September Farrowing and Calving

September 22, 2019

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September is a good month for new births, as it’s usually warm and dry.  This September has been warm and wet, continuing a two year trend.

We farrow most months of the year, except for the coldest weeks in winter.  Calving works great in September and October, calves wintering on the cow, and weaned onto the lush spring pastures.  It also helps that I can borrow a breeding bull from my parents, who practice spring calving.

Photo credits to my sister, Rebecca.  I like the perspective she captured in the top photo.  In the photo below, the two day old calf hiding in the weeds almost looks like we’ve adorned him with some type of holiday flowers.

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One Bad Day

June 21, 2019

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As caretaker of our animals, our goal is a beautiful life, with one bad day.  One bad moment actually, as Andrew and the crew at Avon Locker work to humanely kill the animals on butcher day.

Personally, we had a bad day the other day, as my Dad rolled his ATV.  He’s ok, but recovering, as he’s sore all over and his ear needed several stitches.

We were trying to get a cow in and Dad was driving along side her on a side hill and the cow kicked the ATV and somehow it rolled over on top of him and continued rolling off him.  I got to him shortly after and we took him to the ER to get checked out and his ear stitched.

One of the reasons we’ve needed to get cows in is we’ve had 8 sets of twins this year, blowing away the old record of 5 sets.  Our  cows have a difficult time keeping track of twin calves unless we get them in to a smaller pasture by themselves.  If we are unable to separate the cow and calves, we bring in whichever calf ends up abandoned and bottle feed it until it can live on grass.

Below is a photo of a bottle calf we took to the library for a kids program and short petting zoo.  The kids enjoyed petting the calf.  And at the risk of anthropomorphizing, I think the bottle calf enjoyed the attention as well.

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The Snowstorm of April 27th, 2019

April 29, 2019

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Six or so inches of the latest snow in southwest Wisconsin I can recall.  April 14th sticks in my mind as some big snows, so this one beat it by a couple of weeks.  It had been warm and dry previously.  Some of our friends’ children were confused and got excited about Christmas coming!

All the trees, bushes, and plants that were already flowering took a beating, but my main concern was our animals.  My parents practice spring calving, as we don’t have barns for our cattle and April and May is usually quite nice for calving.

Sunday morning we were out at 6 am on our ATVs seeing if any calves were too cold.  We looked for any new ones, as any calf that is actively nursing often, is very tough and can take a great deal of cold.  We had 3 new ones, but their mommas were experienced and managed to find some decent shelter in the woods out of the wind and snow and the calves were fine.

We weren’t as lucky a couple of weeks earlier in another rain and snowstorm.  A heifer was lying near the creek.  She didn’t seem too agitated, but she must have had a difficult delivery as she showed little concern for her calf which was lying in the cold water of the creek, just managing to keep its head out of the water.

I grabbed and put it on the back of the ATV and drove it to the barn.  We stuck a feeding tube down its throat, (when calves are this cold they lose the ability to suck), and gave it a warm colostrum replacement.  I rubbed its body with straw, but I realized it wouldn’t be warm enough to survive the night, so we took it to the basement and put it in warm water for a half hour or so until it started to revive.  Then we towel dried and used a hair dryer to dry even more thoroughly and then left it in the basement overnight.

The next morning the calf was standing.  We walked its mother into the corral and helped it nurse for the first time.  After all that, momma and baby were fine and we turned them back out to pasture a couple of days later.

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Spring? Green!

June 3, 2018

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Spring is the shortest season in Wisconsin.  I should be used to it by now, but the transition from winter to summer, startles and amazes me every year.

The first outdoor market of the season, April 14th, was so cold, I wore insulated bib overalls which I only used once all winter because they are so warm.  Memorial Day weekend,  only 6 weeks later, was in the 90s F with high humidity.

Plant growth explodes.  April 20th was the last snowstorm of the season, falling on little green growth.  Now, on June 1st, forage is waist high.  One more paddock to graze and the cattle will have been over everything once.  I’ve been moving them every 5 days.

It feels like I’m behind on everything, with too much forage.  But if you don’t have too much forage on June 1st, you will definitely have too little on August 1st when the weather turns dry.

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The top photo is of my Phoebe girl, a twin I helped get started in life.  She always comes over to get a scratch from me.

The next two photos are of two year old steers, who will be butchered this summer.  The background shows yearlings and fall calves.  And green, beautiful, beautiful green.

