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.

#AnimalCare

The hubs keeps a group of mother calves and cows together as fire burns in the background.
The hubs keeps a group of mother calves and cows together as fire burns in the background.

Ranchers Work to Keep Livestock Safe As Fire Rips Through Ranches

We have a few hundred cows, calves and steers on our farm and on pastures across the state. My husband is responsible for the well-being of ALL of them, 365 days a year, rain or shine, holiday or weekday. When snow falls or the rains get too intense, it’s up to my husband and his father to ensure the well being of the animals. That often means giving up time with his own family to do so. It isn’t an 8-to-5 job and there is no overtime pay. But it’s what he loves to do and he wouldn’t change places with anyone in the world.

Outside of the normal feeding, water, and general healthcare for our cows, Mother Nature has presented us with a whole new challenge – fire. My hubby was awaked by a phone call at 2 a.m. this morning notifying him that a massive, two-state fire had spread to the ranch where we have cows and baby calves. He was on the road immediately and has been with his animals ever since.

The fire is far from under control and the winds are expected to change directions this evening, which will present a whole new set of challenges. There is no training for this type of work and no lunch break or nap time. There is only the threat of more destruction, more death and more loss. He left his family and his work to be with his animals and will do everything possible to ensure they are safe.

This is the life of a rancher and part of what my husband and all ranchers to do ensure their animals are cared for and safe. It’s part of our definition of #AnimalCare and it’s what we do to continue to raise healthy cows and produce safe and affordable beef.

 

Don’t Trust the Label

The truth about antibiotic use in farm animals continues to be buried in mislead and false articles and headlines found across the World Wide Web. 

Wednesday night I stumbled across a Tweet from MSN.com claiming Americans are eating more “antibiotic laced food” – the result of the use of antibiotics in livestock. But that is simply not true. The linked article can be found here http://healthyliving.msn.com/nutrition/antibiotic-free-food-labels-to-look-for?ocid=vt_twmsnhlt 

We and other livestock owners do use antibiotics to treat our animals suffering from illness or infection. Our logic is the same as any animal owner, healthy animals are happy animals and we strive to raise happy, healthy livestock. 

The backlash against antibiotic use in livestock and other farm animals is not new but new organizations are joining the fight. Some, however, have a confusing mission. 

The Animal Welfare Approved label does nothing to prevent the use of antibiotics in animals and in facts encourages the use of medicine to treat sick animals. 

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The following was taken from the Animal Welfare Approved website under the beef cattle standards:

In order to help eliminate or reduce vulnerability to disease and the need for antibiotics at therapeutic levels, Animal Welfare Approvedencourages the appropriate use of vaccines on an individual or group basis for prevention of disease.

Any sick or injured animals on the farm must be treated immediately to minimize pain and distress. This must include veterinary treatment if required.

If alternative treatments are not suitable or not effective or if a veterinarian has recommended antibiotic treatment, this must be administered.

 

The practices recommended by the Animal Welfare Approved organization are exactly those used everyday on our farm. We don’t do it for the certification or the notoriety but because it is what is best for our animals and our farm. 

The fact that those antibiotics end up in your food is also simply FALSE! All animals that receive antibiotics are removed from our herd until the antibiotics have left their system. An animal is never processed for food until the antibiotics have left their system. We keep diligent records to ensure the animals are removed from the food chain for the appropriate length of time. 

The USDA Process Verified Program also does not mean that every animal in the program has not received antibiotics at some point in their life. 

It seems a new organization with a new label and a new program pops up each day. There is no oversight and regulation of these programs and nothing to verify their statements are true. 

Livestock owners work daily to care for their animals and when that means treating a sick animal, they do what they can to ensure that animal returns to full health and productivity.

 

The Dehorning Debate

It seems Ryan Gosling has a soft-spot for cattle. Unfortunately he’s opting to donate his celebrity status to a group that does not have the best interest of livestock in mind.

The AP reported Wednesday that Gosling has decided to take on the plight of horned dairy cattle, issuing a letter to the National Milk Producers Association urging them to take a stance against dehorning dairy cows.

That request seems simple enough – most dairy and beef cattle have been bred to not grow horns – but the idea of preventing livestock owners from removing horns from animals interfere with the ability of ranchers to properly care for their herd.

Modern technology and understanding of genetics has allowed dairy and beef cattle breeders to engineer breeds that are born without horns. Most livestock owners have bred horns from their herds but genetic traits remain in many breeds that result in animals growing horns.

Many times these horns grow at an angle that proves dangerous for the animal and their owners. These horns can be used as weapons when cattle come in contact with one another or with their owners and other farm animals. Even if an animal does not intend to cause harm, their horns can impact others in the herd.

The American Veterinary Medical Association reports that dehorned cattle “present a lower risk of interference from dominant animals at feeding time; pose a reduced risk of injury to udders, flanks and eyes of other cattle; present a lower injury risk for handlers, horses and dogs; and exhibit fewer aggressive behaviors associated with individual dominance.” The AVMA supports dehorning in livestock.

