Sunday, March 13, 2011

Step One - Calving - Calf One

Calf One enjoying the warm sunshine, age 1 day.

From my pasture to your plate.  Ranches like ours are the first step in providing nutrient rich protein and other by-products for society.  The ranch fits into a category called cow/calf.  Most cattle are born on family owned cow/calf ranches. This means that we make sure that our cows have everything they need; adequate amounts of good food and clean water, space, appropriate shelter, health care, protection from predators and a stress free life.  In return, each cow presents us with a healthy calf.  The calves spend the hot summer months in the cool high country with their mothers grazing on some of the most nutritious grass in the world, drinking from cool mountain springs, converting grass, which humans can not use as a food source, into meat. In the fall, we separate the cows and calves and sell the calves usually to a rancher who is a backgrounder or stocker.  To see all of the steps click Pasture to Plate.  Today, we'll talk about the first step, calving.

Some vocabulary you will need to know:  Cattle or Bovine are the animal species, cows are the adult females who have given birth to at least two calves, calves are the young cattle under a year of age, bulls are adult male cattle which are used for breeding or the male calves, heifers are the female young calves who either haven't had any calves or have had only two calves, steers are the young male cattle who have been neutered so they can't breed and yearlings which are all cattle which are between the age of one and two.  Many times even ranchers will use the term "cows" incorrectly, using the term cows to refer to his entire herd including cows, bulls, calves, and yearlings.

Calving season varies from ranch to ranch. Planning for this spring's calves began last June when we had to decide when to put the bulls in with the cows.    Each rancher must look at many variables when determining when they will have calving season.  The first thing the rancher must consider is where they live and the weather.  We have friends on the Colorado/New Mexico border whose calving season is from November through the middle of January because their winter is much drier and warmer.  While calves are strong and able to get up, walk, and drink within 20 minutes to an hour; wet, windy, and below zero weather can hinder the calf's recovery from being born.  For us, the last two weeks in March usually is when the good weather begins and it only gets better in the month of April and beyond.   The second thing they must consider is when they want to sell their calves.  We know a  rancher in Wyoming whose calving season is in September and October so that his calves will be ready to market in late March or early April.  We look at past years for the rise and fall of prices, the amount of moisture which will determine how much grass will grow, and how fast the calves will gain weight until they are just the right size.  For us, we plan to begin our calving season on March 19 and sell them when they are a little over six months old in October.  The calves which were born at approximately 75 pounds will average 600 pounds by that time.
This is the book we use for keeping records.  Most ranchers use a book similar to this one.

There is a lot to be done in preparation for calving. The first thing is to prepare the book.  It's a book that can be carried in the pocket or tractor to keep the records on the calving grounds.  The second thing that must be done is to prepare the calving ground.  The area needs to be on the high ground where as the snow melts it will run off and give the cow a dry place to give birth and a dry place for the calf to learn to stand.  They sometimes fall and we don't want them to fall in pooled water and drown or get so wet that their body temperature gets low.  Jim scrapes the snow off of the area and uses the snow to build windbreaks to provide additional protection for the cows and calves. This area is different that where we have been feeding because we want a clean area for calving.
The powdered colostrum, needles, and syringe.

While Jim is preparing the calving grounds, I am shopping for our emergency kit.  We try to be prepared in case something goes wrong and the cow dies while birthing or refuses her calf.  From the vet, we buy needles, vitamin A and D, syringes, and powdered colostrum. The only cattle that get medication show signs of illness and most years none of our calves have needed Vitamin A and D or other medication.   The mother cow naturally has colostrum in her milk which gives her calf extra nutrients that the calf needs in the first 24 hours of being born and helps the calf build immunity. The powdered colostrum is like powdered milk and can be mixed with warm water.  In addition, calves are born with a waxy substance in their digestive system which much must be expelled in order for the calf's digestive system to function properly.  The colostrum helps the calf expel this substance.

I check my pantry to make sure that I have powdered milk, corn syrup, evaporated milk, vegetable oil and eggs.  This is in case we run out of powdered colostrum at a time when we can't get any and have to make our own.  If I don't have all these things, I make a trip to the grocery store.  I also make sure that I have lots of clean old towels, rags and at least one good working hair dryer.  These are in case a calf gets too cold and too wet and begins to lose it's body heat.  We bring the calf to the house, dry it off using the towels and rags, finish warming it up with the hair dryer, give it some warm colostrum or milk depending on its age, get it warmed up and then return it to its mother.  Sometimes the calf spends the entire night in the house and is returned the next morning.  We do have one rule, however, no cows on the carpet so the calf is kept in the laundry room with a baby gate. The dog, Fritz, tries to help by licking the calf off and the house cats lay by the gate seemingly making sure the calf stays in its room.
The ear tags, notice the layers of color, and tool used to carve the numbers in the top layer.

Ear tags must be prepared.  These tags are numbered in numerical order beginning with 1.  They are made of three layers of material; blue on the back and front and white in the middle.  Using a special tool, I grind away the first blue layer which leaves the white layer showing through. The tags, the book, pencil and the ear tagger ( a tool which allows us to put the tag in a calves ear like someone puts in a pierced earring) are all carried on the tractor.  When a calf is born, it receives its tag; in the book its tag number, its' mother's number, her description, a description of the calf and whether it is a heifer or a bull is recorded.  This number is a herd number.  It is used by us to tell which cow goes with which calf, keep the health records for each individual calf, determine if we have every calf when we gather and recognize our cattle from a distance or on horseback.
Completed tags and the buttons which hold the tags in the ear.

The beginning of calving season marks the end those lazy days of winter when we only had to plow snow, remove ice from water holes and tanks, shovel the roof.  After calving season begins and the daylight hours are longer.  The work includes feeding, removing ice, snowplowing as needed, ditching to let water run off and the cows must be checked often for signs of birthing problems or getting down and not being able to get up.  What appears as hard pack, as the weather warms up, gets soft.  When the 1000 pound cow tries to get up, she needs hard ground to get her feet under her as she rocks to get momentum to stand.  If the snow pack or ground is too soft, she falls back.  After awhile, she gets tired and just lays back and quits trying.  The weight of her internal organs is so much that they can compress the lungs and she dies.

On March 10, we had our first calf.  She came from a cow which we had purchased to replace a cow that we had sold.  Her previous owners had used ultrasound (radio wave imaging) to determine a number of things including when she was to have her calf.  He was right about the date and we were ready. Calf number One, an all black heifer, was born right on time.  We have only 76 more cows to calve.  We'll keep you updated.

Calf One watching and learning to eat hay.  She will start to pick at the hay by the end of the second day.

No comments:

Post a Comment