy long weekend with a full house of visitors and kids. It was the perfect antidote to the sadness we felt on Thursday after the death of the little calf (see R.I.P. Little Calf). The weather was all over the place though. After sunny skies on Friday, there was a howling gale and horrible dust storm on Saturday. We woke on Sunday to more snow and no electricity. It was a day-long planned outage, but we never received the notification so it was totally unplanned for us! The Aga was put to full use for our brunch and after some of our guests left to return to the city, there was nothing to do but enjoy a quiet technology-less day in front of the fire on the sunny enclosed stoep. Utter bliss!

My sister and my nieces, Sophia and Sibella were with us until today. Sibella (11) had not been to the farm for a year so there was a lot for her to catch up on. She experienced the snow, helped us take care of the little calves and somewhere in between she fell in love… with Coco of course (see Coco’s Year in the Wars). How can one not? She is irresistibly soft and cuddly and Sibella is a sucker for animals in general and especially the moanie, groanie, snuggly variety. A match made in heaven!

How can one not love this?

They were inseparable. Snuggling on the couch…

In the bed…

Morning, noon, and night.

Occasionally Patch, Tumi and Poepsie cat got a look in, but mostly it was just the two of them.

Playing, wrestling and nibbling until they both squealed with delight!

Inseparable until the end. A very sad farewell for both. Bye bye Coco Bean, until next time my love. XOXO

R.I.P. Little Calf

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It’s been a sad few days here at Vastrap. Ashley arrived at the farm on Sunday for her monthly 10 day visit. On Monday an extremely severe cold front swept through the country causing snow fall in all nine provinces. I was in Johannesburg for a night on Monday and when I drove back to the farm on Tuesday it was starting to snow quite heavily in the city. The last time I saw snow like that in Joburg was in 1981 when I was six! Anyway, I got back to the farm and everything was covered in white.

The rose garden.

The mountain.

Ashley and Quentin with their snowman.

As beautiful as it was, and as much as the kids enjoyed the snow, it was not a good time for the little calves that I wrote about in my last post, “Calving Season has Begun!”. Quentin was extremely busy on Monday and Tuesday with the hoof smith who was checking all the bulls and cows for hoof problems and genetic faults. He didn’t have time to check on the calves until late Tuesday afternoon just after I arrived home.

He came home in a state, because the little calf that we had found in an aardvark hole on Saturday had almost frozen to death. Its tail had been eaten off by a jackal and its one eye looked like it had gone blind. He was too weak to stand and drink milk from his mother. In addition, Quentin could not find one of the calves that had been perfectly healthy on Sunday (the one with the black cow mother in the previous post) and another had died during child-birth.

Quentin brought the sopping wet calf without a tail home. We immediately put the little thing in front of the Aga stove and spent ages blow-drying it. We also tried to feed him a mixture of ideal milk, egg and milk, but he did not eat much and looked very weak and traumatised.

Drying the baby calf.

Ashley saying hello.

With Sibella and the dogs.

Trying very hard to get it to drink.

He looked okay the next day, but still wouldn’t eat much and struggled to stand.

Lying in front of the warm stove with Paris.

We took him outside for a walk and a wee. The dogs were quite puzzled by this new arrival in the house and kept sniffing the wound on his tail.

Resting on the grass with Coco.

Then Quentin arrived home with another little one whose feet had frozen during the night. She couldn’t stand or walk and would’ve died left like that. We immediately got the blow dryer out to thaw her feet so that she could go back to her mom as soon as possible. It was obvious that she was much stronger than the other little one.

And then there were two!

Fortunately she got up quite quickly and started stumbling around the kitchen island. After a few rounds she was walking more confidently and ready to go back to her mom. We checked on her this morning and although she looks quite weak she is drinking. Phew!

Eeck! There’s a calf in my kitchen!

Curious Coco.

We carried on trying with the first calf, but he really was not looking good. He just wouldn’t drink from the bottle so eventually Quentin had to pour the milk down his throat just to get some sustenance in him.

It just wouldn’t drink from the bottle.

That night we knew that things were not going to turn out well. He was not getting up and his breath became more and more laboured. All we could do was put him in front of a warm fire and stroke him.

