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Seasonal Calving

August 12, 2013

I wanted to add a little more to the previous breeding post, most specifically about moving breeding dates, and timing calving along with managing the pasture.  It seems no matter where I look, it’s hard to get away from the industrial model of year round everything.  Cattle are no exception, whether it be dairy or beef.  I never for the life of me can figure why someone who seeks out a local farmer for meat or milk because they are unhappy ( and usually quite vocal about it) with industrial farming, and then turn around and demand those same products year around without all the industrial trappings of industrial agriculture.  And I am truly amazed at all the small farmers that are willing to try to supply them.  If you want to change your cows calving date this post may give you some pointers.

Jane heard me in the corn patch, apparently she didn't get the memo that ruminants are supposed to eat corn!

Jane heard me in the corn patch, apparently she didn’t get the memo that ruminants aren’t supposed to eat corn!

For me, with my land/pasture and husbandry skill set, late spring calving works the best.  To that end I need to breed in August.  For my cows to earn their keep they need to calve every year after age two or three.  A cows gestation period is about 9 months, so if you count back from the breeding date three months you know approximately when your calves will be born.  With good grass to back up the cows during the stressful time of giving birth, lactation and having to come into heat again, late spring calving makes the most sense.  A cow calving in fall may be fat and sassy after a whole summer on grass, but she can quickly lose condition, and then be expected to be healthy enough to keep milking, cycle, and rebreed just when the dark days are here.  Remember, she needs to calve every year to earn her keep.  Fall pasture flush is usually pretty wan and washy, so not really full of nutrition and minerals, besides this tender fall grass should be shepherded itself and rested, not nipped in the bud by a cow headed for peak lactation.

So now you know the why, the how is a little more difficult if you decide you want to go seasonal.  Moving a fall calving cow to spring is not the easiest thing to do.  It’s not simple math, which is what usually gets most new farmers and even some seasoned ones in trouble, if they refuse to take biology into account.

I’ll use Jane as an example.  She has lost two weeks in her short 2 lactation life already and if I screw around too much (pun intended) she can quickly move further into summer which is not what I want.  She calved in ’12 at the end of May, she didn’t take AI, so the next cycle, I sent her to the bull, or rather she drug us across the road and we just opened gates.  She settled and then proceeded to carry Dickie an extra 10 days or so from her “due date.”  This year Jane came into heat on July 25th, no bull here, I wasn’t exactly convinced I wanted to go the AI route, so I let that window pass.  A July 25 breeding would have yielded a due date of May 1, 2014, had she been bred that would move her back 6 weeks.  Jane is due to come in this week, so now the dilemma.  If I use AI, or breed her to the bull the calf would be due May 22, which is perfect for me and Jane.  I’m pretty confident with live cover she’ll settle, AI not so much, my AI guy is always busy this week of August with his county fair, and he’s not available any evening.  So timing is of the essence.  If she doesn’t come in at the right time of day,  AI is out.  So going a little further here with this worst case scenario, if she doesn’t take AI, her next cycle assuming 21 days, would be September 5th, which would put her at a calving date of June 12th, 2014, say she goes over 10 days again, which I can assume she might since the mating is the same pair if I use the bull, we’ll be at the end of June for a calf.  That’s getting late for me, the first couple of weeks with a newly freshened milk cow is the pits, and takes up a huge amount of time until all post calving issues are taken care of.  I also need to be doing hay, and a June is a huge amount of work in the garden so of course, this is all doable, but if I can avoid these types of conflicts just by scheduling breeding, for sure, I will exercise that option.

It takes years to move a cow’s calving date backwards on the calendar and you see you might only gain 3 weeks per year, because a cow has to have all systems in good working order before she will ovulate again after calving.  If you have a cow in a negative energy balance you can kiss quick breed back goodbye until you address the inadequate feed/production ratio.

It’s always easier to move the other way on the calendar and get it over in one year.  You might lose 6 months, but you won’t spend years agonizing over gaining a measly 3 weeks at a time.  So say you buy a cow and she is due January, but you want her to calve in May after you make your purchase.  That time frame is actually the easiest to remedy because all you have to do is delay breeding to the date you want.  Just because the cow is cycling doesn’t mean she has to be bred.  Of course, that makes things get a little hairy in the parlor every three weeks, because cows in heat are dangerous hormonal machines ready to climb on you and leap fences to get to a bull, even if there isn’t a bull around.  Which translates to they will climb on you if you’re not careful.  The bull may be the most dangerous animal in the herd, but the cow in season is next.

brat pack

brat pack

To simplify this, delaying breeding one time only uses up about 5 – 6 months, early breeding even if it is possible (depending on the cows health) will take years to move the breeding date.  Basically if you had a 4-year-old cow and you wanted to move her from September or October calving to May she most likely would be about 10 when you finally achieve your May calving date.  Five or six months or five of six years, you decide.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. Rita permalink
    August 12, 2013 9:32 am

    “I never for the life of me can figure why someone who seeks out a local farmer for meat or milk because they are unhappy ( and usually quite vocal about it) with industrial farming, and then turn around and demand those same products year around without all the industrial trappings of industrial agriculture. And I am truly amazed at all the small farmers that are willing to try to supply them.”
    Please don’t be too hard on us! How would we ever know the nuances of farming without someone to educate us? We want to change our food sources but have grown up with the grocery store model with no one to explain the realities. Without your explanations I would never have understood why good chicken costs so dang much. Keep at us but understand we are just uneducated.

