Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The AND and two-stage weaning


This year marked the second consecutive year in which a low-stress approach to weaning has been used on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball.

Traditionally, cows and calves have been physically separated at weaning time, often with the cows returning to pasture and the calves leaving for market on a truck.

Numerous studies have shown that abrupt separation and relocation is a high-stress evolution for both cow and calf, leading to reduced feed intake in both and a sharply higher rate of illness in the calves, particularly Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD), routinely called pneumonia or “shipping fever.”

The impact of these stressors hit the producer square in the pocketbook. Cows which are abruptly separated from their calves and subsequently “go off feed” for a few days are shortened on nutrition at a critical stage in the gestation of the new calf growing inside them. This can result in smaller, less vigorous calves at birth or even loss of the calf through spontaneous abortion or stillbirth. Troubled pregnancies can also mean reduced conception rates in subsequent years. Also, a cow going into winter requires a solid body condition, and missing a few days of grazing can melt flesh away quickly.

Calves which sicken after weaning don’t do as well at the market, costing the cow-calf producer the premium he’s worked so hard for. Calves which succumb to BRD either make the producer no money or gain him a reputation for producing “iffy” calves – those which require doctoring at the feed lot and seldom catch up with their peers in adding flesh or grading well.

Reducing the stress of weaning – for both cow and calf – makes a lot of sense. Many studies conducted over the years have shown that reducing weaning stress correlates very well with healthier, faster gaining calves, and healthier, better conditioned cows that tolerate winter better, produce more vigorous calves, and have higher breed-back rates.

The cattle industry has been somewhat slow in adopting low-stress weaning, and probably for a number of reasons. Firstly, the “old” or “usual” way has always worked. Secondly, the expenses and physical work are borne solely by the cow-calf operator. And thirdly, while many cow-calf operators like the idea of low-stress weaning, the additional supplies, attention to fencing, and the time spent planning and executing the plan often seem like a few too many extra tasks to producers who are already task saturated.

There is more than one way to reduce weaning stress. Two of the most popular are fenceline weaning and two-stage weaning.

In fenceline weaning, the cows and calves are separated by a fence. They can still see, hear and smell each other and spend time in close proximity. Depending on the design of the fence, cows and calves can even make physical contact through the fence. The fence has to be exceptionally strong and tight to prevent nursing, though, and both cows and calves can work their way through surprisingly tight fences. Most often, fenceline weaning merely reduces nursing, rather than eliminating it. In many ways, reducing nursing is almost as useful as eliminating it, and given time, complete weaning will eventually happen. So for a producer who can spend 30-60 days weaning calves, and who is willing to spend the time and effort to re-separate pairs who get through the fence, this is a great option.

Few cow-calf producers can spend that much time on weaning, however. The calves have to go to market, to a feedlot, into a backgrounding program, or out on autumn/winter grass. Cows need to stop lactating, which takes significant energy, and devote that energy to maintaining condition and growing next year’s calf.

A big heifer waits in the chute Saturday just prior to receiving her anti-nursing device during annual weaning on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb.
Another heifer with her newly-applied anti-nursing device anti-nursing device. The anti-nursing device prevents nursing by pushing the teat away when the calf tries to suckle. The devices are left in for 4-7 days, then removed when the cows and calves are separated.
This is where two-stage weaning has an advantage.

A steer calf with a newly attached anti-nursing device just after being turned back in with the cow herd.
In the first stage, a plastic anti-nursing device (AND) is placed in the nose of each calf. The devices are small plastic tags which fit into the calves nostrils and hang down over their upper lip like a moustache. This can be done while the calves are in the chute to be weighed, vaccinated, and otherwise “worked.” The calves are then turned back with the cows. As the calf tries to nurse, the AND pushes the teat away from the mouth, making suckling nearly impossible. The device does allow the calf to graze and water normally, however. The cows and calves still have close contact and can nuzzle, reducing stress for both. As the first stage progresses, the cows and calves spend less and less time in close proximity, drifting farther and farther apart as they graze and water, until they are separated for good.