Horns also prevent animals from fitting into livestock trailers, working pens and other pieces of equipment ranchers rely on to work and care for their animals.

Many cattle owners opt to remove the horns while others turn the horns – using weights – so they grow down and not out. Removing horns does cause some discomfort for the cattle but the process is quick and the animals recover quickly. Livestock owners have the ability to apply local anesthesia to help further decrease the discomfort.

No livestock owner performs a procedure on his or her animals that does not in some way benefit the long-term health and well-being of the animal. When necessary, we remove the horns of cattle on our farm. Everything we, as animal owners, do is in the best interest of our animals and done with purpose and care.

We care for our animals because they are our business, our live hood and our way of life.

PETA vs Kansas State Fair

It’s easy to be an agriculture advocate when the opposition is on the other end of the country and your listening audience is on your side. But standing your ground becomes more difficult when those fighting your lifestyle are standing toe-to-toe with you.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is coming to the Kansas State Fair next month. It’s part of the organization’s effort to take part in state fairs of agriculture states. The organization is dedicated to putting and end to meat consumption and animal agriculture all together. The state fair is held in our backyard and hits at the heart of our state’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of the state fair.

The fair gates have yet to open and PETA is already causing problems for fair administrators. They organization wants to include videos and photos of animals being slaughtered in their exhibit and intends to display the graphic content so everyone passing by sees the images.

According to recent news articles, state fair officials have stated that any videos or pictures of animals being decapitated, dismembered or butchered must not be readily visible outside PETA’s booth, so that fair-goers will have to make a conscious choice to view the material. PETA calls that a content-based restraint. It says the fair is a public forum and cannot restrict viewpoints.

Earlier this week, the organization took the fight a step further and issued a threat of a federal lawsuit if the state fair doesn’t change its stance by the end of today. I’ve yet to hear a response but I’m guessing they aren’t going to give up without a fight.

The whole situation with PETA coming to our state fair makes me sick to my stomach. It is so difficult to see organizations unfairly and incorrectly represent our way of life. Yes we slaughter our animals for human consumption. But we do so in a humane and ethical way. Technology has allowed the slaughter process to be painless for the animal, but PETA continues to insist that animals suffer at the hands of humans everyday and that by eating meat you are supporting an inhumane and unethical industry. The message is misleading and incorrect.

The one piece of good news in the whole situation is the support of Kansas State Fair General Manager Denny Stoecklein and other fair administrators who have shown the agriculture industry unwavering support. The fair has and will continue to support the state’s thriving agriculture industry and has publicly said it will continue to take the side of agriculture when anti-agriculture bullies like PETA come to town. We are fortunate to have such a support state fair administration and hope that despite the continued threats, they are able to stand strong against PETA.

Stay tune for the rest of this story, I think it’s going to get interesting.

NPR: Farmers Reflect on Drought

This morning I was greeted with a unique email from a producer with NPR’s All Things Considered program asking if livestock producers had insurance like crop growers and it not, why.

It was an odd question but one that sparked a few inquiries in my mind. Why don’t livestock producers have access to the same coverage programs crop growers do? The question has become common as the drought forces more and move livestock owners to liquidate their herds and find a new way of life. For those that have managed to keep food and water for the animals, input prices have risen and water and grass have become scarce. The drought has not ended the livestock industry but it has changed the short-term future of the industry and the long-term viability for some livestock owners.

Livestock owners face the same risk and the same loss as crop owners when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate and conditions become too harsh to raise animals. The answer to the producer’s question of why livestock owners don’t receive the same access to crop insurance is a simple yet highly complicated one that takes understanding the different aspects of the industry to fully comprehend. While the livestock industry encompasses more than cattle, I am going to speak to the cattle industry specifically because that is what I know and understand.

The cattle industry is diversified and segmented. There are hundreds of breeds of cattle that all gain weight and thrive under different conditions. There can also be several people involved in the raising of a steer – for example. There is the family that owns the cows that gave birth to the steer then the family that backgrounds or grows that steer until they are ready to go to the feedlot for the final 120-130 day fattening period, which takes us to the final family involved in the life of that steer. Now crop insurance pays out when a crop does not meet a set production rate or does not provide a set amount of income. If a steer does not gain the pre-determine amount of weight or does not bring the pre-set price, whose fault is it? And who would receive the insurance payment?

A livestock insurance program would require too much streamlining and regulation of the livestock industry and many cattle owners are not in favor of that. Also, livestock is often much more fluid that crops. You can buy and sell a cow on a day’s notice. Crops are not the same. So, when conditions are not conducive to owning cattle, you can sell your animals. You cannot do the same with crops.

