Agriculture Chapter IX. The Crofter's
45. What Type Do We Need for the West?
One of the most frequent questions I am asked is, "What
do you reckon is the best type of cow for a crofter?" It is a question I
never answer in a hurry, because there is no easy reply. I could much better
give a quick answer on the kinds of cow which would be unsuitable for
the crofting areas as a whole. We are down to the old facts again that our
western countryside is short of lime and phosphates, both of which soil
elements are highly necessary for a copious and persistent supply of milk.
The student at an agricultural college learns the
economics of the living animal body. He is taught quite properly that the
essential food intake of a beast varies not in direct relation to its
weight. For example, the area of body surface of a mouse is much greater in
proportion to its weight than is the surface area of a cow in proportion to
her weight. According to the books, then, a good big cow is more economical
than a good little one, for her efficiency in conserving heat is greater
(and heat means food in the first place), and her overhead charges in the
shape of attention, byre space, milking and so on are less in proportion;
that is, if eight big cows will give as much milk as ten smaller ones.
MILKING TIME, TORRIN, SKYE
The Highland breed may be reckoned a beef breed
primarily, but useful milkers can be found among them. One of the great
advantages of Highland blood in the crofter's cow is the placidity which
is such a marked characteristic of the breed. It is much easier to be
able to go out to the cow on pasture in summer than to bring the cows
into the byre—and a good way of ensuring clean milk. From the position
of the lid of the pail and of the cow's muzzle, it looks as if this
beast was inclined to move on during the milking.
I have no fault to find with the books: they are quite
right, and the farmer on rich dairying land is well advised to keep big
cattle such as Friesians, Dairy Shorthorns and Red Polls. But we are on thin
hungry land, with a lot of our grazing on peat. We know by hard experience
that practice in the West cannot always follow the books. Or should I say we
need a new book, dealing entirely with our own countryside?
The first thing I should say about the crofter's cow is
that she should be small. We cannot afford to fill the belly and cover the
ribs of the big cow, nor is our ground good enough yet to grow the bones of
the big cow's calf. We need a beast that can face a period of short commons
without falling to pieces on us, and on the whole it is the little beast
that will face such conditions best.
There is the type of cow that puts every extra ounce of
food you give her into the pail and milks herself toskin and bone.
Such a beast, calving in late autumn or winter on an ill-provisioned croft,
may have to be carried out to the grass in May and is a tax on the nerves of
a kindly owner. There is also the type of cow which puts everything on her
back and is dry in six months. She is a tax on the owner's temper as well as
on his pocket!
We need a cow that can "reef in" as you might say and
trim her sails to the nature of the blast; that can place her food first of
all to the maintenance of her body in good lean condition, and all food over
and above that into the pail. When she is outside, we need a cow that can
walk well, graze wide and feed as well from the moor as from the grass
parks. We also want a cow not too thin in the skin and that can grow a good
coat for the winter.
We may say, then, that the crofter's cow should be
neither of extreme dairy type nor of extreme beef type. The books talk of
dual-purpose animals which can milk well and be fattened to a good carcass.
But our cow has to be treble or quadruple-purpose in type if she is to be
the perfect cow for the crofter. Our arable land is small in extent and we
can never properly allow ourselves to breed a type which is more or less
bound to that bit of arable land. We must never forget the great background
of hill grazing which the calf of the crofter's cow should help to utilize
profitably. If we say we will be sure of heavy milkers and then stock up a
township with Ayrshires, our bull calves are worth thirty shillings and we
are without rough cattle for the hill. Even if we have a black polled bull
and get black calves from our Ayrshires we are not really playing fair by
the man who buys those calves, not knowing the Ayrshire side of the
parentage, for they will never make good bullocks. Unless we have a ready
market for milk or dairy produce, and if our arable ground is not in
sufficiently good order to grow a variety of winter fodder and roots, we
must go for something different from a pure dairy breed. Even the Kerry, the
little black cottar's cow of the west of Ireland, though a good milker and
well suited to our conditions, would not necessarily be the best to stock
the countryside with in large numbers, because she would not be breeding
that class of rough, hill-grazing bullocks which should be a mainstay of our
husbandry. Incidentally, as a bit of history, I have recently learned that
Kerry cows were once kept on this island of Tanera and were good, thriving
beasts for the crofter-fishermen of the period. They came here by sea in the
old fishing smacks which carried to Ireland the red herrings which were
cured on Tanera. The Kerry cow produces a better cross bullock with the
Shorthorn than does an Ayrshire.
