Better safe than sorry
April 11, 2014
Baxter Black, among others, has made a living from telling the stories of cow-human interactions, at least the ones that ended well. If you're a cattle producer, you have your own stories about calving cows or heifers who did not appreciate checkups or assistance.
With cattle prices at historic highs, producers have high interest in saving every calf. Regardless of price, many operations individually weigh, tag, and/or vaccinate calves at birth, putting individuals in close proximity to newborn calf and worried mother. The safety of everyone involved should be a primary factor.
"Well I'm not very safe," says Danny Arneson of Red Owl, S.D. Arneson exposes most of his heifer calves every year, keeping fifty to sixty head from the same cycle for replacements and selling the rest in the fall. "I wouldn't say that I select for good disposition, I guess I'd say I cull for bad ones." Arneson tags all the calves. "I guess I carry a sorting stick and I use my judgment, and I've been lucky. If a heifer wants to stay away from me, if she's got a wider flight zone, well that's just fine with me. But if she wants to run over me, if she's really persistent, I'll hit her on the nose and make her stay back. I don't like to hit them, but I won't wait to hit one 'til she runs over me." Danny is quick to point out that it's been years since he's felt like he was in danger from a heifer. "The heifers ain't so bad; they're not as aggressive as some of the cows." While the heifers calve in confinement, the cows calve on range, and Arneson tags out there horseback. "If I can catch him on the ground I'll just step down and do it that way, but if not I'll rope him. Most of the cows just stand back, but there's always one or two I gotta watch. I try to give them a wide berth, and I'll leave a calf untagged if I have to." Asked if he has a helpful mount, he says "well I've got one of each. I've got one that's really good, and one that you really have to hang on to. Sometimes if I'm on the wrong horse, I'll have to go back and get the other one."
"You know, when you're a young guy, you just don't care if they run over you, but you gotta be careful. If I have one that wants to run over me all the time, yeah, that's a strike against her. She's probably going to town. You know, when I can get her in."
"Sure, my wife does night checks," he says. "She don't sleep real good, so she goes out there. I don't want her in a pen with a heifer by herself. She gives them a wide berth, or I hope she does. Of course she goes through the lot with a flashlight, but if there's trouble, she comes and gets me."
Selecting for disposition
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Research has shown that aggressive or flighty animals can decrease revenue on the ranch, so most producers select for disposition, culling animals that display unacceptable aggression. "We use a docility score on all of the heifers, measuring how they come out of the chute when we're working them and how they behave in the pen," says Dr. Steve Paisley, Associate Professor and Wyoming State Beef Extension Specialist at University of Wyoming in Laramie. The University does not keep young females that score too low.
Culling cattle who are too aggressive or flighty and selecting bulls with good dispositions will minimize problems but as the saying goes, motherhood changes everything.
"We don't have anything written down as far as safety," says Paisley. "We have a Beef Management lab where we spend quite a bit of time discussing animal handling and animal behavior, flight zones, angles, and getting an animal to do what you want."
He does offer these tips:
1. Evaluate facilities and equipment ahead of time – Make sure all gates are swinging, and set up correctly if bringing a cow into the barn. Gates should allow for quick escape if needed. Any broken panels or boards need to be repaired ahead of time, working areas need to be well-lit, and calving equipment located, collected and in working order. Often successful assisted births come down to knowing where the right equipment is and that it's working correctly.
2. Be calm and patient – The UW beef department stresses moving and interacting with cattle slowly and deliberately, no rapid, jerky movements. Especially with heifers, since it's their first time experiencing parturition, claiming a calf, nursing, etc. Add to that the pain associated with parturition, and ocytocin release, and often the young mothers are more confused than anything. Patience is important, and a calm approach tends to result in a successful outcome.
In the pen with a pair
UW's research herd has numbered as high as 230 mature cows and 65 replacement heifers, but drought conditions have reduced that number to 180 mature cows and 35 heifers. All of the cows calve in confinement, and each calf is weighed, tagged and given a C&D Toxoid shot as soon as possible after birth.
"There's somebody with them around the clock during calving, and commonly by themselves" says Tyler Gardner, a student herdsman at the University. Gardner is from Star Valley Wyo., where he was involved in several phases of production agriculture, including calving dairy cows. In past years though there have been student herdsman with little or no previous experience calving heifers. Gardner will also help supervise students from a Beef Production class who will have to spend at least one night with the herd.
"Before I get in the pen I try to read that cow. Is she high-headed? Is she standing over the calf? Is she agitated? If I think I'm gonna have trouble, I'll wait 'til I have help or I'll try and get a barrier between me and the cow, a gate, a feedbunk or whatever."
Preparation, lighting, patience and getting help if needed are all common sense ideas, but they need repeating at the beginning of each calving season. You can buy a lot of tags, shots, or even calves for the price of a broken leg, arm, or hip. This year, let's keep ourselves and others out of Baxter Black's stories. F