After a number of frustrating attempts to nurse, this calf finally gave up on milk and turned to grazing.
During the second stage, after the AND’s have been in place for four to seven days, they are removed and the calves separated from the cows. Depending on the situation, the calves can remain near the cows for a few days along a tight fence or can be moved immediately to market, feedlot, pasture, or backgrounding pen.

A steer calf happily grazes late-season grass one day after his anti-nursing device was affixed.
Two-stage weaning is nothing new, and cattlemen were affixing metallic AND’s to calves more than a century ago. The plastic tags are nothing more than a modern iteration of a good idea.

In practice, the process seems to work quite well. On the EJE Ranch last year, the backgrounding calves gained as well or better than they had in the past, adjusted to the feed bunk in record time, and had no illness. Likewise, the replacement heifers did quite well on fall/winter forage and hay.

The cows also did exceptionally well, carrying good condition through the winter and producing, healthy, vigorous calves in the spring. Those calves summered exceptionally well in 2011 and represented a top-ten calf crop for the ranch.

Removing the AND’s does represent an additional sorting step and an additional trip through the chute for the calves. Placement of the devices, which cost about fifty cents each, is quick and easy.

All in all, two-stage weaning seems to be a good option for the EJE.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Perfect


Weaning calves on the EJE Ranch has become a family affair over the years, with brothers and sister and their kids making the trek across the state to participate.

This year all five sons and the single daughter were available, and they brought a total of six of a possible 13 of their kids. It’s a reflection of the way time marches on that the other seven are busy with college and careers, which seems nearly impossible to me, as none of those older ones, in my mind should be older than five or six. Maybe eight or nine at the most. Time moves ahead regardless of whether you approve.

The pushing crew waits for the working crew to finish a calf in the chute during calf weaning this fall on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb.

They also brought an enormous quantity of dogs. I’m not entirely sure, but I believe the final count was eight. Several of those were puppies of the recently departed River, so it was good to see them and have them around though they got up to no end of mischief.

A fall-born calf gets worked the old-fashioned way during calf weaning Saturday on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb.
The weaning process itself is pretty straightforward. Bring the cows and calves in, sort the cows off, then run the calves through the chute for their brand and shots and de-worming and any other items a particular calf might need addressed.

For the second year in a row we added Anti-Nursing Devices (AND’s) to the mix. The AND is a plastic tag that fits in the nostrils of the calf. It is designed to prevent nursing but to allow the calf to graze and water normally. Adding the nose tags is part of a low-stress, two-stage weaning process. We tried it last year and liked the results, so we gave it a whirl again this year.

The pushing crew tries to get a balky calf turned around during calf weaning Saturday on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb.
Once the cows were sorted off and the calves pushed into the feeder corral, the real work began. My siblings jumped right in and did their usual outstanding job. It’s a pleasure to work with them and it’s amazing how adept they are at working cattle. Not every-day adept, of course, but surprisingly good when you consider that they all work for the government in their real jobs, which include firefighting, teaching and social work.

Of course there were the occasional problems. “Pushing” too hard led a pair of calves to escape, and a couple of the city dogs caused a ruckus once or twice. Two of my brothers even accidentally set a calf on fire when one applied the branding iron just as the other was pouring the calf. They put the flames out quickly, the calf wasn’t even singed, and though it was a surprise, it was quickly and correctly handled and we moved on to the next calf.

Once all the big calves went through the chute and were reunited with their mothers, it was time to brand and vaccinate the baby calves from our nascent fall-calving herd. This process went reasonably well and brought back a lot of memories from “the good ol’ days” when we hand-threw every calf. It didn’t tale long but it did result in an astonishing collection of bumps and bruises and the application of copious quantities on liniment.

When the work is done it’s time to play, and the autumn game of choice on the EJE Ranch is football. Here about half the working crew and too many dogs to count enjoy a pick-up game.
Once the work was done and after we checked the score to see whether the Huskers had managed to hang on at Beaver Stadium, we got together for our annual ranch football contest, featuring teams of “grownups” sprinkled with youngsters and made doubly exciting by the sheer quantity of dogs who chose to participate. I’m not sure if there was a winner and a loser, and I’m even less sure there were any rules, but we had a lot of fun and sent only one player on injured reserve with a bloody nose.