Let it be admitted, then, that there is no pure breed of
dairy cattle which would make the perfect crofter's cow. We must look to
crosses, but unless we have a carefully controlled system of breeding
throughout the West Highlands we are likely to find ourselves with the
oddest collection of cattle one could imagine, and that would depress the
store market, for buyers like uniformity.
If I were allowed to be completely honest and candid, I
should say we are getting well on to that condition now. There is too much
whim and fashion in this cattle-breeding business. Someone decides to keep a
certain breed of cow in a district, come what may, and you find in a few
years that many of the cattle in the whole neighbourhood are streaked with
this breed. That is the result of one man's whim. Fashion also seems to me
to go mad at markets. Dingwall wants Blacks and will pay a pound extra for a
few blue hairs. Perth and Stirling want Shorthorns and Shorthorn-Highland
crosses, except for the specialized demand for Aberfeldy blacks. Highlanders
were hardly paying their freight to Dingwall before this war, yet Oban was
reckoned a dear place to buy them. The layout of railways and the fashion of
markets, then, seem to impose the colour and breeds of cattle kept on the
western grazings to a greater extent than the conditions in which the cattle
are bred. We certainly need a safeguard somewhere to ensure that the breeds
are not crossed out of existence in the West, but the fact remains that the
ideal crofter's cow is probably crossbred and we will consider her parentage
in the next section.
46. Crossing for a Desired Type
We have come to the conclusion that the perfect crofter's
cow apparently does not exist as a pure breed, but that she may be found as
a cross. The question is, what cross?
There are two basic pure breeds of cattle which can take
full advantage of West Highland grazings—the Highland breed and the
Galloway. As far as can be seen there is no difference in hardiness; the
Galloway is undoubtedly earlier maturing, but the Highlander will
probably graze rougher stuff and farther afield. Both breeds
cross well with the Shorthorn and there is an extensive trade in these
crosses. I have both publicly and privately advocated an extension of the
Galloway breed into the West Highland area, but in doing so I do not wish to
belittle the place of the Highlander, for the Galloway is not a crofter's
cow, in my opinion. The breed as a whole tends to be nervous and the cows
are sometimes difficult to handle, whereas no breed of cattle in Britain is
more docile than the Highlander. That docility and placidity of temperament
is a most valuable attribute which usually appears in the crosses. Neither
would I say the Highlander is a good crofter's cow. She does not like the
byre and can be quite a fussy feeder when confined there. She does not carry
milk for ten months of the year and has a natural tendency to spring and
The great value of the Shorthorn is its power to stamp
quality and conformation on its crosses. It has played an immense part in
grading up the cattle of the Americas. Here in the West Highlands the
Shorthorn bull is still used as a crossing beast. He seems to nick
particularly well with the Highland cow. As markets and demands for store
cattle are at present, and with even our arable land in a relatively
unimproved state, I believe the best general type of cow for the crofter
would be a Shorthorn-Highland cross. This beast is hardy, it will give a
fair drop of milk for nine or ten months of the year if given reasonable
treatment, and it will cross well with either Shorthorn or Aberdeen-Angus to
produce calves for the store trade. The quality of very high butter fat
content of the Highland cow's milk is often transmitted to the cross cow.
There is one part of the West where I would favour the
pure-bred Ayrshire: that is in the Island of Lewis.
The conditions here are quite different from elsewhere.
The dense human population keeps cows for one reason only—milk. There is
practically no store trade and the peat bog which is the middle of Lewis has
not the grazing quality of the hill land which backs most West Highland
townships. The type of Ayrshire for Lewis is not the highly developed cow
which wins the London Dairy Show, but the smaller beast of the hill farms of
Galloway which can grow a good coat and winter out. The Ayrshire is already
largely kept in Lewis, but there is need to see that the duds from flying
herds in Stornoway do not drift into the crofting districts.
