are you up to the challenge of keeping a bull?

It’s been a bull-sh*$-ty week around here.  Watch the language you say? Okay, first let me tell you what happened and then you tell me what words I should use.

Act I: Ellis the Destroyer

The very first calf born here was my bull Rocco. He was born off-season in December, and was an only calf doted upon by his mother and aunties and to a point, us. He was funny, smart, precocious but not too obnoxious and very, very entertaining. He would make a great herd sire for someone, but sadly, not for us.

Rocco never got much chance to be the main man around here because he was too closely related to most of the Ladies.  I did my best to give him a chance here and there, but that really complicated my life tremendously because that meant I had to divide everyone up and run separate herds.

So Rocco found a new home with a family in New York with a similar problem. We decided a trade was a good solution for both of us, and off Rocco went to his New York Ladies and we welcomed Maple Crest Ellis here.

Saturday morning Ellis arrived. He stepped off the trailer like a gentleman, carefully surveyed his surroundings and started making his way toward the Ladies. So far, so good.

He is impressive – pure muscle, good condition, big and handsome with perfect coloring and nice straight legs. Did I mention the feet the size of dinner plates? And he seems smart and thoughtful to boot. Whew. I admit I had been worried about this, and now it seems all was going to be just fine.

Well, apparently Ellis was very, very tired because by dinner, things were starting to change.  The growling was the first clue. I’m not unfamiliar with growling bulls and steer, but my bulls have not been big growlers. My steer growl a bit, and my first borrowed bull, Snowman made all kinds of crazy noises, but after he left, my bulls have been mostly quiet.

The incessant growling is a little unsettling – kind of like the lion cages at the zoo. Constant, menacing background noise that eventually you don’t even notice until it’s suddenly stopped. Then it’s the silence that makes you worry.

What happened next? The water troughs. Two 100 gallon Rubbermaid troughs, filled with fresh water, SMASH! Water everywhere, tubs cracked in half. One was tied into the downspouts of my run in shed to capture rainwater so the downspouts are shot too and the gutters are useless.

Obviously, I’m a slow learner. The girls are thirsty and upset!! With Exclamations!!!! So foolishly, I go get the big gun; my 200 gallon galvanized tub. Again filled to overflowing with fresh water. Ellis was waiting for it this time. SMASH!

Let’s do the math. The tub by itself isn’t too heavy, but a gallon of water weighs about 8 pounds. 200 gallons x 8 pounds =1600 pounds of absolutely nothing heavier than air to Ellis. He tossed that trough like it was a roll of paper towels. And the big splash?  Huge added thrill for him.

It took 30 minutes to fill the water tote, 10 to haul the water, 5 to fill the trough and 10 seconds for Ellis the Destroyer to smash it up.  And a herd of thirsty Ladies looking to me for a drink. Now what??

About an hour later, the pounding began.  I’m the first to admit my run in shed is pretty rustic.  But it is beautifully efficient and handy to me, and in this blazing sun offers the Ladies welcome shade and in the winter a cozy shelter from wind and rain. The girls love that shed and it is my only pen for capturing cows on that part of the farm.

Ellis obviously does not share our fondness.  Maybe his old home has fancier digs and he’s offended by what he considers an assault to his aesthetic sensibilities. He’s been hard at work destroying it, board by board since he arrived.  It’s still standing, but there’s less of it every day.

But the very worst part was when he discovered an old cast iron bathtub I used to fill with water so the calves could drink. The calves, especially Sprocket and Beatrice, love that heavy, low-to-the-ground tub and are quick to let me know when it needs to be filled.

Well, Ellis managed to get that tub standing on end, resting on the electric fence. Luckily I was there to see it, because it would have shorted the entire fence in no time. And that thin strand of electric wire?  It’s about all I’ve got going for me at the moment.

So yet again, at dusk I had to get the tractor and a chain and tow the heavy hunk of iron into the center of the pasture, far from the fence. I have to admit I felt a flush of guilty satisfaction as I watched Ellis get a good shock when he pushed the tub into the electric wire. Heavy as it is, Ellis is nothing if not diligent in his work. It took him about a week, but that cast iron tub is now in five pieces and is on its way to the scrap yard first thing Monday morning.

I’ve tried to explain to Ellis that girls will like him more when they aren’t worried about their next drink of water and can enjoy a break from the sun & flies in their shady beds, but apparently that’s not Ellis’ way. He has his own strategy for impressing Ladies.

So, something had to be done. Ellis and I had a come to Jesus – and believe you me, there was plenty of praying to Jesus too.  That bull knows a lot more than I do and I am crystal clear on the fact that he would be happy to show me just who is boss around here.

