Category Archives: Ranch Life

Calving Season – What works for your operation?


calving season

Everyone has a different calving season. Some have none at all. Some folks begin Spring calving in January, others wait until March or even May. Then you have Fall calving season that can begin in September or October. With so much difference, what’s the right answer for everyone? There isn’t one! And if someone tells you they know the calving season everyone should have, feel free to call B.S.

I  grew up on an operation when calving season for 1,200 head of cows ran February 15 to ~April 15th or May 1. By the time we got to the end of April, many of those cows would end up culling themselves as later breeders or open cows. I’ve turned out bulls in early January for Fall calving (for those of you still counting on your fingers, cows have a ~9 month gestation on average, similar to humans). I’ve also worked on operations where it was important that calves be old enough to trail out to mountain grazing pastures by the time forages were growing enough on BLM and USFS allotments.

Managing the breeding season of your cow herd, whether you have 12 or 1,200, is an important part to being able to manage the nutritional needs for your cowherd, managing those feed costs (which can be the majority of annual cow cost), and being able to market your calves or manage the replacements you retain. As simple of a choice as some may want it to be, there is no one-size-fits-all in this situation and I’ve seen a few individuals who wish to be opponents of the “status quo”, be pretty aggressive in their preaching and downcast those who dare to disagree with their opinions.

However, I can tell you that “Because we’ve always done it this way” is not a very well thought out response. Not saying that your current management is wrong, but it does deserve a little more consideration than that.

So what is the right calving season for you?

Where I grew up in Arkansas, it was important to have calves early enough so that cows could be rebred before summer heat and humidity took a huge toll on fertility and successful pregnancy rates. This meant having calves in February and having to deal with a handful of winter weather events during early calving. In Montana, many ranchers need their calves old enough to trail out to summer pastures due to a limited window for grazing season. These producers may also have to consider that grazing areas are far from facilities or access to roads should cows need assistance with calving. Then there are predators like cats, wolves, or bears to consider. You have farmers who have livestock along with crops and often these folks need to wrap up calving season before spring planting. Or you might have folks in areas/situations where weather and forage supply make every bit of sense to wait until May for calving. The point is, every situation is different.

So what are the factors to consider when planning a window for your calving season? Not in any particular order:

  • When is forage available to feed cows at the maximal nutrient requirement period (post calving to peak lactation)?
  • How does the environment influence accessibility of cow herd during calving when/if assistance is needed? How can that be managed?
  • How does calving window influence labor/facility costs?
  • Does weather/nutrient supply influence fertility and ability to have a successful breeding season?
  • When does the calf crop need to be marketed? (Is there an ability to retain and stocker calves to manage this marketing window despite calving season?)

These are just the start of several questions that can be asked when considering the calving season suitable for your operation. What addition questions can you add to this list? What calving season is right for your situation?

CNN Eatocracy: ‘Frostbite on their teats’ and other cold weather farming issues


Despite all the cold during the past few weeks, farmers and ranchers across the country have been out and about, taking care of their livestock, and getting things done on the farm and ranch. I wrote an article that looked at several of these cold weather tasks that was published on CNN Eatocracy yesterday. It was published without many of the links to the farmers’ blogs, so I thought I would post it here. Let me know if you’ve seen other ag blog posts talking about working in the bitterly cold weather. And hop on over to CNN Eatocracy and join in the comments section.

cows in the snow

Last year we talked about the fact that there is no such thing as a snow day on the farm or ranch. Livestock must still be fed, equipment must still be maintained, and preparations for the next growing season continue. All of that work becomes much more difficult when the mercury drops well below zero degrees.

The livestock take priority for many farmers and ranchers in these situations. Preparations for the storm include making sure all supplies are on hand, generators are maintained, equipment is prepared to start in very cold conditions, and extra feed is close by in the event that travel is impaired. Despite all the preparations, it is difficult to be ready for everything that will occur when the weather turns for the worse.

Podcast: Farmers go to extremes to keep their livestock healthy during weather extremes. Dr. Michelle Arnold joins Ray Bowman on Food and Farm to talk about caring for lactating livestock in winter. Click here to listen.

For dairy farmers, the cows must still be milked every day, no matter the weather. Minnesota Organic Dairy farmers Tim and Emily Zweber explained how important it is to provide a sheltered barn in -54 degree wind chills. Cows that do not stay in the warm sand beds may get frostbite on their teats. A very uncomfortable situation to say the least.

Patrick Mess in Wisconsin has been bringing the newborn calves into the shop for shelter and affixing doors on the hutches for older calves to protect them from the -20 degrees temperatures. This goes along with making sure the milking parlor stays warms and functional for every milking.

