Historic Ice & Snow @ Hillingdon Ranch

It’s been since the early 1980’s that Hillingdon Ranch has seen the amount of ice & snow that we just experienced.

Ice started settling in on February 11th & by the evening of February 14th, it was snowing. It didn’t take long for the pastures to be covered in a white blanket.

Giles Ranch Road then lost power the evening of February 15th, got power back for 4 hours on the morning of February 17th, then it was back off until 2 PM on February 19th. We are thankful it was a short time without power in comparison to those not very far to the North & West of us!

With everything covered in ice & snow, it became necessary for us to go out & provide feed to the livestock. Calving season was in full swing when the ice & snow hit, & nannies & ewes were heavy bred.

For the first time in Grant’s life, we fed hay to livestock out in the pastures. Our cattle aren’t used to seeing hay, so they decided to use it as bedding rather than eat it. That didn’t last long however, since the freezing conditions continued for several days.

The cattle did pretty well throughout, & the calves didn’t seem phased being born in the freezing temperatures. The sheep also did well, but it was a bit tougher on some of our older nannies & billies. We also lost some kids that were born during the ice/snow storm. A neighbor’s Spanish billy got into one of our pastures & bred nannies before we had put our billies in for breeding season. This resulted in kids being born when this storm hit. Our ewes & nannies are bred to lamb & kid in early April for this very reason. By early April, the chance of cold weather has normally passed.

Thankfully, most of our livestock does not depend on a trough for their source of water. Springs, creeks, & tanks {ponds} are present in most of our pastures. There were only a couple of water troughs that had to be broken up daily. Some of our live water sources froze over, but luckily lack of water never became an issue for our livestock.

Hillingdon was covered in ice &/or snow for 8 full days. That is the longest stretch of ice & snow that this ranch has seen in at least the last 100 years. It’s been said in the news that this was a 100 year storm, & that is indeed accurate for Hillingdon!

We are thankful our losses were not devastating. Prayers for those that weren’t as fortunate!

Team Red|Inside Ewe

Over the past few months, we have added three red Border Collies to the team. We currently have three working dogs, so there was definitely a need for more.

CoCo made her home at Hillingdon back in October. She is a sweet pup with lots of energy & an interest in livestock. She is working on responding to when her name is called.

LuLu came to us just before Thanksgiving. She is a tiny little ball that loves to eat! She is most often eating or chewing on a bone. She thinks she is as big as the others & lets them know she is in charge. Lulu comes from the same place that Jill {our 15 year old Border Collie} came from years ago. We understand Lulu has the same genetics as Jill, & we are anxious to see her potential. Jill has been such an amazing working dog, & we’re excited to have another one with the same breeding.

Hayley joined us at the beginning of January. She came from a family that did not have any sheep or goats. They felt she’d be happier if she was able to work since she shows strong herding abilities. Hayley is well mannered & shows much interest in livestock.

We now have five red Border Collies & just two black & white ones…very unusual for Hillingdon!

Our ewes were ultra sounded this past Monday, which makes our fifth year to scan for pregnancy status.

Dr. Reid Redden, Darrell White, & Jordan Moody from Texas A&M AgriLife Extension scanned the ewes. 277 mature ewes & 49 yearling ewes were scanned. Of the mature ewes scanned, 51.99% are carrying twins, 44.04% are carrying a single, & 3.97% are open {not bred}. Projected lamb crop for our mature ewes is 148.01%. Of the 49 yearling ewes scanned, 30.61% are carrying twins, 65.31% are carrying a single, & 4.08% are open. Projected lamb crop for our yearling ewes is 126.53%.

Many of these ewes have been scanned all five years, which means they are the older ewes in our herd. A handful of them have carried twins all five years. Other ewes have been scanned three & four times, & have also scanned every time as carrying twins. These ewes will be put together & a closer eye will be kept on them.

By having up to five years of scan data on our ewes, we are able to see trends & manage accordingly. Because ewes with twins have a higher nutritional & maintenance requirement, we will put them in a better pasture with more feed or supplement them {if the return is worth the extra cost of supplementation}.

