Monday, May 28, 2012

Big Red

It seems I’ve written a lot this calving season (a lot too much, you may be thinking) about calving out heifers.

Well, here’s a bit more, and hopefully the last of it for a while.

We’ve had an up and down heifer-calving season on the EJE this year. Of course, when compared to the “olden” days, when replacement heifers were routinely bred to herd bulls and even the mention of “calving out heifers” brought an involuntary shudder from everyone at the coffee table in the local café, it’s been a delight.

In an historical context, our 2012 heifer calving experience has been delightful. That’s due in part to the modern practice of breeding first-calf heifers, either naturally or through artificial insemination, to “calving ease” or “heifer” bulls. Bulls whose EPD’s (expected progeny difference) show a statistically significant probability of expressing a calving ease trait in their progeny. In non-ranching jargon, bulls who are expected to sire calves which birth easily.

But what would have been a delightful experience 20-30 years ago was up and down this year. It wasn’t a train wreck, mind you, we saved all the calves and only had to pull one. Along the way, though, we lost a brand-new mama cow. When you add up all the cost factors associated with raising a replacement heifer, it’s no exaggeration to say that that one dead heifer cost us close to $3.000. And that’s a down, whether it’s 1982 or 2012.

A day-old calf out of a crossbred black first-calf heifer and Lowline Angus bull.
Last summer we exposed our heifers to a pair of mature Lowline Angus bulls. Their progeny were expected to be small – around 70 lbs at birth – and conformationally formed for ease of passage through the birth canal. Calving ease isn’t all about low birth weight. And since the bulls were purebred Angus, their calves were expected to be black.

The group was carefully segregated in a nice pasture six miles from the home place and at least two miles – with multiple stout, well-maintained fences in between – from the nearest cow herd.

Nevertheless, at least three neighbor bulls came visiting.

So early this calving season we had a couple of big calves born to heifers. One was born naturally, a big, ugly-gray bull-calf. The other was a black heifer calf with an enormous, blunt head. This one required assistance. The pull wasn't very difficult once the head was out, but the young mama cow had used up most of her energy trying to push that big, square head through an oval opening. Then she hip-locked, requiring a bit of tricky manipulation.

Both calves weighed in excess of 120 pounds at birth, and bearing such big calves took quite a toll on each heifer, though both seem to have recovered well.

Last week, after most of the remainder of the heifers had produced a steady stream of easy-birthing little black calves, a pair of tail-end-charlie heifers produced enormous, 130 pound-plus, red bull calves. Sheesh! Both heifers birthed without assistance, but it was nip and tuck for a while.

Big Red gets his first view of the world. This newborn, solid red, 130 pound-plus bull-calf was a bit of a surprise. His first-calf heifer mama was exposed to a Lowline Angus bull, so he was expected to be small and black.
Needless to say, extended parturition digs deep into the dam’s energy reserves and hard labor, or dystocia, slows both breed-back time and breed-back conception rates.

If you look hard, you might see surprise in this first-calf heifer’s eyes as she gets a first look at her new baby. All kidding aside, birthing a big calf is hard on a heifer, which is usually reflected in slow breed-back or low breed-back conception rate.
We got four big, growthy calves out of the deal so it’s not as if there’s no up-side, but only time will tell if we’ve spent 12 grand on good replacement herd cows or on culls.
If the 16-inch wheel is any guide, the now-dried and day-old bull calf is more than 20 inches at the shoulder. An extremely lively and vibrant calf, he’ll sell well this fall, but that’ll be cold comfort if his mama has breed-back problems.

This business is an ongoing series of learning experiences. It always has been, and it always will be. If we learn from our 2012 heifer calving season, we’ll be ahead of the game. Only time will tell, and in the mean time, we’ve got much to ponder, plans to make, and management practices to execute.

Still, you couldn’t pay me to take an office job in a town or city.

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