Thursday, March 19, 2009

Early "Spring" Calves

The first calf this year had a rough entry into the world. His mother, a young Angus heiffer had never had a calf before, so I kept a close eye on her. I had to leave the farm for 4 hours one Sunday morning, and upon returning I found her unconscious with her calf partially born. The calf's head and and front feet were showing (proper orientation - thank goodness), but I guess the mother just ran out of energy. I grabbed the calf and pulled but my hands slipped off his feet. Rather than leave the scene to find something to help me pull the calf, I grabbed as tight as I could and tried again - this time with success. The calf plopped out and started breathing within 30 seconds. I was elated, but then I remembered the mother was showing no signs of life, and I would probably have to raise this calf from a bottle. I checked on the unconscious mother once again... eyes rolled back in her head... it looked as if she was already dead, so I focussed my attention back on the calf. Miraculously, and much to my surprise, a few minutes later the mother jumped to her feet. I called to my wife and asked her to bring a snow sled, I loaded the calf in the sled, and then I pulled him to the barn, mother cow following. Usually, I don't like to put new calves in the barn (they seem to do much better in the pasture), but this calf was slow to nurse and I wanted to make sure it got the first milk (colostrum) within 12 hours. If not, I was prepared to milk the mother and bottle feed the calf.

The next morning, the calf was up and nursing. In fact, every time I checked on him for the next 3 days, he was nursing vigorously. A new concern started creeping into my mind. I began to wonder if his young mother was giving enough milk, since he never seemed satisfied. Should I try to feed milk replacer and risk upsetting his bowels? It's one of those frustrating things - you can never measure how much the calf is getting to eat when he nurses his mother. (A few years ago I lost a calf whose mother failed to "get her milk" when he was born. He lived almost a week without a drop of milk... but by all appearances it looked like he was nursing just fine. When the calf died and I noticed he was thin, I tied up the cow and milked her only to discover she was dry. Needless to say, that cow went straight to market .) Even with that lesson in my mind, I chose not to intervene this time - things were different. The calf was getting _some_ milk, and he seemed to be growing.

A week later, it was clear that mother and calf were going to be just fine. And the calf's bowel movements were starting to look a little like the scours... time to get them out of the barn and into the fresh air. Besides, I was tired of checking on them every day. Genetically, this calf is 50% Angus and 50% Wagyu, so I decided to go ahead and band (neuter) him before letting him back into the field. The second picture shows mother and son after rejoining the herd. Because I first bred Limousine and Charolais (large frame) cows to an Angus (small frame) bull, and because I now breed all of my cows to a Wagyu (even smaller frame) bull, I've never had to pull a calf until this one. I hope I can go several more years without having this problem again.

Shortly after that 50% wagyu calf was born, one of my purebred Wagyu cows had her calf... on her own, with no difficulties... thank goodness. I'm sure that some cattlemen would not approve of my practice of letting the cows deliver their calves in open pasture, and some might look askew at my practice of leaving the bull with the cows year-round (which inevitably means some calves will be born in cold weather), but I had a 100% calving rate last year with these practices. That is to say, every cow had a calf, and every calf lived to weaning age. In fact, most cows calved less than 11 months after their last calf. New mothers are very protective of their newborns and you can see in this picture that the mom (walking away) didn't like the idea of me photographing her calf.

I caught up with the pair at a stretch of woven wire fence that confused the calf long enough to allow me to catch him and give him a new set of pretty ear tags. It's best to tag the calves within the first two days of life, beacuse after that its very difficult to catch them in open pasture!

Since these photographs, I've had two more purebred Wagyu calves born on the farm, as well as a few more 50% wagyu calves. All healthy and vigorous. Spring is around the corner and the calves are having fun running and bucking in the field. I believe that good nutrition, a high quality loose mineral, and good genetics are the most important aspects of raising high quality beef cattle without hormones, pesticides, or antibiotics. Even so, hands on involvement is still sometimes required!

1 comment:

James said...

I think your doing great with the cows. I run one bull with fifty cows year round. And all calves are born in open pasture. This has worked with good success for a couple of decades. Keep up the good work. I am interested in the Wagyu cattle, so enjoy seeing your progress.

Fishpharmer (and cattle too)