    • August 12, 2013 9:59 am

      Rita, I’m not trying to be too hard on anyone, it’s just that if I don’t say it, no one usually does. I see lots of new farms (two locally) going under because they are trying to duplicate what the store offers, mistakes are made on both sides of the fence. But if new farmers give up in discouraged and angry droves, we will be no better off in the long run. Instead of demanding no GMOs, organic and year round production, maybe the consumer could be a little more willing to work with the farmer to help them in the the right direction, the learning curve is very steep and trying to source special feeds for special needs while learning how to keep animals alive and upright is much different than growing organic carrots. Many times those same demanding consumers will lower their standards at the store and buy battery chickens raised on only organic feeds, never taking into consideration how the chickens were actually raised, and then slaughtered, it’s much more than just organic feed. I think Salatin said it best in one of his talks I heard, that “people are better on the land, than off”, and from what I see if new farmers don’t stay, and us old farts keep getting older, we will have less food choices.

      • Rita permalink
        August 12, 2013 11:50 am

        I agree, you have to say it, and I listen, and repeat to others of my ilk. Maybe the best thing is for you “old farts” to keep after the younger ones, make them do the right thing, and continue educating those of us who are not on the land. I was just chiding you…please, continue to speak your mind….I’m always listening.
        Our pastured egg producer lost 400 hens to stray dogs, a disaster. Now I have to make do with less than wonderful eggs and I am fearful they may also go under.

        • August 12, 2013 12:52 pm

          Rita, thanks for that. Some of these specialty feed suppliers are going out of business too due to being run ragged trying to please everyone.

          Ouch, been there done that with the hens, predators and weather in addition to all the feed issues makes eggs a hard thing to produce, which is why poultry production moved indoors decades ago. If I didn’t keep my hens in, I would have no chickens, and no eggs. So what’s the answer? Bring greens to my hens or let them roam and find their feed and maker, so I have to then travel to the store to buy eggs. It’s a tough business.

  2. Carol permalink
    August 12, 2013 12:44 pm

    Okay, so my question the other day…would it be cheaper for you to articially breed your cows than doing the bull rental or owning? Will you artificially breed Jane?

    • August 12, 2013 1:00 pm

      Carol, it may be cheaper, but there is no guarantee that each service will take. Timing is pretty critical with AI and much different than letting the bull have at it. I will have Jane AI’d if she comes in at the right time to fit in with AI guys schedule, otherwise I’ll probably just take her to the bull. Jane will help me decide, when a bull breeds a cow is different than when a cow needs to be AI’d, so it’s up to Jane really. As for the beef cows, to make it worth anyone’s time, the cows would have to be synchronized with hormones so they all came into heat at the same time. That’s normal AI protocol unless you have been to AI school and have all the equipment, tank, semen etc on hand, and feel like cutting the one cow out of the herd that is heat and breeding her, major PITA IMO. So really I think the bull is the most economical route for smallholders like me. I do plan on AI’ing Jane for a replacement, but that is a different than wanting beef calves. Jane has settled both with AI and with live cover so I think this time, the timing will be the determining factor on what I decide to do.

  3. August 12, 2013 12:47 pm

    Don’t forget, heifers born in late spring mature faster than heifers born in January. If you read extension service bulletins you’ll be told I’m wrong. They’ll also tell you to keep selecting for heavy weaning weights…nevermind that those heavy cows don’t rebreed.

    • August 12, 2013 1:07 pm

      HFS, it’s like the recent article about liming, and how critical it is. I felt guilty about not liming my pastures until I got the part about how cows don’t rebreed, hair and hoof problems, and all the other disasters, and then I look at my polyculture pastures and feel instantly NOT GUILTY! Even when we didn’t feed loose minerals, we have never seen poor reproduction, etc., so I guess some folks must have some pretty crappy pasture! Or plant and fertilize for monocrop pastures.

      Another point too besides faster maturation with both sexes actually, is that a fat dairy cow coming off of summer pasture and into fall calving can be a recipe for metabolic disaster if you’re not watching for ketosis etc. But like I said, my skillset is grassfed, and I was never very good at rescuing calves out of the snowbank and bringing them in to warm them up. I like it when they can survive on their own without freezing.

