Keeping an Older Cow

Keep ol’ Bessy around a while longer with this expert advice on caring for aging cattle.

| May/June 2018

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    Keeping an older cow can be an easy endeavor.
    Photo by GettyImages/tbradford
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    Keeping cow companions helps keep them happier.
    Photo by AKM Images/Tambako the Jaguar
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    Quality feed is important for your aging cow.
    Photo by Getty Images/CaseyHillPhoto
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    Breeding Bessy to a smaller bull will help her throw smaller calves.
    Photo by Getty Images/emholk
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    Be sure your old cow has access to nutritious forage in the warm months.
    Photo by Ottmar Bierwagen
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    Monitor your cows' behavior on a daily basis to pick up on any changes.
    Photo by AKM Images/Emmanuel Keller
  • cows
    Keep your cow in good health to keep her around for awhile longer.
    Illustration by Brad Anderson Illustration

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For the homesteader and small-scale ag producer, bringing home a heifer calf to raise for home dairy production and herd building is an excitement second to none. Such possibility! So many opportunities!

Thousands of wholesome, nutritious gallons later, that heifer has morphed into a cow that is regrettably but undoubtedly past her prime. She is fixed in her opinions, sags a bit, has the temperament of a marshmallow — but heaven help you if she steps on your foot, because that thousand-pound marshmallow goes nowhere in a hurry. Nobody is ever ready to let dear old Bessy go, but here's a little secret: You don't have to. Keeping an older cow healthy and productive takes more work than it does to manage her younger sisters or even her calves, but it's entirely possible. Here's what you can expect when you put together your management plan.

Better breeding

The old cow ain't what she used to be. As Bessy gets older, it can be harder and harder to tell when she comes into heat — and sometimes, that's because she isn't coming into heat at all. Even when she has come into heat (yay!) and you've gotten the AI guy out in time (double yay!), she may not "take" the first time. Or the second, or the third.

It will be very helpful for you to start keeping close records of heat dates and breeding. If you've had Bessy bred, get her pregnancy tested as soon as possible. Don't wait until she's far enough along to be palpated. Jump the gun and get blood or milk samples tested as early as 28 days after breeding, because every day counts. If the test is positive, you're out a couple bucks. If it's negative, you've missed only one heat period instead of three or four.

Getting your girl bred on time is critical, because once the days start to shorten, you may not have another chance until spring. Although cows typically cycle all year, an older Bessy may have collected a few age- or health-related problems (including feed inefficiency, but more on that below). In the harder winter months, these problems often mean she'll be far less likely to come into heat, her optimal breeding window within that heat will be shorter, or she may be less likely to take to breeding. The good news? The surplus green grass and balmy weather during the summer equate to better nutrition and less stress, which in turn equates to better breeding efficiency.

Bottom line, keep an eye on Bessy's overall health and activity, and get her bred during the summer months. You'll both be happier.



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