Our Swedish Red/Holstein cow Tilly has just rather unexpectedly given birth to a beautiful little black calf, who we have called Bala – meaning great strength.
We only found out that she was pregnant at around six months and the young bull still arrived a bit earlier than we expected. It took him a while to get the hang of drinking his mother’s milk and we had to show him how to go about it.
That first milk contains colostrum and is vitally important for a young calf as it contains antibodies from his mum’s immune system. The fact he wasn’t eating made him feel all blocked up inside and his dung was rather hard, so we called the vet to check him over.
The vet gave him and injection, but said there was nothing to worry about and by this time Bala had worked out how to drink from his mother. He went from strength to strength and is now running around the field like a little motorcycle.
His older brother is Gautam, the wisest, oldest and gentlest of our bulls. Gautam spent an entire afternoon studying young Bala and wondering what to make of him. His other brother is Seymour, who really couldn’t care less about the new arrival, even though their colouring is exactly the same.
But what a clever girl Tilly is. She has now produced three fine bulls, all of whom will have long and we hope happy lives with us. That is not the fate for most dairy bull-calves who are often destroyed at around three days of age as a by-product of the industry. They might get a few months longer if they are destined for the dinner table and their flesh consumed by humans as veal.
Happily all of our boys will have productive lives as working oxen, helping us to farm our land. Gautam has already started and we think he has really enjoyed himself learning to obey basic commands and pull farm implements such as a harrow.
It is important, just as with people, that bulls are occupied in meaningful work. It builds their muscles and physique and stops them getting bored. There are also many jobs around the farm that are far better suited to bull-power as they are places a tractor could never reach. Nor of course do oxen use fossil fuels, which are wrecking our climate.
So we are happy that we have a new addition to the Ahimsa family and that it is a little black bull called Bala. Maybe in time Seymour will develop some brotherly love.
In most dairies cows rarely get treats. Farmers believe giving them anything beyond a routine diet eats into profits and wastes vegetables that could be sold at market. So the team at Ahimsa are often regarded rather oddly when we attempt to please our cows with tasty titbits.
It is true, sometimes we are a little indulgent as we clear Waitrose shelves of organic carrots grown by Prince Charles, but actually it gives us as much pleasure as it does the cows and young oxen.
Sometimes though ennui sets it and they turn their noses up at boring carrots. They want parsnips, or bananas or even chopped up apples and the occasional rich-tea biscuit has been a favourite for most of them since they were little.
But most of our milking cows were not used to such delicacies having come from the large organic dairy we have been working with, nor were they used to being fed by hand.
Once they came to our Groby farm some took their time to take advantage of what was on offer, whilst others got the idea really quickly. Rosie for example thought all of her birthdays had come at once and would eat anything. She once managed to steal a whole bag on parsnips and carrots while we were feeding the other cows. One little parsnip covered in slobber was left was when caught her.
Champa on the other hand wasn’t in the least interested in snacks and would head-but us when we tried giving her something. She came to be known as Mrs Grumpy – as opposed to Rosie who is Mrs Greedy -. Then one day she had an epiphany and realised she was missing out on good things that all the others were getting. Her nature changed, she became sweet and pleasant and covered our hands with cow slobber as she gobbled up what ever she was offered.
There is still a very strict pecking order though and apart from Harry and Henry, who are both greedy and naughty, every cows or ox waits their turn whilst the older ones dig in first.
Draupadi and the ever present Rosie are normally first in line together with Horatio. In fact Draupadi generally lets Horatio do the initial tasting before she has anything – just to ensure it is palatable. Dharma always has a sniff, but unusually for an ox he can’t be enticed with food, which is a bit of a nuisance when we are trying to work him.
A certain amount of pushing and shoving then ensues, with Nimai and Nitai getting in on the act and then Padma, ever graceful follows up behind. Primrose, who is a bit of a princess, has to be fed separately and as for poor-old Seymour, he is so polite he doesn’t get a look in and we have to keep stuff in reserve for him. His mum Tilly also lets grass grow under her feet and doesn’t like the rough and tumble of competing with the others, so we have to save nibbles for her too.