Calves Weaned|Rams & Billies Turned Out|Kids Separated|Lambs Sold

Much of October was spent weaning calves. Weaning is an important time in the management of cattle. At weaning, the calf’s milk diet is replaced with a forage diet. At the time of weaning, the mother cows are about four to five months pregnant. It is important the cows have a break from nursing a calf in order to provide adequate nutrition to the developing fetus inside of her.

All calves were vaccinated with a booster shot, treated with a pour on solution for internal & external parasites, & branded. Branding is the main technique of permanent identification & proof of ownership for livestock. A recognizable brand is instrumental in proving
ownership.

All calves received an ‘HIL’ brand. Some heifer & all bull calves also received a number brand {their ear tag number}. These heifers were selected based on visual appeal, as well as their pedigree records. Any heifer that we will possibly retain ownership of, received a number brand.

Calves were then turned out to pastures to graze. Decisions will soon be made as to where to send the steer calves for winter grazing. Some or all of the heifer calves will be sold to another rancher{s}.

Rams & billies were gathered at the beginning of November to be put out with the ewes & nannies for breeding season. Ewes & nannies should begin lambing|kidding at the beginning of April.

Kids were weaned at shearing time back in August/September. The billy kids & nanny kids have recently been separated into different pastures. When the days get shorter & nights get cooler, billies become active & prepare for breeding. Having them separated helps prevent the billy kids from getting into mischief with the ladies.

Lambs were weaned back in the summer & have since been in the feedlot eating a prepared ration.

In recent years, we have been selling the majority of our lambs at the sale barn in Fredericksburg, just before Eid-Ul-Adha {the Muslim Festival of Sacrifice}. Eid-Ul-Adha was a bit earlier in the month, so our lambs weren’t quite heavy enough. The ideal lamb for this holiday is 60-80 pounds.

This Muslim holiday has advanced into the time of year when a large volume of sheep & goats {of all kinds} are being sold due to a seasonal short day breeding. This results in a large portion of lambs & kids being ready for sale in summer/early fall.

Instead of selling them all at once, we have been selling smaller groups at a time. We have been sorting through them & selecting the heavier ones to sell each week. Some of the ewes lambs were sold to another rancher.

Wishing you & your family a Happy Thanksgiving!

Border Collies & Livestock Guardian Dogs

The dogs here at Hillingdon are a huge part of our operation. Without them, we could not accomplish what we do.

The Border Collie is a working & herding dog breed. They are considered highly intelligent, extremely energetic, acrobatic, & athletic. Border Collies typically require considerably more physical exercise & mental stimulation than many other breeds. These dogs are bred to stare or ‘give the eye’. Their eye is so intense that it can control a herd of goats or flock of sheep. Border Collies are devoted to work & some are even considered workaholics. Our Border Collies respond to simple, short voice commands such as ‘way out’, ‘push’, ‘get back’, ‘here’, & ‘easy’.

Gathering sheep & goats from the pastures would be impossible without our Border Collies. Sometimes they are needed for an ornery bunch of cattle that do not want to follow the feed truck.

Jill, our oldest Border Collie, is 15 years old. Her hearing & eyesight are slipping, but her drive is still there. Hands down, Jill is a workaholic. If there are not sheep or goats around, Jill will find something to ‘give the eye’ to. She has been known to herd people & stare at something in a hole for hours on end. She must be kenneled just so she will rest. These days, Jill spends most of her time around the house & working pens. Her hearing loss makes gathering a challenge, so she no longer joins in on the rides out to the pastures. Jill has been such an important co-worker for many years.

Gus & Tres are our two male Border Collies. Gus is 8 years old, & Tres is about 3 years old. Gus & Tres work well together, but neither are too motivated to do it on their own. Gus is the most lovable dog around but will not miss out on a chance to hop in the Rhino & work. Tres is full of energy & wants to be a part of the action.

Sugar is our youngest Border Collie. She is just over a year old. Sugar has spent lots of time watching & learning from the other dogs. She has recently joined Gus & Tres with gathering & is showing great potential! She is a little live wire & wants to be doing whatever the others are doing.