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Spring 2018: Farm Update

May 1, 2018

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Braden finished his movable chicken pens and I helped him move his broiler chickens out to pasture.  We have had the coldest April on record, so there isn’t much pasture, but the chickens seem happy in their new home.

Braden put his own spin on a Salatin style, movable chicken pen.  I hope to post with more detail in the future.  The pens are moved daily to fresh pasture.  The pen is keeping the predators away from the chickens, and the chickens are really thriving.  He is still planning on having freshly frozen chickens for the May 26th market.

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I helped Daniel rototill the garden and she has started moving her indoor started vegetables outdoors, and also started direct seeding some of her crops.

I rototilled the sweet corn plot and plan to plant next week if the soil continues to warm. We should have delicious sweet corn around the first of August.

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Winter/Spring farrowing has gone well, and I have lots of healthy feeder pigs.  My fall-calving herd has wintered well on our home-raised hay, and are chomping at the bit to get on fresh pasture.

Cattle aren’t particularly smart, but they are masters at body language.  They know exactly what it means when they see me repairing electric fence.  I’m sure they are salivating as much as when Pavlov’s dogs hear a bell.

 


Winter 2018

February 4, 2018

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Winter 2018, mild, mostly frozen, animals and people doing well.  Above is one of the hogs exploring, and below are some of the cattle resting on their bedding pack, with hogs exploring at the left of the frame.

I wrote that last week.  Winter has decided to come back hard in February, with below zero wind chills and several inches of snow last night, February 3rd.

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Thank you to everyone who has purchased meat, or boxes, or halves, this winter.  Your business is appreciated.

I added several new products, (Brats-links and patties, Breakfast sausage patties, Cottage Bacon, Canadian Bacon, Ham Hocks).

I also tweaked the Classic Pork boxes.  Check them out and let me know if something interests you.

 

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I am farrowing several litters in one of the hoop barns with farrowing huts.  The sows get to choose which hut to farrow in, and also make their own nest inside the huts.

When it is this cold, I never have any trouble with a sow choosing to farrow outside of a hut, which can be a problem in the warmer months of the year.

I haven’t lost many piglets, even though its been colder than I would prefer, (below 20 F).

Except for one very big Landrace sow who chose to carry way too much bedding into her hut and farrowed on a very cold night.  All her piglets died.  My theory is whereas the other sows made a nest with at least a little room for the piglets to nurse, see photo below, this sow was so big with so much bedding, the piglets were simply unable to start nursing due to lack of room.

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2017 Spring Calving, Fatty Udder Syndrome

May 21, 2017

 

Some years we can’t remember helping a single calf nurse.  This calving season has been difficult, with one problem after another.  Sometimes we have had more than one problem pair in our corral, which is where we keep the pairs separated if they are having problems until they can be on their own.

Admittedly, a big source of our problems this year has been our decision to keep and calve very old cows.  Cows that are productive into old age is a nice problem to have, and one that I largely attribute to a better nutrition and feeding strategy.  Better rotational grazing has improved the green season nutrition, and unrolling round bales of hay has improved the winter nutrition.  Unrolling the hay instead of feeding in feeders reduces the competition with younger, stronger, cows, and it is also easier to chew as the hay is loose after unrolling instead of packed densely.  Older cows teeth wear down, resulting in more difficulty chewing which can become a nutrition issue.

Unfortunately, older cows udders break down over age and the teats become larger, sometimes resulting in teats so large a newborn calf fails to get started nursing.  We get the pair into the corral and the cow in the catch chute and help the newborn calf nurse.  Usually one or two nursings will be enough for the calf to get the idea and start nursing on its own.  When we see the calf nursing on its own, we turn the pair back out to pasture with the herd.  Annoying, but doable.

But the problem which has baffled us this spring and a couple of times in the past few years, is when a heifer calved without problem, but failed to produce any or enough milk for her newborn calf.  Until a few years ago, we had never seen this problem.  But it has happened again, and this time with this beautiful heifer, 527, pictured above.  We called our local vet and she took the heifer’s temperature and palpated her udder, assuring us there was no discernible health issue.  The udder is soft, not hard as if it had mastitis.  And there is no pussy discharge, just nothing.  The vet didn’t have a theory, which is frustrating, but also a relief that the heifer wasn’t sick and we weren’t having a disease problem.

So we started brainstorming.   What is different about our herd?

