Farm Progress

On the ranch, January means new life, no sleep

Vigilance is key to healthy baby calves when the cold January winds are blowing.

Walt Davis 1, Editor

January 17, 2018

5 Min Read
STAYING CLOSE: A mama cow sticks close to her hours-old newborn on the McCurry Brothers ranch near Mount Hope, Kan. In spite of being extremely tame, first-time heifers can be unpredictable if they perceive a threat to their calf.

For veteran cattleman Greg McCurry, January is the month he never sleeps.

He’s not actually joking. At McCurry Brothers Angus, one of Kansas’ leading Angus seedstock breeding operations, calving begins early — usually right after Christmas — and extends into the first of February. Even a few minutes can make the difference between a healthy new calf and a newborn with a frozen tail or ears. That means sleeping with one eye open and watching for a struggling mama or a calf in trouble.

The ranch is set up to help. The home barns and corrals are surrounded on three sides by fields of corn stalks where pregnant cows forage from the end of fall harvest until calving time. As calving time approaches, they are brought in close so they can be herded into the corrals close to shelter at night.

As a third-generation McCurry farmer and rancher on the family land near Mount Hope, McCurry says moving into the family operation he shares with four brothers, was a natural move.

“As a kid, I was all about roping and riding, being a cowboy and a winning at rodeo,” he says. “I never gave a lot of thought to anything else.”

QUICK VACCINE: Rancher Greg McCurry tags and vaccinates newborn calves within minutes of birth. That initial action triggers a lifetime of recordkeeping of every health and life event for the calf moving forward.

Today, as the keeper of the books for McCurry Brothers as well as a key player in the ranching and farming operation, he says he’s glad to see the next generation have more opportunity to branch out. Making a good living for a growing family — creating more niches for more family members — is getting harder and harder as bottom lines grow ever tighter.

He says he doesn’t know if eventually one of the fourth generation — or even the fifth — will be stepping into being the “next generation” on the ranch.

“The reality is, you don’t really choose this life,” he says while watching over the babies taking wobbly steps around the corral. “It chooses you and when it does, it doesn’t let go. It just becomes part of who you are.”

He says the current crop of mamas and new babies will move from the corrals out to a frozen bean field when they can forage. They are also fed supplemental protein.

SAFE AND SNUG: With strong winds and temperatures near zero, rancher Greg McCurry chose to move this heifer into shelter to give birth. As a general rule, cows and calves do better in the open pasture, and the pair will moved back out to a frozen bean field to forage as soon as the baby is ready.

“We calve earlier than most commercial operations,” McCurry says. “It’s necessary for us to get our bull calves off a head start. Without that necessity, we’d probably breed for calving more into March or April.”

There can be a disadvantage to later calving, however, in that the weather is generally a lot wetter, and cold rain and mud can be a formidable enemy. Some ranchers breed for fall calving which avoids the cold weather, but that can mean battling flies and dust.

“There’s no perfect time for anything,” McCurry says. “You just do your best to make things work for your operation.”

The danger with winter calving is the threat of severe weather — sleet, snow or sub-zero temperatures. The winter of 2018, as of mid-January, has overall been kind to the newcomers. December was unusually mild, with cool weather forage grasses continuing to flourish — a bonus for expectant cows.

When cold arrived, however, it came with a vengeance: Air temperatures dropped to single digits or below, and wind chills hit double-digits below zero. The cold snap came just in time for the first arrivals of the calf crop of 2018. “We’ve fought the wind,” McCurry says. “But it has been mostly dry and that really helps.”

It helps, at least, with the first hours of the new calves, not necessarily down the road when it becomes necessary to pump water into stock tanks for cattle in the pastures.

“All of our ponds are dry,” McCurry says. “We’re lucky that we have pipes down and we can pump water; we don’t have to haul it.”

Out of more than 70 calves on the ground so far, he says he had only lost two — both premature and born to first-time heifers.

The morning of Jan. 13 found McCurry busy tagging and vaccinating hours-old calves and keeping an eye on heifers who might be going into labor. After a week of deep-freeze cold weather, a couple of days of warming before the next round of cold was in store.

“When the next front moves in, that’s when we’ll see the next wave of babies,” he says.

WHO’S YOUR MAMA: When several first-time heifers and their newborns share a pen, it’s not unusual for calves to get mixed up about which cow belongs to them. Rancher Greg McCurry says it’s common for a cow to allow a newborn to suckle, even if it isn’t hers.

The biggest danger to newborns is freezing off their ears or tails before they can get dried off and up and moving. Protecting them often means getting them into the ranch barn or the office to warm up before returning them to their mothers in the outdoor pens, and later turning them out into the open fields.

Keeping which calf belongs to which mother sorted out is not always easy. McCurry says he tags babies within minutes after birth to make sure he keeps them matched to the right cow. In a small pen with three heifers and newborns, at least one of the calves was nursing off the wrong mama.

“They sort out eventually,” he says. “I try to help them stayed matched up.”

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