It’s one thing to read about bulls and another altogether to stand your ground against a ton of muscled, horned beast with bulging eyes focused on you. But what do you know? My prayers were answered and I learned a couple of things.

First, Sir Ellis is well acquainted with the word NO! and knows exactly what a shock stick is.

All it took was one shock in the ear, and it was obvious that Ellis understood all along that smashing water tubs is not cool.  But alas, it’s also obvious that Ellis can’t be trusted with another trough. I need an industrial heavy-duty rubber & concrete contraption or else be tied to this annoying routine:

The tedious hauling of water twice a day with a tractor & wagon, filling several 15 gallon tubs and waiting until everyone postures, fusses and drinks their fill before collecting all the tubs, and putting them, tractor and wagon in a safe place ’till next time.

It’s getting old…  but on the plus side, Ellis has wasted not a single minute getting down to his important bull-ish business. Handsome as he is, I look forward to some exceptionally nice calves next spring.

Act II: Oh, Henry

Meet Henry. A ‘till-now unassuming yearling bull.  One week after Ellis showed up, Henry had a date to go and meet some fine young ladies at Ox Hill Devon Farm in Russell, Pennsylvania.

In anticipation of all this arriving and departing, I had collected two steer and the two bulls Rocco and Henry in a smaller pasture adjoining a stout barn. This barn is where I do most of my loading and unloading and so far it’s worked like a charm.

Saturday, Rocco left. The following Wednesday the steer left, leaving Henry alone until his ride showed up the following Saturday morning.

I was concerned about a young bull in a pasture alone – they can get into all sorts of misadventures trying to get to nearby cows. I had no need to worry about Henry though; he was a perfect gentleman.

The morning of Henry’s departure I collected him into a small paddock adjoining the barn, and had every expectation that he would behave just as all the others before him had – he would follow an especially enticing treat straight into the barn where we could then just press him into the trailer using a gate. So far, so good.

But Henry had different ideas. My sweet, low-key Henry became a fearful-soon-to-be-fearsome bull. Once he started running, all was lost. We backed off while he was still running away from us and just before he turned tables and started running at us. We left him alone to relax and decided to give up the mission before we taught him something he wouldn’t forget.

But not without a few bruises and an eye-opening lesson.  During the excitement, I tripped and Henry saw his opportunity. He rolled me and while I wasn’t hurt, we were both fully aware who was really in charge. Fortunately, Henry isn’t a killer, he just wanted to get away so he dropped me and kept running. But let me tell you, that slow motion moment has forever changed our regard for one another.

So what now? I’ve got a bull who won’t leave in one pasture, and another slowly destroying everything I own in another.

Remind me; why do I keep bulls again? Well, I have my reasons which you can read about here if you like. But I don’t for one moment think my choice is the right decision for everybody.

I tell these tales because I don’t want you to think keeping large animals is all bluebirds and butterflies.  When I share stories, I tend to share the things that gave me pleasure or expanded my thinking about a subject. But, as with all things worth doing, there’s a darker side too.

In addition to the bucolic quaintness there’s a physicality to raising livestock that you should seriously consider before taking on a project like getting a family cow.

Most days, while repetitive and sometimes tedious, it really is simple. And the pleasures far outweigh the challenges. But let me assure you – when it’s challenging and frustrating, it can be a real test of your perseverance.

These tales don’t have endings just yet. The girls are stuck with Ellis in this one pasture for now since I don’t want Ellis to tear apart the well in the back pasture or the barn in the front pasture. Like my run-in shed, those things aren’t fancy either, but have been serving me well this year, and I hope for at least a few years to come.

I brought my oldest cow Hannah and her calf Henrietta to move in with Henry. Since there’s no hurry now, Hannah will be a good teacher to Henry. She’ll teach him to come in and go out of the barn for supper and keep him content with her company.

Henry won’t even know he’s being  trained – Hannah is that good.  It will be nice for both of them, since Hannah is reaching an age where she needs a little extra help from me to keep her weight up. And Henrietta? Well, she’s just happy anywhere. That heifer is pure sass & sunshine and is busy wrapping Henry right around her tiny cloven hoof.

Very cute.  To be continued….

21 thoughts on “are you up to the challenge of keeping a bull?

    1. No tears from me or Ellis. The peaceable kingdom is a bit of a myth, at least here on Earth. Its more of a confusing mean girl/best friend stew with the cows anyway. Sorry to burst your bubble…It’s one big lesson in acceptance :)

  1. What a thrilling read! I’ll be watching closely for the rest of the story.

    How did Ellis behave at his old farm? You do wonder if he was an equivalent pain out there or if it is something that he’s doing because he’s new. Maybe its an age thing – how old is he?

