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In Praise of Late Spring Calving

February 25, 2011

Della and Jetta, June 2005.

It’s winter and many are having calves or have already had calves born.  We used to do that, but the heartache and work are not worth it in the long run.  Cattle are tough, and can survive, but as fuel prices climb higher it may pay to take a look at a more seasonal approach.  Purchased or produced feedstuffs beyond pasture are the single biggest expense in any operation whether you have one pair or a herd.  And the next thing is vet bills and lost calves when you calve in winter.  And lost production figures in there too.  We also calve later to avoid predation on baby calves, the cougars would prefer to stay in the woods and eat fawns and elk calves, but they have to eat – so it makes no difference to them, availability is everything.  Seasonal calving applies to beef and dairy, but since I mentioned a dairy animal as one of my survival things, I’ll stick with a family cow for this post.

I think most would agree that the main reason to have a milk cow is to supply your family with healthy, fresh food.  To do that you have to provide for the cow’s basic needs of feed, housing and clean water.  But there is so much more than that to keeping a cow, and in the days of higher fuel prices it will become more important to keep livestock as economically as possible.  Ironically the best way to keep a cow healthy is to let her do what she is designed for and does best – graze and have babies in spring.  Assuming you have grass of course…if you don’t, don’t get a cow until you do, you will just be inviting trouble in the way of sickness and un-thriftiness.  And it pays to remember that the reason most people get a dairy animal in the first place is because of the perception that store bought milk is unhealthy.  As I mentioned above, the easiest way to keep your cow(s) healthy is by making sure she isn’t calving in winter when she needs the most energy.  Pregnancy is a huge draw on the body, and then to have to produce milk and rebreed on stored forages and feedstuffs put a tremendous drain on a lactating animal.  A cow gives the most milk in the first three months, in a good producing cow, the milk supply then levels off for the remainder of the lactation.  It’s hard on them to give birth and go into three months of marathon milk producing, unless they are on growing pasture.  It’s expensive, and the milk quality is not the same as milk produced in May and June.  First you may see metabolic issues like milk fever, or ketosis, mastitis may flare up and then while you’re treating for all this, you are hoping to get your cow into a good enough body condition so she cyles and can be bred within 60 days or so for the next go.  Your cow’s health is compromised and so is her milk as a source of healthful food for your family.  A dairy does have calves year-round but they are set up for it, and prepared to deal with the outcome, most family cow owners are not.  I realize I am going against the grain here, but having had calves in late winter and early spring, I would never go back to that.  But old habits and and industry norms are a hard to break away from, most information comes from people who are feeding the commodity market and they have to fit into those guidelines.  Our own Ag college is in the middle of lambing right now and inviting the public.  All well and good when you have a big comfy barn that someone else paid for, and lots of help.  But it’s 23°F right now as I type this, and lambs are being born all over the Willamette Valley right now, because of the extension service recommendations…sure babies are tough, but thriving is much better than just surviving.  Better late spring than never.

I wrote a similar post last February because winter is the hardest on animals and their caretakers due to the number of months without the sun, the dormant time on the calendar, and the post is still timely.  Here is an excerpt from that post:

Along with other modern conveniences and our affluent lifestyles.  We have turned over our own food supply to someone else and we have done the same with our livestock.

Mama feeds the new little dairy heifer with milk replacer because mama wants all that milk for the family or to sell.  Meanwhile Daddy is out fertilizing the hay field with store bought fertilizer, because cleaning the manure out of the barn is a chore, and the NPK from the farm supply store is neat and tidy and really makes that hay tall.   As the calf grows, Mama laments just how expensive the milk replacer is, and after a bag or two, quits buying it and gets that calf on more calf starter and hay.  Daddy is walking his fields and counting on a high tonnage yield.  Always looking forward, counting and adding in the positive column, but never seeing that while the little dairy heifer is growing,  her rumen is compromised from bad fat in the milk replacer and too much grain and not enough forage.  Those observations don’t get made and don’t get put down in the negative column. The tall growing grass gets made into hay and gets fed, the hay is most likely minerally imbalanced because there really isn’t too much focus on true soil health, just rapid growth.  And so the story goes, the calf grows, the hay grows but no one really thrives.  The calf gets sold, and moves to another farm, she may be a family milk cow, and when she goes down it will be devastating.  But where to point the finger?  At the unnatural rearing which may have included a poorly timed breeding resulting in a winter calf, or the modern, convenient feeding methods and feedstuffs?  When you buy a cow, how do you know if her calfhood started out being born in a mud hole?  A calf’s tender hooves, umbilical cord, nose and mouth are all entry points for bacteria.  It should be good bacteria, not swill.  Dirty conditions aren’t the same as dirt.  And this isn’t just the big, dirty dairies on the news, it may be the guy next door with a couple of cows.  Maybe he doesn’t know any better, or maybe he doesn’t care.  The outcome for the calf is always the same. It’s a testimony to a how tough cattle are – they survive despite our interventions.

