It’s been a couple of months since I have written a reality ranching. Somehow I couldn’t get motivated to write about day after day of triple digit heat and no rainfall. As we watched grass turn crispy in the middle of July, water level in the cattle ponds drop and our creek reduced to scattered pools of water, my mood wasn’t exactly “sunny”! We’ve been through droughts before but experiencing them doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. Oh well, I must remember that we have enough hay to get us through the winter, our calves sold well this summer and we are all in good health.
We begin weaning heifer calves in July a little earlier than normal and due to the weather we sold part of our steer calves in July. We usually sell our steers the first couple of weeks of August but the need to get them off of the diminishing pasture grass necessitated the early sale. The delivery date for the steers we sold on the June video auction was the second week of August so these calves were left with their cows. Because the grass was so poor in nutrition in July we were forced to begin feeding hay to seventy cows and calves in order to at least maintain the weight of the calves. The idea of feeding hay in the middle of summer was hard to swallow and to make it more impalpable the price of hay was near an all-time high!
The day we gather the Iowa bound steers was a hot one (what a surprise). We haul the calves and unload them in a neighbor’s pen where the semi-trailer has room to maneuver the big rig and back it up to the loading chute. Once the calves are on the truck, I drive our pickup and follow the calf laden semi to the local co-op. The sales rep and I walk into the office and watch as the truck weight is recorded on the scale ticket. I am sure that our calves won’t meet the 750 pound weight we had listed them at in the sale catalogue so imagine my surprise when the steers beat the weight by seven pounds. In this case I am delighted to be wrong about my assessment of the calf weights.
Paul and Randall (Erin as usual is at her job) weren’t on hand to witness the weighing or the receiving of the check on what is basically our main payday of the year. They along with Randall’s father in law and a friend are vaccinating and pregnancy checking the cows. In years past we haven’t pregnancy checked the cows when we wean the calves. Normally we just wait until the cows finish calving in the fall and then sell all the cows that didn’t have a calf. We can’t afford any free loaders eating scarce and expensive forage this year and the cows that Randall finds not to be with calf will be sent to the sale barn. When I return to where the foursome is working the cows I ask all of them to guess the weight of the calves. Everyone thought the calves weighed somewhat less than the 757 weight, most guessed 740, but they too were smiling at the good news I gave them.
When rain did make its way into Kansas we would watch the radar closely and time and again be disappointed as the storms would disappear or slide north or south as they bumped up against the west edge of our county. It seemed as if a big sign was posted at the county line declaring “no rain allowed in Wabaunsee County”. In late August a beautiful rain-swept across our county leaving three to five inches in its wake (we had 3″). Pastures and brome fields greened up overnight and our mental state lightened considerably! We had started feeding all our cows some supplemental hay a couple of weeks prior to the rain. Now with the freshening of the grass the cows were not interested in hay. Thank goodness for that! Unfortunately, our hopes that the fall rains we normally receive this time of year were going to keep coming haven’t been the case. We watch good rains fall all around us, including the majority of our county, but we are being left “high and dry”. Our corner of Wabaunsee County is definitely the driest spot around and now we get to worry if the alfalfa and oats we planted after that wonderful rain will sprout and die. Weather, weather, weather, it seems most of our life revolves around the weather!
We gathered our first calf heifers from three pastures the first of this month and brought them to our place. The heifers are not due to start calving until the 20th of September but heifers always calve early and due to the stress of this summer’s weather on cattle even cows are calving early. Sure enough our first calves appear two weeks ahead of their due date. The calves are small but also very strong, trying to master the use of their legs within minutes of their birth. After decades of calving heifers one comes to expect what I will refer to as “first calf heifer syndromes”. When these “syndromes” happen it is a not surprising anymore but I am surprised that with only eleven calves on the ground we have already gone through four of them!
Syndrome one, I have given birth to my calf but I prefer my herd mates baby.
I am on my afternoon check of the heifers when I see 036 and 045 vying for domination over 045’s baby. 036 has obviously calved so I look around for the unwanted baby. I see the poor thing walking around on wobbly legs in a woody area in the corner of the lot. He keeps bumping into trees and brush and when I get closer I see what the problem is. The calf has a strand of afterbirth draped over his eyes like a blindfold so he can’t see a thing. There is more afterbirth draped over his back like a shawl! I’ve seen a lot of weird things but the after birth blindfold is a first. It is obvious that 036 delivered her calf and walked away to put dibs on the other calf.