Genetically, the base breed going back to my Grandfather’s cattle was Shorthorn.  We used some Lincoln Red genetics in the 80s and 90s, an ill-advised foray into Maine Anjou genetics in the 90s, and finally, when we could no longer find good Shorthorn bulls, we started using Red Angus genetics around the year 2000 and have been very pleased with the results.  Our cattle are moderate- framed, thick-made, and able to finish on grass, which worked great when I began to direct-market grass-finished cattle around 2008.

Red Angus genetics didn’t seem to change the udders of our cattle very much.  I would say the conformation of the udders would be a little better and they give a little less milk.  Shorthorns are known for producing a lot of milk for a beef breed, so it makes sense that Red Angus would decrease the amount of milk, but not by much. I don’t think the problem is genetics.

We have improved our pastures and especially the rotation and resting of the pastures as we’ve implemented our own version of mob-grazing.  And we’ve started grazing some hay pastures during the summer slump when some of the cool season grasses are growing very slowly.  The end result is our cattle are gaining better than they ever have, with some of the fastest-gaining calves gaining close to 3 lbs per day from birth to weaning.  We recently viewed an old vhs tape of our cattle in the 80s, and the difference was remarkable.  Without video evidence, we never would have believed how much better the pastures and how much thicker our cattle are now.

Why am I writing about how fast the cattle are gaining?  Sometimes I have an insight or notion which I’m not sure where it comes from.  Maybe I read something sometime.  I don’t know.  But I woke up one morning with a theory that the reason these heifers have no milk is that during a critical stage in their mammary development, they were gaining weight so rapidly, instead of normal mammary development, their udder became fatty.

I asked the vet and she didn’t think it made much sense.  We even stopped in one day and visited our old retired vet from Mineral Point, and he didn’t think this theory made much sense.  Undaunted, I was going to put this theory onto the internet and see if any of you concurred.  But a little research, and a few key articles later, of which I will link to, I’m 99% sure this is what is happening to these heifers.

The reason we need to decide on a theory is because it will affect our decision making.  If for some reason these heifers are genetically deficient in milk, we would want to purchase bulls with higher milk epds, (expected progeny difference).  But if my theory is correct, and these heifers are actually receiving too much nutrition, then we would want to select bulls with lower milk epds.

The first article I found that pertained was written by University of Illinois extension in 1999.  They talked about the five different stages of mammary development and how sometimes mammary development is isometric, (growing at similar rates as the rest of the body), and other times mammary development is allometric, (growing at two to four times the rest of the body). A key allometric stage is prepuberty, 3 to 9 months of age.  This paragraph was particularly illuminating:

“Prepubertal nutrition can have a significant effect on future milk yield. Raising heifers on high planes of nutrition during prebubertal mammary growth has been shown to have a negative effect on milk yield. Feed restricted heifers can have up to 30 percent larger mammary glands at puberty. Furthermore, mammary tissue on heifers fed ad libitum was over 80 percent fat, while heifers fed a restricted diet have around 65 percent fat, and 13 percent more parenchymal tissue (tissue that will eventually become milk producing tissue) compared with heifers fed ad libitum. It should be noted that mammary parenchymal tissue grows into a layer of fat referred to as the fat pad.”

Ok, are you convinced yet?  I also found this article published in Asian-Australasian Journal of Animal Science.  Both articles are written pertaining to the dairy industry, as most dairy heifers are raised in confinement on a diet that can be regulated.  They suggest a feeding strategy which restricts the diet at critical times during mammary development, and then more feed at other times so as to not waste time and money as the sooner a heifer is producing milk, the more profitable the industry feels the dairy producer will be.

However, I’m wondering if the dairy industry is thinking about this wrongheaded?  A big problem in the confinement dairy industry is how quickly cows are “burnt up”, (culled for one reason or another).  I used to think the reason that cows fell out of production so fast was because of the way they are managed as cows.  But actually, dairy cattle are on a fasttrack from birth.

Maybe the dairy industry should go to a policy of raising their replacement heifers slowly on a high forage diet.  Maybe they shouldn’t worry so much about rushing a heifer into production by age two, and instead should be satisfied with a heifer calving at two and a half or three years of age?  Most of the big dairy farmers in my area are outsourcing the raising of their dairy heifers.  There may be an opportunity for farmers to do a better job with this?  I don’t know.

As far as our problem, so far we have had a very few that exhibited this problem.  I would hate to change the way we are managing our cattle and pastures as the whole herd is doing so well with our rotational grazing.  I’m thinking our problem is rare and only affecting a very few heifers that may be very early maturing, thereby coinciding the allometric mammary growth phase at just the wrong time when they are gaining 3 lbs per day.  Not sure, but I will continue to monitor.