How do we make changes?  Most people who set out to procure livestock for meat and milk, usually have some land.  You don’t usually see someone boarding livestock as is common with horse ownership.  So the simplest but the hardest to implement is seasonal production.  We are so steeped in the on-demand store mentality, that we demand our own personal store at home on the farm too.  We want milk year-round, and thus breed our animals for fall and winter babies.  Some of this is a hold-over from showing and the sale barn.  The earlier babies (that survive) will be larger at show or sale time and may command a better ribbon or  bigger check.  Never mind that you are putting that cow or ewe into a negative energy balance with fall, winter or early spring birthing.  All of us do better with a good spring cleansing.  Spring tonic if you will.  A month on good pasture before birthing is a wondrous thing.  The mother’s body can detoxify from all that winter feeding, and gives the baby a better start.  And just in case you think I don’t know what I’m speaking of, well, we used to have some winter calves, I have done my share of being the valiant “hero”, saving the calf from snow, ice and wet conditions.  Trust me, that is not being a hero – if I did a better job, that calf would not need saving.  It’s the same with all farm animals, if your sow is dragging her nipples through the mud continually, when it comes time to farrow, she may have a sub-clinical infection that isn’t readily apparent.  But giving birth is hard work, if you don’t feel good, you don’t do a good job, you may not care if your babies make it or not.  We all need to empathize a little and put ourselves in the position we put our stock in.  Do you want to eat your dinner on a dirty plate or drink out of a dirty glass?  Sleep in the cold mud?  Give birth in the outhouse?  Probably not.  They don’t either, but they don’t always have a choice.

The other thing is try to feed what the animal needs – if you have a cow that was raised with grain or excellent pastures, you will need to supplement if you don’t have good pastures.  Buying minerals is not a bad thing – and they can make up for poor quality forage or feedstuffs until you get your land in good shape.  No matter what it looks like – it is mostly likely the pasture is depleted and any resulting hay from the land will be too.  And that goes for bought in hay too.  Grass hay these days, may be just baled up tall grass, sometimes fertilized, sometimes not.  If the hay is an actual crop, like it is here east of the mountains, it will be irrigated, highly fertilized, and inviting problems for the stock.  A hay buying tip, buy from someone who has  grazing livestock, even if they aren’t spreading their manure, the benefits of animals on the land are apparent in the subsequent crops.  (Edited to add:  buy from hay from hay sellers who include animals or animal manures as part of the rotation on hay ground.) Of course there are many variables to take into account, but that would be a good place to start.

Most vet books deal with the symptoms of the last 40 years of our now common feeding practices.  So it is hard to get an objective opinion these days from a vet or a vet book.  They are treating what they see, and they don’t question the feeding practices that have led up to the diseases.  Ketosis, acidosis, milk fever are all common these days, and all lead back to the manger.  All diseases that weren’t so common even in the 60′s.  I am not anti-medicine, I am just more for prevention.  We so often just look for solutions to the latest pickle we get into – not what the root cause was.  I know I annoy readers with any plugs for unconventional treatments for livestock.  It’s not progressive to want to avoid antibiotics and modern painkillers.  But it’s not  so much the drugs I want to avoid as it is the pain that the livestock needlessly goes through that require those types of treatments.  Imagine having stock that doesn’t need so much intervention and that thrive.  Instead of investing in a calf-puller for pulling too large of a calf, or a hip lifter because the cows are prone to being down – think instead of getting a different bull, or buying that bag of kelp or dry cow minerals that may help alleviate those common maladies.