This problem is more than I want to handle on my own so I walk to the house and call for Paul on the two-way radio. No answer on Paul’s end so I call for Randall with no success there either. I wait a few minutes before broadcasting “Paul or Randall are you there”? Dalton comes on the radio and tells me that his Dad is building fence. Grandma Rose gets on the radio after hearing my dilemma and offers to come help me but Paul’s voice interrupts us to say he is heading home
When Paul arrives we herd the two heifers, along with the chosen calf, to the working pens and the two cows fuss over the confused calf all the way. We separate 045 and her calf from the faux mom and lock 036 in a small pen. 036 is very upset and she begins pacing the corral while bawling for the missing calf. Paul takes the ATV to retrieve the unwanted baby and we place it in the pen with his mother hoping for the best. We watch as the silly heifer cautiously sniffs her calf and then takes another lap around the holding pen bawling for “her other calf”. She makes the circuit of the pen and meets up with the black calf, this time getting a whiff of the afterbirth that Paul left on the calf’s back. HELLO-you can almost see the light bulb turn on as the cow finds something familiar about the smell of this stuff! The tentative sniff becomes a thorough snuffling all over the little calf’s back. When a soft motherly moo emerges from 036, Paul and I know that the bond has been made between cow and calf. It isn’t unusual for us to force a cow that has rejected her baby to allow it to nurse. After a few days most cows will accept the rejected calf as her own baby.
Syndrome two, Giving birth to a calf sucks so I’m not going to do it.
Paul and I are watching the Chiefs game (if you can call it that) when we hear through our open windows what sounds like a heifer in the process of giving birth. I need to check the heifers anyway and the game sure isn’t worth watching, so I leave to discover the source of the loud bellowing. In truth the maker of the noise is a new mother upset with the presence of several vultures looking for any after birth that might be lying around. I do find upon checking the next group of expectant mothers one heifer that is just starting to calve.
I return to the house and tell Paul I can see the tip of one of the calf’s feet and will go back out in 30 minutes to check the progress of 027. Still subjecting myself to the misery of Chiefs football I am more than happy to leave the sorry game and check on our calving heifer. 027 is still standing although one foot is out as far as the dew claws and I can see the tip of the second foot. Returning to the house we decide to give the heifer another 30 minutes. After berating the Chiefs for their pathetic and embarrassing play for an NFL team for the next half hour, Paul and I both go to check on the heifer.
Well Pooh, the heifer is still just standing there with no discernible change in the emergence of the calf. The good news is that 027 is very gentle and we walk her the short distance to the catch pen, put her in the squeeze chute in order to place a halter on her head and then let her out into a small pen. Paul hangs onto the halter lead and manages to wrap the rope around a steel pipe. I get behind the heifer and convince her to step closer so Paul can snub her tightly to the pipe. Once 027 is securely tied up Paul places pulling chains around the calf’s feet then uses the calf puller to ratchet the calf free of its mother. Paul has the calf out with just a few easy pulls in which 027 stays on her feet for the entire process and doesn’t even bother to help by pushing. There is no reason at all why this big broody heifer couldn’t easily have had the calf by herself. We have one or two of these “lazy” heifers every year and it irritates us to no end! At least 027 walked right over to her calf and began licking and cleaning her new calf.
Syndrome three, if this calf moves I am going to cow scream at it and knock it down.
“Nancy you need to help me get a heifer in that just calved and is butting the calf all over the place”. Paul fills me in on more of the details as we go to see if we can coax the temporarily insane mama into the catch pen. Paul has already rescued the abused calf and tells me the heifer, number 052, was bellowing and rolling the calf down the small hill that is in the calving lot. This syndrome will even occur in cows and my theory is that these aggressive acts towards their calves is due to an overload of hormones at birthing that usually recede in a matter of minutes to an hour. Not that this makes it any easier on the poor calf. No matter what the reason for the actions of these crazy bovines every time I witness a heifer or cow treating a helpless calf like this it makes steam come out of my ears and some colorful names for the cows come out of my mouth!
We pen 032 in a small area and then Paul places her calf on the other side of the gate where she can see him. All hell breaks loose as the new mother curses in cow language at the top of her lungs and tries to butt her way through the steel gate. Good grief, you would think that her calf was the devil itself. When 032 realizes she can’t reach the calf she settles for occasionally hurling a bovine insult towards the poor calf. At this point I leave to do something I can’t recall as Paul stays to keep an eye on the separated pair. When I return a few minutes later I am shocked to see the calf in the pen with his mother who is mooing loudly but not knocking the calf over. It seems the wobbly calf fell down and managed to roll under the gate into the pen with mama. As we watch, ready to intervene if things get ugly, Cowzilla slowly regains some self-control and after a while we feel comfortable enough to leave the pair alone. I check on the two animals within the hour and discover that the calf has nursed and 032 is talking nice to her baby.
