The Making of a Steer

January 25
A bull calf stands behind a row of mother cows enjoying dinner in the sun. 

It’s calving season on our farm. The three months of each year we welcome hundreds of new, fun and furry calves to our farm. We typically average half female and half male calves – but they tend to arrive in spurts. Six of the last seven calves born have been males but soon enough the numbers will even out and the females will get their revenge.

For beef cattle, both males and females play a role in the continuation of the herd and beef production. The females grow the cow herd and the bulls make the babies (seriously, they have the easy job). But every farm and ranch is home to a group of animals that aren’t females but aren’t true males – the steers.

We love our male (bull) calves but too many males can be a problem. Therefore, we limit the number of bulls through castration and create males without the ability to reproduce, aka steers.

Whenever possible we castrate our male calves at birth through a technique called banding. A band is placed around the testicles as soon as possible to restrict blood flow. Within a week the testicles will dry up and by two weeks the testicles will have completely fallen off.

(Side note: The process of catching the calf, safely separating it from its very protective mother and getting it in position to get the band on takes speed and nerves of steel – those mommas don’t like us messing with their calves. See mean muggin momma cow below.)

derek banding calf
The bander (the blue took Farmer Derek is holding) is used to apply bands to calves at birth
bands
The bands – small but mighty and all over my house during calving season

Steers are still considered “boys” but have lower testosterone levels than non-castrated males – or bulls. A steer can still produce an impressive, muscular frame but the meat is often more tender and desirable to consumers. And with less testosterone on the farm, everyone and everything is calmer (bulls just like to fight).

 

It’s Been A While . . . We’re Still Here

sawyer (8 of 17)

It’s been an embarrassing long time since I’ve updated my blog. It’s not that we haven’t been farming or working or living our best (and most hectic) farm life, it’s just that whenever I sit down to write an update or talk about an issue something comes up and I close the computer promising to get back to it soon (I’m sure every mother out there knows exactly what I’m talking about).

But today’s the day and the boys are still asleep (up late watching the local high school football team secure a win) and the farmer hubs is attempting to get out the door to work cattle so the house and the internet is all mine! Here’s the summary of my last 6 months.

The Boys

Being a boy mom is wonderful and hectic and hard and wonderful all at the same time. My boys, Evan, age 5, and Owen, age 2, have officially learned to roughhouse and wrestle. Evan is the sweetest, smartest, happiest kid. He’s in all-day kindergarten and loves it. Evan is reading, making friends and a little nerd, just like me. But he’s also a bit bossy (also like me) and that gets him into a bit of trouble at home when he tries to make all the rules for his brother.

Owen, on the other hand, is loud and chatty and aggressive and demanding (like his father). He plays hard but he loves hard and when you need a chuckle, go find Owen. He’s sure to put a smile on your face. He loves his big brother but will not – I repeat will not – be bossed around. The bossy boy and stubborn boy have more than once come to blows and I’m just not ready for that stage of life yet. But alas, here we are.

Both boys adore life on the farm and take any opportunity possible to ride along with Dad or Grandpa. And their off-the-farm adventures haven’t been too shabby either. In a single year they have: rolled Easter eggs on the White House lawn, experienced a K-State football victory from the President’s suite, experienced the mountains of Idaho, meet too many elected officials to count, experienced a NASCAR race first-hand and flown on multiple airplanes.

The Farm

It’s Oct. 26 and we’ve already experienced our first snow. This year started out dry but has ended with above-average rainfall. We needed the rain but when it all comes at once it’s a bit less helpful. We had a decent wheat harvest and a good corn harvest. We’re half-way done cutting beans and have wheat in the ground and are growing alfalfa again for the first time in a very long time.

The cows have begun returning home for the winter and we’ll start seeing new baby calves in about 10 weeks. (Eeek, I’m so not ready for calving season).

Things in farm world haven’t been the best. Prices are still way down from just a few years ago and there is so much we want to do with the farm but just can’t find the extra dollars to make it happen. We’re fortunate that our diversification of cows and crops has allowed us to continue doing what we love but it’s been a struggle every step of the way.

My husband doesn’t like to talk finances and his whole life is in the farm so I know he’s making the best decisions possible but sometimes this farm life is just plain hard!

The Job

I’m still hard at work for U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall. It’s been a whirlwind 2 years (almost) but it’s been so much fun along the way. I have met some of the best people in the world, experienced things I never thought possible and helped represent my state and my industry in Washington D.C. It’s stressful trying to balance a 40-hour-a-week-plus job with kids and a farm but it’s worth it and I tell anyone who asks that I’m raising flexible, adjustable young men who understand that it takes hard work, sacrifice and a little chaos to put food on the table and toys on the shelf.

The Rest

Sadly, there isn’t much else outside of work, farming and the boys. That eats my time, my energy and my paycheck! I’ve long since given up watching T.V. on a regular basis and haven’t seen many of my friends in months. But I know I’m not alone, I’m blessed to have a tribe of fellow farm wives who all endure the same long days, work-filled weekends and single-parenting stints that are required when married to a farmer.

My farmer has to be one of the worst communicators in the world and has a memory for all things cows but never what I need him to remember (I say all that in love because when I’m gone he steps up to the plate big time). Thank goodness for parents and in-laws who fill in the gaps and play parent when neither of us are around. Of course the boys love spending time with their grandparents so it’s hardly a sacrifice on their part. It’s a blessing to raise our boys so close to both grandparents and all four sets of aunts, uncles and cousins. They don’t realize it now but they are so, so lucky.

I’m still running in the mornings and try to race when I have a weekend free. It’s football season so we’re catching a K-State game whenever possible and cheering on the Inman Teutons as they move through the play-offs.

The Politics

You know me, I have to get in a word our two about something in the headlines. I have a lot of feelings about a lot of issues but I’ll keep it short and sweet, all women – better yet all white women – do not think, believe, feel or react the same. I am a conservative mother of young boys. I do not tolerate sexual harassment of any kind, but do not believe in ruining a life because of a 30-year-old fuzzy memory.  Women are not a monolithic voting block and should not be treated as such. I am not beholden to my husband nor any political candidate and party. I don’t vote or support candidates to ruin someone else’s life. I vote to protect my way of life, my values and my beliefs.

All that being said, no matter your party affiliation, beliefs, values or lifestyle please use the opportunities afforded to us as Americans and exercise your right to the ballot box on Tuesday, Nov. 6. Cast your vote and make your voice count.

**I’ll get off my soap box now and return to my farm talk**

That’s all for now. Evan is out of school today so we’re going to attempt to carve pumpkins (eeeek!). You can follow along with all of my trials, trips, trying moments and truly beautiful sunrises at @sawyerfarm on Instagram and Twitter.

A Mothers Guide to Calving

Pairs at home
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.