In praising this Shorthorn-Highland cross for the
crofter's cow, I do not wish to be contemptuous of many a nice little blue
cow I have seen about the Highlands, obviously sired by an Aberdeen-Angus,
but I hold nevertheless that Angus crosses will not produce the equally
hardy, reasonably milky sort as commonly as the Shorthorn-Highland,
especially if Shorthorn bulls for the Highlands are chosen from good rearing
strains. It is a pity that the Aberdeen-Angus men have lost the milking
capacity which undoubtedly existed in their cattle. Seventy or eighty years
ago there were black polled cows giving well over five gallons a day. The
Aberdeen-Angus does not cross well with the Highlander.
Beefy types of Cumberland Dairy Shorthorns might be used
for crossing with the Highland, but care would have to be taken to keep out
the long-snouted type which has recently tended to spoil the look of that
breed. The man buying rough stores will not stand for long snouts ! The
Lincolnshire Red Shorthorn is also worth trying.
It remains to be said that we need to bring order into
our cattle breeding policy. Somebody must keep the pure breeds and leave
most of the second crossing to the crofters. The State, the lairds and the
large farmers are the ones to keep up the main herds and make the first
crosses for sale to the man who keeps only one, two or three cows, Some
organization of this kind would make for more uniformity and save the
markets from some of the sketches of animals which come in from time to time
47. Making a Breed
We have been considering in previous sections the virtues
of the crofter's perfect cow and have come to the conclusion that they are
not all to be found in any one breed, but let it be admitted that occasional
perfect cows turn up in many pure breeds as well as in crosses. I have just
seen a beautiful Shorthorn cow which has never lived anywhere else but on a
croft. She is giving nearly five gallons a day, and that cow has been inside
on only two nights during the past winter. It was not that she was pushed
out; she was given the choice of a shed with the door left open and she
preferred to go out. That cow is in good order now at the end of May, yet
has had nothing but good hay and such small cake rations as have been
available. Her seven-week-old blue calf by an Aberdeen-Angus bull is one of
the best I have seen for years. Candidly, I don't know how it has been done.
Unfortunately, we cannot pick up pure-bred cows as good
as that one every time we go near a cattle sale. It is often said, why can't
we make a breed by crossing individuals of different breeds, each of which
has some of the characteristics we want in our perfect cow? The fact is that
one of the hardest things a breeder can undertake is to make a new breed of
cattle, sheep or horses. Almost anyone can produce a uniform and profitable
lot of first-crosses—that is just plain commercial practice—but the
difficulty comes when you start breeding from these first-crosses. The
characters you started with in the original breeds begin to separate out and
you find yourself with a bunch of cattle odd in colour and type. It is
certainly no game for the crofter with his very few cows.
In breeding from these good, level first-crosses we may
get one or two beasts which approach our ideal type, but at what cost! One
or two out of fifty or sixty perhaps. It would take years and years to work
up a good stock of a new synthetic breed. Mind you, it has been done in the
past, and in the very near past. For example, the Corriedale sheep which is
so popular in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, was evolved in living
memory in New Zealand from judicious mixing and fixing of Merino, Lincoln
and Romney Marsh blood. The proprietors of the immense King Ranch on the
Louisiana shore of the Gulf of Mexico have developed a polled red breed from
the Indian zebu and red European cattle, which gives them a good beast
resistant to disease and able to graze far afield. They call it the Santa
The Thoroughbred horse, the flower of English
stockbreeding, was fixed from a mixture of Barb, Old English mares and
perhaps a little Arabian blood.
Nevertheless, we have not produced a pure breed of that
famous first-cross sheep, the Half-bred. Some people have thought it could
be done, but an analysis of the wool of such a flock has been found to vary
widely from Border Leicester to Cheviot type. And we have not developed
Blue-Greys as a pure breed, because it cannot be done ; two blues produce
one black and one white calf out of every four.
