Today's post is brought to you by the man himself, Farmer Joe! He'll offer a little insight to the craziness that is his calving season!
This time of year, I’m amazed at how fascinated people are with the logistics of my cattle operation. I have conversations with friends at church, at the high school basketball game, and out with friends that are usually started when I explain that I have to leave to go home and check on the heifers. Last week, when the windchill was at -20 degrees, I offered an agritourism opportunity for people to have an on-farm experience helping me check the heifers at 2 am. I had several volunteers, none of whom were really serious about joining me in this venture! The question I get regularly is “Why in the world are your cows calving NOW?”
The biological reason is that now is when they are supposed to calve based on when the bull was turned in with the heifers. Romance filled the air, and 283 days later, there you go….. But there IS most definitely a plan playing out as to why the heifers are calving now.
First of all, the majority of my herd (95 cows) starts calving about March 1 and will last 60 days, but 2/3 of the calves should come within the first three weeks. This is the older herd that has already had a calf at least once before. I like calving on March 1 for a few reasons:
1. Calves reach their peak demand for milk about 6 weeks after they are born. On April 15th, we should have the best pasture conditions ready to turn the cows into. The pastures will enter the “summer slump” period around the end of July, first of August. At that time, the calves are ready to wean and can be fed a low-cost ration and graze the summer annual grasses- Pearl Millet, Sudangrass, etc. that I’ll plant for them, while the cows will have their lowest nutritional requirements of the year once the calves are weaned off, so the pastures will sustain them just fine until time to graze cornstalk fields after harvest.
2. I want to be done calving before it is time for spring planting, and I want to wean calves before fall harvest. All four times are labor intensive, so I can spread out my work when I have time to do it.
3. I want to sell 750 lb. calves before Thanksgiving. The buyer can go on to feed them and put nutritious beef on your dinner table just in time for the next summer grilling season.
So, that is the March 1 group, but this is February! Well, February is reserved for the heifers- 26 first time mommas that have never had a calf before. They require a great deal more attention, so I breed them a month earlier so that:
1. I can give them my undivided attention. They often require a little “training” on how to pay attention to their calf after it’s born, so I like to shut them together for at least 12 hours- once the cow figures out what she’s got, she’s pretty good with it. You just don’t want her walking away from the calf as soon as it’s born. So I check them basically every three hours every day so I know when one is about to be born so I can shut them in the barn. Sometimes the momma requires some assistance in delivering the calf, and I am ready to jump in and help when needed. With 26 heifers to focus on, I have enough room in the barns to make sure all of them can have the needed shelter that is necessary in the type of weather that February can bring. It is extremely rare to have more than 2 or 3 calves born on the same day, so the work is spread out pretty nicely. When the “big herd” gets started, I’ll have days of 6-8 calves born per day, potentially 25-30 per week for the first few weeks, so that’s why I want to calve heifers first, so nothing gets overlooked.
2. They get an extra month to recuperate and will be more likely to re-breed for the next year on time. Cows that don’t get re-bred on time are very costly to cattle producers. The cows’ feed bill is the same as everyone else’s, but if she weans a calf that is 200 lbs lighter than the earlier calves, she didn’t “pay her way” that year.
3. I hate the mud. Most of the time, the ground is still frozen in February, but the days usually get to the mid-30’s during the day. A cold day is not a problem when the pens are bedded appropriately and I keep them clean. When calves are born in the mud, they get wet and cold, and if momma doesn’t get them dried off quickly, as is sometimes the case with first time cows, they get chilled and can get sick. Calves in the mud can also get worn out trying to get up and give up. Have I mentioned I hate the mud? That’s why I like February utilizing the set-up I have.
Different cattlemen and women have different systems and calving dates. I know a lot of experienced producers that don’t want to calve until April and May because they may not have the facilities to calve in the barns, or they don’t want to mess with calving in the cold, and I completely understand that. My dad uses a Fall Calving timetable, and his are born in September and October, before it gets cold. This is what works for me, and this is why I do it this way! We welcome any visitors to the farm to check out the babies this time of year. Especially if you want to check them at 2 am for me.