Livestock Guardian Dogs {LGD} are a dog type bred for the purpose of protecting livestock from predators. Their purpose is to prevent losses by discouraging predators {specifically coyotes for us} from their territory.

It is important that LGDs are exposed to livestock from an early age. This teaches them that livestock is a part of their pack & not competition for their territory. LGDs are typically gentle, unless provoked by a threat to their herd or flock. We currently have four LGDs in use.

Pepper is a Great Pyrenees/Anatolian Shepherd mix. We have had her for a couple of years. Pepper was born at WW Livestock Guard Dogs in Prairie Lea, TX. Texas A&M AgriLife Research then had her & spent more time training her. We got her from Texas A&M AgriLife Research when she was just under a year old. Pepper’s size is very intimidating, but she is very gentle. She loves to jump up & gently give you a hug from behind. She is very friendly to those she knows but is very stand-offish & protective when someone she does not know approaches her herd. Pepper prefers to be with goats but is seen with sheep at times. She moves around to different pastures, which gives us the notion that she moves to where she feels the biggest threat of predators is at the time. Pepper can often be heard barking at night, which leads us to believe there is a predator nearby.

There is no way Pepper can protect all our sheep & goats at the same time, which is why we recently purchased a few more. Rex, Bandit, & Daisy were also born at WW Livestock Guard Dogs.

Rex is a Great Pyrenees/Akbash mix. He is about a year & a half old. Rex is a shy dog, but very gentle to those he is comfortable with.

Bandit & Daisy are about 9 months old & are both Great Pyrenees/Anatolian Shepherd mixes. Bandit is very playful & friendly, while Daisy is calm & quiet.

When we first got these three LGDs, we put them in the lamb feedlot. This allowed them to bond to our livestock & to us. It did not take the lambs long to become comfortable & see that the dogs were there to protect them. The lambs would lay next to them & even lick on them after only a few days of being together.

After about six weeks, Rex, Bandit, & Daisy began to venture out & visit the sheep & goats out in the pastures. The livestock were not bothered by their presence since they were already familiar with Pepper.

Snares & M44 cyanide guns have been the primary predator protection measures that we have used over the years. We are still using those devices, as well as LGDs. Ideally each pasture would have a couple of LGDs in it, so we plan to continually add more to our operation. More guard dogs means a larger area where we will not have to rely heavily on snares & M44s for predator mitigation.

From what we have learned, producers using LGDs typically do not use snares or M44s. Since we are using all three, it is very important that we know where our dogs are, so they don’t get into trouble with a snare or M44. Therefore, each of our guardian dogs wears a GPS tracker on its collar. An app on our phone allows us to check the location of each dog. If the dog is in a location with signal, it updates every few minutes. The GPS tracker is a necessity in our situation.

The use of LGDs is very new to us. We are continually learning how to incorporate LGDs & how they can work best in our situation. Thanks to the team at Texas A&M AgriLife Research & WW Livestock Guard Dogs for helping us along the way.

Calves, Kids, & Lambs

Spring at Hillingdon was full of babies. Pastures & fields were filled with calves, kids, & lambs.

Calves are now being worked for the first time at about four months old. Working the calves includes vaccinating, ear tagging, treating for internal & external parasites, & castrating most bull calves.

Vaccinating calves at an appropriate age is important to build a healthy immune system to fight diseases. Cows & bulls also receive a round of vaccinations & are treated for internal & external parasites. Cows & bulls receive vaccinations for reproductive diseases & as annual boosters to vaccinations they received as calves.

Ear tags provide proof of ownership, are a visual indicator as to who the calf is, & to associate a calf to a specific dam {cow} & herd.

Calves, cows, & bulls are all treated for internal & external parasites through a pour-on solution applied across their back.

Most bull calves are castrated, while others are kept in tact {for our own use or to be sold}.
Since the calves are so young & there are no records other than dam & sire, eye appeal & birth date is the greatest factor that goes into selecting ‘keeper’ bulls. After many years of selecting the first born bull calves to leave intact, reproductive efficiency is being selected for. The cows that routinely have the first born calves are the ones that are the most fertile & are first to be bred every year when the bulls are turned in. In every herd, there are those exceptional cows that seem to have their calves first & selecting their calves for mating increases reproductive efficiency.