If making a new, synthetic breed is difficult and
unprofitable, we must continue to produce those first-crosses which are
known to nick so well, such as the Half-bred, the Blue-Grey and the
Shorthorn-Highland, but at the same time such improvement as we wish to
bring about in pure breeds will be best done by selection within the breed
and not by introducing dashes of this, that and the other. That is how the
best breeds have been built up and maintained.
48. Care of the Milk Cow and Her Calf
A crofter's wife whose husband is a prisoner of war
recently asked my advice about the care of the cow at calving and the
rearing of the calf. Her neighbours had been kind in offering help and
advice, but she found herself confused by the multiplicity of counsel, and
she appealed to me for solid reasons why certain things are done or not
done. Should you help a cow at calving? Should you let the calf suck her?
Would you milk her straight away, or, if not, how many hours after calving?
Should you milk her out the first time? How soon should she go outside? How
much milk should the calf have and how often? Should food be cooked for the
cow? All these questions need careful replies and every case must be
considered in relation to its own set of circumstances. Nevertheless, there
are certain sound lines of procedure which can be set down as a basis.
FETCHING PEATS, BARRA
A lot of work went into making these turf-covered
stacks of peats before the final job of fetching them in, and work at a
time of year when we should be cleaning the land. Let us hope that
hydro-electric power in the West may make a good part of this work with
the peats unnecessary.
This Barra pony is a useful friend. It is a pity
these hardy beasts are not more generally kept and worked with creels.
Coup carts need roads which we cannot have everywhere, but a pony with
creels can carry peats, potatoes or seaware out of many an awkward place
and make the work of the croft much lighter.
My own feeling is that many crofters' cows have a mixed
life of hard doing and undue coddling, and the feeding in winter is not as
well balanced as it might be. I know quite well that some of the advice I am
going to give in the following two or three sections is that of perfection
which the average crofter cannot put into practice, but it is as well to
know what would be the best treatment and then to approach it as nearly as
possible in practice.
First of all, let us consider the cow before she calves.
If we want her to milk well we must put good food into her beforehand. A
period of six to eight weeks of good feeding before calving is essential if
the cow is to do as well as her breeding would allow her to do. All too many
crofters' cows calve in spring, which means a good price for the calves and
no milk for the house for most of the winter. Until we can grow more winter
keep by better treatment and more intensive cultivation of our small area of
arable ground, and by better methods of conserving the good grass we shall
then grow, it is perhaps inevitable that 90 per cent. of the cows must calve
in spring because there is not the feed to keep them milking in winter, and
they are not in the condition to take the bull between December and March to
give us winter calving. If we do calve a cow in September or October in the
Highlands we need not bother too much about the stoking-up process
beforehand, because she will be in the best condition she is likely to reach
in the year and will have had the picking of the stubbles as well as the
best of the hill. Peace-time conditions would indicate 4 to 7 lb. of oil
cake a day for six weeks before calving, but just now she would have to do
with little or none, except where a crofter is definitely selling milk in
his district, in which case he is allowed an oil-cake ration especially to
bring his cows into condition for winter milk production.
Personally, I like to calve my cows indoors even if it is
the height of summer. This is not because the cow would hurt outside, but it
means less trouble about the calf. If a cow sees her calf and licks it and
has it sucking her, she quite reasonably wants to keep it and kicks up a
fuss when we take it away. All fuss means loss of condition. There should
never be fuss where milking cows are concerned. If the cow calves inside in
your presence, you can put the calf into its pen before she sees it, and rub
it dry yourself, and then she does not worry.
The average gestation period in dairy cattle is 283 days,
but there is a good deal of variation up to five days or so either side of
this figure. The man with the practised eye and hand does not spend
fruitless nights out of bed looking to see if the cow has calved. He reaches
the state when he can say, "She will calve in the next twelve hours," and be
right. Signs of approaching calving are fairly well known—the enlargement of
the udder and of the passage, and the "giving" of the "gristle," but I have
found that many people are inclined to pay too much attention to the state
of the udder as a sign, and not to understand completely the surest
criterion, the state of the gristle. The gristle is the cartilage which runs
from either side of the tail head to the pin bones. As calving draws near
the gristle slackens in the middle and allows the pin bones to widen for the
ultimate passage of the calf. The touch of the experienced hand will tell
when the gristle finally gives on either side; when that happens the cow
will calve within twelve hours.
