Every year, around this time, I have to share my husband with the other females in his life — almost 400 of them to be exact! It’s calving season on our farm.
Raising cattle is one of the primary incomes for our farm. It is our job, our choice of occupation, and especially this time of year, it is basically our life. A successful calving season is essential to our end-of-year profit. Everyone knows that cattle farmers raise beef as an income, but few people realize the time and dedication involved in getting that beef from birth to their table.
Our calving season occurs in the coldest months of winter. We chose this for several reasons: the calves wean at a heavier weight in the fall, calves often stay healthier because of less ‘muck’ in their pens and this time of year we are not busy with grain farming, so we can watch the cattle more closely. Calving in the cold months has added risks, however, so not every farmer chooses this time of year. In extreme temperatures, a calf born outside is at risk of almost instantly freezing his ears, or even freezing to death. Adequate calving facilities are essential and we are fortunate to have a large, open, calving barn, where approximately 50 to 60 cows can be safely confined in the warmer inside temperature. Even with proper barns, the cattle need to be checked every couple of hours, day and night, as problems can still occur. A calf can suffocate in the birthing sack, or a cow may need assistance in calving. This can mean many, cold, middle-of-the-night trips to the barn. An excellent addition to our operation is a camera system that allows us to zoom in on the cows and scan a 360-degree range of the pens, inside and outside the barn. This has paid for itself many times with the amount of calves it has helped save. Calving season is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week commitment, but there is nothing like witnessing the safe arrival of a newborn calf.
Ideally, a calf will stand up and nurse shortly after birth but that is not always the case. Some calves are born weak, or are a bit slow in learning how to drink from its mother. Occasionally, a cow will want nothing to do with her new baby and does not allow it to nurse. These situations require extra ‘human’ intervention, whether coaxing it to suck, or bottle feeding with extra colostrum (first milk) or milk replacer. My husband often has a warm barn ‘nursery,’ full of cows and calves that require extra help. This can be time consuming, but important for giving those calves a head start, and eventually the cow and calf are able to join the rest of the herd.
Successful calving involves keeping the calves healthy. This begins with a proper feeding, mineral and vaccination program for the bred cows, prior to calving and keeping the pens well bedded and clean to aid in virus prevention. Vaccines and products are available that can be given to calves shortly after birth to help prevent some common illnesses, but infection and viruses are still common. When a calf gets sick, it is important to recognize the signs early and provide proper treatment. Sometimes electrolytes are required if the calf is weak and not drinking enough and often antibio- tics are needed. It takes a lot of time to treat these illnesses, and despite our best efforts, we may occasionally lose one. It is truly disheartening to have a month-old calf die that was healthy a week before.
Watching our healthy calves graze with their mothers in the summer pasture is a wonderful reward for our labour. The hard part is over, and now we can let the cows and the green grass do the rest of the work until fall. Our financial reward is obtained when those calves are loaded on the trailer headed to market, and as in all of farming, our success is affected by the market prices.
The cattle industry has good years and bad years, dependent on feed availability, U.S. dollar prices and market demand. It’s important to manage our operation properly and watch our ‘bottom line’ so a profit can be made. The feeding program needs to be cost effective yet provide the cattle with the best nutrition, and careful herd selection is essential, keeping cows that are good mothers and put good weight on their calves, and choosing bulls that produce quality offspring.
But raising cattle is more than just an income. My husband knows each cow individually, their tag number, their history, what kind of calf they raised last year and whether they are a good mother. He takes pride in his herd and strives to improve the quality of animals he raises.
Cattle farming is not without its challenges, definitely its frustrations — but also its rewards. It’s a way of life on our farm that will hopefully continue for generations.
Next time you sit down to enjoy a beef dinner, take a minute to think of the effort that went into its production. And if you ever get a chance, be sure to thank a farmer!