Build a Better Herd
From selecting a bull to weaning calves, learn how to grow your cattle herd from the ground up.
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On a mid-February afternoon – sunny and chilly, with a slight breeze rustling through the tall bluestem grass – Kansas rancher Kordell Krispense’s pasture has become a nursery to the many tiny black calves scattered across the land. He’d been there earlier that day, but Kordell finds that there’s already been a handful of newborn calves added to the herd. Some are fresh enough to still be lying down in the tall grass, while others are standing upright on wobbly legs, looking for their next meal.
As the shrill call of the cattle siren dies away, cows eagerly make their way toward Kordell’s truck. He opens bags of range cubes, and the slightly sweet aroma fills the air. The cubes provide extra protein in lieu of the dying grass. After spreading the cubes in a long line, Kordell counts to see if the cows are all present. Typically, if a cow is missing from the herd, she’s gone away to have a calf. When his count comes up short by one, he begins to scour the pasture for the missing cow.
He finds the new mama nestled in a cluster of bluestem grass toward the far edge of the pasture. Cautiously edging closer, he sees a small black head appear from behind the grass. With an ear-tagger in one hand and an already-marked tag in the other, he reaches the calf just in time to clip the tag into its ear before the mama starts nosing toward him.
Bull Selection and Breeding
A fourth-generation Kansas farmer and rancher (and my brother-in-law), Kordell began his own cow herd with just two Black Angus cows – Sally Mae and Viola – and a rented bull. His love for animals, especially calves, is what started his herd almost a decade ago. Today, calving season holds much excitement on our family’s ranch, with the prospect of new life and growth for the herd.
For starting your own herd, Kordell offers the following advice: “Don’t spend yourself poor.” Of course, quality cattle and genetics are desirable, but in the beginning, many folks won’t have the money for an expensive bull and cows. To start, quality heifers with good genetics should be your top priority. Visit with local ranchers or cattle buyers to learn where to find the best breeding heifers in your area.
Image by Ashleigh Krispense
When you’re deciding how many cows to start with, and how big you eventually want your herd to be, first calculate how many cattle you can responsibly fit on your pasture. Many factors should influence this decision, including the quality and type of your forage, whether you’ll use rotational or continuous grazing, the length of your grazing period, and even the breed of cattle. Ask local ranchers to get an idea of what can typically be expected in your location. Additionally, visit the “Grazing and Pasture Management for Cattle” page at the University of Minnesota Extension website to learn more. Around our area in central Kansas, about 6 acres of grassland is typically needed to sustain one cow.
As summer wanes and fall draws closer, Kordell supplements the dying grass with range cubes.
Once you’ve located cows, turn your attention to finding a good bull. If your herd is new or small in size, consider renting a bull to save money. You’ll want to inspect the animal closely before agreeing to buy or rent him. Kordell stresses the importance of looking for body confirmation and good feet. A bull with bad feet will pass that trait on to his offspring, which can lead to lameness later in life. A solid, wide foot is most desirable. When you find a bull you’re interested in, research and learn about his maternal traits (what he’ll pass on to female offspring), his carcass traits (marbling, rib-eye area, etc.), and his birth weight.
Birth weight will be especially important to note on each bull, because it’ll help you determine if he can be bred to heifers (unbred females) or cows (females that have had at least one calf). Heifers shouldn’t be bred to a bull with a high birth weight, because their birthing canals haven’t been stretched yet, making for harder, and potentially dangerous, deliveries. When picking a bull for breeding heifers, Kordell tries to find one that will produce calves that weigh 75 pounds or less. His cows are typically able to safely birth calves up to 100 pounds.
Generally, a bull is able to start “servicing,” or breeding, cows when he’s 12 months old. Common practice is to give a bull one cow to service per month of age, up to 2 years old. For example, an 18-month-old bull could service 18 cows. Kordell keeps about 25 cows per bull. He believes it pushes the bull just enough that he’s not lazy, but not so much that he leaves cows “open,” or unbred.
A cow’s estrous cycle averages 21 days, so 60 days is considered enough time for a bull to service cows through at least two full cycles, with some cows cycling three times. If a cow has been with a bull through two or three cycles and still isn’t bred, remove her from the herd. Don’t keep a cow that’s not serving a purpose just so you can try her again next year.
Generally, you should be able to count on 90 to 95 percent of your cows being bred, as long as the bull isn’t overstocked. If, at the end of the season, 30 percent or more of your cows are open, the bull likely has an issue. If you find that your bull is unable to breed, it could be because of infertility, lameness, or injury.
The time of year you want calving season to happen will determine when you turn a bull out with your cows for breeding. Cattle have a gestation period of about nine months – differing by a number of days, depending on breed. Since Kordell plans for calves to be born in early spring, he starts breeding his heifers in April and his cows in May. He times it this way so he has more time to focus on the first-time births of his heifers before the cows are due.
Calving seasons vary, but late winter into early spring is the most common. Heat is much harder for cattle to deal with than cold is, and flies can be a big problem during summer. They can attack the umbilical cord of a new calf and infect it or cover a calf as they suck energy and blood, resulting in death. Calving during autumn can also have its dangers, because the days can be hot and the nights cold and damp, which can cause pneumonia. Consider your climate and other factors unique to your cattle setup, such as your own schedule, to determine the best time to breed your cows and heifers.
Image by AdobeStock/Gary
Odds are you won’t need to intervene much during calving, but it’s always best to be prepared, so begin gathering supplies a couple of months before calving season is scheduled to start. Set up a head gate inside a pen, and make sure you have a calf puller and chains or straps at the ready. You’ll also want elbow-length exam gloves; a nose hold; a disinfectant, such as Betadine; lubrication; syringes; and ear tags and a tagger. It’s also a good idea to have some bagged colostrum, which can be frozen.