Syndrome four, if you get within a quarter-mile of my calf I’m coming after you.
This over the top protection by a cow for their baby happens more in cows than heifers but our 017 heifer fits the bill. After feeding alfalfa in the bunks to the group of heifers where 017 is, I walk around behind them to look for signs that a heifer is or will soon be calving. The 017 heifer has a day old calf which is nowhere near where I am walking but this doesn’t stop the protective mother from deciding to see how fast nearly 58-year-old women can move. Candidly speaking it’s a good thing I was within five steps of a cross fence and saw her charging from a ways off or I would have lost that race. Paul would probably tell you a turtle would have caught me if the distance would have been closer :).
Since this incidence I make sure I am within close proximity of a fence or a big tree and always carry a sorting stick in case the prior safe guards are impossible to manage. Two days later I find myself behind a big oak tree with 017 shaking her head at me. There happens to be some branches that are just the right size for chucking at angry cows lying at my feet. I miss on my first two throws but the third branch flies home and pops 017 on top of her nose. Suddenly the nasty mama cow, looking quite surprised, backs up several steps but won’t allow me enough space to escape. Another well placed piece of dead oak tree lands on her poll and this time it isn’t me beating the hasty retreat. HA! I still carry a stick with me and 017 still puts her head high in the air when I am doing my calf check but she has not charged me since the show down at the old oak tree.
Syndrome five, where the heck did I put my calf.
When I began writing this reality ranching I had only experienced four calving syndromes but lucky me a fifth syndrome has occurred so I can fill you in on this one too.
I naturally count all the babies at least in my morning check and evening check of the heifers. It is obvious that the 015 heifer has not been nursed this evening as her udder is swollen tight with milk. I walk the lot twice peering into every weed and corner as yesterday this same calf was hidden under a bushy weed and I didn’t find him until I was walking the lot for a second time. This time I cannot find the calf and 055 obviously has no clue to the location of her baby. I assume the calf has slipped through the fence and is hiding in the adjoining pasture. Baby calves can find their way under or through a barbed wire fence as easily as Houdini can escape from a strait jacket. I walk back and forth in the pasture moving out several feet on each pass but I don’t find the black calf.
I hear Paul returning on the 4-wheeler from checking and feeding some mature cows that we will be moving to the brome fields tomorrow so I walk back to the house to get him to help with the calf search. Paul cautiously drives even farther out in the pasture but the grass is thick and tall and unless you drive right next to the calf you aren’t going to see it.
We resort to plan b and turn 055 into the pasture hoping her nose will lead her to the calf or the calf will call out and she will hear him. At the just-before-dark check I am discouraged to see that 055 is standing at the lot gate and mooing pitifully for a calf that isn’t in here anymore. Well phooey; I hope the little fella will be o.k. through the night. We will have to launch an all-out search in the morning for the misplaced calf.
I’m out just after daybreak to feed the three groups of heifers their alfalfa hay. I always tend the two groups south of the house first, one of which is where the missing calf came from and the other group is in the pasture where we put 055. As I call for the heifers to come for their hay imagine my relief when I spy 055 being trailed by her calf in the group of heifers.
You may wonder why I seem to be doing the majority of the heifer checks. First of all I just enjoy finding new calves but also because I am able to be here most of the time. The guys are doing things like planting alfalfa, putting in water gaps, building fence, spraying noxious weeds, fixing things, you know, trivial things like that! I don’t tag the calves though, I report the new calves to Paul and he puts the tags in their ears. I can tag calves but it is getting tough for me to hang on to a squirmy calf with one hand and tag it with the other. If a calf requires pulling I need one of the men to do that too. I can help get a critter in and assist the guys but I don’t have the strength to man handle a heifer and pull the calf. As tough as it is to admit it my physical strength began declining 6 or 7 years ago and so I try to do my share by keeping a close eye on the mothers to be.
We still have 35 heifers to calve. I’m sure we will have many more problems to deal with before the last calf is on the ground. I was walking through the heifers and calves we sorted out of the calving lots and put out on a brome field last night. There were two baby calves butting heads in a mock fight and when they tired of that game they took off running and bucking across the field. It made me laugh out loud. Later, Nancy