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Animal Health Notebook

Cows and heifers calve better later

HelleM-iStock-Thinkstock Cow with calf
Heifers calve much easier and rebreed easier too if you match their timing to nature's model.
Calving in the natural model gives a high degree of success and removes animals that do not fit.

Calving heifers in a cow/calf model requires some thought and management. Lengthy book chapters have been written on replacement heifer development, sire selection, breeding and calving. Most of the information has a sound basis until we study and find we have strayed from the natural model.

Back at the university we were taught to calve heifers six to eight weeks in front of the cow herd so they will have time to finish growth, develop, breed back and fit into the cow herd. This made sense. The trouble was (and still is) that it did not work.

A large percentage of heifers in that program will not breed back and fit into the cow herd unless run separately and heavily supplemented prior to second-calf pregnancy.

The problems with calving heifers outside the natural model are many. Most are related to the environment and the ecosystem. Newborn calves require fast birthing, vitality, short recumbence, quality first milk, good stability and suck reflex, a safe environment, and some degree of blessing to jump-start the calf into a healthy career. If much of anything goes wrong it can easily be lights out for an entire year or more of efforts.

Heifers that have been developed on well-mineralized diverse forage with a little supplement should be slick and shining like new money eight to 10 weeks after the spring green-up. This is when heifers calve in the natural model, and it works without a lot of hitches.

The heifer moves away from the herd mates and lies down in a clean soft spot and pushes a new life into the world. She cleans the baby up and starts the family process. Within 15 minutes the little one is dry, up, and grabbing hold of a teat full of liquid gold and going around all four faucets. There is energy required and expended. Most of what a baby calf requires for a quality life is dependent on what happens and is consumed in the first 30 to 90 minutes after birth. Most everything is critical. When it works it is a beautiful mix of science and nature.

The natural model provides for a high degree of success and removes the animals that do not fit. We would do well to remember this in entirety.

I have never won many debates but I have had the opportunity to read and listen to about every imaginable calving program on the planet.

Notice that most of us can reconcile and justify almost everything we do or recommend.

In our part of the country a good percentage of the first-calf heifers calve in February, March and April. Truth is that if you are selling bred heifers these girls will be the easiest to market. The problem is that they are too much work with too many problems and not enough profits. Health concerns and breed back are the major culprits. Time of the year, forage quality and soil health are the underlying factors that most of us have overlooked or forgotten.

Referencing the calf, we would do well to remember that there should not be a lot of work or expertise required in raising a bunch of healthy calves. Mid to late diverse spring grass is high quality most any place we go if some management procedures have not interfered with the natural model. Most all of the fescue issues at 499 Ranch were produced by yours truly.

Biodiversity is an ace in the hole to health. The same is true of high-calcium soils. In many locations in Tennessee you can drive a very short distance and be in totally different soils, forages and outcomes. If we are not on limestone-based soils we usually need calcium. If calcium is the major driver to plant health then it is a major driver to calf health. Of all the management techniques that I have seen instituted, the addition of a little calcium (lime) to the soil on a regular basis has yielded the biggest success return on low-calcium soils.

The natural model most usually calved large ruminants on limestone prairies and volcanic lands. They calved several weeks after the green up. The heifers calved behind the cows. Most of the calves jumped up and became healthy. It would do us well to study, learn and mimic the natural model.

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