Even in eastern Kansas, the Heim dairy farm family experienced -30 degree wind chills. David and Jennifer were working hard to provide warm bedding in the barns for their cows and calves despite tractors not starting in the cold.

Most beef cattle ranchers will not bring their cattle indoors. However, if calving is near, a newborn may end up in the house overnight. Cattle are incredibly resilient and are able to stay warm through thick winter hair coats that act as insulation. As long as they are able to stay dry and find shelter from the wind, like a shed or trees, cattle will stay warm.

Cattle produce body heat from digestion of hay and forages in their rumen (large stomach compartment) and are able to stay warm in most conditions. One of the main challenges in this weather is keeping water sources thawed. As Kansas rancher Debbie Blythe shows, even the no-freeze water tanks ice over when it drops below zero.

For smaller animals like turkeys, chickens, and pigs, keeping warm can be more of a challenge. This is where it really pays off to have barns that retain heat well. Even when wind chills dropped to -26 on the Olson family farm in Minnesota, Carolyn’s pig barns never dropped below 73 degrees.

In Ohio, the Wildman family raises pigs and must make sure that generator power sources are ready for when power goes out on their rural farm. Extra feed supplies must be on hand when roads become impassible so farm from town.  Even in Iowa, turkey farmers like the Olthoff family are working to keep their livestock barns warm and insulating feed and water sources to make sure nothing freezes up.

bull in the snow

Despite all the preparation that may occur, not everything will go right on the farm and ranch when it gets this cold. Diesel tractors will not start, equipment will break, and a water line will freeze. The farmers and ranchers are in the fields and barns, working around the clock, waiting for things to warm back up.

Oh, and we did not even mention the bread and milk grocery run! Hopefully the farmers and ranchers remember to stop for a bite to eat and keep themselves warm as well.

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Breeding Season coming to a close


breeding season bull trailer
This bull is in the trailer, leaving his girls, and off to a 10-month vacation.

Earlier this week, I was busy in the barn at one of our farms despite the humidity and rain. We were working cattle and pulling bulls from the cow herds.

The calves were receiving their first round of vaccinations (2 shots – one to protect against 7 different Clostridiums and Pinkeye, another for Respiratory diseases), new ear tags with insecticide to deter flies and ticks, and the males were castrated if not already done at birth and received a Ralgro implant. (Be sure to click the links for more information about why these products are given.)

The cows and calves had their weight recorded. Many of the calves are already getting close to 600 lbs. After we were finished, everyone was turned out to the pasture; less than an hour in the pens for each herd of cows.

The bulls have been out with the cows for the past 60 days, but breeding season has come to an end, and they are headed to their pastures separate from the cows. A short breeding season is utilized as a useful management tool.

  • Calves are born in a short window, allowing us to dedicate time to watching over cows during calving.
  • Cows are more uniform in their nutrient requirements which change with stage of pregnancy and length of lactation.
  • Spring calving works for herds in Tennessee because our peak in forage production coincides with peak in cow nutrient requirements, allowing us to use pasture to supply all of our cow’s diet during this most important time.
  • Calves are more uniform at weaning, making it easier to market and feed them after weaning.
  • Less fertile cows are identified and culled from the herd when not breeding during this 60-day window, allowing us to build a herd with selection for better genetics for efficiency and production.

A few years ago, I recorded a few short videos while pulling bulls from the pastures and discussed what was happening. Continue reading

Take your Child to Work Day – Every day in ranch life


It’s Take Your Child to Work Day!

Take Your Child to Work Day Farming Agriculture Ranch Life
Sometimes my dad asked me to do some pretty tough chores… But we still had fun.

Not everyone has the opportunity to take their kids to work on a daily basis. As a kid who worked daily with both parents, I didn’t realize that for a long time. My dad managed a ranch with over 1,200 mother cows, and we usually had over 2,000 yearling cattle at any given time. My mom kept him in line, managed the books, and outworked most of the cowboys at the chute. And every moment my brothers and I were not at school, we were working with them on the ranch.

Take your kid to work day milking cow ranch life
Every once in a while there was a little Wild Cow Milking involved in the job with dad…

I don’t regret that work one bit. My parents instilled my passion for ranching, working with cattle, and being a part of the agriculture community. There’s no way I’d take that back. I have learned so much in the pasture that I never would have had the opportunity to learn in the classroom.

Not everyone has the opportunity to work so closely with their family. I’m thankful that’s possible for many farming families. Were your parents able to bring you along to work? Will you take your kids to work today?