The evening meal was good, EJE grass-fed brisket, oven smoked all day, and all the usual trimmings of potatoes, salads, relish trays, baked beans, and even a taste of high school cooking class potato soup. And desserts. Lots of desserts. The whole meal was fabulous, and the 10 lbs. of brisket disappeared in only about 15 minutes. That’s got to be a record.

Afterward there was time for talk, for the recounting of the days exploits, and for watching a bit of college ball on the television.

The whole weekend was a delight. It included hard work, minor injuries and aches and pains, competency and comedy, a day spent in the great outdoors with calves which will ultimately provide sustenance to thousands, and time well spent together as a family. It’s hard to put a price on something like that.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The one percent and the 99 percent


VA Medical Center, Cheyenne, Wyo.
What is freedom?

The well-publicized “occupiers” around the country seem to know the answer, though it usually takes a bit of deciphering.

The message of the self-professed “99 percent” comes down to this:

Freedom is a government provided sinecure (not a “job” job; heaven forbid!).

Freedom is the government forgiving whatever debt the 99-percenters have amassed.

Freedom is the government taking wealth from those who’ve earned it (especially the “rich”) and giving to those who want it but don't want to earn it.

Freedom is free food, free medical care, and “…no hassles about rules, man.”

Freedom, to paraphrase Nancy Pelosi, is not having to take a job so that one can follow one’s muse.

Oh, and freedom pretty much means ridding the world of Jews. I never really thought I would see that kind of naked hate return. It’s human nature, I suppose. Some control it, some refuse to control it or find excuses not to.

As you may have guessed, I don’t agree with the “occupy” crowd. Perhaps you don’t agree with me, that’s fair. But I’ve spent a lot of time studying this self-professed movement, and if you’re honest, you have to agree that I’ve pretty much suitcased their demands and their idea of freedom.

Initially the occupiers were reasonably peaceful and law abiding, in the goofy  tradition of “everybody gets high, and everybody gets a chance at the mic” fashion so beloved by young protesters since the 1960’s.

Unfortunately, while the message hasn’t changed, the occupy protests have grown considerably more violent of late.

While the 99-percenters rail against the greed of the one-percent, the vast (?!?) Zionist/Capitalist conspiracy that controls the world government, they seem oblivious to the fact that a different “one-percent” exists. A one percent that ensures the liberty and rights of the real 99 percent, the 300-plus million Americans who, for the most part, continue to live their lives of liberty one day at a time, in good times and in bad times. The same one percent ensures the rights and liberty of the childish occupiers as well, because they swore a solemn oath to protect and defend the constitution of the United States, and not just the people they agree with.

As I write this on Tuesday morning, it’s closing in on 10 p.m. in Kabul, 9 p.m. in Baghdad, and Mombasa, 2 a.m. on Wednesday in Quezon and at Naha. In these places, and in nearly every one of the 24 time zones on this planet, American fighting men and women are prepared to go into harms way on your behalf. In many places they are, as you read these words, in direct peril. On this day, Nov. 11, 2011, some of them may give their lives, others will surely bleed.

I visited the Cheyenne VA Medical Center on Monday. As I walked through the halls of the big, clean, high-tech hospital, I carefully looked at all of the veterans. There were a lot of older fellows who had seen service in WWII and Korea, and a younger generation of graybeards who had fought in Vietnam. There were a scattering of folks my age who fought in places like Beirut and Grenada and Panama and what we now call “Gulf War One.” And there are younger ones, too. Men and women who look far too young to have fought for our nation, yet bear the healing external scars and unfathomable internal hurts of combat.

On Monday I thought about the experiences shared across time by those few hundred vets. Experiences so very similar within the community of those who have served, so utterly foreign to those who have not.

I wondered what those men and women thought about the occupiers. But I didn’t have to ask. They know, as do I, that a “…government of the people, by the people, and for the people” can sometimes be pretty messy. Disgusting, even. It’s the nature of self government, and so far as anyone has been able to determine, the only way to ensure individual liberty.

