What is a freemartin heifer? That’s today’s topic. It is related to one of our cows having twins. Stay tuned for those details. In other news, “is that a skunk?” That’s what I thought yesterday when I was walking out to get the cows. You never know what you are going to run into on the homestead. And the dogwood trees are in bloom what a treat. It’s different for us out here in the country. Driving along the highway, there are lots of dogwood trees in everybody’s yard. These are well-trimmed and very round trees. They are quite lovely. The dogwood trees here on the homestead are sprinkled through the woods. It looks like it is snowing in patches everywhere. I love this time of year.
I want to take a minute and say welcome to all the new listeners and welcome back to the veteran homestead-loving regulars who stop by the FarmCast for every episode. I appreciate you all so much. What would I do without You? I have no idea. I’m so glad you are here. I’m so excited to share with you are the various stuff going on at the farm this week. There is a lot of it.
Our Virginia Homestead Life Updates
This time of year, everything is kicked into high gear. It seems like one thing is happening right on top of another. And when you have the odd thing pop up – like your windshield getting a ding by a flying rock on the highway that quickly expanded to a lengthy crack requiring a windshield replacement, it makes it that much busier. To top off that cute little story, you never question how much it is going to cost for those great auto-driving gadgets if something breaks. The windshield has a camera right behind the rear-view mirror that required recalibration after the glass was replaced. That lovely service cost one and half times the cost of the windshield replacement itself.
A day later I find out that the automatic headlight features are no longer working. I have to make a second trip to town for some codes to get cleared out. That fixed the problem but it took another three hours out of my day. Do you guys have days like that? You have so much to do and you end up doing something completely unrelated to anything on your “to-do” list. I still have a pending “to-do” regarding that windshield replacement. In Virginia, every county has an annual inspection that requires a sticker to be displayed on the windshield. Yup! You guessed it. That little feature didn’t survive the procedure. I got it back in pieces with an apology and a reminder that I would need to get that inspection sticker replaced. When am I going to get that done? Geesh. It has been one of those weeks. On to the homestead happenings in and around these minor annoyances.
Gardens and Orchard
The strawberries are doing really well. I can’t wait for them to start blooming. Speaking of blooming, the blueberries are busting out all over. Keep the second week of June in mind. That’s likely when we will have blueberries available at the farmer’s markets. I’ll be making lots of blueberry jam again this year. At least I hope I will be.
If you’ve been around the podcast a while, you might remember that we have had some trouble with racoons in the past. These are really cute creatures and I’m willing to share a little of our abundance with them. However, when they start eating the entire crop of blueberries, that’s where I draw the line. We put up an electric fence two years ago. It worked beautifully. In fact, it worked so well that we didn’t even have it working last year and we still got all the berries. I guess the experience the previous year was so “shocking” that these little guys decided not to even try last year. I wonder if that caution will hold up for another year. Naw, let’s not test it. That electric fence needs to be reinstated in the coming weeks to ensure that we are successful in harvesting our wonderful blueberries.
The blackberries are growing lots of leaves but have not started blooming quite yet. It is a wonderful time of year when the blackberries bloom. A related plant, the wild rose, also blooms about the same time. Between these two plants, the fragrance in the air is heavenly. The goats have cleared out most of the wild rose and wild blackberries so we may have to rely solely on the domestic blackberries for our perfumed air this season. We shall see.
The green peas are jumping up out of the ground. Scott built a wonderful trellis for these lovelies. We have two 70-ft long beds with six rows of peas in each that are coming up. Peas love the cool weather. It’s a good thing they do. The temps are going to drop into the low 30’s tonight. But I expect the peas to be fine. There might be a very light frost, but we should be okay with that.
The early blooming fruit trees are done and will be setting fruit at this point. That is a greater concern. If it gets too cold, the cherries, peaches, and plums could lose their fruit. I was looking at the peach trees yesterday and I didn’t see any small fruit. Perhaps it will be all right. We shall see.
What was I doing out in the orchard yesterday? I was chasing a small quail.
While I was testing the automatic waterers, one of the younger girls slipped by me and jumped to the ground. I chased her and chased her and chased her. She got into the orchard and the grass is about 8 inches tall in there. I saw exactly where she landed but when I got there, she was gone. I walked outward in a spiral, expanding larger and larger, but I never saw her. I guess she’s gone for good. Sigh! I hope she has a great life out there on her own. Hopefully, she will be able to fend for herself. It’s hard to tell though. She has always had her food presented in an easily consumable form with no effort on her part. Out there on her own, she will need to scratch around a lot to find bugs and worms and such. Quail are very carnivorous and require lots and lots of protein. I wish her the best. Who knows? She may turn up in a day or so and I will be able to catch her. We had that experience a couple of years ago. Scott lost two hens that time and we eventually caught both of them and returned them to their cages. So, there is hope.
The rest of the quail are doing very, very well. Twice a year Scott gives the quail hutches a thorough cleaning. He finished that job just as the new babies went out into the grow out cages. They are doing really well. We have 36 of them at this time. Figuring out how to work the automatic waterers is always a challenge, but they mastered it in no time.
Just this morning 72 more eggs went into the incubator. The second cycle of baby quail has started.