Finally, more government oversight and interference into the livestock industry would take away the free-market approach to livestock prices that many livestock owners value. By keeping the true number of livestock unknown, the market (supply and demand) determines the prices received for beef, eggs, chicken etc. during any given week. There seems to be a distrust in the packer – or final buyer – and giving them the exact number of cattle and how far along they are in the growing process could allow them to manipulate the price they pay for the animals. You can’t store a fat animal like you can crops.

There have been some disaster programs passed by Congress that have helped livestock owners. These programs do not directly affect the cattle but instead provide assistance for declining pasture conditions and other inputs involved in the livestock industry. We have received payments from these programs in the past and would likely receive a payment from any type of drought disaster program passed by Congress this year due to a substantial decline in the conditions of our pastures.

Due to the length of the NPR segment, most of my response remains on the cutting room floor. But I am thrilled that the producer took the time to ask the question and listen to my response. The segment was short but sweet and really did show case the resilience of American farmers and ranchers. You can list to the segment here: http://www.npr.org/2012/08/19/159248178/farmers-reflect-on-drought

The Antibiotics Debate

The use of antibiotics in our cattle has, like the cattle themselves, evolved over the years. Going off prior wisdom that it was best to protect all cattle from disease and infection, my husband and his father provided a low dose of antibiotics to all cattle entering our farm as feeder cattle.

These animals – often called feeder cattle – were about 10 months old, weighed about 500 pounds and had just been weaned from their mothers. They were unhappy, hungry and dealing with declining temperatures and the approach of winter. The method worked but further study of the practice revealed the cost of the antibiotic was not being realized in the final product. Too many animals were still falling sick.

So over the past four years, we have evolved our process of taking in new feeder cattle. Focusing on creating a clean and stable environment, we eliminated the low-dose antibiotic and move to doctoring only animals that showed signs of illness.

The newly weaned cattle now enter our farm and are immediately given a diet of dried distillers grains and brome grass. They take well to this food and a hearty appetite helps keep them full and happy. We ensure the pens are clean and dry and dirt mounds are left to allow the cattle to lay inclined.

We have not found a way to completely eliminate sickness from our farm. We doctor about 5 to 10 percent of our cattle for bacterial infections – pneumonia is one of the most common infections. A large majority of those animals will heal. About 1 percent will perish from their illness. We keep extensive records on all cattle that receive antibiotics and ensure that they have cleared the withdraw period before leaving our farm.

Recently, advocacy ground have begun calling for the repeal of antibiotics in cattle and all livestock.

If left untreated, sick cattle on our farm would likely perish and have a greater chance of infecting other animals. All antibiotics found on our farm are approved by the U.S.  Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and must be purchased from a veterinarian.

Antibiotics are an important too that allow us to have a healthy and productive cattle operation. We believe farmers should have continued access to antibiotics to help improve the health of our herd and continue providing a quality supply of beef products.

The Antibiotics Debate

Antibiotic use in animals – especially livestock – has long been a controversial issue that has pushed some consumers to abandon meat products all together.

For some reason, a small but vocal group of consumers believe that while it is acceptable to allow themselves to use antibiotics when they are sick , it is not acceptable to give an animal medication to help it overcome an infection or disease.

As livestock owners, my husband and I do use antibiotics to help ensure the health and well being of our animals. We do not, however, use antibiotics as a cure-all or means of helping our animals digest food that does not mesh with their digestive systems. Just like in humans, we administer antibiotics to our animals when we find them dealing with pink eye, pneumonia or other respiratory illnesses. Healthy animals are essential to creating a safe and healthy food supply.

But a recent study conducted by Kansas State University shows many consumers vastly overestimate the usage of antibiotics in animals. A news release by the National Pork Producers Council states, “The KSU study, which was published in the March issue of Foodborne Pathogens and Disease, found that 2.8 million pounds of antibiotics were used for growth promotion/nutritional efficiency, disease prevention and disease treatment. That amount is 368 percent less than the amount asserted by UCS for just growth promotion/nutritional efficiency and disease prevention.”

The study reveals that it’s not just the use of antibiotics that angers people but the widely held belief that drugs are use as a means of encouraging growth in animals and are part of a regular feeding regimen. Lawmakers advocating for the banning of antibiotics and animal rights groups rallying around the same cause often use incorrect figures that greatly over exaggerate the situation.  That belief is simply not true.

Many livestock owners, like my husband and I, do not use antibiotics to encourage a more rapid rate of growth but instead feed our animals a nutritionally balanced diet that allows them to gain weight at a natural rate. As they move to the feedlot, the diet is changed to expedite the process of weight gain but multiple studies have shown that humans experience no side effects from the use of special diets in cattle.

Dr. Noffsinger, who is often referred to as the Cattle Whisperer, put it correctly in a recently video on the Veterinarians On Call You Tube channel, antibiotics allow for healthy animals, which in turn allows livestock owners to create a healthy, safe and affordable food supply. Think about how different your life would be without antibiotics, why would we want any different for our animals?

Learn more about cattle via the Veterinarians On Call You Tube channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/veterinariansoncall?ob=0&feature=results_main