Thursday, October 8, 2015

Weaning calves for fun and profit*

*But mostly for fun. Well, kinda.


I get a lot of questions about how and why we do things on the ranch. Branding is a big one. A common question is framed from an anthropomorphic perspective. "Why burn them with a hot iron and cause so much pain?" Similar questions are asked about castration and dehorning.

Answering the questions is always a challenge. The problem isn't so much that the concepts are hard to follow and understand. It's more that the questioner comes equipped with assumptions which don't match up very well with reality.

As it turns out, the aim of branding is not to "burn the animal" or "cause pain" or even to use "a hot iron." The point is to permanently mark the animal for identification.

Cattle need to be permanently marked for identification, because racism thieves. So long as there are humans, there are thieves. Particularly in this day in age, where a great many of our fellows believe that it's not really stealing if you take something that you want. "It's social justice, man! I got a right to your stuff because (fill in the blank)!"

But I digress? Branding is simple, easy, permanent. Yes, it's painful. Long experience shows that pain isn't lingering and the cattle seem to shrug it off within moments. We can't know for sure, of course, because we are not cattle. But evidence and experience seem to solidly prove the case.

The point about humans not being cattle is an important one, as is the corollary, that cattle are not people. Everyone "knows" this, of course, but most folks tend to humanize animals to an astonishing degree. It can be tough sledding when assumptions don't match up to reality.

So how does a rancher interested in sharing the realities of production agriculture with his customers do so? Well, it's a process.


Fasten your seatbelts and prepare to be learned. Today I'm going to present the EJE
Ranch Beef Cattle Production Professional Development Module, Number FW-O1A-S, Fall Weaning, Operation 1A, Solo.

I almost typed that with a straight face.

Now what in the wide, wide world of sports is weaning?

According to my big red Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, weaning is the process whereby a young mammal transitions (or is transitioned) from taking mothers milk to an exclusively mature diet.

But you knew that. Most adult-type people are familiar with the concept, having learned all about mammals, nursing and lactation in school, and furthermore having weaned (or witnessed/assisted in the process of weaning) children. Weaning calves on a ranch is conceptually not much different than weaning children. The aim is simply to make that nutritional transition.

Weaning isn't just about the calf though. In fact, you could argue that on a beef cattle ranch in this part of the country it's more about the cow. If you think about it, that makes sense. For the calf to consume milk, the cow has to produce milk. Lactation takes a lot of energy, which requires a lot of food. At the same time she's lactating, though, the cow is also coming back into heat, being bred, and starting the nine-month process of growing a brand new baby calf. She's also putting on flesh or "condition" while fresh grass is abundant and in preparation for winter's lean months. As the grass begins to go dormant in the autumn, it loses much of its nutritive value. If the cow continues to lactate in this environment she'll soon reach a place where the food she eats doesn't provide enough energy to meet all her requirements. When that happens her fat reserves will begin to be used to make milk and she will begin to lose condition.

Weaning, then, stops the cow's lactation and reduces her nutritional requirements.

On the EJE we do a bit of multitasking at weaning time, taking the opportunity to vaccinate the cows and calves and treat them for internal and external parasites -- gut worms and lice. This is a pretty common practice for most beef cattle operations.

Where we differ a bit from other operations is that we generally wait until autumn and weaning time to brand the calves. Traditionally, calves are branded, vaccinated, castrated and dehorned in the late spring or early summer when they are only a couple months old.

The system that works better for us, given the size of our operation, available labor, and the wonders of modern technology, is to vaccinate, ear tag, and castrate at birth (or within about 12 hours of birth), when the calf is easy to handle, and then wait until weaning time to brand and dehorn. The calves are big enough at weaning time to run them through the chute which means less labor and a bit less sweat and stress all around.

The task

So the task facing me last Wednesday was to "pre-wean" the calves by giving them the first doses of their weaning vaccinations. Two shots, one each of modified live vaccines designed to protect them from about eight common diseases. The final shots are given in three to six weeks.

With all the calves going through the chute for shots, it made sense to brand the 62 head that still needed it (I'd previously branded the 30-odd spring-purchased calves) and to take care of the horns that six of the calves were growing.

Oh, and since this was the  FW-O1A-S module, with the S standing for Solo, I'd be doing this operation, well, by myself.

Normally this operation is done with a crew of 5-12. A brander, a vaccinator, a dehorner, a pair of chute-side pushers, and then some tub and corral pushers.

This one is a little bloody and gruesome. It's not something that most folks ever see. I'd invite you to think about scale and context and assumptions.

