The Winter That Won’t End

Keeping our cows and calves safe and healthy in the cold and snow

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It’s snowing AGAIN here at Sawyer Land & Cattle in Central Kansas. It’s been years since we’ve dealt with this much snow in one winter, but Mother Nature has decided that we need to live like Canadians (no insult to those north of the border).

The cold wouldn’t be so alarming but winter is also the time we welcome new baby calves to the farm. Between the first of January and end of March, our mother cows will deliver a couple hundred baby calves, and it’s our job to make sure they are safe, healthy and, most importantly, warm and dry. Cows have, for centuries, endured the cold and snow so they are built to endure this weather, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help make winter a little more bearable.

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A cow’s instincts work well in this weather. As soon as a mother delivers a new calf she begins licking the calf dry and encouraging it to get up and suck. If all of that happens within the first few hours of birth, the calf’s chances of survival are good. If the calf fails to get up or the mother never gets the calf dry and fed then the cold can quickly take over. It’s our job to ensure our mother cows are doing their job – and thankfully we have a herd of great moms.

This year we created a fully enclosed space in our barn for our first-time mothers to deliver. This is an extra step to further protect our novice moms and keep them out of the elements while they figure out this new thing called motherhood.

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Two new momma cows and a baby calf enjoy the comforts of our enclosed calving barn.

For cows in our pastures, we provide windbreaks (in the form of trees or buildings) and dry straw to help protect the cows from the wind, moisture and cold ground.

The final piece of keeping our ladies and babies safe and healthy during winter weather is proper nutrition. Cows – like people- produce their own body heat to keep warm – fun fact, a cow with snow on her back is warmer than a cow with melted snow – but that takes a lot of energy and calories. We feed our cows a grain-based, energy-rich diet that provides them the calories to grow a baby calf and keep themselves warm. That means we’re on meal duty 7-days a week, rain or shine!

The farmer hubs and his father make the rounds and check on every cow on the farm at least once a day. Those momma cows we know are due to deliver anytime are checked on multiple times a day. We aim to interfere in the natural birthing process as little as possible but are always ready and willing to step in when needed. Winter is busy on our farm, but a few inches of snow or ice means extra work and attention for our cows is necessary – but most definitely worth it.

A Mothers Guide to Calving

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Every year a group of mother cows and their new calves reside in the pasture right outside our front door. It’s pretty neat to wake up and see the mothers eating and babies running and playing with one another.

We are about a month into our 2018 calving season and I am loving all the new faces on the farm. Our first baby calves starting arriving in early January and will continue through March. Everyone understands the basics of pregnancy and birth, but here are a few details on the who calving process I know my fellow mother friends will appreciate.