A cow which is normally outside day and night, or in the
daytime, will not catch a chill by being left outside till the last moment
before she calves. It is better that she should be out, and in most cases
there is little harm in calving outside, even in winter. The possibilities
of catching a chill, which may mean the death of the cow, come in the few
hours after calving, even in summer. For example, suppose a cow
calves at two o'clock of an August morning and there is rain and a bit of
south-west wind. If she is outside then, she is in serious danger.
The act of calving produces a general temporary lowering
of body tension and pressure and there is a certain amount of shock. It
should also be remembered that the birth of the calf means a considerable
amount of heat is lost from the cow's belly but not an equivalent amount of
mass or surface area. Rain falling on the cow at this time would in itself
be chilling, but we know also that evaporation of moisture consumes heat
(you will have noticed the feeling of coldness when a little methylated
spirit spills on the fingers), so that the cow's body would be losing warmth
much faster than her temporarily lowered system would replace it. Wind is
also a great remover of heat.
One likes to be present in the byre with the cow when she
actually calves, not only because help may be needed, but if your cow is
your friend—as she should be—she will gain comfort and confidence from your
being there. My feeling is that in all normal calvings, you are better
occupied at the head giving her a bit of petting than in any interference at
the tail end. If you have to help pull, pull only when the cow strains, and
in a downward, not outward, direction.
The calf should be put into a calf-pen straight away and
rubbed dry with dry bracken or straw. The rubbing gives it stimulation and
prevents chilling by too rapid evaporation of the moisture. Calf-pens should
always be thoroughly cleaned out, disinfected and whitewashed and rebedded a
good time before the new calf goes in. This is not fussiness or
over-cleanliness, because infectious white scour is a really dreadful
disease in calves, and it should never occur. Strict cleanliness and not
buying in calves is the surest way of keeping clear of it.
The first thing to do after the cow calves and the calf
is penned, is to give her an oatmeal drink. (In wartime, however, it is
illegal to give oatmeal to an animal.) Oatmeal has great restorative value.
Put about a pound in a pail, mix to a paste with cold water, then add a
kettle of boiling water, and stir and work it so that no lumps form. Fill up
to about two gallons with cold water and offer it to the cow. If she drinks
the lot and leaves a bit of meal at the bottom of the pail, she can have it
half full of cold water again. Cows will often refuse warmish water, and
they seem none the worse for having their drink cold at this time.
The cow is best left alone for an hour or so with what I
call a hatful of as good hay as you have got. She needs rest and quiet. If
you have ever watched cows or hinds calving in the natural state on the
hill, you will notice that after the first licking the mother takes little
notice of the calf for a time. Sometimes, in nature, a cow will eat the
afterbirth. It is not for me to say nature is wrong, but I do say that a
milk cow reared for the byre is not nature, and that the cow should not be
allowed to eat the cleansing. She may choke with it, or suffer digestive
disturbance as a result of a herbivorous animal swallowing a large volume of
quickly putrefying meaty matter.
The main reason for being nervous or exercising
particular care as to the time the cow should be milked after calving is the
possibility of milk fever. High yielding cows are most susceptible, and the
collapse is due to a sudden drop in the lime content of the blood. Some
people think also that high yielding cows on lime-poor land are in greater
danger than if the soil was adequately supplied. The fact remains that a
sudden drawing-off of all the milk in the udder may lower the lime content
of the blood below safety level. Leave the cow alone then for a couple of
hours, and when you come back she will probably have got rid of the
afterbirth. Milk about half a gallon from her—a pint from each teat—not
more, and give it to the calf by means of the finger. Probably the calf will
not take more than a quart, but it is most necessary for the health of the
calf that it should have some of this first milk immediately it is drawn and
before it has had chance to lose its natural heat. Incidentally, that quite
unnatural trick of pushing an egg down the throat of a new-born calf has
nothing to commend it. I find it difficult to imagine how such a custom
arose and what end it was thought would be served. Even in these days of
widely spread scientific knowledge this bit of sleight of hand with an egg
remains a common practice. Give it up, and ensure that the calf gets the
cow's first milk instead.