  4. August 12, 2013 1:22 pm

    It is good to detail out the processes involved so as to convey an understanding to non farmers about the complexity of breeding and animal management. Not only does the planning have to be meticulous and factor in a wide range of considerations but then the execution has to be flawless (well maybe as flawless as possible given the unpredictability of nature). A little bit easier with a herd where one animal can slip past the goalie without creating disaster. With a house cow you don’t get much of a second chance without having to go without. Very satisfying when the plan comes together. You have done an excellent job of explaining the process.

    • August 12, 2013 1:33 pm

      Thanks Len, it’s always a relief when the milk cow is settled, so much less anxiety then for the rest of the year!

  5. August 12, 2013 2:00 pm

    Have you written a book?? As I have only been on small acres for about 4 years I am on a steep learning curve but loving every minute of it. We have neighbours where we purchase beef, lamb and raw milk so we are learning all we can from them. Thank you for your well written and informing posts:) I just purchased 3 of Joel Salatin’s books and am waiting impatiently for them to arrive>

    • August 12, 2013 2:57 pm

      Melissa, nope. Ah yes that learning curve thing, it’s steep too even for seasoned folks, for me learning to use electric fence as opposed to permanent, an amazing journey. You can’t go wrong with Joel’s books, and his new DVD series promises to be even better. I got the first one for my birthday 🙂

      • Barb in CA permalink
        August 13, 2013 5:44 am

        If I may add my two cents… I went back and read the entire backlog of posts on this blog. It took a while, but what an education!! And what you see here that you wouldn’t get in a book are many “aha moments”, captured as they happened. And then you get to see how they played out over time. It is just fascinating and invaluable information! So grateful to you, Matron, for taking the time to share your hard-won knowledge with the rest of us. Thank you.

        • Rita permalink
          August 13, 2013 6:26 am

          Amen. Thank you Matron.

  6. August 13, 2013 2:52 am

    We had the problem of the calving dates pushing into the summer, so decided to leave the 2 cows open and breed them the following year for better calving dates.

    One cow took, but the other would not. She got so fat from not nursing or being pregnant, that her heats were affected. That winter we limited her hay and got the weight off. But the instant she went on pasture, even limited pasture, she put it back on. We were told she wasn’t heating or if she did, taking, because she was so heavy.

    We finally resorted to putting her with a bull and after 5 months she still had not taken. Too bad, as she was a really nice cow. Don’t know if you ever ran into this problem?

    • August 13, 2013 5:14 am

      Pam, I haven’t had that problem, but I know a fat cow is as bad as a thin one where some health problems are concerned. I’m not getting your time frame though, you waited an entire year? 6 months probably is about the longest unless they are lactating, sometimes folks milk a family cow for two years or more or with a beef cow you could leave the calf on instead of weaning, the calf will only benefit from longer milk and if the cow is lactating she isn’t as apt to gain weight. It sure hurts to cull a nice cow, sometimes they just don’t work out though, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

      • August 14, 2013 3:03 am

        You are right, it would have been 6 months from weaning the first year. She was on pasture for about 3 months that year and got pretty heavy and would not take. I quit when it got too late in the year.

        The second year is when we cut her hay down in the winter, but again it was 2-3 months on pasture before it was time to breed.

        The first year we probably should have left the calf on, but didn’t realize she’d get so heavy so fast. Hindsight…

        • August 14, 2013 5:03 am

          Pam, it may have been her, cows can gain well, but shouldn’t get obese enough to not rebreed unless they are eating too much grain and not using the energy etc., in that short of time on just pasture.

  7. August 13, 2013 8:36 pm

    I recently learned something surprising and disappointing: Many farmers at farmers markets fill gaps in their own produce schedules with stuff purchased at Cash and Carry (or equivalent) Why? Because if a farmer is honest that he is out of lettuce this week and probably the next 3 weeks customers get mad that “they ran out!” and don’t come back. They do go back to the person who keeps it on hand no matter what. The “have it year round or else” expectation is problematic in so many ways.
    Personally, I like eating seasonally because it makes each season that much more special! I look forward to fall for mushrooms, winter for stews, root veg and sweet kale, spring starts bringing green stuff and then summer has fruit! lots and lots of fruit! how glorious!

    • August 14, 2013 5:00 am

      Erika,it’s tough but those are the customers that farmers don’t need. We saw that too, when we sold at farmers markets, with vendors bragging about duping customers, but to tell the truth I have never seen the same quality or types of produce that you see grown by most market gardeners at Cash and Carry or Costco. Not very discerning customers I guess.

      If I didn’t eat seasonally, I would get pretty tired of eating the same thing all year.

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