  1. Cows have the same gestational period as humans. Cows and people carry their unborn for 40 weeks or 9 months. Calves can be born early and easily survive, but if they come too early they will often suffer from undeveloped systems and fragile health. But with a little extra care and a watchful eye, these preemies usually end up just fine. A full-term calf will weigh somewhere around 70 pounds at birth, and that number jumps to about 85 pounds for a calf from a mother who has previously given birth. (Why the increase? Cows usually have their first calf at age two and will continue to grow so that they have a larger frame and more room to carry a larger calf once they hit 3 years of age.)
  2. Calves receive all nutrients from their mother. Be it in the womb or during the first months of their lives, calves subsist exclusively on the nutrients delivered through their mother’s milk. That means we, as the farmers, must provide the mother with a nutrient-dense, well-rounded diet. Because these mothers’ third trimester occurs in the late fall and winter months, when grass is more scarce, we provide supplemental hay, distillers (made from corn during the ethanol production process) and grain pellets to ensure they are receiving enough protein and carbs. We will continue them on this diet through the spring since they will need the extra calories for nursing. Just like humans, a mother cow’s milk is the only food a baby calf needs for the first six months of their life. They can and often do try to eat grass or hay during that time but their digestive systems simply are not mature enough to process those items. By the fall they will have transitioned to a diet of grass supplemented by mother’s milk. P.S. Calves are born with teeth – ouch!
  3. Birthing is a natural process, but a little help is sometimes needed. For centuries humans gave birth with little to no medical assistance. Babies were born at home with a doctor no where to be found. The same is true for cows. However, just like in humans, things don’t always go as planned. Our first time mother cows are called heifers and those ladies require the most oversight. My husband and his father will take turns checking on our heifers every four hours or so around the clock to ensure everyone is doing well. But it’s not uncommon to have to pull a calf from a mother who is struggling or is just worn out, and on the rare occasion a veterinarian will be called out to perform a c-section. A mother cow will then need to begin licking her calf clean and encouraging the calf to stand and drink. This should all happen in the first few hours after birth. If it doesn’t we will intervene.
  4. Daycare is a thing. If you drive by a pasture or field with mother cows and baby calves, you’ll often find one mother with a group of calves. No she didn’t have quadruplets, she’s just the designated babysitter for that day. Mother cows work together to watch over baby calves because the calves will initially spend most of their time sleeping or lounging in the sun. However, just like humans, a baby calf and mother will recognize one another by scent and sound. A baby knows when it’s his or her mother calling for lunch.
  5. Mothers Rock. Most of us humans would earn passing grades on mothering but I’m gonna guess that our mother cows would exceed us in parenting abilities. Remember, mother cows do not have hubbies to lean on when caring for these babies, they are on their own. But they do an amazing job of feeding cleaning and watching over their calves. They will tuck the babies away under shelter or in a hedge row when the weather gets crummy and will stand guard when prey like coyotes or wolves attempt to attack the younger members of the herd. As I noted before, the mother cows work together – that’s where we get the phrase herd mentality – to protect one another and their young. That strong maternal instinct makes our jobs so much easier and allows us to keep watch but not have to be present every moment of the day. In fact, a vast majority of our mother cows will give birth and raise their calf with little to no intervention from us. And that’s the way we prefer it. When selecting bulls and cows for our cow herd, we look for maternal instincts – yes some breeds of cattle are considered more maternal than others – strong udders and well built mother cows.

There is so much more cool stuff I could share about our mother cows but I’ll leave it at this for now. Have a question, shoot me an email or leave your questions in the comments section. I’ll be sure to follow up and address it ASAP.

Calving season is here!

The tractors are safety stored away in the barn and the cows are munching away on veggies and corn stocks but that hasn’t allowed farmer hubs any downtime. The new year marks the official start of calving season for Sawyer Land & Cattle. Like most years, we’ve had a few momma cows jump the gun and deliver before the new year – but the majority will give birth to new calves between now and early March.

Like all expectant parents, the hubs is extra busy setting up the nursery. We have feeding pens that are partially covered, allowing cows the opportunity to escape from the elements. During the winter months, we use these covered areas to create birthing pens for mother cows and their new calves.

This year, the crew has been busy cleaning out the pens, laying fresh straw – harvested from our wheat fields – and ensuring the fence, lights and gates are all in working order.

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This covered area will be broken up into smaller pens that will allow a mother and baby some bonding time and shelter from the elements. 

If we see a cow is in labor, we’ll pull her into a pen so that she delivers in warm, dry conditions. We can also check to be sure the baby is up and nursing after delivery. It’s also important we get each new calf an ear tag bearing the same number and its mother as quickly as possible so that we can be sure mother and baby are sticking together. (This usually happens naturally but is not a guarantee.)

The hubs and his father will take turns checking on the mother cows and calves. Derek often takes the night shift (he’s a night owl by nature) and my father-in-law will take over about 4 p.m. (he’s naturally an early bird). Some nights there’s nothing happening. Other days, we’ll see up to a dozen different babies born – and some very tired farmers.

During this time, the mother cow’s diet is of the up most importance. We create a mix of grains that ensure mothers have the energy and nutrients they need to feed themselves and a growing calf.

Calving season is one of the busiest times on our farm but there is nothing like seeing new babies running, playing and growing. We’ll retain ownership of nearly all of the calves, moving them to fresh, green grass with their mothers in April and returning them to the farm in the fall. By then they will be 500-600 lbs. and full blown teenage cows, ready to leave their mothers. But before we get there, we have to help deliver a couple hundred healthy calves.

Happy 2017! Bring on the babies.

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A mom and baby trek through the snow. With the proper diet and nutrition, cows and calves can stay warm in even the coldest conditions. 

 

New Additions

The waiting game is over, for me at least. Our new bundle of joy, Owen Douglas, arrived Tuesday (Jan. 5) and is a healthy and happy baby boy.