All in all treats keep our cows happy and feeding them is a treat for us too.
– by our ox trainer Syamasundara Das, who has 20 years’ experience persuading young oxen to go to work.
There they are lying on the grass ruminating the days grazing, each with their place in relation to the others. The two oxen Dharma and Gautama were destined for work….. well that was the plan. The herd of 19 cows and oxen were sitting at the farthest end of the Ahimsa farm in Leicester.
Better get started. Come Ooon, Come ooON. Positioning myself behind the herd I gradualy coaxed them up and back to their holding area and the place where training was to begin. No way would the two work candidates Dharma and Gautama be herded by themselves so the whole herd had to move to position these two.
Stage one. They needed to recognize the harnessing area as a place of fun and pleasure. After segregating Dharma and Gautama from the rest of the herd I walked them around and down through a narrow corridor for cows (race) and a holding frame (for medical attention), out the other end and then around again a few times.
Stage Two. Today when Dharma and then Gautama entered the race we stopped them going forward and reversing and then gave them a nice brush all over so they identified this type of work activity with some muscle massage. Once brushed a rope was placed around their horns and they were gently coaxed to move forward to the harnessing area. This place was prepared so that there would be access to the oxen during yoking and a safe area for the ox trainer. With some gentle calls and gentle tugs on the horn ropes Dharma and later Gautama moved along the high fence line to the place they were tied on short reins. Once they were side by side they were left for a bit to get used to each other’s close proximity.
Stage Three. Each day the oxen were moved in the same way, herding into their segregation, coaxing down the race, brushing, placing a lead rope around their horns, taking them to the yoking area. Today, once they had settled after moving, I placed the yoke on their shoulders and secured the U bars. Wow this seems very straight forward! They were very calm. Perhaps we can try walking them around the pen. Quickly Dharma remembered that he was a posing Ox, the head of the herd and was not really inclined to training with the probable outcome of working around the farm. He had somehow heard that if you flip the yoke the training had to stop…. He gave it a go, the pin came out the U bar dropped and that was the end of the training session. It was apparent that Dharma was very nervous and preferred to hide in the shed or run around the holding pen rather than consider working. As there was only a week dedicated for training it was considered that we should team Horatio (he was taking a keen interest in the training and watched closely the proceedings) with Gautama.
Stage Four Gautama yoked with Horatio and little movement around the pen. Not much, just a few steps, plenty of calming words, everything to reduce anxiety in the oxen. “Why am I so close to the ox next to me who would like to poke his horn in my side? Why is there a piece of laminated plywood shaped like a yoke on my shoulder (not sure if the oxen know all the intricacies of yoke making though). Why is there some metal U bars keeping the yoke on my shoulder? Why is there a rope harnessed to me and nudging me to slow or reverse……… such are the many questions that traverse the mind of an ox in training”
Stage Five. Segregated, groomed, yoked and moved…….Gate open….. here we go, better to give them space to walk rather than the small space of the 30m pen. Oh my!, Oh my! this is amazing they were walking side by side. Not sure of each other, not sure exactly how they should walk together, not sure exactly what they should do but they walked to the end of the land, a big turn round and back to the pen. Stopping form time to time, wow, wow, (In low reassuring tones). Plenty of petting, plenty of thankful scratching. Walk a bit stop and thank. Enough for the day, a great success.
Stage six. Yoked and walked to the farthest pond and back. Once done a spring harrow was connected to their yoke. This would be a bit scary for them. Something following, something noisy, some ropes touching their legs from time to time. Off we went.. sure a bit nervous they were… should they run or should they stop… yes the rope startled them the first time it touched their legs. Calming words, steady reins, plenty of stops, plenty of petting. A full circuit of the pasture grounds two oxen who only days before sat and chewed cud and watched cars and pedestrians go by are now pulling farm tools. Amazing oxen. Training oxen is natural, it’s as though they are hardwired for it.
