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Crofting Agriculture
Chapter IX. The Crofter's Cow

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.


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 to skin 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 summer calving.

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 just now.

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 Gertrudis breed.

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.


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 15 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 winter.

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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