Owen Douglas Sawyer joined the family Jan. 5.
Owen Douglas Sawyer joined the family Jan. 5.

He hasn’t met much of the outside world yet given its been at or below freezing since his arrival and well, no need to venture out when you can stay in where it’s warm and cozy.

The waiting game continues, however, for the hubs, who welcomes anywhere from 5 to 15 new calves to the farm each day. Current weather conditions have not made calving easy for our heifers. We received about an inch of rain earlier this week and with the ground not frozen, everything turned to mud. Add to the sloppy conditions single-digit temps and wind chills below freezing at night and you have conditions that can be deadly to any new animal.

We like to let our mothers calve out in open pasture but we’ve kept them under shelter and away from the mud the past few nights. That allows us to keep an eye on each and every mother and new baby and provides them a dry, warm spot to deliver their babies.

People always think we are crazy calving this time of year. And we may be. Usually we are only dealing with cold temps but this year the moisture has thrown a wrench in things. However, there are many factors that go into determining when new babies should arrive and the math tells us this is the time to start.

This is one of our white, Charolais, calves. We have five white cows and the rest of black, Angus cows.
This is one of our white, Charolais, calves. We have five white cows and the rest of black, Angus cows.

The hubby and his father will continue welcoming new calves for the next two months. Granted it will get easier as the weather improves and we move from heifers, which are cows delivering their first calves and therefore much be watched more closely, to cows, which are calving pros.

Calving season is rough on everyone, the hubs and his father sacrafice sleep and we do without dad and family time. Our most important addition to the farm is now safely here, now to wait for the few hundred more four-legged friends to arrive!

The Waiting Game

My husband and I are in a perpetual state of waiting. On a baby, on calves and on the unofficial start to winter on our farm.

With the fall crops harvested, wheat dormant for the winter and equipment tucked away from the elements, my husband now spends his days preparing for the arrival of several hundred new, bawling baby calves.

Meanwhile, I’m spending my Christmas break from work enjoying the last few moments with my son who will soon take on the role of big brother. It’s literally a race to see if our second son or a baby calf makes their appearance first. For my husband and myself, it’s a waiting game that’s proving exhausting.

Not knowing when I might go into labor keeps my husband near his phone and on his toes. It also keeps me sticking to my routine as much as possible while always remembering that at any moment our lives will forever change.

What we do know, however, is that our new son and the baby calves will eventually arrive and life on the Sawyer farm will never be the same again.

Calving season brings with it unpredictable hours, unknown challenges and the pure joy of seeing a baby calf take its first steps. Many of the challenges faced during our calving season (which starts the first week of January and will conclude in mid March) is determined by Mother Nature. Wet, cold conditions are less-than-ideal for welcoming new calves and require my husband to keep a close eye on all of our new and laboring moms. If the winter proves to be cold but dry, then our mother cows will often deliver without incident but will still require daily care and feeding.

At home, the pace and routines of caring for one child will be turned upside down as I attempt to readjust to life with two kids needing two very different things from me. Unlike many new fathers, my husband doesn’t have the luxury of taking a few weeks off work to stay home and help everyone adjust. In fact, we will be hard-pressed to see him with any regularity the first few weeks of baby being home – as he and his father take turns keeping watch over the mother cows and their newborn calves, which is a 24-hour-a-day job.

Thankfully I am able to remain at home from work for a few months to hopefully help everyone adjust, enjoy the changes that come with our new additions and make a few lasting memories.

Welcoming a new life into the world is never easy. Doing so while also welcoming hundreds of new calves to our farm will undoubltly come with a few long nights, challenging days and frustrating experiences. But I’m not the first farm wife to enduring calving season with a newborn and I certainly won’t be the last. I just hope this time next year, I have two little boys excited about baby calves and a husband ready to play caretaker all over again. (Oh, and no newborn at home!)

Until then, we wait . . .

How We Raise Great Beef

Our cows have come home and are spending the remaining days of fall grazing on corn stalks near our home.
Our cows have come home and are spending the remaining days of fall grazing on corn stalks near our home.

My husband could spend all day watching his momma cows graze on green Kansas Flint Hills grass while the calves run and play at their mothers’ feet. He has raised cattle most of his life and each year improving his end product.

Raising cattle is expensive, time-consuming work. They need fed twice a day, every day of the year. The cows deliver their calves in sub-zero temperatures and blowing snow and an ornery steer always knows how to find his way out of the pasture and onto the road.