Stage seven. Yoked and walked around the pastures. Today a step up again. A platform was placed on the harrow and with the driver sat on it the oxen coaxed forward…….” Hang on this is heavier than yesterday rushed through their minds…… so after a few metres they stopped and looked wondering”. After walking half the route with the oxen only pulling an empty harrow the driver again mounted the makeshift sledge and tapped them on again. This time they pulled into it and with a bit of wondering who was to blame for the extra weight they walked and pulled the sledge around the whole pasturing ground. Amazing oxen made for work and they can still pose and chew cud the rest of the day.
And there it is. Two oxen yoked together semi-trained and farm machinery pulled. What remains now is regular light farm work and gradually increasing the loads they pull. Working oxen now at the ahimsa farm in Leicester.
These two oxen don’t yet know how strong they are but with steady and reassuring work they will develop their powerful physique and display power and majestic grace.
The world is on the brink of runaway climate change. It is real, it is happening and the consequences of irreversible climate change will be catastrophic. As the earth warms up the polar ice caps will melt and no longer reflect the sun’s harmful rays back into space, instead they will absorb heat. The frozen Siberian tundra will also melt releasing vast quantities of methane into the atmosphere.
Drought, hurricanes, floods, millions of refugees, wars and around 50 per cent species extinction will follow.
We still have a small window of opportunity to stop this, but our addiction to fossil fuels for energy needs to be broken. Already we have heard that big oil is likely to get 20 percent of the seats at the UN climate talks in Paris unless we can stop them: http://action.sumofus.org/a/big-polluters-out-of-cop/?sub=taf It is plain wrong that the polluters should have a say in ours and the planet’s future.
Cows are also blamed for methane production, but it does not make sense that nature has created an animal out of synch with the environment.
It is humans who have put themselves at odds with nature, believing that human culture is superior and this process has accelerated since the industrial revolution. But what sort of superiority is it that can jeopardise our very existence?
It is true that cattle reared intensively, fed unnatural diets and locked up indoors all year wrong do produce methane, but they are not living as nature intended. It is also unconscionable that an obsession with meat-eating as evidence of development leads to the mass clearance of land to graze animals for beef. Cows are tragic victims of this brutal regime, they shouldn’t be blamed for man’s greed and stupidity.
At the same time hundreds of thousands of bull calves are slaughtered every year as a by-product of the dairy industry. What a waste when working oxen have been key to agriculture for millennia and still are in some parts of the world.
For thousands of years they have been put to work productively ploughing and harrowing the land and helping to build some of the wonders of the ancient world through their toil.
Theirs is clean energy. They don’t use fossil fuels and work in harmony with the earth. Their manure feeds the soil with rich, organic fertiliser, not the harmful chemicals from agri-business that degrade the earth even killing worms.
Bulls don’t compress the soil like tractors, their tracks draw water down deep into earth, they don’t get stuck in the mud and there are many places they can reach, which would be impossible for a tractor. They are also much more amiable a companion than a machine run and built by fossil fuels.
Ghandi once said that the earth had enough for everyone’s need, not everyone’s greed. To be sure we can breed fewer cows, we can raise them kindly and non-intensively, we can reduce our demand for meat, and we can value milk more and use it more thoughtfully.
However, fundamentally we need to be thinking clean, green energy. We need to be creating climate jobs, whether that is people to work with bulls or harnessing the power of the waves and wind, otherwise all bets are off and the planet faces a bleak future.
The Ahimsa team has just been on a fact-finding trip to Hungary where we were investigating slaughter-free dairy farming at a Hare Krishna farm two hours from Budapest.
Hungarian agriculture suffered very badly under Soviet Communism and peasant farmers were persecuted relentlessly. Land was confiscated and they were forced to hand over ever-increasing amounts of produce to the state.
Therefore it was inspiring to see a 600-acre farm flourishing in the countryside today.
Their cows are mainly Hungarian Grey, Swiss Brown and Tyrolean Grey and they have a fine herd of milking cows and working oxen together with a gang of young calves. There is also a Zebu bull rescued from a French zoo.
