One of my favorite times of the year is back!! When the green pastures are punctuated with little black specks, curled up cozy at their mama’s feet…or hooves, rather. The time of year when the temperature settles and the breeze wakes up from hibernation. Farmer Man adopts a new schedule, and spends a lot of time on the 4-wheeler, pronounced fo-whil-ah in the Southern Virginian accent, checking the pastures for new calves. In past years, it thrilled me to no end to be his plus one on these treasure hunts. However, last year I was pregnant (is it possible to have shaken baby syndrome before ever leaving the womb?), and this year our little cherub is only 6 months old, so I’m relying on Farmer Man’s pictures for my baby animal fix. I’m grateful for technology, but nothing compares to seeing that fresh-licked fur, and those big, wide eyes, soft, wet nose, and wobbly knees in living color.
When I married a farmer, I had no idea just how much I didn’t know. I was born in Iowa, and spent enough years of my life there to remember corn…EVERYWHERE, combines, pig farms…really the smell of pig farms, and tractors. And that was the extent of my knowledge. Now I can share with you a few things I’ve learned in my ongoing transformation from world traveler and nomad to a got-roots-I’m-going-to-die-here-on-the-farm girl.
We are not dairy farmers (Thank goodness! God didn’t make alarm clocks, and nobody should be waking up at 3am. Can I get an amen?!). We raise Black Angus cows, and we sell them for meat…sorry vegetarians, vegans, pescarians, and other “arians”. You’re welcome, folks who like nothing more than a steak, mashed potatoes, green beans, and corn…Merica. So, the idea here is to have a herd of cows that has calves each year. If a cow is not able to get pregnant, cannot bring a baby to full term, loses a calf at birth, has an unruly temperament, or “ages out of the program”, she gets sold. This really offended my “all cows are created equal” sensibilities at first, but I had to realize that we are talking about animals rather than people and running a business that keeps America fed.
Farmer Man keeps our cows separated into sub-herds by age (i.e. heifers, two year-olds, 3 year-olds, etc.). A note on heifers: No, it’s not just an insult hurled at women; it actually refers to a female cow who has not had her first calf yet. Who knew?! Some farmers keep their bulls and cows together year-round, and, due to this arrangement, have little calves running around throughout the year. Farmer Man does things a little differently, and ensures that all our calves arrive at a set time of year–calving season…otherwise known as “magical baby animal fairyland”.
So, in order for this glorious calving season to arrive, there are a very busy few weeks in December when Farmer Man and his dad work the Artificial Insemination (AI) process twice a day as cows come into heat. It is very tiring, arduous work because it involves getting the cows “up”, which means the cows have to be called or chased into the corral and then lined up for their turn in the head gate. This entails a lot of trudging around in the cold and mud for Farmer Man.
The first year we were married, I assisted with this process on a frigid December day…in an old pair of rain boots…that had a hole in them…and it rained. I was pretty sure my toes had frostbite. My feet got stuck in the mud while I was trying to close a gate so I had to catch myself with my hands, and ended up in mud up to my forearms. It was great that I didn’t face-plant in the poop-mud, but how do you get upright when all 4 of your limbs are securely anchored to the ground in a foot of mud? I’ll let your imagination finish the story.
(Here’s where things start to get a little more graphic.)
Aaaanyways, after the cows have been gotten up, a temporary implant (CIDR) is inserted in each one’s nether regions, that brings them all into heat at once. After they’ve had the implant in for a week, Farmer Man removes them and puts a scratch-off sticker, just like a lottery ticket but much bigger, on each cows rumpus. As the cows come into heat, they start to ride each other, and this is what scratches off the sticker on their rear ends. When we see a bunch of cows running around with their sticker scratched off, we’ll know that they have come into heat and are ready to be bred. They all come into heat within a week of each other. Now breeding (via AI) is ready to commence.
Each morning during this phase of the process, Farmer Man goes into the paddock with a notepad and pen and writes down the number of each cow that has come into heat. This way he knows what cows to breed that afternoon. I can look out the kitchen window and see him stumbling his way across the uneven ground as he tries to reach each cow’s ear tag through the mist in the mornings. After the afternoon breeding, he goes back out to the paddock to write down the cows that have had their sticker scratched off since that morning. That group will be the next group to breed and so on until all the cows have come into heat and have been bred. One afternoon he could have 27 to breed and the next morning there could be 5 to breed; it all depends on when they come into heat.
Once the AI process is done, then he puts bulls on the same pastures as the cows. These are referred to as “clean up bulls”, because they help ensure that all the cows are pregnant since AIing is never 100% successful. If you’re still scratching your head over what artificial insemination is, let’s just say that’s what those plastic gloves that go up to your shoulder are for. For a detailed video explanation of AIing, watch this video. Warning: If you’ve never seen this done before, it might be a little shocking to you. The first time I saw Farmer Man do this, I couldn’t look at him in the eye for the rest of the day!
After these few weeks of getting all the herds pregnant (minus the heifers that are too young), the cow’s job is to eat and grow that baby, and my hubby’s job is to rotate them to a different pasture when they eat the grass down, check their waterers to make sure they stay hydrated, to give them minerals, and to wait. Several months into pregnancy, we get the vet to come out and “preg-check” (check to make sure each cow is pregnant). The ones that are not pregnant get taken to the livestock market to be sold auction style and re-homed. I have not been to one of these auctions, but I want to go just to see it, and I will take video when I go so stand by!
During calving season, Farmer Man basically lives on his fo-wil-ah. He does this for several reasons, including spotting momma cows who are having a hard time calving that he may have to assist. However, the primary purpose is to put numbered ear tags in each calf so that he can keep track of their ages and write down which cow he/she belongs to. Before you report us for animal abuse, consider the fact that 90%+ of human babies born in this country get a vaccine shot or two within minutes of birth. It’s important to know which calf goes with which mama because it tells us things about the mama. For example, if a baby calf is born blind, we know that we need to sell its mama. Also, if a calf is looking too skinny, we need to know who its’ mama is to see if she is allowing him/her to drink milk so that we can fix the problem…or my favorite…bottle feed it!!! This is not Farmer Man’s favorite.
Every calving season a few sets of twins are born. One of the most interesting farm facts I’ve learned since meeting my farmer is that oftentimes when a cow has twins, she ends up rejecting one of the twins. The mama has a finite amount of milk and rather than trying to support two babies, she usually picks the stronger of the calves to keep and rejects the smaller one. What do I mean by “rejects”? Answer: She will not allow the rejected calf to drink milk from her. It almost broke my heart the first time I witnessed this, because the calf will approach its mama cow for milk, but she will walk away, push it away with her head and even kick the calf to keep it from drinking. This is when every young child (and probably most grown women’s) dream of bottle feeding comes in! We have had a couple calves to bottle feed since I married my farmer 3 years ago. You can see videos of our previous “porch pets”, bottle feeding, and other fun farm stuff on my YouTube channel here.
This year our first calf, affectionately called #1, was born on September 1st, and we expect calving season to last until early December. As of right now, we have 124 calves on the ground (just in the past 25 days!), and we’re expecting roughly 145 more.
So here’s to pumpkin spice everything, wreaths, sweaters and boots galore, coziness, chili cook offs, and the baby animal paradise that is fall on the farm. Happy fall, y’all!
What questions do you have about calving season?