If you want to build a natural system without buying minerals, you must cull the animals that can’t make it on your land.  That means don’t use calf pulling as a standard, no heroic hip lifting, or cesarean sections on stock that can’t deliver naturally.  If they make it through the birth process, and shun their young, they need to go.  I think culling is the hardest part of farming.  But it is the necessary part if you are to be economically viable.  With farming fast becoming a popular second career for many people, they have deep pockets from former jobs or house sales and no balls.  It is hard to really put the pencil to that prize cow who could potentially make you some money if…if she can walk on her own four feet, and if she has her calf unassisted and it nurses without you “helping.”  Otherwise, she is bound for the sale barn or freezer.  Same with the ewe who births triplets.  It looks good on paper but usually doesn’t pencil out in the long run.  Most new farmers these days set a figure of $20.00 to $25.00 bucks an hour for a wage.  Bottle feeding bummers will cost you, while the ewe that has a single or twin will raise her babies and do a good job.  She will be your money-maker, not the one with three babies, that may have reproductive problems in the future.

Read, and learn as much as you can.  Always be open to the information presented to you.  Just because you’re reading a book about dairy cows, doesn’t mean you can’t apply the logic to beef cattle and sheep too.  Different ruminants are similar – if highly fertilized alfalfa or grass hay can cause mineral imbalances in cattle that leads to downer cows, then the same can happen with sheep or horses.  The same with poor quality feed too.  No book has all the answers.  Each person perceives that their situation is different.  A good read, but not necessarily the bible on ruminant care is Alternative Treatments for Ruminant Animals, by Paul Detloff, DVM.  He is a conventional vet that switched to more natural treatments, good photos of troubled animals and treatments listed for conventional and natural type treatments.  He is able to see both sides and understands the economics of keeping farm animals.    There are many good books, get them all if you can afford it and pick and choose.  The saying that 95% of  dairy cows health problems are diet, and the other 5% unexplained means that we can do a lot with just a little better feeding and observation.  Pat Coleby’s Natural Care Series of books on different species are good too, but a little out there for the western medicine thought process.

Food can be medicine, our healthcare system needs to be in the preventative mode instead of the saving mode. We need to do the same with our farms, and make sure we are producing the best food we can.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2011 8:55 am

    I really appreciate this post. Here in Western WA, we’re very wet and mud-prone in early spring. Our grass doesn’t really grow until mid- to late-April (although last year was mid-May). Our calves were born in early April and I worried about them and the mud constantly, and made the choice to calve on pasture and leave them and their mommas there a month, even though I knew we risked damaging the pasture. Our first calves were born in November 2008, a month and a half ahead of a huge snowstorm, and while their thick Highland coats kept them warm and dry, we did worry about the feed their mothers were consuming. (Both cows failed to breed back in Feb. and didn’t until summer.)

    I since read Joel Salatin’s books and get the drift of why spring calving makes mroe sense. Now I pay attention and marvel at the number of beef farms I see on my daily commutes that are just bursting with new baby calves. We’re only expecting one and not until June, which isn’t ideal for us, either, as we’re in the prairie, unirrigated, and our grass goes dormant July through Sept. Hopefully, though, as we chip away at MiG techniques (and possibly lease summer pasture this year to give our little land a break), we’ll see improvements.

    So much to think about.

    • February 25, 2011 9:34 am

      Amy, I know what you mean – we’re about the same weather conditions here too as you. And the cow guys around here have been calving since November, and lamenting lost cows, calves, feed bills etc. I don’t see how they can really afford it. I breed now for May calves since our grass doesn’t really start growing until April either. It’s much easier this way for sure. One only has to read the KFC board to see what winter calving brings to the table, especially for a diary cow.

  2. kathy permalink
    February 25, 2011 9:20 am

    I always wondered what caused the multiple births. Maybe you can clear that up for me 🙂 Is it too rich of a diet? Before I sold my nigerian dwarf goats, them having quads and quints were becoming more and more common. The breeders would even brag about it. And to have a doe in milk not be able to hold weight without large portions of grain doesn’t make sense either.

    I learn something every time I read your blog. I appreciate your straight forward ideas on management and culling 🙂

    • February 25, 2011 9:41 am

      Kathy, I don’t know for sure, but I would suspect that to be true, and selection for that trait also has to be a factor. There was quite an article in the Capital Press last year extolling the virtues of 3 – 4 goat babies and how much more economically sound that was to have more babies each year. So select does that threw triplets and you could hope for quads!! Egads, they downplayed the continually assisted births and shortened life of the does. I suspect that (dont’ know for sure since I’m not a goat person) too, many little does suffer the fate as a dairy heifer, not being able to nurse and fed grain to make up for the milk that is used for the house or sold. It all adds up later with impaired production, but is so incremental it isn’t noticed. When everyone suggests feeding that way, it’s hard to go against that.

