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.

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.

General Assumptions

I am naturally going to click on any headline with the word billionaire and a picture of cattle. While performing my daily scan of the MSN.com homepage, I found such a headline and proceeded to follow the link. Please excuse more for a moment as I step onto my soapbox. Here is a link to the article: http://money.msn.com/investing/trophy-investments-of-billionaires

The article, “Trophy investments of billionaires,” detailed 12 not-so-normal investments of billionaires. One of those filthy rich tycoons profiled is Frank Stronach, owner of Magna International. The Austrian-Canadian has purchased more than 70,000 acres in Florida to start an “industrial-sized” cattle ranch where “where hormone-free, grass-fed cattle will have plenty of space to roam.”

It’s bad enough the article leaders readers to believe there is such thing as hormone-free beef. Sorry friends, can’t happen. Animals, like people, have naturally occurring hormones. Try as you might, you can’t have a cow without the hormones.

But it’s not the error that leaves me frustrated, it’s the over-generalization of  farmers and ranchers and the belief that big is bad.

The following are two excerpts from the article:

“The millennial generation has seen an increase in the number of college-educated farmers. You know the type: hipster, concerned with all things artisanal, local and organic. It’s an understandable idealistic reaction to the perceived excesses of the corporate world.”

AND

“It’s certainly a contradiction: Organic, grass-fed beef is typically associated with small, local farms, but Stronach is hoping to create the first industrial-sized, yet holistic, cattle farm.”

Now here’s my rub. My husband is a very intelligent, college-educated farmer that understands that bigger can be more efficient. We are not organic farmers but are successful in our conventional farming and caching practices. A combine costs the same if it’s cutting 200 acres of wheat or 2,000 acres of wheat. The payments are much easier to make if you have the revenue of 2,000 acres. And what is “industrial sized?” Farming has to be one of the only industries in this country where success and growth is shunned. Add too many acres and you are suddenly the big, bad farmer. It makes no difference if your methods and equipment hasn’t changed, the fact you are now farming more acres makes you dangerous. My husband and I have hopes and dreams of growing our farm. Growth will help ensure a future for our children and hopefully their children. More land means more opportunities and a more successful business. We maybe farmers but we are also business owners and growth is a good thing.

And finally, since when is a “holistic” approach reserved for small farms? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of holistic is : “relating to or concerned with wholes or with complete systems rather than with the analysis of, treatment of, or dissection into parts.”

Using that definition, we apply a holistic approach to our cattle. We provide a clean, safe and healthy environment that promotes the healthy growth of all our cattle. We work to improve the overall herd health, from the mother cow to the calve to the cattle at the feedlot. A holistic approach to animal health is nothing new, it’s a means of keeping our animals healthy, our beef safe and our farm more efficient.

Agriculture has done a terrific job of diversifying to meet consumer demand but consumers should not be so quick to judge and label our farms and practices. Organic farms come is all sizes and a holistic approach can be found on ranches with two or 200 animals. Each farm and farmer is unique and shouldn’t be judge by his or her size or approach. The one common denominator is that all farmers and archers are working to provide safe, healthy food for your next meal. Articles like this do nothing to promote the growth and success of the average farmer but pigeon hole farmers into one of two categories, small and friendly or big and bad. It’s not accurate and not fair.

I have now said my peace and will be stepping off my soap box. Thank you for following along.

The reason why

Americans constantly question the agriculture community. From inquiries on livestock practices to investigations on pesticides, farmers and ranchers are continuously answering questions about their practices and farming methods. Most outside sources like to believe agriculture doesn’t have the answers. They craft articles and opinions on the make-believe-basis that farmers simply make spur-of-the-moment decisions with no thought for the welfare of the animals, the environment or the people who consume the food they produce. Not true! Everything we do – down to what color of tractors we drive – is done for a reason.

The latest publication to question agriculture’s intentions and production techniques is O, The Oprah Magazine. The May issue includes a series of articles about biotechnology and genetically modified foods.

The main article poses the question, “What impact do GM foods have on our health?” and follows with “no one really knows.”

Actually, we do. After biotech crops go through the typical six to 12 years of testing before they go to market, we know a great deal about them, according to the Council for Biotechnology Information. The group says that food made from biotech crops has been determined to be as safe as non-biotech foods by no less than the Food and Drug Administration, American Dietetic Association, World Health Organization, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the National Academy of Sciences. That’s a fairly impressive list of people who always have public health in mind and maintain the ability to prevent food from hitting the grocery store shelves.

Farmers understand that at no risk to the public, they can produce more food on fewer acres – saving fuel, water and land. Biotech crops are one of the many ways agriculture is making itself more efficient.

We also understand why we house poultry indoors and keep pigs from roaming free and eating garbage and one another in the great outdoors. We also know exactly why we till the soil and use pesticides to keep our plants pest-free. And finally, farmers and ranchers know exactly why they get up each morning and head to the fields, to provide food, fuel and fiber for a growing population.

Farmers dedicate their lives to providing for their families and millions of others around the world. Each practice – either in the fields or the at livestock barns – has been established because it solves a problem or makes agriculture more efficient and therefore more affordable. We have a reason for all of our methods and we are always happy to explain.

The American Farm Bureau Federation contributed to this article.