Auction day!

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It’s been an extremely busy and exciting month on the farm. We hosted the 3rd annual Vastrap Auction on 14 August, which is always one of the highlights of our year. It is a huge amount of work, but so rewarding when everything comes together on the day. Our auction preparations start early in the year, but really step up a gear about two months before the time. Quentin takes care of all the logistics to do with the animals and I coordinate the marketing and catering side of things. We work really well as a team because our completely different strengths and interests create a natural division of labour. Apart from endless shopping and to-do lists, I spend a lot of time updating our website (www.vastrapboran.com) and Facebook page and compiling the marketing information for each animal.

In the week leading up to the auction there is a huge amount of shopping and cooking to do. We host an informal dinner at our house the night before, and on auction day we provide snacks and refreshments in the morning and a lunch for 80-100 people. This year I needed a lot of help with the catering because I was already 33 weeks pregnant and wary of being on my feet too much. Thankfully I had an amazing team of helpers who embraced the challenge with gusto! Since our very first auction my half-sister, Beatrice has come to the farm from Stellenbosch to help with the catering and this year she was joined by my dad, John. My niece, Sibella, was also on holiday and stayed with us for the week. It was such fun having them all here and Livia just loved all the action and attention. I really couldn’t have done it without them.

Our partners in the auction are also a great help and Debbie Johnson from Frontier Boran in Fort Beaufort always does an amazing job with the flowers and table decor. This year she brought a whole lot of baby pineapples and echeveria which were artfully teamed up with barbed wire and hessian on the tables. We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful blue-sky day and there was a great turn-out with quite a few new faces. We are incredibly grateful for everyone who travelled from far to be with us. What a pleasure when work is so much fun!

Behind the scenes with the catering team – John, Beatrice, Sibella & Debbie.

Auction day.

Auction day.

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John, Sibella, me, Debbie & Beatrice.

John, Sibella, me, Debbie & Beatrice.

Our boerboel puppy, Duma outside the auction tent.

Our boerboel puppy, Duma outside the auction tent.

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Livia with her grandpa and aunty.

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Keeping it cool behind the scenes!

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Livia with aunty Lesley, god-mother Vicky and tannie Jennie.

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Echeveria and pineapples.

Echeveria and pineapples.

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Little cow girl!

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Livia had her first close-up encounter with our Boran cows today. Sure she’s seen them from the safety of the bakkie before and we often pass them on our daily walks, but today she got up close with her daddy. Boy did she love it! Some of our best Boran cows were in the cattle press for our annual IVF programme, which is a way to get more offspring from our top animals. We couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity for Livia to meet our herd matriarch Hope MHB 04-11 and her beautiful little heifer calf by our former stud sire Rustin MHB 06-30, who sadly was sold this year. If her shrieks were anything to go by, Livia thought it was all very impressive and entertaining, much to her daddy’s delight!

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Time flies when you’re busy!

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Over the past two months all our energy has gone into the organisation of last Friday’s Vastrap Boran Auction. It’s the second year that we’ve held the sale on our farm so the workload was slightly less than last time, but still very demanding. I was in charge of all the marketing and entertainment logistics while Quentin took care of all the animal preparations. The weeks leading up to the auction are full of lists that need to be ticked off systematically and lots of stress about who’s going to come and whether there’ll be enough buyers! Quentin and I work really well as a team though and it was very satisfying to see everything come together on auction day. Click HERE if you’d like to see some photos from our website.

While all of this was going on, our little Livia has continued to grow and thrive. I can’t believe she is 7.5 months already! She is becoming a real little person with a very inquisitive mind. She loves to sit quietly and observe the passing scene, but she’s also becoming more vocal making new sounds every few days. She was very much part of the auction action, observing all of our frenetic preparations and joining in the fun on auction day. She was an absolute angel and was fascinated by the animals and very happy to be passed from one adoring aunty to another!

Speaking of aunties, my sister Beatrice came to Vastrap for auction week to help me with all the preparations. She is such a beautiful soul and a fantastic cook. She just took everything in her stride and quietly did what was needed – from whipping up the most delicious beef bourguignon and piles of yummy brownies, to playing with Livia and taking care of her bedtime routine. It was really wonderful to have her here and to witness the love between her and Livvy. Auntie Lesley, Quentin’s sister, also spent some time with us on auction day and she and Beatrice got on famously. What a treat to have such wonderful family time while we were busy working! We also loved the opportunity to socialise and get to know some of our fellow Boran breeders better. As much as we love our animals, the people really do add a wonderful dimension to our business and we really appreciated the effort people made to travel from far to be with us. Right now its impossible to feel anything but blessed!

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What a difference some rain makes!

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The past few weeks have been unbearably hot, windy and dry on the farm. The little bit of rain we had at the end of October quickly dried up and things started to look pretty desperate again. The sky all around us was thick with dust churned up by the wind and tractors hard at work preparing fields for the summer planting season. My heart really went out to all the tractor drivers sitting on open vehicles covered in clouds of dust. Being a tractor driver holds a certain amount of status and prestige amongst farm workers, but at times like this it really cannot be a nice job!