Castrating bull calves that are not going to be used in a breeding program is essential. Castration reduces aggressiveness & sexual activity by lowering testosterone levels. It also creates a higher quality carcass-more consistent, marbled, & tender beef. Steers are much easier to handle. Bulls tear up facilities & injure each other fighting, which is why keeping bull numbers at a minimum is important.

Calves will be weaned in the Fall.

In May, nannies & kids were moved from the fields, drenched for stomach worms, & put out in pastures. Kids will be weaned at shearing time {August-September}.

Ewes & lambs are being gathered from the pastures. Both ewes & lambs are being drenched for stomach worms. Lambs are also receiving a preventive vaccine against enterotoxemia, combined with long term protection against tetanus.

Enterotoxemia, also known as overeating or pulpy kidney disease, is a condition caused by Clostridium perfringens type D. These bacteria are normally found in the soil & as part of the normal microflora in the gastrointestinal tract of healthy sheep & goats. Under specific conditions, these bacteria can rapidly reproduce in the animal’s intestine, producing large quantities of toxins. The epsilon toxin produced by C. perfringens Type D is the most significant toxin in producing the disease. Young animals are most susceptible. Sudden & high mortality rates may occasionally occur in lambs & kids. Although adult animals are also susceptible to enterotoxemia, they develop immunity due to frequent exposure to low doses of these toxins. source: University of Georgia, College of Veterinary Medicine

Ewes are being turned back in the pastures, while lambs are being moved to the feedlot & are eating a prepared ration. Having the lambs on feed keeps them in an environment that breaks the life cycle of the stomach worms, out of coyote feeding grounds, & makes them readily available to sell.

Bulls {scanning, assessing, & selling}

In early March, Casey Worrell {certified by the Ultrasound Guidelines Council} came out & ultra sounded our yearling bulls. These 31 bulls were on a gain test here in the feedlot since early December.

Ultra sounding an animal allows us to put a score of muscling by weight, which would be difficult at best by visual observation alone. Casey scanned each of the bulls. Results for each animal were sent to us, which included ribeye area {measured between 12th & 13th rib}, marbling, rump fat, & rib eye fat.

As the bulls were in the chute, we also weighed them, measured hip height & scrotal circumference, & noted individual disposition on each bull.

A combination of weight & hip height determines a ‘frame score’. A frame score is used to estimate the growth pattern & potential mature size of an animal. Frame scores are moderately heritable & can be used to influence the selection process before breeding. A large frame size cow has a higher maintenance requirement than a smaller frame size cow.

The circumference of a scrotum can estimate the amount of sperm producing tissue in a bull. There is a high correlation in scrotal circumference & sperm output.

In order to test the sperm {a key piece to a breeding program} we took the bulls to Gillespie Veterinary Center where Breeding Soundness Exams {BSE} were performed by Dr. Lana Bush. A BSE includes three evaluations: 1) structural soundness assessment, 2) reproductive system evaluation, & 3) semen quality appraisal.

The structural soundness assessment involves examining the overall condition of the animal, including flesh, feet, legs, eyes, & teeth. The reproductive system evaluation includes examination of the scrotum, testicles, & penis, as well as a rectal palpation to determine any internal abnormalities.

The final phase of a BSE consists of semen collection & an evaluation of the semen. To be considered a good potential breeder, a yearling bull’s scrotal circumference must be greater than 30 cm, must have greater than 50% sperm mobility, & greater than 70% normal sperm. source: Society for Theriogenology

Each of these evaluations play a key role in selection of bulls. After reviewing all of the information about each bull, decisions were made as to which bulls to keep for our own breeding program & which ones to sell to other ranchers.

2019 HIL Bulls for Sale

Sausage Shindig & Spring Shearing

On February 15th, family & friends gathered at Hillingdon for the annual sausage shindig.