      • kathy permalink
        February 25, 2011 10:33 am

        It is so sad. Couple that as well that in Southern California there is not a big market for the babies (although it is growing) and they are generally dry lot fed so you don’t know the quality of your hay *and* you are at the mercy of the economy. Last time gas was 4.00 a gallon, alfalfa went up to 18.00 for a 80-100 lb bale. I milked my does when the babies were weaned, and they needed a cup of grain per pound of milk produced. Sometimes more grain was needed.

        Someday, I would like to have 80 acres. Some in pasture. Then (and only then), I will find some elderly person that has been breeding goats for years in *that* climate/geographic area and I will buy from them. Thats the plan anyway 🙂

      • February 26, 2011 5:19 am

        I hate seeing triplets in my does!!! I wonder if the crap grain that so many people feed contributes to more triplets.

        • February 26, 2011 6:54 am

          Michelle, it probably does, non-organic grain has lots of herbicide and pesticide residue and then of course, fungicides, more pesticides and preservatives for storage. Between that and genetics, that’s potent cocktail.

        • February 28, 2011 10:38 am

          Agreed, I don’t like triplets in my ewes, I am fine with twins, the girls do good with that but the few times I have triplets, I have either grafted one on a mom with single born around the same time or taken the 3rd baby to bottle raise, which is a pain but better for the mother and lamb in the end.

  3. February 25, 2011 9:55 am

    That is one thing that I don’t do and that is the calving. I just have to worry about about the young ones that I raise for meat. Someday when I do get to be home all the time is when we plan on having a milk cow and it will only be one or two. You have some great ideas and I love to hear how you do things.

  4. Diana Smith permalink
    February 25, 2011 10:00 am

    Amen. We breed to have our calfs born in May. Our grass is up and abundant then. Plenty of water in the pond. Cows are in cow heaven. Over the years we’ve learned to get rid of cows that don’t bred by the 2nd cycle, sheep that can’t deliver a set of twins without needing help, milking animals who just don’t produce and can’t/won’t learn to stand and be milked. Who needs this aggravation??? Right now are bottle feeding a heifer, Angus,twin to a bull calf and this is the second year this mama refused to feed one of twins. This is from a neighbors herd–not ours. Left to die in a frozen lot…surprized she didn’t but she’s a fighter. We have her sis,too that we fed last year…freezer bound this fall. He gives them to us as he can’t bother with them. His grass is barely greening up and he’s having calfs.,,,and he really puts up crappy hay!!! I wouldn’t use it for bedding. Folly. Around here if they can sell ’em at the stockyard they think they are making money…never figuring how much each one cost them. Oh well…DEE

  5. February 25, 2011 11:35 am

    I praise doing things that work…..for you! We don’t calve until the first of April and sometimes I wonder if that isn’t too early. We’ve got neighbors that are calving now… this awful cold and it’s so hard on both them and the cattle but they do it so they have time to get farming done later. I guess if they like being worried and tired it’s up to them but they can have it 😉

  6. February 25, 2011 11:40 am

    Amen in total agreement with you and as you said, it is hard to cull animals, especially if you have only a few, but for the betterment of your herd stock that is what has to be done.

    As you know I’m not so well spoken as you, but feel the same about preventative care and feed practices. It’s still a learning process, which sometimes makes it hard when you have to deal with symptoms of a lacking diet and good overall health of an animal.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and everyone is entitled to their own opinion, I feel as you, that by listening to everyone and thinking for yourself you’ll make the best decisions for your stock, you’ll see a more well rounded picture.

    Blessings for your weekend, may Spring be in the air!,

  7. February 25, 2011 11:57 am

    Dear Matron I read this post as I am near the end of calving. We have 10 more to go. We have had a couple of deaths , two by wolves. One was born to early and the other one died while being born, a freak accident unavoidable. We have been very lucky. I have 18 live healthy calves. Ideally I would rather them come in May not April or March. Scours take a toll no matter how careful in the early spring. We have lost many more in The Spring. We have a bull running with them and nature takes its course. The summer is to hot and haying time is is too busy. I spend every day, twice , sometimes three times a day checking my cows. They are never ignored. This way I can catch things before something goes wrong.
    I like your post and want you to know we have beef cattle so I do not know much about dairy. Thanks for this enlightening post. Almost done. Yeah.

