What's happening on the farm
or ranch this month?
This report gives you a glimpse of what's happening on the farms
and ranches of Hereford producers through out the year
MAY - JUNE
It's pasture time! Most calving is over, hay/feed supplies are running low, and cows are stretching every fence to get those first few blades of green grass! Most producers are ready to get rid of the many chores, too!
Before sending animals to the pasture, fences must be checked and repaired, water sources made available, and pastures may be fertilized and cleared of nuisance trees and weeds.
The animals must also be readied for pasture. Bulls are selected and tested. They must be sound, healthy and ready to breed the group of cows they're put with. Depending on the pasture size and the age of the bull, they can be expected to breed any where from 10-40 cows over the next 3-4 months. Some producers also use tools such as artificial insemination (AI) and embryo transfer (ET) to improve the genetics of their herd. With AI, cows are injected with the selected bull's frozen semen. If successful, she will have one calf in about 9 months.
In using embryo transfer, the donor cow is given a series of shots to stimulate her ovaries to produce more than one egg at her next ovulation. At that time, she's bred AI with the selected sire. Several days later, she is "flushed" - a process to remove all the fertilized embryos before they implant in the uterus. The number of embryos retrieved varies from cow to cow and depends on a variety of conditions such as cow age, condition, nutrition, and environmental influences such as weather, season, and handling. Some cows are able to produce as many as 30-40 embryos in one flush. Each embryo is then either frozen or implanted into a surrogate (recipient) cow. If successful, the recipient cow will carry the embryo to term and deliver a calf that is not genetically hers. This process allows producers to gain numerous offspring from this one mating, thus improving the genetic quality of the herd much faster than traditional methods. With this technology it's possible for an individual bull or cow to produce hundreds of offspring in their life time, instead of the traditional 9-10.
Both methods - AI and ET - allow breeders to "share" genetics with each other. Frozen semen and embryos can be bought, sold, and shipped to anywhere in the world. It also means that a producer can have calves from some of the breed's best genetics without having to actually own the sire or dam.
Once all the breeding decisions are made, it's time to do spring work. This usually involves giving each cow and calf their vaccinations to help fight disease. Calves may also be dehorned, castrated (males), and branded before going to pasture. Cattle may be hauled by truck/trailer or driven with the use of horses and/or ATV's to get to pasture. Pastures in the Eastern part of the state tend to be smaller and more wooded, while Sandhills and Western Nebraska pastures may be very large (several hundred acres) with very few trees.
Once on pasture, the producer will periodically check on the herd to monitor health and growth of the animals, as well as fix any fencing needed to keep cattle inside the fences. A much less labor intensive time of year for producers!
MARCH - APRIL
March and April is all about the babies! This is the busiest time of calving season for many producers. Cows are checked several times a day to make sure there are no complications during labor and delivery. Most mature cows can deliver and take care of their newborn on their own, with little help from the producer. First and second time mamas (called heifers) need to be watched more closely. Like humans, these new mothers are often unsure and afraid of what's happening to them. Labor can be longer and more difficult. For most of them, as soon as the calf is delivered, instinct kicks in and they know just what to do. For those who have had a harder delivery, it may take a few hours for them to realize this wobbly little creature is theirs and needs taking care of! After a hard delivery, sometimes the calves take several hours or a day or two to recover and realize they need mom's warmth and care to make this strange new world comfortable!
On arrival, calves need to be warmed up as quickly as possible. They've just come from a 100 degree environment into air that can be below freezing in a matter of minutes! Mama cows do this by licking them vigorously after birth, encouraging them to get up and nurse, and keeping them close to their own body heat. It's not unusual to see calves snuggled very close to cows in an effort to maintain body heat. Small calf sheds or staying under a barn roof are also ways to help protect newborn calves.
Within 12-24 hours after birth, most producers will check to make sure the calf has nursed in order to take in colostrum - the first milk that is high in energy and antibodies. Some will also weigh the calves, ear tag them to help identify which cow belongs to which calf, spray navels to prevent infection, and give vitamin or preventative shots to boost energy &/or help protect against calf diseases such as scours and pneumonia.
Within a day or two, most wobbly legged newborns have mastered the art of movement and can be seen racing each other around the pen with tails up and a few bucks and kicks thrown in!
JANUARY - FEBRUARY
The biggest challenge facing producers at this time of year is keeping cattle warm, fed, and healthy. Cold, snow, & mud all put cattle under stress. The more producers can reduce this stress, the healthier their cattle will be. Cattle are often taken to wind sheltered lots, barns or other places close to the producer to help him/her keep an eye on animals. Straw, hay, or other forages are often put down for bedding to help insulate against the cold. Water sources must be checked daily to make sure they are free of ice and running properly. Cattle are typically fed a higher energy diet during winter months to provide the extra calories needed to help them stay warm.