About 200 pounds of venison from the hunting season was combined with 200 pounds of pork. Two hundred fifty pounds of hard sausage were made, as well as 75 pounds of cooking & 81 pounds of pan sausage.

The day was filled with laughs, fellowship, conversations around the fire pit, & a bit of work. 😉

February marked the beginning of Spring shearing season. Both sheep & goats are sheared in the Spring, while we only shear goats in the Fall.

Pastures have been gathered, sheep & goats have been shorn, wool fleeces have been skirted & baled, mohair has been graded & baled, the sheep & goats have been treated for overeating {Enterotoxemia}, stomach worms, & lice.

Ewes were then sorted based on their pregnancy scan {carrying singles or twins, short or long bred} & put back into the pastures. Nannies were divided up & placed in fields & smaller pastures. Ewes & nannies are now lambing & kidding.

The pastures & fields are green, creeks are flowing, & tanks are filled with recent rainfalls. The sight of the beautiful range land & new life are encouraging & a good distraction to the current situation around the world. Hoping you & your family are staying healthy!

Hosting Tours

For the last couple of years, we have had a visit from the Australian Intercollegiate Meat Judging Team. One of their coaches, Nick van den Berg, first spent some time with us in 2014 when he was in Texas & the United States representing the 2014 Australian Meat Judging Team.

We enjoyed showing them around the ranch & hearing about their homes/farms back in Australia.

A couple of weeks after their visit here, this team competed at the National Western Intercollegiate Meat Judging Contest in Colorado. They were awarded Reserve Grand Champion High Team Overall (by 3 points)! Way to go, Nick & team!

A couple of weeks later, we hosted a tour here as part of the 2020 American Farm Bureau Federation Annual Convention & Trade Show. The convention was held in Austin this year.

A bus of about 50 convention attendees traveled from Austin to Hillingdon while listening to Robin along the way. Robin shared his knowledge about the land/vegetation along the route, as well as Hillingdon history.

Attendees were welcomed to the ranch with a gathering demonstration by the working dogs. They were then given a tour of the working pens & shearing barn.

Lunch was served, followed by a brief viticulture talk & wine sampling by Newsom Vineyards {Comfort}.

We always enjoy hosting these groups. It’s fun, informative, & encouraging when we get to meet other farmers & ranchers from around the US.

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Calves {working|weaning|shipping|gaining}

Much time at the end of October & November was spent weaning calves. Weaning is a vital time in the management of the cows & calves. The milk diet is replaced with a forage diet. At the time of weaning, calves were about eight to nine months old.

At weaning, the calves were vaccinated with a booster shot, treated with a pour on solution for internal & external parasites, & branded. Branding is a useful & cost-effective way to identify cattle. A recognizable brand is instrumental in proving
ownership.

All calves received an ‘HIL’ brand. All keeper heifer calves & bull calves received a number brand as well {their ear tag number}. These heifers were selected based on visual appeal, as well as their pedigree records.

At the time of weaning, the mother cows are about four to five months pregnant. It is important the cows have a break from nursing a calf in order to provide adequate nutrition to the developing fetus inside of her.

Once the calves were weaned, the heifers & steers spent a couple of weeks here at the ranch before being shipped.

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A few days before being shipped, all heifer calves received a preventative calf hood vaccination for Brucellosis. Brucellosis of cattle is caused by infection with the bacterium Brucella abortus & causes abortion or premature calving of recently infected cattle, typically between the fifth & eighth months of pregnancy. It is spread from vaginal discharge of an infected cow or from an aborted calf.

This vaccination must be administered by a veterinarian. After receiving the vaccination, they were tagged with a United States Department of Agriculture EID {electronic identification} ear tag. Many states require that breeding age females be OCV’d before crossing their borders.

On December 21st, we shipped 194 heifers & steers to a grow yard in Conlen, TX. We kept 18 ‘keeper’ heifers here at the ranch.

A grow yard is an operation that grows or backgrounds cattle for a period of time before they enter the feedlot for finishing. When they arrived at the grow yard, they were placed on a high roughage prepared ration. They ate out of feed bunks & learned to respect a single hot wire fence.