So long as enough Americans believe to their core the ideas our country was founded on, the country, the people, the Constitution, will be worth defending. The one-percent will continue to raise their right arms, will continue to take the oath, will continue to fight and bleed and die.

For us.

I wrote this on Veterans Day. When I write about Veterans Day I often urge you readers to thank a vet or someone on active duty.

This time I’ll ask you to think about the difference between one percent and 99 percent.

To my brothers and sisters: I know and understand your sacrifice. Bravo Zulu.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Chores and a puppy


November 5 was a pretty day, a day filled with chores and delight.

Not that there’s anything particularly delightful about hand-scooping five tons of corn or tinkering with tiny engine parts deep in the bowels of a skid-steer or deploying four miles of electric fence.

But these are some of the things that must be done if one wants to continue to raise cattle and continue a legacy.

The work can be miserable. The physical toil exhausting. Most of the work is done outside, in hammering heat or freezing cold or something in between. Early in the morning and late at night and at all hours in between.

But not every hour of every day. There are compensations.

After scooping corn and bringing life back to the skid-steer, my Border collie puppy Nona and I went off to check the cows.

As we got out of the pickup I felt like I was stepping into a magical place, a secret place, a place only Nona and I could experience. The overnight coolness was flowing away across the prairie with the gentle northerly breeze, and a bright sun slanted down through a nearly cloudless, deeply blue sky. The touch of the sun was just right – warm and embracing and neither too hot nor too cold. As the ground warmed the smell of autumn filled the air, damp grass and sod and junipers melting out of the first snow of the year.

Nona dashed about hither and yon, following her nose and seeing some things for the first time in her life – she was only about 15 weeks old, after all. As we approached the cow herd on foot she seemed to take on an extra dose of excitement. She’s been around cows every day for more than a month – nothing new there. But there’s always an extra spark when she sees them, as if she knows they’re somehow special, but she can’t quite put her paw on what it is.

Border Collie puppy Nona investigates some cows and calves on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb.
On our previous walks among the cows Nona has been clearly curious but timid, preferring to stick close to me. On Monday she lost some of her timidity and trotted off ahead of me toward the cattle. I flopped down on the grass to watch her.

She moved straight toward the cows until she was fifty or sixty feet away, then paused. She looked back over her shoulder at me a couple of times, then slowly started circling to the right in a classic gathering move. As she moved to the right, several of the cows began to drift away from her to the left, reacting to the pressure of her proximity. Nona paused and watched, then as the cows stopped, she began to loop back to the left, gently pushing the cows back to the right and ahead. Her herding instincts were clearly starting to show up.

As a curious cow approaches, Border collie puppy Nona stands her ground momentarily – before scooting back to the security of her master.
All was well until a curious calf decided to take a closer look at her. Nona stood her ground for a moment, but as the 600 lb. calf drew closer, she turned and dashed away, back to her master and protection. She fairly leapt into my lap, wiggling and wagging with excitement. She’d taken a big step, and seemed to know it.

After she settled down a bit she moved off toward the cows again and went through a nearly identical process, only this time, a calf sneaked up on her from behind and gave her quite a surprise. Some of her timidity returned and she stayed close to me for several minutes.

She finally found a happy medium at about 75 feet from the cows, a place where she was close enough to watch, yet far enough away that she couldn’t be outflanked.

As I lay on the cool, spongy grass and soaked up the warming autumn sun, I thought about how fortunate I am to be able to enjoy the simple pleasures of the real world.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Opportunity: costs and benefits

I've been neglecting this blog of late, and for that I am truly sorry. Between ranching, newspapering, and now writing and maintaining two blogs, I've struggled to keep my plates spinning, if you'll pardon the trite metaphor. That's just an excuse however. And fortunately, I think I'm starting to find a way to get it all done (the secret is to waste less time. I am a champion time waster).

 On to opportunity costs and benefits.

Most ag producers reading this post will be well acquainted with the concept of opportunity cost. Those readers who aren’t familiar with the term will almost certainly recognize the concept of judging opportunity cost, because it is something we all do, to a greater or lesser extent, when we consider selling or purchasing something.