But my husband loves his cows, he takes great pride in the beef he produces and he spends his waking hours calculating and researching how he can raise better cattle, higher quality beef and more efficient animals.

The cattle are not his pets, they are his business and he understands that happy, healthy animals means quality beef. My husband uses many growth methods that have recently come under fire, been the subject of media spin and become largely misunderstood by consumer.

We do use antibiotics to help our sick animals return to good health. The antibiotics are prescribed by a veterinarian and administered with careful record keeping. They are used only on those animals showing signs of illness. Most cattle can return to normal health with only one dose of an antibiotic. We believe allowing an animal to suffer or die from a treatable disease is inhumane and no way to treat any type of animal.

Some of our steers are implanted with hormones because they help our animals produce, on average, 3 percent more beef. In a market where cattle numbers remain tight and beef prices continue to rise, more beef on the market means lower prices for consumers. But before we made the decision to use implants, we did our research. The media and health advocates have thrown the impact of implanted steers on humans way out of proportion. Yes, implants do raise the hormone levels in beef but the amounts are negligible when compared to other regularly consumed items such as cabbage, peas, potatoes and almond milk. Use the follow link to learn more. http://beefmagazine.com/blog/visual-add-your-arsenal-about-hormones-beef

The feed in the bunks of our cattle facilities come directly from our farm and includes grains, forage (grasses) and protein sources such as distillers grain. Cattle can and do safely digest all parts of this ration. Feeding our animals grain allows them to add pounds at a more efficient rate than through grazing alone. Cattle, like most animals, become more susceptible to diseases as they age so younger cattle area healthier and create higher quality beef. It’s what the customer and other countries demand so it’s what we deliver.

And the final, often questioned practice . . . my husband’s  general care and concern for our animals. He checks his animals daily. He recognized signs of stress and sickness and reacts on the spot – sometimes missing dinner or meetings to tend to sick animals – and he will devote hours and entire days to helping mothers deliver their calves. I often joke that my husband spends more time with his cattle than his family. Somedays it’s true but that is what is required when you raise healthy animals and high quality beef.

Everything we do for our cattle is safe for consumers alike, purposeful and in the animals’ best interest. My husband has devoted his life and his career to raising great cattle and delivering a quality product you’ll savor, share and come to love. There are no secrets, no scary practices and no hidden agendas. Just a man and his cattle.

Cows In The Yard

Derek moved about a dozen mother-calf pairs to the pasture at our house. It's pretty neat having baby calves right outside my bedroom window.
Derek moved about a dozen mother-calf pairs to the pasture at our house. It’s pretty neat having baby calves right outside my bedroom window.

Calving season is in full swing! We welcome a handful of new calves each day and with a 7-day forecast of warm temps and clear skies, I’m predicting plenty of action in the calving barn.

There is a lot that goes into welcoming a new calf to the world and ensuring it remains healthy. We watch for cows that are showing signs of labor or pre-labor and remove them from the herd into a calving pens. We assist if needed but most mothers give birth with no help from us. We keep mother and calf together for 24 hours to ensure they like each other, claim each other and that the calf is eating. Mothers can tell their calves by their scent and baby calves know the voice of their mother and come running when she calls.

When it seems both mother and baby are happy and healthy, we move them to pasture to give them room to play and grow. In just a few weeks, the pasture surrounding our house will be home to several dozen mother cows and baby calves. That means we get to spend the next three months watching the calves run, jump and figure out the world around them.

Stay tuned for more adventures from our new crop of baby calves.

Snow Days

Owning animals – specifically cattle – completely changes the meaning of a snow day. For most, snow is a welcomed sight as it means a day at home – away from the office or classroom – in their sweats enjoying daytime television and a warm fire.

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But for cattle owners, snow days are some of the longest and hardest workdays they encounter each year. Cattle were created to withstand cold, snow and wind but that doesn’t mean they particularly enjoy the winter weather – especially after a streak of 50-degree temperatures. We have both heifers (first-time mothers) and cows (experienced mothers) calving right now. In fact we had about 20 calves born yesterday, five born overnight and another three this morning. More are expected throughout the day. This is peak calving season for our herd and while we never rule out the possibility of snow, snowfall like this doesn’t come along every year.