  8. Linda Zoldoske permalink
    February 25, 2011 12:35 pm

    I’m glad you reprinted that segment! Very good information! I’m reading Gene Logsdon’s book ‘HOLY SHIT’ which talks about returning to composting and using manure as fertilizer (like you do). He says that with the depletion of many sites of mining for potassium and phosphorus and the use of petroleum products in making artificial fertilizers, they (art. fert) will be either much higher or non-existant in the future and it is time to start rebuilding soil fertility.

  9. February 26, 2011 6:35 am

    We bred 2 years for May/June calves. We wanted the cows to be on the grass to improve condition and have the grass for milk production. By late May/June they would be on full time (we start gradually to avoid scours) and be in good condition at calving.

    Our cows calved late, as late as 3 weeks. We used AI so we knew exactly when they were due. But they were having HUGE calves, one taped at 120 lbs at birth and looked like he was 1 month old. That one the cow did birth herself, but it was a very long time coming.

    Our other cow had a heifer, taped at 92 lbs. and we had to pull it. At the NOFA summer conference, we heard that a long time on good grass could make big calves.

    So we left them open and will breed this year for late April calves. Our grass comes in for the first of May, so they would go onto it, slowly as we’ve done for decades. No scours here.

    We’ll see how that works. If it’s another big calf or has to be pulled, we’ve decided it’s time for culling.

    Did you run into a problem with big calves from rich grass?

    • February 26, 2011 6:52 am

      Pam, no, I can’t say that I have. I was under the impression that genetics is the determining factor on calf size. Unfortunately with feedlot genetics (large frame) so prevalent I’m not surprised you have some big calves with AI. I had a heifer do that – go late, calf was stillborn, and the vet said that the fetal pituitary is abnormal and it could be from genetics or from the cow ingesting poisonous plants. I culled the cow since we didn’t have any poisonous plants.

      • February 27, 2011 3:28 am

        No feedlot genetics here, just grassfed. And no poisonous plants. Calves were healthy, just big. We’ll see what happens this time around. if no improvement, we’ll have to cull also.

        • February 27, 2011 7:59 am

          By feedlot genetics I was meaning how hard it is to find semen that isn’t from large frame bulls, and that takes in all breeds. The heifer I culled is the one in the photo at the top of the post. Beautiful to look at and meaner than a badger – with calving problems to boot.

  10. L. Hernandez permalink
    March 1, 2011 6:47 am

    As a city girl, I find all your posts fascinating, and really love the posts in which you take the time to write at length about your best practices. Taking pride in one’s craft and close observing and improving the final product based on those observations is such a strong theme to me.

    While it’s sometimes fun for me to read bucolic farm memoirs (you know, the city slicker goes back to the land), the kind of information that you write reminds me that honoring labor and craft in my neighbors is a commandment and a civic responsibility. It reminds me not to grumble about the cost of the food I buy, that my taxes and my political views need to address concerns of rural dwellers as well as urban dwellers, and that the path I’ve chosen is right for me, but that there are many paths out there.

    Looking forward to many seasons of manure, grass, milk, voles, economics and craft.

  11. thetinfoilhatsociety permalink
    March 3, 2011 11:57 am

    You are so very right; most health problems come from the nutritional content. That goes for humans as well as animals; I work in health care and I can attest to that. We almost never see people who eat a healthy, organic diet and exercise. We do see people who eat your average supermarket fare.

    The culling would be a problem for me, but because of my husband, not because I couldn’t do it. I grew up in a farming/hunting family; we didn’t have much in the way of pets because if they weren’t useful in some way they weren’t around long. And we knew that loving livestock was a recipe for heartbreak — eventually they would be freezer stock. Not that you can’t love them, you just don’t love them the same as your family or your pets.

    I would love to even have another quarter acre so that I could raise meat rabbits and chickens on something more approaching Mr. Salatin’s pasture rotation…isn’t going to happen on a quarter acre though. At least not like that.

    I love reading your blog. You have the life I can only dream of.


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