    How long is your breeding season and what are you going to do with him when it is over?

    Reading your posts always cracks me up since our cows look nearly the same despite being different breeds on different continents.

    Cheers, Brent.

    1. Hi Brent,
      Thanks for the visit and the comment. i think many of the heritage breed cattle look similar. My breeding season is short – the cows usually all catch the first cycle – I’ve only had one straggler who caught second. I could probably just leave him there for 60 days or so.

      His former family loved him, and brushed him which is hard for me to imagine, lol. In hindsight, there were indicators, but I didn’t think to ask those questions. They had him pastured in a field partly wooded and the water source was a pond so most of this didn’t come up for them. He did do a lot of growling there, and butted the trees.

      Ellis is about 8 and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the points of his horns had been filed blunt. I haven’t made up my mind about what to do with him yet. He’s relaxing and is obviously smart – I’ll take my time and consider my options.

      It would be nice to use him again next year…

      1. If he butts the trees and butts the buildings and the water tanks then where would you put him if you can’t get him to stop destroying everything? Maybe he’s trainable, if he’s smart. Good luck there.

        I went to see a bull in the Cantal before last winter (about six hours drive away). He had the reputation of being their calmest bull. They’d just brought him inside for the winter and like a lot of farms here they had a system of bays and chains so he was chained. His owner wandered up and gave him a big pat on the head. I wandered up and he tried to butt me despite the chains. It was an instant no despite the investment in driving such a long way. They even introduced me to the neighbors who agreed he was the calmest bull around. There’s no way I’m taking the risk with over a ton of beef.

        We’re using a yearling bull this time round to see how he goes. His genetics are separate from the herd but he might have trouble with the taller cows. I like the idea of using new young bulls and turning the older ones into beef the second they seem harder to handle so we’ll see how well we go this time round. I worked this one in the pens for a few weeks before he was let out and he was the calmest of the yearlings, but that isn’t going to mean much by the time he’s two.

      2. Exactly. The visit is key – I should have done that. Although, his owners loved him and I may not have seen anything amiss anyway.

        Till now, I’ve been using young bulls raised here and it’s been with a few minor exceptions pretty trouble free.

        My young bulls had no trouble figuring out how to make things work with the taller Ladies. The first year,
        we used a yearling bull and every cow caught with no trouble – 100% success rate and calves were delivered right on time.

  2. “are you up to the challenge of keeping a bull?” Hey that’s exactly what I kept wondering on the drive home! I once was told or read that keeping a bull is like keeping a loaded gun with a hair trigger. They are both lethal and unpredictable. You had a perfectly good plan for a cow, a steer and the Henry you had a few days before. Things didn’t work out the way either of us wanted but, we adapted and in the end everyone was safe. Nothing is more important than that. Dad always used young bulls and butchered them when they became prime beef and I believe I will do the same. I know you saw how fast Henry was learning and building confidence. A young bull that smart will find a way to overcome a slight height difference even if he has to dig a hole for her to stand in himself! I think Henry will make you a good bull. I don’t think I could put up with Ellis destroying everything.

    1. HA. It’s a quandary for sure : ) I’d be worried about your kids. My neighbor’s kids lay on top of their bull which seems like asking for trouble to me. Bulls can be friendly and seem to be slow, until one day they’re not.

      I read that 80% of bull incidents involve adult men and complacency and I believe it. Ellis is here, the deed is done. His people loved him, so he’s clearly got some personality. He’ll relax when these cows are all bred – meanwhile, I’m going to put electric wire around the run in shed so there’s nothing for Ellis to destroy while I figure things out. I’m sure I’ll hear more growling about that…

      Henry’s dad was short and at 11 months bred all my cows, even the biggest. Where there’s a hill, there’s a way : )

  3. Whew. I would not keep Ellis another day. Don’t want that kind of crazy in the bloodlines, KWIM?

    But you get to decide–that’s the joy of it. =)

    1. Ellis isn’t crazy or mean spirited. He’s just an older bull with some entrenched habits in a strange place surrounded by many open cows.
      He’s getting better… his former family loved him, brushed him and fed him treats so he has to have some endearing qualities.
      Once he gets over claiming his territory we’ll get to meet the real Ellis…

  4. And I have the nerve to fuss about the work of our new puppy? Wow. You just put everything in perspective. Good luck with the getting acquainted.

  5. this is a great and really authentic post about bull experience! – would you mind if I shared it with a small dairy group I’m in on Facebook? I think the reality sharing is so important, thanks for writing!

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