During storms like this, it’s important that we are out, among our cattle, checking to ensure mothers are doing fine, baby calves are staying warm and eating and expectant mothers get to shelter when possible. When we find a calf that looks like it just can’t get warm on it’s own, we will bring it inside and allow it to dry off and warm up before returning it to its mother.

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Diet and proper nutrition are also very important for cattle in the winter. Like humans, cattle with a normal level of body fat are better able to withstand the cold and nursing mothers need all of the nutrition and calories they can get. Even on days like this, we make sure our cattle have all of the feed they need or want. But we are careful to not overfeed them so that all of their energy isn’t spent on digestion.

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Derek was up most of last night checking on the cows and caring for a few calves. He and his father will spend the remainder of today and tonight making additional rounds, checking the animals as many times as possible. New calves could come at any time and we strive to be there to ensure all is going well. It’s not an easy job and the cattle don’t always express their appreciation the way a person would but it’s what we do, even on snow days.

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Knowing Our Animals

Fellow Kansas cattle owner, Jennifer Heim, who owns dairies with her husband, David, in Northeast Kansas, recently blogged about naming the animals on their farm. It’s a question she said she receives a lot – as do we – and believes the real issue behind it is people questioning if they really know and differentiate  their animals from one another. I believe her assumption is spot on!

As Jennifer explains in her blog post (http://heimdairy.wordpress.com/) people associate farmers and ranchers naming their animals with truly knowing their animals. Without names, do we really care for our animals? Absolutely.

Just like the Heims, all of our animals are assigned numbers. We know our animals by their numbers and, I will admit, some demand more of our attention than others. Ask my husband and he can tell you which are the stubborn cows, easy-going ladies and the ones that just seem to go with the flow. He often has stories of a cow that develops a unique routine or trick. Some manage to find any and all gaps in the fence while others learn the routines of the feed truck – and are always the first to arrive for their morning meals.

Now that calving season has started, knowing our animals – by number or name – is more important that ever. With several mother cows delivering newborns on the same day in the same pasture, it’s essential we know which mothers belong to which calves. We also remember which calves seem to have more trouble than others sucking and getting around – which means we try to pay a little closer attention to those little guys.

My husband can’t remember what I told him an hour ago but he can tell you which heifers delivered calves this week. These calves are our lives and business so knowing their behaviors and schedules helps us better care for them – be it by name or number.

The Calf Nursery

First-time mother cows and their calves spend the winter at the pasture outside our home. Mothers and calves identify one another through smell.
First-time mother cows and their calves spend the winter at the pasture outside our home. Mothers and calves identify one another through smell.

We’ve all seen the iconic image of a swooning adults watching newborns resting in their basinets behind the glass wall of the hospital nursery. The babies, only recently welcomed into the world, are oohed and awed over as they sleep, play and explore their new surroundings.

Baby calves rest in the straw outside our home. Calves, like small children, split their time between playing and resting.
Baby calves rest in the straw outside our home. Calves, like small children, split their time between playing and resting.

With calving season in full swing at our farm, I am lucky enough to have a calving nursery of sorts right outside my front window. Our heifers – female cows that deliver their first calf this year – calve at our cattle facilities about five miles from our home. But after the calves are about a day old, mother and calf are moved to the pasture outside our house.

Mother cows are naturally very protective of their young. When I entered the pasture to capture a few pictures of the little ones, mothers quickly found their calves, making sure to keep me at a safe distance.
Mother cows are naturally very protective of their young. When I entered the pasture to capture a few pictures of the little ones, mothers quickly found their calves, making sure to keep me at a safe distance.

Before being allowed to roam freely, we hold the new mothers and their babies in a smaller pen for about 24 hours. Keeping the new mothers and calves confined allows us to keep a closer eye on them, ensuring everyone is doing well and the calves are up, playing and sucking mother’s milk.

Unlike humans that take a year or so to walk, calves are up on all fours within hours of being born. While they have the ability to walk, it usually takes a couple of days to master the art of running and playing. Watching the little ones learn how to navigate through their new world is one of the highlights of calving season. After only a few days, the calves are running, playing, climbing and exploring. It’s a rewarding site for my husband and I as it means we have successfully welcomed another new life into the world and another calf into our herd.

Calving will continue through February and March, which means we have a couple hundred more baby calves to welcome and enjoy and a couple of hundred new members of our family farm.