Many hands make light work, right? Well, yes and no. With a crew of sharp, cattle-savvy assistants running 100 calves through the chute for this operation would take perhaps an hour. But those assistants simply don't exist. Becoming cattle-savvy takes a lot of time and experience, and even here in the heart of agricultural and cattle country, there are vanishingly few folks who've put in the time and gained the experience.

The usual crew that we put together is made up of family, and they do a great job, but they don't really have the day-in, day-out experience required for a flawless, smooth operation. That's okay though, because they do a very fine job and their assistance is always much appreciated. Inevitably, however, they reinvent the same freshman cattle-handling mistakes year after year. These aren't terrible mistakes, and we always get by, but a one-hour operation often stretches into three or four hours, and the cattle (and people!) end up being stressed considerably more than is ideal.

The world isn't perfect, though, and the upside of our usual crew is far larger than the downside. I'd never think about turning down their help in order to do it myself, just to "do it right." That would be foolish. It would take a lot of the fun out of it too. Regardless of the mistakes and mini-rodeos the crew (including myself, of course) always suffers, it's a great deal of fun working together and everyone enjoys (more or less) the experience. It's also an opportunity for family members whose jobs and lives have nothing to do with agriculture to have an annual hands-on experience with part of the reality of food production. This is a good thing.

One guy doing the job probably seems a daunting prospect, and there's no doubt that it's a lot of work -- and hard, physical work to boot. But it's really not that bad, for I am cattle-savvy and I do have a wealth of experience. What would be impossible for any of the "crew" to do solo is in reality pretty easy for me to do by myself. It just takes longer and requires me to take a lot more steps.

In general, here's how it goes. Cows and calves are moved through the corrals into a sorting pen, where the cows are sorted off and moved into a holding pen. The calves are then moved, a dozen or so at a time, into a round pen (tub) and alleyway leading to the working chute. Four calves at a time are fed into the alleyway which features a swinging gate which prevents them from backing out.

The calves then enter the working chute one at a time. The chute is a heavy rectangular box type device made of steel pipe and wooden panels. It features a head catch at the discharge end and a clever set of levers and cams that allow the sides to be moved in and out to squeeze and partially restrain the animal. The head catch is particularly clever. To the animal it looks like a way out of the chute, but the bars are only wide enough for the head to fit through. When the animal tries to pass through its shoulders push the bars into latching detents, neatly isolating the head on the outside of the chute while the rest of the animal remains inside.

Once the head is caught and the calf squeezed, it gets a pair of shots, followed by a brand, and if necessary, by dehorning. When those operations are finished the head catch is opened, allowing the calf to exit and move into a holding pen.

Rinse, lather, repeat 99 times and hey presto, that's a wrap.

As you can imagine, it's a reasonably good workout. At a guess there's something like 2 miles of walking back and forth and around the chute, and another two miles of walking involved in moving and sorting. There's a lot of pushing and pulling and levering, bending over and straightening up, etc. I started bringing the cattle in at about 8 a.m. and started working calves through the chute at about 11 a.m. I finished about 4:45 p.m. I could easily have trimmed an hour off the front and back but there was no reason to hurry, we weren't in a race or anything. I didn't take a lunch break but I did take a good number of water breaks; it was a lovely day and not too hot but I did work up a pretty good sweat and didn't want to get dehydrated. I slurped down a three-gallon cooler of water and didn't have to make a lot of potty breaks so my hydration schedule was about right.

Revenge of the calf

On a near final note, I'd like to give a nod and some credit to Murphy and his law. Even though I was in complete control (hah!) of the evolution, took my time and did all the right things the right way, I did experience one delightfully unexpected and completely avoidable incident. On about the fifth or sixth calf I forgot to latch the side bars after I finished the brand. Now, this is normally not a real problem because once the head gate is opened the calf should simply step ahead and out of the chute. Quite often, though, they back up and refuse to move forward until the operator steps back behind them. Perfectly normal bovine behavior. The open bars on the off side of the chute still wouldn't normally be a problem, because the opening is quite small and nearly three feet up the side of the chute.

In this case, however, Murphy decided to add his bit to the effort, and after the calf backed up he decided to exit via the open bars. It was a struggle, but he got it done. Then he ran into the barn and Murphy arranged things so he would get tangled up in the extension cord providing electricity to the branding iron. He managed to turn that neatly coiled cord into a snarled mess entangling his head and three of his four legs. In the course of getting him untangled he applied the fourth leg to my thigh, smartly.

