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Blending birds and steersBlending birds and steers

Chickens are now a small part of my ranch culture, and they're schooling me.

R. P. 'Doc' Cooke

July 29, 2016

3 Min Read

 Leap year morning this winter was quite warm and the sun was breaking out of the eastern sky with clarity and a wake-up call to life.

We had been checking the soil for activity. The earthworms were already showing up in big numbers and we dug under a three-week-old steer pie the day before, which had 400-plus worms in a single shovel full of soil. They were getting active and really growing. I read recently that a good acre of pasture has over 400 pounds of earthworms. When the conditions are right and they are active and working, they can do some serious business transforming litter and dead plant life into worm castings. They also love a little lime.

Heirloom type tomatoes grown in high-worm-castings soil are one of the ultimate life enjoyments. We were making big plans for tasty German Pinks this spring and summer. I have not run Brix tests on such homegrown tomatoes, but I can guarantee it reflects the soil health, organic matter, mineralization and life under the plant. Tomato lycopene has been proven to help preserve our organ function, including prostate health. I can get excited about this deal.

I recruited a woman with grass-fed cattle interest and zero experience for a part time intern position at our place 16 months ago. Brenda has thirty-plus years in the health industry, a wonderful attitude, and bunches of skill and nutritional knowledge. She knows a mountain of "head material" about a broken healthcare system and the miserable state of our country’s nutritional status. She has quickly learned principles of soil health, plant health and cattle. Then she talked me into chickens (hens).

It wasn't that hard a sell. Birds are very important to cattle. They not only are important for bug and fly control, but they are also the first pasture cleansers behind the steers. Working three- to five-day old pies and older, they turn the maggots into food -- quality eggs. Cattle diseases are prevented and the system goes into high gear, as does soil health and plant regrowth. When the numbers are right the miracles are everywhere.

I built a couple of lightweight chicken "tractors," meaning moveable shelters, and placed them in the pasture. Brenda bought nine hens that had been laying for several months. So 499 Ranch went into the egg business (for self-consumption). I thought we would get 40 eggs weekly. We’ve been as high as 28 and as low as seven. In late February, the "girls" started getting more serious, and by April the nine hens were up to 42 eggs per week.

Remember that these hens are outside twenty-four/seven without artificial heat or light. They eat steer feed, kitchen scraps, road kills, grass and legumes, and whatever they scratch up. We move them twice or more daily to new grass. We water them, feed them a little, and rob the eggs.

One day in mid June there were a total of six eggs from nine hens. One of the eggs looked to have been laid by a goose. We don’t own a goose so I phoned my brilliant intern and informed her of the dilemma. She reported that it was just a big double-yolked hen egg. Upon seeing the gigantic shelled object she repeated the same hypothesis. I had heard all this before and told her to put her money where her mouth is. She bartered for odds and got them. My $20 to her $10.

I'll cut to the chase is and say that we went to headquarters where I cracked and emptied the mastodon egg into a coffee mug. Two large egg yolks were inside. I cried and paid off the bet.

These cotton pickin' hens are getting to be high-dollar girls. They are kind of like the Super Bowl; another place for me to lose money. But they help the habitat.

About the Author(s)

R. P. 'Doc' Cooke


R. P. "Doc" Cooke, DVM, is a mostly retired veterinarian from Sparta, Tennessee. Doc has been in the cattle business since the late 1970s and figures he's driven 800,000 miles, mostly at night, while practicing food animal medicine and surgery in five counties in the Upper Cumberland area of middle Tennessee. He says all those miles schooled him well in "man-made mistakes" and that his age and experiences have allowed him to be mentored by the area’s most fruitful and unfruitful "old timers." Doc believes these relationships provided him unfair advantages in thought and the opportunity to steal others’ ideas and tweak them to fit his operations. Today most of his veterinary work is telephone consultation with graziers in five or six states. He also writes and hosts ranching schools. He is a big believer in having fun while ranching but is serious about business and other producers’ questions. Doc’s operation, 499 Cattle Company, now has an annual stocking rate of about 500 pounds beef per acre of pasture and he grazes 12 months each year with no hay or farm equipment and less than two pounds of daily supplement. You can reach him by cell phone at (931) 256-0928 or at [email protected].

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