2013-11-17_0001The rain finally came on Friday and carried on all through Saturday. Soft, beautiful, drenching rain! Many other parts of the country experienced heavy flooding, but we had just enough to be satisfied. As luck would have it, we had important work to do on Friday with the start of our first IVF programme for our Boran cattle. Fortunately our new cattle facilities provided enough shelter for the vets to carry on with their work and everything went off smoothly. Many cattle breeders rely on embryo technology to reproduce top quality cows at a faster rate than would normally be possible using donor cows and surrogates. One way to produce and retrieve embryos is to stimulate the donor cow to produce more than one egg and then to artificially inseminate her so that the eggs are fertilised internally before being “flushed” out. Another way is to extract the unfertilised eggs or oocytes directly from the cow’s ovaries and to fertilise them externally in a semen culture. The resulting embryos are left to incubate for seven days before being implanted back into the receiver cows. This latter method is a new development in cattle reproductive technology and we are very excited to see the results. It should be less invasive to the cows since they don’t have to receive extensive hormone stimulation and it’s easier to synchronise the programme with our normal breeding season so that calves aren’t born at odd times throughout the year.

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2013-11-17_0004After two days of gorgeous rain, the sky was crisp and clear today and everything looked brighter and fresher. We took the dogs for a long run this afternoon and along the way checked some of the newly planted maize fields to see whether the seeds have germinated. Some of the fields look very patchy in places, but hopefully this rain will help to get things going nicely. Once the lands have dried up a bit the planting season will begin in earnest. In our area, we can only really plant maize until the first week of December so there is still much work to do! Fortunately the cattle won’t be as labour intensive now that there’s some water in the dams and newly growing grass. How quickly the mood can change after a beautiful gift of rain!

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Many hands make light work!

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I can finally sit down and write a little bit about my experience organising the first annual Vastrap Boran auction. Wow, it really was a steep learning curve and a very exhausting week, but I’m so relieved that everything went off smoothly with no horrible surprises. I could not have done it without the help of many friends and family members who all mucked in to get things done. As someone commented during a particularly frenetic time, “this really is a case of many hands make light work, rather than too many cooks spoil the broth!” I was in charge of marketing and catering, while Quentin took care of all the cattle logistics and making sure that the building of our new cattle facilities was finished on time. I stepped in at the last minute to finish off the decor. It was a real team effort! So much of the work we did this year will not have to be repeated next year so hopefully it will not be quite as stressful the second time round.

We hosted a whisky tasting and dinner for 50 people at Vastrap on the night before the auction. The next day we provided hot drinks and refreshments before the start of the auction followed by a lunch for 100 people. I have never catered on this scale before and really didn’t know what to expect. Thank goodness for two angels who really helped me so much – my friend Vicky Barnard from Mequatling Angus and my sister Beatrice. They really do deserve special mention even though many other people also helped. Vicky is a seasoned auction organiser, having run one of the most successful Angus auctions in the country for the past eight years. She and her husband Philip have endured relentless questioning by me and Quentin over the past few months and very generously shared all their secrets about what works and what doesn’t. My eyes were truly opened when I went to help Vicky at their sale in July. It made such a difference to see everything in action. As a result, I pretty much knew what to expect on the day and made sure that I had my lists and instructions in place.

Beatrice came up specially from Stellenbosch to help us for the week. She is an absolute star in the kitchen and stepped in to help with a big smile on her face. And boy, did I need the help! With the Coco and the puppies needing to go to the vet and unanticipated errands cropping up all over the place, it was great to know that someone was at home getting on with the cooking and doing it better than I ever could! We had partners in the auction and fortunately some of them arrived the day before and helped with preparations. Debbie Johnson got stuck in with the flower arrangements and Karen Peinke immediately bonded with Beatrice in the kitchen. A real dream team! Not to mention the delicious steak and guinness pie made by Laura and patès made by Heidi for the whisky tasting, and the rusks made by Jenny!

Thank you Vicky!

I couldn’t have done it without Vicky!

Beautiful Beatrice.

… and beautiful Beatrice!

Preparations for the whisky tasting.

Preparations for the whisky tasting.

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For the auction lunch, we kept things simple. A steak braai with pepper sauce and sides of green bean, baby potato and red onion salad and a rocket, feta and roasted pumpkin salad. I ordered the most delicious mini koeksisters (a typically South African dessert) from Bloemfontein, which were devoured by all. A great trick we learnt from Philip and Vicky is to put some snack packs on each seat in the auction tent so that people don’t get too bored and hungry during the auction. We received many compliments for this little extra touch.

All in all, we couldn’t have asked for a better turnout and better day. The weather played along, although it was a tad chilly, but the sun was shining and the wind stayed away. All the cattle were sold and our beautiful white cow Hope MHB 04-11 achieved the top price on the day followed closely by Kelly MHB 04-24. We are sad to see them go, but know that they will be happy in their new homes. Now it’s time for a little break before life returns to normal and we start to think about doing it again next year!

Karen and Matshepang making sandwiches on auction day.

Karen and Matshepang making sandwiches on auction day.

Posters for the cattle pens.

Posters for the cattle pens.

Tea station.

Tea station.

Stylish Debbie did a great job with the flowers.

Stylish Debbie and her beautiful flower arrangements.

The lunch tent.

The lunch tent.

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The auction ring.

The auction ring.

Let the bidding begin!

Let the bidding begin!

Gary and Andre, the steak braaiers.

Gary and Andre, the steak braaiers.

Motherly Affection

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The Boran have extremely strong mothering instincts, which make them very protective of their calves. Perhaps this has something to do with their heritage in Kenya of grazing in the veld alongside wild animals (see The Boran: God’s Gift to Cattlemen). I saw this first hand one day when I was walking the dogs and came across Hope MHB 07-12 who had been separated from her new born calf. Some how the calf had landed up on the other side of the fence from her. She was going crazy and started charging the dogs! I quickly got them out of the way and went to call Quentin to help. It was quite a struggle to get her through the gate without being charged, but all she wanted was to keep her calf out of danger. She was perfectly happy once they were reunited.

Below are some beautiful photos capturing special moments between Boran cows and their calves.

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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 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!

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.