By the time all was said and done I had collected a rather massive bruise. My whole leg eventually turned technicolor and some of the bruising even went up my side and around the hip. It was pretty sore for a few days but is well on the mend now, though it still feels as if there's a big, jagged rock buried in my thigh. Ah well. This is all part of the deal.

I was going to add an image of my massively bruised leg, but I got to thinking about the sad tale of that Tony Sausage fellow. So no below the belt selfie. Sorry 'bout that.

Now some folks might think, “good, the calf got his revenge.” That’s one way to look at it, I suppose, but it’s not the most reasoned approach. People, as we agreed earlier, aren’t cattle. Nor are cattle people. Cattle are herding prey animals, and as best we can tell, simply do not reason in the sense that we humans reason. They don’t appear to consider cause and effect. Their existence is quite simple really. They are comfortable where they are in a group and where there is abundant food and water. When their usual routine is interrupted by being “worked” in the process of weaning or a similar activity, they don’t spend any time being “afraid” or “wanting to escape.” They simply want to return to their comfort zone.

When this calf ran into the barn and got tangled up he was attempting to return to his comfort zone. When he got tangled he panicked, and when I began to manhandle him to unsnarl him from the cord, his panic (spell check is demanding that I change that to "Hispanic") increased. He lashed out in nature’s fight or flight response. He had no thought about getting even, and his brain had no way of even processing the situation as cause and effect. He wanted only to escape the immediate situation and return to his comfort zone.

Twenty seconds after kicking me he was back in the pen with his fellows, relaxed and at ease, chewing on a bit of hay.

I'll remember the experience and the bruise, and I'll fiddle around a bit with cause and effect. I'll learn a lesson and the next time a calf gets tangled up in an extension cord I'll be more cautious in addressing the situation and try very hard not to collect a massive bruise.

The calf won't remember the experience, at least not in the same way a human would.


  1. Thank you, very interesting. I always wondered how calves were dehorned. Seems like someone could invent a mechanical device to dehorn with less exertion.

    1. Thanks, glad I could provide some info. Calves come in all shapes and sizes and every operation is different, so there's not much hope of a one size fits all mechanical solution. There are options available including dehorning paste and dehorning irons and freeze treatments -- those are used in very young calves. All methods have pros and cons, and for our operation the best solution is to nip off the few we get at weaning time. We do breed for polled (hornless) cattle but nature has a way of getting her oar in whenever she feels like it.

  2. Good job explaining the process.
    There were a few times when due to unforeseen circumstances the Cowman and I processed 300+ calves in a day! What saved us was a couple of our great dogs and an electric squeeze.
    I would do it all again in a heartbeat...

    1. Thanks Brighid. I've sure never done 300 in a day without a crew! It's still kind of amazing to me how savvy handling makes it possible to work with rather than compel the cattle. Sure, with enough guys and enough sweat you can force it, but there are a lot of downsides to that. The thing that's hard to put into words is what it does for a person to be able to take on and execute a big chore that takes both brains (a little bit anyway) and brawn. Doesn't seem to be much suck it up and drive on in our society these days. You can't be awarded cattle handling self esteem, you have to earn it.

    2. Ah yes, the magic thoughts "You can't be awarded cattle handling self esteem, you have to earn it." It seems Self Esteem these days means a little bit different than when I was growing up. I work with teenagers that think self esteem is just getting up in the morning.

    3. I was just talking to someone about that teenager self esteem thing. We didn't care much for self esteem when we were teens, we only felt mightily abused to be responsible for serious chores while the rest of our friends had unlimited free time to lollygag and get in trouble. I hated the responsibility and discipline at the time and it was only much later that I realized that learning to live core values had stood me in good stead. Hard to see at the time but I'm pretty sure I'd have been a major loser had I not learned those basic lessons.

  3. Branding can't be any worse than tattooing the number into the inside surface of the ear. Do you use a pneaumatic hypodermic, like in Boot Camp? Keep telling us Tales of The Cow, please.

    1. I know branding is immediately painful to them -- otherwise there'd be no vocalizing and avoidance of the iron. I also know that as prey animals, cattle are extremely good at hiding signs of injury or illness, so it's possible that branding leaves them in considerable pain for some time. I doubt that the pain lingers, however, because they go right on as before branding with their normal behavior. I don't think they'd go from the chute to immediately eating hay if they were in a lot of pain. Could be wrong, of course, I'm not a bovine.

      No boot camp guns here, just regular needle and syringe.

      I'll keep up the cattle tales. Thanks for asking, it's often hard to tell if my stuff is worth posting or not.