During calving season, Kordell checks his herd multiple times a day. If one is missing, she’s often off having her calf. She might be found wandering aimlessly, like she’s uncomfortable. Once she’s settled in a spot, a cow should have her calf within the first hour, unlike heifers, which can dawdle around, unsure of what to do.
Total labor and delivery times vary, especially for first-time heifers, but a normal calving should proceed at a regular, smooth pace. If a cow appears to be struggling, intervention may be necessary. The most common complications in calving are a calf that’s too large to pass easily through the birth canal or a calf that’s in the wrong position. Both of these can be checked with the assistance of an exam glove and lubrication. Keep your vet’s phone number handy at all times, and call if a cow is showing signs of trouble. Even if your vet can’t make it out right away, they’ll be able to walk you through what you can do to help. (For a detailed breakdown of the labor stages and how to intervene if necessary, read “Calving Cows with Confidence.“)
Once a calf is born, the cow should clean off its nose and body quickly and get the calf standing. The calf should be nursing within 10 to 15 minutes of standing. The nutrients from that first bit of colostrum are imperative to a calf’s well-being. A newborn that doesn’t get enough colostrum is at increased risk for illness.
Image by Shutterstock/Beatrice Foord-St-Laurent
If you’ve planned your calving to happen during cold weather, you’ll need to keep an eye out for calves at risk of getting too cold, either from extreme weather or a neglectful mother. A cow should be given every chance to take care of her calf, but if she hasn’t done so within 20 minutes, you’ll likely need to step in and take over, especially if the cow isn’t showing interest. Even if the mother is attentive, extreme cold can still be too much for a newborn. One of the best ways to help prevent cold-weather issues during calving is to make sure your cows have access to areas with windbreaks and clean, dry bedding.
If you find a calf and are unsure if it needs help, stick your fingers in its mouth and feel for warmth. If the mouth feels cool, even slightly, you’ll need to quickly warm up the calf. It’s also a good idea to check with a rectal thermometer. A newborn calf’s body temperature shouldn’t drop below 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
One benefit of having a dedicated work truck is that you can put a fresh calf on the floorboard and turn up the heat without worrying about messing up a nice interior. If it’s extremely cold out – single digits or below – take the calf home and put it in a location where you can adjust the temperature to between 70 and 80 degrees. Some ranchers put calves in a bathtub with warm water. If you do this, make sure the water isn’t too hot so you don’t cause shock to the calf’s body.
In addition to moving a calf to a warm location, you’ll also need to provide it with warm colostrum. Heat the water for the colostrum to 104 degrees. A cold calf can have a hard time sucking on a bottle, so keep a drench bag with a short hose handy.
If you get to a cold calf in time and warm it up quickly, it’ll likely be fine. Keep an eye out for signs of frostbite, which can happen in the extremities, including the ears, tail, and feet. Frostbitten ears and tails rarely cause fatal damage, but calves with frostbitten feet often have to be euthanized.
If you’ve timed your calving for warmer weather, make sure there are plenty of shady locations available. Heat can be dangerous for both the laboring cow and the newborn calf. Additionally, keep a close eye out for flies on newborn calves. A newborn calf will need to be cleaned off quickly to minimize fly attacks, which can be fatal. Fly spray can be applied if the threat is extreme.
If you tag your cattle, keep your tagger and tags handy throughout calving season. Kordell prefers to tag calves as soon as possible after birth. The longer a calf goes without a tag, the harder they can be to catch. This also helps keep records accurate, as there’s no confusion about which cow the calf was born to.
Weaning and Record-Keeping
Image by AdobeStock/eric
Although cows will naturally wean their calves eventually, most ranchers choose to do so beforehand so the cows have a rest period before their next calves are born. The average age to wean calves is 6 to 8 months, but several factors should determine when it’s right for your herd. Around mid-August, Kordell begins looking at the condition of the grass in the pasture the cows are on, the body condition of the cows, and the weight of the calves. Once the calves reach 500 to 600 pounds, he pulls them off the cows to lighten the load for both the cows and the grass.
Weaning methods vary, but separating calves and cows with a fence is common. Another option is to move calves into dry lots. If you do this, make sure to avoid water holes in the pen. Even if they have a tank with fresh water, calves will still choose to drink out of muddy water holes.
By the time the calves are weaned off, the cows will be bred again, and you’ll be starting the cycle all over – gearing up for another successful calving season. Maintaining thorough records of all your cattle will help this cycle flow smoothly. Keep track of any information that can be helpful to you, including tag numbers, vaccination records, wormer schedules, health histories, numbers of offspring, pasture rotations, breeding schedules, and more. If you encounter a problem or health issue during the year, make note of it; it’ll help you know what to avoid the following year. A large binder works great for this. Kordell also keeps a small book in his pocket at all times during calving season. Whenever a new calf is born, it’s noted in the book.
A Rewarding Life
If you were to drive up the rock road leading to the north pasture on our family ranch and stop at the wide, welded gate on the east side, you’d probably find Kordell checking his cows. They come running as soon as they hear the cattle siren and the rustle of feed sacks. Soon, there will be wobbly babies hanging behind their mamas and a warm truck and helping hands ready to step in if needed. It’s a unique way of life, when your occupation is the thing you love. Ranching is in the blood, and the love and feeling of responsibility for the land and animals we’re surrounded by every day makes for a wonderful, rewarding life.
Ashleigh Krispense is a farmer’s wife and freelance writer from central Kansas, where she lives with her husband, Kolton, and their menagerie of critters. You can follow along with her recipes and ramblings on her website, Prairie Gal Cookin‘.
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