Some producers use this time to attend and show at various livestock shows around the country or are busy preparing for an upcoming production sale. Both methods serve to advertise a breeder's herd and the quality of cattle they offer. These events are a lot of work, but there's also a lot of camaraderie reconnecting with friends, friendly competition and a break from home chores!
JULY, AUGUST, SEPTEMBER
These three months are probably the least eventful in a cattle producer's calendar year. Every animal should be on pasture, grazing and growing! Producers periodically check the herd(s) to make sure everyone is healthy, grass is still plentiful, water is available and fences are secure. There's nothing more satisfying than a healthy herd enjoying the summer with plenty of shade and water!
Most producers will also take out the bulls sometime in August or September. If cows are to calve in March and April, they should be bred by now and the bull's work is done. Some of the older heifer calves may also be coming into heat later in the summer and are much too young to continue growing, as well as carrying a calf, so pasture exposure to a bull would be detrimental to their development at this point.
Bulls are brought back home or taken to another pasture to regain weight lost during the breeding season and to "relax" until next year!
Fun fact - Did you know that cattle are very social animals? Each of them has a distinct personality that producers can use to their advantage when working with them. Cattle have a strong order of dominance, with usually 1-2 of the older, stronger cows being the leaders. The herd will follow these "boss cows" to graze and rely on them to help protect the herd. If there is a problem, such as a predator, the boss cows will pursue the predator, while the rest of the herd gathers all the calves and circles around them for protection. Depending on the situation, more cows will come to the aid of the boss cows, while others stay behind to guard the calves. Predators' plans usually change when they see a number of mama cows coming down on them fast!! Cows also seem to take turns providing "day care" to a large group of calves while the rest of the herd is grazing. What do the bulls do while all of this is going on? They follow the boss cows, too! Bulls are thought to be defenders of the herd, but that seldom happens. They're just there for the easy job of breeding cows!
OCTOBER, NOVEMBER, DECEMBER
It's weaning time! Time to bring the cattle off pastures. Most pastures are grazed down and ready to be "rested" before the next spring's grazing starts, especially if rains have been few and far between to help grass grow during the summer.
It's also time for calves to be taken off their mothers and prepared for the next step in their lives. Mothers are close to their last 3-4 months of pregnancy and need to start preparing for the new calf. Milk production needs to stop so she can use all energy consumed to replenish any weight she's lost while raising this year's calf, and to grow next year's calf inside her.
Some producers will do "fall work" either shortly before weaning or at weaning. Fall work consists of giving everyone a second dose of vaccines to prevent illness, checking cows to determine if they're pregnant or not, and castrating any male calves not being kept for breeding. Calves may also be weighed to determine their growth rate and the performance of their mother. Any cows that are open (not pregnant) are usually sold at this time due to dwindling feed supplies over the winter and the fact that this female will not be returning any income without a calf next year.
There are lots of ways to wean calves, but most involve separating the calves from mama in some way. They may be in adjoining pens, since this reduces some stress on the calves as they can still see and hear their mothers, but can't get to them to nurse. It gets very loud for 3-4 days as both groups are bawling for each other! Some of them will even end up hoarse! During this time, calves learn to eat hay and some form of starter grain instead of mother's milk. They also learn to "socialize" with their peers and seek protection from each other rather than being part of the herd. Just like teenagers, they have to learn to live independently from mom!
After weaning, cows are often put out in harvested fields to graze stalks and eat any leftover grain from harvest. This allows them to quickly put on weight and prepare for winter's cold and calving in a few months.
Calves are usually sorted into groups depending on if they're being kept for breeding or being sold as feeder calves for fattening. Those that are marketed can be sold in a variety of ways. Producers can take them to the local sale barn, sell them online, or have potential buyers come to the ranch to make their purchase. Some producers may also choose to "background" their calves over the winter and sell them in the spring. Backgrounding is feeding the calves a growing ration that allows them to gain 200-300 lbs before entering a feedlot to "finish". Finishing is putting the backgrounded calves on a full feed grain diet that will finish preparing them for harvest, usually at 1200-1300 lbs, reached in another 3-4 months.
Purebred producers will usually keep their best calves for breeding purposes. Heifers are backgrounded over the winter and will be bred the following spring to calve as two-year-olds. Bull calves are either kept in the herd or sold to other breeders as yearlings or two-year-olds.
Some purebred breeders will also use this time to prepare and show some of their best animals to help promote their breeding program and serve to advertise their operation. Some of these animals are also kept on a special diet and prepared for a production or consignment sale to be held in the next few months.
There you have it! A year in the life of a cattle producer! Regardless of what's happening on the ranch, you can be sure that a producer's ultimate goal is to keep his/her herd healthy and comfortable so they remain profitable.