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From here to maternity

One winter evening, a reporter from Alberta called and wanted to ask me a few questions. The story he was working was a cattle story. It dealt with cattlemen having their calves born only during daylight hours.

“Jeff, in all the Internet research I’ve done on this topic, your name seems to keep coming up,” he said. “I even talked to some producers here in Alberta who do this and they all said they learned about it ‘from a farmer in Iowa.’”

Yes, it’s true. Of all the things a guy could be a worldwide expert on, my expertise happens to be daylight calving.

Here’s the deal. When I was a student at Iowa State University, we talked about calving in a beef production class. The superintendent of the ISU Beef Teaching Herd, Marshall Ruble, said that he gets his cows to calve during the daylight hours by feeding them late in the afternoon. They were more likely to calve when students were around for hands-on learning during the day. Sure, you can get college kids to come to the farm at 2:00 a.m., but they aren’t worth much at that hour! We didn’t really spend a lot of time talking about the concept in class. It was one of those gee-whiz factoids that get tossed out and glossed over easily. Personally, I made a mental note.

In the early spring of 1991, when I was calving a bunch of heifers for my first season out of college, it was convenient for me to feed them in the morning. As the calving season began, it seemed like all the newborns were showing up sometime between 10:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m. Heifers frequently need assistance when they calve, so this middle-of-the-night stuff was getting old in a big hurry. That’s when I remembered the daylight calving theory. I found my class notes and discovered that I needed to change the time of day I was feeding my heifers. I made the switch that day.

It took about 10 days, but after that, all the calves started showing up during the daylight. To prove the theory, I began to write down the time of birth for each newborn. I used the same feeding method for my cows, too, and recorded those birth times as well. Sure enough, the data backed up the theory. Since 1991, I have had more than 99% of my calves born between 5:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. when I feed between 4:00 and 6:00 each afternoon. The ones that fell outside the daylight window usually occurred on days when I provided bedding to the cows in the morning and they chose to eat the bedding instead of lying on it.

Skeptics abound. First on that list was my vet. We talked about the theory one day when we were finished with some chute work in the fall. The doctor was extremely skeptical about calves being born only in the daylight. I told him how I did it, but he still wasn’t convinced. Then I put it in terms he could understand. “Bob, when was the last time you were out here to pull a calf in the dark?”

He got this faraway look in his eyes as he thought about it.

“Well, I guess I don’t remember ever being here in the dark. It’s usually (his eyes began to widen as it sunk in) in the middle of the day.”

I just smiled and resisted the urge to rub it in. Then I reminded him that I don’t even get up at night to check on my cattle during calving season. That really hit home with him.

“You sleep all night? You know, if you calved only during the day, you could actually have a life!”

Yes, Bob, it’s true. I sleep all night long during calving season.

A few years later, I was part of an online e-mail discussion list for the beef industry. Producers and industry people from around the globe discussed a wide variety of topics related to cattle. A young college student from Wisconsin sent in a question about the Konefal Calving Method and wondered if any of us used it. That’s where you feed your pregnant females all their daily allotment in the late afternoon or early evening. If they don’t have it completely cleaned up the next morning, you lock them away from feed until the afternoon. They will calve during the daylight hours as a result.

I replied to the list and described the system I use and the results I’ve had. Next thing you know, I was flooded with questions from all over the place. As a result, there are calves being born during the daylight today across the U.S., Great Britain, South Africa, New Zealand, Tasmania and Morocco. That last one was my favorite. It came about as a result of the Dairy-L discussion list. The following question was sent to the list:

Hello every body;
A high percent of cows calve at night. Is there any means to have most
of them calve during day time?
Abdelilah Araba
Institut Agronomique et Veterinaire Hassan II

I sent Abdelilah a reply detailing my instructions and results. When he replied, he thanked me for my help. Abdelilah is the Moroccan equivalent of an ISU Extension agent. He planned to share his newfound knowledge with his Moroccan producers. So, I guess this means that all those newborn Moroccan calves will now be hitting the dunes in the daylight hours!

In the future, I’d like to refine the system a bit. Ideally, calves should be born between 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. Oh, and not on Wednesday, either. I’m busy with hay adventures in Fort Atkinson on Wednesdays!
Dr. Science

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