Sleeping in front of the warm fire.

This morning he was gone. Hopefully a more peaceful death than he would have had out in the cold night. The kids were sad, but all along we had said that he might not survive. We all agreed that the best thing to do would be to put him back with the elements and let nature take its course. Perhaps we shouldn’t have interfered in the first place.

My father-in-law says this is the coldest weather he has experienced on the farm in his 60 years of farming. I think the main difference is that we usually have dry cold, which the animals can handle, but as soon as it is wet and cold they really struggle. In total, Quentin lost five calves in the past few days – one disappeared before anyone saw it, two disappeared after birth (suspected jackal), one died during birth, and one died on our kitchen floor in front of the Aga. R.I.P. little calves. Hope you enjoy it up there in calf heaven.

Calving season has begun!

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It’s calving seasons at Vastrap! Since the end of July little babies have been arriving all over the place keeping Quentin, Abraham, Tshidiso and Molantwa very busy recording each birth and checking to see that there aren’t any problems.

We have three different types of calves at Vastrap. The naturally bred Angus and Boran calves and the Boran embryo calves born to surrogate mothers. For the natural breeding season the cows are with the bulls for about three months between December and February – about 3 bulls to every 100 cows. A cow’s gestation period is the same as a woman so the calves are born between the end of July and October. The timing of the breeding season is determined by the fact that we are a summer rainfall area so the grazing is better from October through to March.  Also, our winters are very severe so a cow cannot raise a calf in the harsh months of May to July.  While food is still scarce in August and September, the newly harvested maize fields provide an extra source of sustenance.

This was the first Angus calf born this season. Its mother had bottle teats so it could not suckle properly. The mother had to be milked by hand to reduce the swelling so that the calf could get his mouth around the teats.

Angus cow with “bottle teats”.

Just born Angus calf with her mother.

Embryo calves are born throughout the year depending on when the surrogate mother is implanted with an embryo. Using embryos allows us to increase the size of the Boran herd more quickly, but we only use cows with the best genetics to ensure that the quality of the herd improves over time (see The Boran: God’s Gift to Cattlemen). In the past one could only multiply the best genetics through the sire by using artificial insemination (AI), however advances in embryo technology now allow dam genetics to be propagated too.  Embryo technology is a lot more complicated and expensive so it is used only with really top genetics.

This weekend I helped Quentin to check on the embryo calves being born and to document them. For each new calf we take down its mother’s number, date of birth, sex, colour and weight. The new babies are so cute and soft! It is quite funny how they look so different from their mothers. Some of the calves are full brother and sister because the embryos came from the same sire and dam.

Surrogate mother and her new Boran calf.

A cute little white one.

Surrogate mothers do a great job with their little ones.

A group of full brothers and sisters from Jackie MHB 05-08 & Co-Jack CI 08-030.

Things don’t always go according to plan. On Saturday evening we found a little calf that had fallen into an aardvark hole. The poor little thing would have died if we hadn’t been there and hadn’t got out of the car to look around. It was getting dark so the photos aren’t that good, but he was really squashed in there!

Stuck in a hole.

 Helping him stand on his numb legs.

His mother also had an injury to her leg, but she ran away when we had saved the calf. We spent about half an hour trying to herd her back to the calf so that she would bond with him and feed him, but she kept running away on her funny leg. In total frustration Quentin said this is where the saying “stupid cow” comes from!

Early on Sunday morning we went back to check on the calf and took a bottle of milk with in case it had been abandoned. He seemed fine and warm, but his mother was nowhere to be seen.  We tried to chase her back towards the calf, but she didn’t want anything to do with him. Just in case we fed him the milk and tried again to get her to go to him. We’ll only know tomorrow whether this mission succeeded. At least she was standing close to him when we left, but she still didn’t seem that interested and we hadn’t actually seen him drink from her. These things sometimes happen when heifers calf for the first time. They just need a little bit of help to learn how to be good mothers.

Feeding the little calf a mixture of milk and egg.

Lapping it up!

Too cute!

Stupid cow ignoring her little calf.