We use a combination of systems and management techniques to keep our cattle and their calves as healthy as we can. Along the way, we collect the information we need to make important herd management decisions.
I have gotten several questions on my Instagram about the need for ear tags in our calves. (what you don’t follow me? Click here!) While I understand that the ear tags in an adorable 12-hour old calf do not make sense if you are not in the business of managing cattle, the question got me thinking about how everything we do with the animals we do for a reason. And I hope a good one!
Here are the basics of the systems we use to manage calving season, and why we do what we do.
This year has only been our second true calving season. I am sure as time goes on I will continue to learn and adapt, and many of my systems will change. But as of today, these are the strategies we use to manage our herd.
As with any animal, there is a great deal of unpredictability that comes with calving. There is a lot we cannot control. Our ultimate goal is always to have as many healthy calves as possible without compromising the health of any of our animals. This business truly is a labor of love.
4 Hour Cattle Checks
We check our mother cows beginning about two weeks from expected delivery every four hours. We carefully calendar the date the bulls are turned in with the cows in order to keep our calving window as short as possible and allowing us to monitor them as closely as possible. Handy Husband checks cows daily at 1 AM, 5 AM, on his way out the door to his day job around 8 AM, and at 9 PM. The kids and I take the easier checks at Noon and 4 PM. We have the advantage of being able to see the majority of our calving fields from inside the house. I monitor the cows with binoculars all day long and go down to the field to check more closely if I notice anything out of the ordinary. If temperatures are exceptionally low or we are experiencing a snowstorm, we check more often. We are able to catch the vast majority of our births right away. We almost always know who is close and therefore who to pay more attention to.
That is not to say we are never taken by surprise! But for the most part, we keep a tight watch on the animals and are able to take action if needed.
Intervention When Necessary
We tend to be fairly hands-off when it comes to letting our ladies do their thing. There are a million different opinions on how much intervention is the right amount. Of course, our goal is always to keep our moms and their babies as healthy as possible. For the most part, we do a lot of monitoring and a lot of watching. However, if a cow has not made significant progress within an hour of pushing, and we are able to catch her, we do and pull the calf. Whenever possible we keep the birth as gentle and easy on the cow as possible being careful to work with her contractions and assist, rather than take over. However, sometimes things do go wrong and we do need to do more to save the calf, the cow, or both.
Last year we ran the gamut as far as complications: twins, breech presentation, uterine prolapse, stillbirth, internal injury, and several pulled calves. It was rough. This year the outcome was dramatically better, as was the weather. Handy Husband and I pulled one calf, and our lone heifer lost her calf due to dystocia (more to come on that later.)
The vast majority of the time, we just sit back and watch. Our cows instinctively know do what they do.
Navel Dips and Medications
Our beef is natural and grass-fed. Animals we raise, finish and sell for harvest, never receive any antibiotics and eat only grass and hay their entire lives here on our place. However, sometimes we have an animal that needs medication. When an animal needs antibiotics we do not withhold the necessary medication for the sake of our natural beef program. Instead, we first treat the animal and get it healthy. And then sell the animal rather than retain it. Meticulous record-keeping is required to keep track of any such medications administered. We take our obligation to be transparent very seriously and take careful notes about any animal that receives any out of the ordinary medication.
All of our calves have their navel dipped in iodine within the first hour of life or so. This prevents infection at the vulnerable navel.
Ahh the unpopular ear tags. While there are favorites and some distinct calves, the bottom line is a large portion of these calves look like black calves. It is not always easy to tell which calf is which. In order to be able to maintain appropriate records, keep track of which calf belongs to which cow, track medications administered, or any other medical care needed, we have to be able to immediately tell which calf is which. Occasionally a cow will try to take another’s calf. It does not happen frequently, but we use the ear tag numbers to confirm that the pairs are correctly matched.
We use a very simple numerical system. The first calf is #1 and so on. We then renumber our replacement heifers at weaning using the last digit of the year they were born and their original number. The calves born this year will be 0 and then the order they were born. 756 and 757 were born in 2017, 801 was born in 2018, and so on. Some of our favorites have names as well as ear tags, but we still primarily use the numerical system for record-keeping.
All of the research I have come across, as well as the “old-timer” advice out there, suggests you should feed your calving cows in the afternoon/evening to encouraging calving during the day. In the mountains of the pacific northwest, it isn’t abnormal for us to be calving in temperatures as cold as the single digits even in March. So having as many calves as possible during the day has a great advantage. That said, our personal experience has been the opposite. Handy Husband feeds before he takes off for his day job in the morning. Last year our calves were about half and half. This year I would guess as many as 90% of our calves have been born between 3AM and 3PM. Because we both have day jobs, we feed when we can, but it seems to be working just fine. Nearly all our calves this year were born between the 3AM and 5 AM checks or during the day when I was able to keep tabs on them.
In the field, we keep a very simple pocket-sized, cow/calf notebook. We record the birthdate, calving ease, calf vigor, calf size, any medications or veterinary care administered, as well as anything else of note in this notebook. I then transfer all of this information to a sortable excel worksheet.
We use a 1-5 score system for calving ease, calf vigor, and calf condition at weaning for each animal. We also keep a detailed spreadsheet of these scores as they relate to each mother cow. This system helps us easily decide which animals to retain and which to sell. Because we are still developing the genetics of our herd this is really important for keeping animals with the strongest genetics possible. I am sure there are many sophisticated systems out there, but we have found so long as we are dedicated to our little notebooks they serve us very well.
Vaccination, Branding and Castration
Prior to shipping cows out on pasture, it is necessary to brand them. While this is far from my favorite part of livestock management, it is necessary. It certainly isn’t pleasant for the animals, but I am amazed at how quickly they settle down after it is done. Being separated from their mothers (for as brief a time as possible) is more stressful for the animals than the actual branding. This year after we branded, I chuckled to myself as I looked out at the calves, freshly branded, happily basking in the sun and grazing while their worried mothers bellered from inside the corral. The calves could have cared less; it is always the mothers who are uptight!
We give our calves four shots when we work them. Multimin, which is a combination of trace elements helps offset nutritional deficiencies in the soil. 8-Way, which is a combination vaccine for 8 common bacterial infections in cattle. A combination vaccine for cattle viruses, and a wormer. We give the mother cows these same shots annually plus another to prevent reproductive diseases. All shots are administered per Beef Quality Assurance Best Practices.
We castrate our bull calves at branding using a bander. Many other producers band at birth or surgically castrate. In the past, we have done so to keep our initial handling of the calves to a minimum and allow the pairs to bond. However, in writing this I came across some helpful information explaining that banding within the first week of life is preferable. We will likely consider making that change next year. We do not surgically castrate because by May, when we brand, the flies are out which can be problematic.
I am sure our system is far from perfect and we are absolutely open to suggestions! What systems do you use to manage the crazy that can come with calving?