Bawling Calves….

Did you know cows have families? I mean, like real family structure. They really do form family groups and an outsider is definitely odd man out. Anybody new is suspect… even if they “used” to be part of the social group but have been gone for a while.  At least for a time, while  the pecking order is re-established.

several members of the "family" watch carefully as Jim checks out the new calf!

Mom cow, and her “sister’s”, aunts, uncles, &  their babies can make up a group.  It appears to be a matriarchal grouping.

The bull is there but not really the dominate member.  Besides, he may be “covering” 30+ females (well, not in our herd… but in some of the big ranch operations).

We don’t keep our herd bull separate.  It’s good for the young bulls to have a role model, and to be part of a hierarchy as they get older. They learn manners, work out their pecking order among the other young bulls before they can hurt each other, and respect for the “head” guy.

Courting the Ladies 

Our “herd” bull is quite a gentleman.  He courts the females… nuzzles them, sniffs, and will keep them company.  He can tell by sniffing when she is coming “into heat” (i.e. going to ovulate).  If you watch closely they do this really weird funny thing with their nose & upper lip.  They breath in the females smell while curling up their upper lip… he is breathing her pheromones (chemical odors) across special sensors in his nasal cavity that tell him if she is getting ready to ovulate.

PMS is not JUST a human behavior!

The females go through very specific phases as well.  We call them 1) PMSing (pre-menstrual syndrome – irritable), and 2) Lovey-dovey. A cow does NOT have a “human cycle” although she will produce a thick mucus when she is ovulating.  But first she gets very irritable… butting others around her, bawling, and maybe “off” her feed.  If she is milking, her milk production may drop a bit.  Then she does a complete turnout about; she changes into a NEW woman… nuzzling other cows, rubbing, and nurturing behaviors.

If you are driving by herds of cows out to pasture, and watch carefully, you can see some of that behavior.  It’s not all just eating, and chewing their cud.

Special Breeding program

The assigned babysitter, for the calves, while the mom's go eat!

Any females we do not want bred by our herd bull, we will pull out and separate her. We do make sure she has company, as cows are by nature, herd animals and are very stressed when alone. We try not to separate for to long, or else she will be an “outsider” when she returns to her herd.  Everyone will try to “kick her a_s” and try to push her around to see who will be at the BOTTOM of the pecking order.

The adult female who is at the bottom of the pecking order will have to do “guard duty”, i.e. watch out for predators, baby sit the youngest calves, eat last, etc.  Sometimes a “teenager” cow will be assigned to baby sit the calves while the mom’s go off to eat.

Panic

Remember, the young calves are just practicing to eat, for the first couple of months, and they take LOTS of naps.  And when they fall asleep they can be almost impossible to wake up.  The first time I tried to wake a calf up, it scared me to death. I thought it was dying… it would not budge . When I tried to pick up the calf (gal durn it, even the babies are heavy), it’s head just rolled around.  I was sure he was deathly ill and that somehow, I had missed the signs.

Collapsed on the ground, unable to wake up!

An hour later, he “woke-up” and raced off to play with the other calves.  I felt pretty stupid… I had called Jim at work, panicky, and wondering if I  should call the vet out. Thank heavens we decided to give it a few hours.  Besides, our general policy was to let nature take it’s course.  If a calf was not meant to survive, there is probably a good reason for it.  And we are in the mode of raising livestock that DON’T require coddling (frequent vet visits, medications, etc).  Mother nature produced livestock that could survive without human intervention.  It’s often our human  interactions that cause the problems.

 How BIG is YOUR barn?

People ask about “the barn”. We don’t have a barn for the cows or horses.  They are very stressful environments for them (and un-natural).  They build up accumulations of urine/manure that is not weathered away back to fertilizer.  The ammonia (from the urine)  and dust (from the hay) that accumulates can cause respiratory problems for them.  In nature, cows and horses will seek out trees/brush for wind & shade protection. If a lean-to is available they often choose NOT to use it… even when we have heavy rains.  Of course, we don’t get snow where we live, so we need less infra-structure for the livestock.

Where there is heavy snow (as in several feet of snow) & the water is frozen, barns are utilized.  For some, a deep bedding method is used, where straw is put down, and added to on a regular basis.  It absorbs the “outputs” of the livestock.  Some folks throw some corn/other grains in when the different layers are added.

At the start of spring, when the livestock are back out in the pasture, pigs are attracted to the germinating grains and used to “work-up & compost” the material in the barns as they “hunt” for the treats. Then it’s put back into the soil to return the nutrients and fertilizer.  I think I heard that Joel Salatin uses something like this technique.

Our BAWLING Calves… and their worried moms!

But I was going to tell you about our calves.  They are 4-8 wks old and it was time to tag and band them.  AND to pull tail hairs (but I forgot 😦    , for genetic testing).  Luckly,  their genetics don’t actually change… and it’s not to hard to pull tail hairs.  The trick is just to make sure you get the “roots” where the DNA is accessible for testing.  Much, much easier than drawling blood for testing. We DO NOT BRAND our cows.  Lowline Angus are fairly valuable, so we do DNA testing.  If one were “stolen” it is easily identified through their genetic code.  It also confirms who the dam & sire are, for legal purposes.

We do TAG them to make it easy to identify who is who.  My system: green tags are fullblood lowline angus.  Blue tags are percentage lowline angus. Yellow tags are Old World Jersey Heritage blood lines.  Because we have a small herd, we number by the birth year (’12) and the order of the birth (i.e. 1,2,3).  We have 121, 122, 123, 124, and 125 is due any day.  Hopefully, an A2/A2 heifer (Jersey milk cow).

We had to “band” one calf (yep, thick rubber band) to convert from a bull calf to a steer.  We do this rather than castrate by cutting.  I think it’s less stressful on US… not sure about the calf.  But he just races back to mom and nurses.  Does not even bawl, so I think it’s just being restrained that they don’t like.  Scary, I’m sure.

Tagging takes about 2 seconds, and again, they don’t really seem to mind it.  I think at this young age, it’s like getting your ears pierced as an infant. The nerve endings don’t seem to be “active”.  They never seem to actually mind it.  It’s just being forcibly separated from mom (all the moms) & being restrained, that they get shook about.

Mom calling to her calf....

The mom’s are worried about EACH baby. They race around, kicking up their heels (literally), and search to find a way to the calf.  Not just their own… but all the calves in their family unit.  If a calf starts bawling, each mom tries to locate it, and when they do, they come over and sniff & nuzzle the calf.  When the calf is finally released, each cow must reassure herself that the calf is actually OK by physically interacting with it. Their own calf will nurse… comfort food and some TLC (tender loving care).

Positive Management

It’s been absolutely fascinating to watch and learn about this whole process.  If we have to do something stressful, we try to group it all at one time. Only ‘one” event and not several spaced out over weeks. We don’t want them to become apprehensive at our  approach.

We are learning to live in synch with our livestock, and to try to respect their systems.  Some people might scoff but I think happy, unstressed animals make healthy animals.   Dollars NOT spent on a vet, equates to more dollars in MY pocket… so it’s in my best interest to take care of their best interests!

 

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