Sheep and Lambs
We are done with the lambing season. The last ewe delivered twins a few days ago. Girls!! Yay!! They are doing very well. We ended up with three girls and three boys. Six healthy lambs. Susie Q is still getting her bottle twice a day, but she has been turned loose with the rest of the sheep and lambs. I’m thinking she doesn’t like this very much, but she is getting used to it. Because she was so attached to Scott and myself and literally never left our side, it was important for her to start spending her time with other animals. After all, she isn’t a human and she needs to make friends with the other animals.
It seems to be going well. I always feel sorry for these lambs that have no mother caring for them. But they seem to do very well in spite of their orphan status in the flock. Lambert is our flock ram. He was a bottle-baby last year. Look how far he has been elevated in status. I’ll probably keep Susie Q as a flock ewe also. The bottle babies are somewhat like pets. Not exactly, but definitely more special than the others.
Cows and Calves
Violet is the only animal we have left who has yet to deliver. She is not due until the first week of June. It’s always a relief when we make it through this delicate time for all of our female creatures. Scott briefly talked about having a second set of lambs in the fall. I am not in favor of this as it is quite stressful for me when our ladies are nearly term. I’d rather keep it to just a couple of months in the spring. My nerves need a rest for the remainder of the year.
Butter produced a very big surprise for us. If you haven’t seen and heard Scott’s video on our Facebook page, you have to get over there and find it. It was posted on Thursday, April 15th. He is filming the results of him helping Butter deliver this cute little girl when all of a sudden, he sees another set of hooves. Here’s a link to that post. It’s hilarious. Watch to the end.
The twin calves are really cute. However, there is a problem when twins are one boy and one girl. The heifer calf, the girl, is most likely what is called a “freemartin”. That’s the topic that I want to dive into with more detail.
I had Butter pegged for delivery in late May, not mid-April. I’m not sure how I got so far off on those calculations. I think I was planning ahead on my spreadsheet, estimating where the dates would fall with various scenarios and neglected to put the dates back to their original settings. About three or four days before she gave birth, it became obvious that my calculations were off. Her udder swelled up and she was just huge. And it was the day before she gave birth that I had the very strong thought that she might have twins. She was really huge. It really is hard to tell though. When they fill their belly up with hay and grass, it can get really big even when they are not pregnant. Add pregnancy and they all look really huge just before they give birth. I just had that very strong thought and then she did, in fact, have twins.
There is no problem when the twins are both girls or both boys. But when one is a boy and the other a girl, there are definite issues. Nothing like they will die or anything like that. No, they will be quite healthy. It’s the freemartin phenomenon to which I am referring. What? You don’t know what that means? Neither did I.
We had actually purchased a calf that was a likely freemartin heifer when we purchased our first milk cows, Claire and Buttercup. We purchased Beta because the price was right and we wanted one additional cow strictly for beef. So, what is a freemartin heifer anyway? Here is the low-down.
The term freemartin refers to an infertile female mammal with masculinized behavior and non-functioning ovaries. The animal originates as a female with the double X chromosome, but during gestation acquires the male, XY chromosome. This can only happen with a male/female twin gestation. As I said, as long as there are two girls or two boys, there is no problem. This occurs in all cattle species that have been studied, and it can also happen occasionally in other mammals including sheep, goats and pigs. We have never seen this in our sheep and they deliver mixed male/female twins all the time. So, I have to think it is quite rare in sheep. Sheep and goats deliver twins and even triplets all the time. However, natural twins in cows only happens about .5% of the time. About one in every 200 births. A large cattle herd of 200 or more cows would see twins regularly in any given calving season.
With the male/female twin calf set, they not only share the uterus but they also share the placental membranes. That’s where the problem arises. The joining of the placental membranes occurs at about the fortieth day of gestation. After that happens, the fluids of the two fetuses can easily mix. There is an exchange of blood and antigens that carry unique characteristics of bulls and heifers. In the end, both will have some characteristics of the other sex.
The male is only affected by reduced fertility. In the female, over 90% of them are completely infertile. That makes her a freemartin. One who is genetically female but has characteristics of a male. Ovaries generally do not develop correctly and are small. There can be other structural anomalies as well. In the end, freemartinism cannot be prevented. And it really is rare. Even with any set of twins, there is a 50%-50% chance of same sex calves. If I do the math correctly, that means that 1 in 200 births would produce twins and at least half of the time, those twins would be fine – twins of the same sex.
Anyway, that’s the story of our twin calves. They are cute beyond measure, but likely we have two steers. I don’t know about the Hansel. Oh, I forgot to mention we call them Hansel and Gretel. So, I don’t know if Hansel will make a decent bull or not. But we can be pretty sure that Gretel will never produce a calf. What do you think we should do with these two calves? We currently are bottle feeding both of them. They could be sold as bottle babies. We could raise them as steers. We could try to breed Gretel when she is old enough. We could raise Hansel as a bull. He is 50% registered Normande and 50% registered Jersey. If he is fertile, he would make a fine bull for somebody.
Let us know what you think.
That’s it for this podcast. It’s a great time of the year here on the homestead. I’m so glad to be nearly finished with birthing. As I mentioned it is quite stressful for me. I just never know what to expect. We have beautiful lambs and beautiful calves. We are truly blessed. The joy of watching all of the plants and animals grow will fill our lives for the next several months.
I hope you all are having a wonderful spring season as well.
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Thank you so much for stopping by the homestead and until next time, may God fill your life with grace and peace.
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