It’s crucial that the calves respect the single hot wire fence. If they aren’t used to hot wire fencing {like our cattle}, a disaster could happen quickly. Cattle could easily run right over it, allowing the entire herd to escape from the enclosure. The first calf to run through the wire would likely be the only one to get shocked. In turn, the others would not learn that it will shock them.

Once they were trained to respect the hot wire fence, they were moved out on wheat grazing. They will spend the next several months {until April/May} on wheat.

Once they are done grazing on wheat, we will then have to make decisions on where the heifers will go next. Market conditions & whether we have interested replacement heifer buyers lined up will determine if we ship some or all the heifers back to the ranch, sell them, or send them on to the feedlot. Decisions on the steers will have to be made as well {sell them at auction or retain ownership through the feedlot stage}. Factors that will affect these decisions are available feed & pasture, feed costs, cattle prices, & projected profitability in the feedlot.

A big advantage to retaining ownership through the feedlot stage is that we receive carcass data on each animal. This is advantageous in evaluating sires {bulls} & dams {cows} & determining future breeding plans. In times that demand reducing our stocking rate, carcass data can also help us decide which animals to liquidate.

Thirty-one bull calves went on gain test in the feedlot here at the ranch on December 5th.

We weighed each of them at the beginning of the gain test & will weigh them again at the end. These bulls will spend the next 85 days or so in the feedlot consuming a prepared ration.

During this time, we will be able to collect data on efficiency & production to be considered in genetic selection of future herd sires. This gain test allows us to measure feed conversion, which is the amount of feed an animal consumes as compared to the amount of body weight gained {expressed as a ratio}. Feed conversion ratios around 6:1 {6 pounds of feed per pound of gain} are common in most beef cattle operations. Cattle that gain more weight with less feed or forage are more efficient.

Having the bulls close by allows us to interact with them regularly. We can observe their disposition/temperament to ensure they are calm & handle well. A ‘snuffy’ or hot-tempered bull can be very dangerous. When selling bulls to other producers, it’s important to us that the bull is docile.

Fall Shearing

September was spent gathering, shearing, & sorting goats. Nannies, kids, muttons, & yearling billies were sheared this go round.

After shearing, we separated the billy kids off of the nannies & nanny kids. We put the billy kids on fields {away from the nannies & nanny kids} in hopes that none of them would get in with the nannies. As the days get shorter & nights get cooler, all the billies prepare for breeding. One billy in a pasture full of nannies at the wrong time can create quite a problem. It’s important that all nannies kid at the same time so they can be sheared again in February/March & placed in kidding pastures before kidding in April.

After shearing the nannies, we sorted through them. We decided to cut back a little on numbers. We sorted off older nannies & sold them to another rancher.

Nanny kids ran with the nannies for a couple of weeks so the nannies could show the kids how to seek shelter in wet or cold conditions. We then gathered the nannies & nanny kids, treated them for chewing lice, & separated the nannies & nanny kids. Nannies tend to breed back quicker & easier if they do not have a nursing kid at their side.

Before the yearling billies were sheared, we sorted through them & selected keeper billies & sale billies. All others became ‘muttons’ {male goat that has been castrated}. We castrate with a burdizzo {device with large clamp designed to break the blood vessels leading to the testicles}. Once the blood supply to the testicles is lost, the testicles shrink, soften, & eventually deteriorate completely. We then treated them for chewing lice & tipped their horns. Tipped horns provide a quick, visual distinction between them & billies.

Muttons are beneficial for several reasons. Since they are big & strong, they are not as
susceptible to predators. Coyotes are opportunistic & prefer young lambs & kids rather than a stout mutton who is ready to fight. Muttons do not reproduce so they can run with nannies at any given time. And since they don’t reproduce, their nutrition maintenance requirements are less. Consequently, they are able to grow more mohair per year because all of their nutrition goes into growing hair instead of reproduction efforts. Since their nutrition requirement is less, you are able to run more in a pasture at a given time which means greater Ashe Juniper {cedar} control.