Another half gallon or a gallon if the cow is a high
yielder, may be drawn six hours later, i.e. eight hours after
calving, and six or eight hours after that the udder may be completely
emptied. The calf may be fed three times a day for the first week and twice
thereafter, though many a good calf has never had more than two feeds a day.
A gallon a day is enough for the first week, rising then to a gallon and a
half, equivalent to 15½ lb. The calf will be ready
to eat a bit of good hay from a fortnight onwards, and after a month, the
milk given will not provide sufficient water for the animal if it is to grow
properly, so fresh water should be offered then each day.
Most crofters will find it cheaper to feed the calf on
whole milk rather than on calf meal and skim milk, until such time as it can
safely go on to skim milk and dry feed. As long after the weaning date of
five months as there may be skim milk to spare, the calf might as well have
it, but one usually finds that once there is a break, the calf will not
touch milk again.
Sometimes a cow is slow to get rid of the afterbirth.
Normally, as I have said, it is dropped within two hours of the calf being
born, but it is quite often eight or twelve hours after, and there is no
need to get worried if she does not cleanse for forty-eight hours. Even then
it is advisable to do nothing drastic until the fifth day, when a washed and
oiled arm may be inserted into the passage and the cleansing gently removed,
place by place, with the thumb and forefinger, where the cleansing is found
to be still clinging to the wall of the womb. This is a job which needs some
practice and skill to do well. If weights are to be hung on that part of the
cleansing which is already to the outside, they should not exceed 4 lb.
altogether, and not hung on until the third day after calving. Undue haste
in trying to remove the afterbirth may result in serious bleeding.
There is now the question of how soon the cow can go out.
Certainly she should not go out until she has cleansed, but after that,
common sense is the best guide. It must always depend on circumstances. If
the day is calm and sunny, even in winter, the cow will not hurt to go out
the day after calving. If there is rain and high wind, even in summer, she
will be best inside, but— and this is a very big but—whether it is summer or
winter, give her plenty of air. Byre doors are always the better of being in
two pieces, and the top half should normally be open unless there is a gale
of wind blowing in and endangering the roof! There is generally too much of
a tendency to coddle a cow after calving, with the result that she does not
get out for a week or more. If you want to coddle a cow, do it from the
inside, as it were, with good food. She can make good use of that sort of
treatment, but standing around in a byre with poor hay and water as a diet
is just melting the flesh off her bones, and most of them cannot spare it.
All the same, a cow should be given a fairly light and
laxative diet for two days after she calves, and not be plied immediately
with a heavy ration of oil cake or a lot of turnips. A few pounds of bruised
oats damped down with some treacle and water, some green stuff such as kale,
and some good hay make an excellent diet for the first two days.
There is a common habit in the West Highlands of keeping
the cows in at night in summer to conserve the manure and perhaps to save
fetching the cows again in the morning. In general, this is a bad habit
because the cow is losing at least eight hours of her grazing time, which
she cannot afford, considering the quality and quantity of food she gets
throughout the year. I often think that if a cow must be kept in for part of
the day, it would be better to be the day time, when cleggs, biting flies
and warbles are distressing the cattle. In the cool of the night it is usual
for the cow to graze. If the cow is kept in and supplied with about
three-quarters of a hundredweight of fresh-cut grass, all well and good, but
to keep her in without plenty of food is undermining her strength for the
Finally, the cow appreciates a good bed of bracken or
rushes in winter, and you are the gainer with the large quantity of manure
thus got. And she likes a good currycombing and brushing each day. Our
personal gain in this is that she is easier to look at. The milk cow is the
provider of our households, and we are happier ourselves if she is in good
order, comfortable in her bed and clean.
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