By definition, opportunity cost is the value of the best but foregone alternative. In a bit plainer language, it’s the value of the best thing you could have bought, but now can’t buy because you’ve already spent that money. Alternatively, when it comes to selling, opportunity cost is the best money you could have pocketed if you had taken a different marketing approach.

On the EJE Ranch we look hard at opportunity costs. By weaning time, we have essentially harvested our annual calf crop, and like the corn or wheat farmer, we have to decide how to sell our crop in a way that maximizes our profit.

If we sell all the calves at the sale barn, we have to be aware of the opportunity cost (which we cannot now realize) potential in backgrounding or stockering the calves until spring. The potential profit in selling larger calves in a higher market always looks good, but is balanced by increased risk. Losing a few calves over the winter can wipe out profit, as can a change in market prices.

The utility of understanding opportunity costs is in fact the utility of rating the costs and benefits of all options. There’s never been, nor will there ever be, a single, fool-proof, highest profit option. But the ability to honestly assess risks and rewards allows the thoughtful producer to eke out enough profit to continue.

Time has an opportunity cost component as well. Few if any of us ever get caught up with all the tasks on our various lists. We have to manage our time so that the “must do's” get done. Only when the must dos are done can we afford to expend time on the like-to-do's.

Over the weekend I had a number of like-to-do's tentatively scheduled, including cleaning corrals, fixing a barn door, assembling a dog kennel, and nailing up a few sagging wires here and there.

I had an unexpected call for a ranch tour, though. The few dollars I would collect for driving someone around the ranch and explaining what we do wouldn’t even come close to the value of catching up on tasks that have been waiting too long already. But as is the case for many of us in ag production, money isn’t the only consideration. In the case of giving ranch tours, I enjoy meeting new people, and I enjoy showing them what we do. I also get to expose non-ag folks to a real, working ranch, and in doing so, give them a tiny slice of reality to compare against what they read, hear and see on television regarding agriculture when they return home. In theory, this kind of interaction can pay off by slowly increasing the agricultural literacy – one or a few people at a time – of our largely urban-suburban population.

There’s another incentive to give the tour, another non-monetary benefit. Just as I give my guest a glimpse of life on a ranch, my guest usually gives me a glimpse of their world. It’s important for me as a food producer to understand what consumers think about their food, to listen to their questions and concerns about food, where it comes from, and whether it’s really safe or not. Each of us also get to compare and contrast lifestyles, and the differences provide for some interesting and memorable conversations.

I’ll call my Saturday tour guest Marvin, because he asked me not to use his name or picture.

Marvin was born and raised behind the Iron Curtain of eastern Europe and came to the U.S. in the mid-80’s. He’s retired now and was returning home to an eastern city on the final leg of a vacation when he stopped for gas in Kimball and heard about the ranch tours I offer.

Marvin was astonished at the sheer size of the ranch. He had assumed, he told me, that most non-cultivated land was public land, owned by the government. He wondered how it was possible to earn a living from what looked to him (and frankly, looks to everyone in mid-October) like utterly unproductive land.

As I explained the cow/calf operation and how we are designed to be in tune with nature, how the cows and calves “harvest” the grass for us and convert it into beef and new calves, how we depend on each season to naturally grow and maintain the shortgrass prairie ecosystem, Marvin became more animated. “Ah,” he said in his thick Slavic accent, “this is real green! “Not electric car. Not windmill. This keep healthy planet, this real green!”

Marvin’s excitement and enthusiasm were delightful. We talked for hours, and he told me a bit about growing up behind the iron curtain. I told him about growing up here, my career in the navy, returning home to ranch. We talked about many things, including some of the problems facing the world today. We didn’t solve anything, but each of us had a good time and enjoyed meeting the other.

As Marvin drove off toward the interstate late in the day, I thought about the chores I hadn’t accomplished, and I thought about opportunity costs. The opportunity cost of doing those chores was the cost of not meeting Marvin, not sharing with him the ranching lifestyle, and not showing off the real, boots on the ground reality of modern agriculture.

Our story is worth telling, our farms and ranches worth showing off. I can’t calculate a dollar figure for the value of sharing the ranch with Marvin, but I think it was time well spent for both of us.