Calving season is a special time of year and is something we prepare for year-round, as it often makes or breaks the ranch. Ranchers rely on their calves to support the ranch the entire year. Every spring, we genetic test our female yearlings to make sure we choose the best of the best to breed and become our replacement heifers. We look for high milk production, high marbling, high gains, low birth rates, and other genetic markers that ensure the heifers we breed are only improving the genetics of the herd. After choosing the best of our heifers, we then carefully pick a bull to breed to the heifers. Bulls are also genetically tested and surveyed for those optimal genetic markers that help ensure the growth, health, and quality of our herd.
Once we have chosen the perfect match, we artificially inseminate (often referred to as ‘AI-ing’) our heifers using the bull that we have carefully selected. When AI-ing, stress, heat, and noise can all affect heifers' ability to come into heat and ultimately breed, so it is imperative that we create a low-stress environment and favorable breeding conditions for each heifer.
In the fall, we check to see which heifers are bred (referred to as ‘preg-checking’). Heifers that are ‘open’ (not bred), are sent to be processed at our meat production facility. Heifers that are bred are sent to the ranch out north to be cared for, fed, and, ultimately, calved.
Before they calve, proper nutrition and hydration are key to helping the heifers carry healthy calves to term. We feed our heifers extra feed rations, with increased vitamins, minerals, and protein. We also make sure they are protected from storms and cold temperatures, as heifers will ‘sluff’ (abort) their calf if their bodies undergo extreme stress from weather or other conditions. Interestingly, pine needles also cause cows to sluff their calves, so while protection from the elements is important, they cannot be around pine trees while pregnant.
Since all of our heifers are bred on the same day, they generally calve within a 10-20 day window, which makes an extremely busy few weeks of calving. The heifer’s genetic markers, including their gestation cycle, allow us to pinpoint the day when the heifers will start calving.
Our heifers generally start calving around March 9th. A week or so before, we move them into the calving pasture, which is closest to our house. This allows us to have eyes on the heifers at all times. Once again, heifers are first-time moms, so low-stress environments are of the utmost importance. We typically check the heifers on an hourly basis 24 hours a day to make sure they aren’t having any problems. As we get closer to calving days, we have a “day-man” and a “night-man” (or woman) whose sole job is to care for the heifers during their shift.
Calving season is in early March, which can mean spring storms with heavy snow and sometimes frigid temperatures. In those conditions, the heifers are often brought in from the pasture at night to the barn, so they have protection from the weather.
When heifers start to get close to calving, they ‘bag-up’ which means their milk has come in and their udders enlarge. They also start ‘springing,’ which means their vulva becomes swollen and relaxed. When contractions actually start, their tails often wring or they start kicking their bellies. When this happens, we try and give them space, peace, and quiet, so they can focus on the job at hand. It is important heifers can lie down and relax to channel all of their energy and effort into having their calves.
Heifers are curious (and sometimes clueless) creatures, so other heifers will crowd the calving heifer, or the heifer herself won’t find an isolated place, so we try and help her find a quiet spot. Being new moms, heifers often get confused and try and claim another calf (sometimes even while they are actually in labor) or try and leave their own, so it's important they are separated from the herd and from other heifers calving.
We usually give a heifer around two hours to calve on her own. While in labor, first, part of the heifer’s water bag will come out, often looking like a balloon. Then, we make sure two feet come out, to ensure the calf isn’t backward or a foot isn’t stuck. The goal is to allow a heifer to have a calf without our assistance, which means while we have to watch her throughout labor to monitor for signs of distress or complications, we don’t disturb her so long as we can observe the safe delivery of her calf is on track.
Once a heifer has a calf, we monitor the next thirty minutes or so to make sure she licks the calf clean and helps the calf to its feet to allow it to nurse (drink its mother's milk). This bonding time is vital as it will ensure the mother will care for the calf over the months ahead. If the calf doesn’t get up or its mother won’t allow it to feed or she just plain runs off, we will bring the calf to the barn.
If a heifer doesn’t have her calf within a couple of hours of going into labor, we will bring her closer to the barn. We give her a little more time in a smaller pen near the barn, but if she still isn’t progressing, we will eventually bring her inside to pull the calf. To do this, we use a ‘calf-puller,’ which looks similar to a small containment stall. We place chains around the calf’s feet inside the mother and then use the leverage of the puller to pull the calf’s legs and then body out. This is a very delicate process, where we time each pull with each contraction. We have to pull hard enough to get the calf out safely, but not so hard that we will cause the mother stress or injure the calf’s hips. This process requires patience and constant attention to the heifer and calf. It generally only takes a couple of minutes, then we quickly put the pair in a nearby pen to allow the mother and calf to bond.
All of our heifers have numbered tags in their ears and we put a tag in her calf’s ear with the same number so we can tell who each calf belongs to. We also spray the calf’s umbilical cord with an ointment to protect it from infection and give it a multivitamin. Once again, it is important to give the mother and her new calf undisturbed quiet time together to allow them to bond and encourage the calf to nurse.
After a day or so, heifer/calf pairs are turned out into a separate pasture along with the other heifer pairs. These pairs are checked on multiple times a day to make sure a heifer hasn’t left her calf, that heifers are recovering, and that the calves are continuing to eat and thrive. As each pair has matching ear tags, we make sure every mother is still with her own calf and continuing to care for and bond with it. The first few days are the most important for the calf’s health and development, so it is vital it is getting proper nutrition.
Of course, things often don’t go according to plan. Mothers will refuse to ‘claim’ their calf, won’t have sufficient milk, sometimes she will even try and kill her calf, and, of course, sometimes we may lose a calf. When this occurs, we try and ‘graft’ a calf to a new heifer. We will bottle-feed calves until we can find them a new mom. Sometimes calves are backward or too big, and under those circumstances, we have to take the heifer to the vet for a c-section. Storms often force us to turn entire shops into mother/calf wards. Calves inevitably get sick and cold, which requires extra care and attention, and sometimes even hours in the mudroom of our house getting a warm bottle.
The entire process is exhausting and frustrating, but also incredibly rewarding - and quite honestly, it’s my favorite time of year. We look forward to the sleepless nights and never-ending work to see our next generation grow and thrive. While we count down the days to our next calving season, we prepare the best we can for all the things that can go wrong, pray for good weather, and rest up for the work to come.
We look forward to sharing more calving updates from the ranch with our Bootheel customers throughout the calving season. So - wish us luck and stay tuned!