The oxen, some with horns as long as 18 inches, are gainfully employed to do various jobs around the farm – they operate a mill to chop wood for the wood-burning stoves, plough, harrow and reap the hay. They also pull sleighs through the winter snow.
The cows are milked by hand in their stall in the main cow shed. They produce rich, creamy milk, and it is used raw to make a delicious gouda-type cheese.
Part of the daily routine for the calves and cows is to have their stalls cleaned – they are kept indoors during the bitterly cold winter – and then to be brushed.
Firstly, I climbed into the calves’ pen, armed with a variety of brushes, to give the youngsters their turn. Two of the girls started to eat my trousers; one sinking her teeth into my leg, a young bull decided my cardigan was a great thing to chew, whilst the biggest calf, a boy, went for my jacket. After some negotiation I freed myself and set to work, stopping occasionally to sort out the squabbles engendered by one calf thinking another was getting more attention.
Once the calves were all shiny and clean I went to visit the cows. They loved the fuss and attention and stood patiently while I brushed their coats and tails and milk bags.
I had been warned in halting English that one of the cows didn’t have a peaceful nature. I took this to mean she probably kicked and head-butted people, so I missed her out. However, I became aware that she was watching my every move as I walked up and down the shed.
Whichever way I went, this cow turned her head to look at me and mooed. Eventually, I explained the reason why she had not been brushed, but said if she was a good girl I would oblige. Her big black eyes looked at me kindly and I stepped forward to begin making her beautiful.
We got on famously and as I told her that all ladies like to have their hair done, she proffered her fringe to be combed. It was quite clear that Hungarian cows have the Babel fish, made famous by Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy, in their ears and are quite capable of understanding all other languages.
Lovely cows, lovely oxen and lovely people. I hope we will go back soon.
The herd have been watching us as we have been very busy building new fences and putting up barns and shelters with the funds raised from our appeal last year. It was really heart-warming that so many people loved our project and chipped in to help us bring about a revolution in dairy farming. We have been a bit slow, but everyone’s perks will be going out over the next few days. A huge thank you and several moos once again.
So back to the business of putting in the new infrastructure – the herd knew that one way or another it was about them, but they didn’t like to be too obvious in observing us. So they hung around at a respectable distance, pretending to be doing other things. When curiosity got the better of them – as it always does with our cows – they sent a scout to get the lowdown. As ever this was Primrose, who blatantly stood and watched before heading off to report to the gang.
We also have big plans for growing a variety of vegetables, fertilised by bull and cow manure. We hope to be in a position to sell them later in the year. The first thing we planted was spring cabbage. Unfortunately, the cows attempted a bit of sabotage after breaking into the field, however, we are confident we have rescued most of them. Nimai, who has always been a bit of a wild child, found a gap in the fence the other day and made off into the same field. Sadly for him he was caught red-hooved and had to do the walk of shame as we ushered him back through the gate. The rest of the gang gathered round to watch as he trundled back towards them.
Otherwise spring is really in the air and soon everything will be starting to grow. That will please the cows, who are looking forward to nibbling tasty spring grass and some lush tree leaves. They have more-or-less been outside all winter and have lovely thick coats, but they are now beginning to moult. The ground around their hay-feeders has also got a bit churned-up and there have been some muddy knees – which delighted the young bulls – but it will be nice when the ground is dry again.
So we have a busy time ahead of us. We have been up and down the country and to mainland Europe buying special agricultural equipment for the bulls to pull and this year the older boys will be trained to do ox-work. We are also bringing the milking cows to Leicester, where they will be hand-milked. All new calves will also have access to their mothers for six months.
The existing herd in Leicester have been joined by young bulls Harry and Henry and Seymour’s mother Tilly, who is having a holiday, joined them a few months ago together with her friends Kamala and Rosie. It is very rewarding to see them all together and see the relationships and bonds they have with each other. This is something that so many cows in today’s dairy industry never have a chance of – so thank you all customers and friends for helping to make this possible.