Wednesday evening cow number 976 had a calf. It was a heifer. The calf was pretty small, which is generally a good thing because its easier on the cow. But … Continue reading It’s a Heifer! And a Bull?
This spring I wrote about a not-so-new technology we were going to try for the first time: sexed semen. We bought 10 units of sexed Chase from ABS. We knew the conception rate was reduced by the process they use to alter the semen, but we were still a little disappointed with our results. To date, we have used 6 of the 10 straws and only achieved one pregnancy. With conventional semen we average about 60% conception, so this is big drop.
The semen wasn’t the only problem, though. Every once in a while we will have a few weeks or a month where conception rates are low. Unfortunately we used several straws of Chase during one of these times. We never determined if it was something in our ration, the stage of the moon or the weather, but for about a month in late winter/early spring we didn’t get much bred.
We did, however, get one pregnancy. In fact, it was one of only two pregnancies achieved during that month. Even better, the pregnant heifer was Snowball: one of our favorites, sired by Aftershock. Snowball’s due date was December 21st. Thankfully the world didn’t end, but on December 22nd as we packed our bags to visit my family in Illinois before Christmas, Snowball stood around chewing her cud and showing no interest in calving.
The next morning while we enjoyed our coffee in Illinois, David and I were mentioned in a tweet (from one of our employees) that contained a picture of a pretty little heifer calf. Sexed semen offers a 90% chance at a heifer, so with only one pregnancy, a bull would have been pretty poor luck. This year, though, it seems like we’ve had plenty of that! We were relieved to come home to a nice fresh cow and baby heifer calf, who is the spitting image of her mama. This little gal is special, so she probably needs a name. Suggestions are welcome in the comments!
While we were very frustrated with our initial conception results, we still have two straws to use and plan on purchasing some more sexed semen from a different bull or two. Ten units of one bull doesn’t seem like a fair test of a technology that many farmers have been using for years. In the meantime, we’re glad our first try resulted in at least one success story.
Saturday morning the Pleasant Ridge FFA dairy judging team visited the farm for a practice before their first competition. Aaron, one of our milkers, is on the team. He and our other milker, Tyler, selected four classes of cows and calves for the team to judge.
FFA stands for Future Farmers of America. The organization teaches high school students about agriculture through judging and showing competitions. Of the kids who visited our farm, some had a livestock background, but many did not, and I don’t think any had a dairy background. In high school David was very involved in FFA, and his coach Mr. Silvers is still leading the program at PR.
I don’t know the specific rules of dairy judging, but I’ll share what I do know. At the competition, the students will look at some number of classes that each include four animals of similar age. Each animal is marked 1, 2, 3, or 4 for identification purposes. They judge and place these animals based on their body structure. For some of the classes at the competition, the students will have to give reasons explaining their placements. Mr. Silvers has been teaching them about good and bad qualities to look for, mostly using slides. Seeing real animals before competition is where we fit in.
For practice, we started with a class of calves just under a year old. The team had several minutes to inspect the calves before placing them. After they were finished, Mr. Silvers “talked” the class presenting his placing and reasons. It was interesting that the calf he placed last is the one we expect to make the best cow, but we have the advantage of knowing her genetics and that she was the youngest in the class (and also the smallest). He explained to the kids that judging calves can be difficult and that often a young class will place very differently after the animals have matured. For those interested, a Trigger calf was first, and a Planet calf was fourth.
The second class was breeding age heifers 1 to 2 years old. In this class, three were sired by Sholten and displayed similar qualities making it a pretty difficult class. The process was basically the same as the first class. Mr. Silvers suggested that the students look from 20′ in addition to 5′ because different things might stand out. The only non-Sholten, an Aftershock, took second. She was the oldest in the class and isn’t bred yet despite several attempts, but she does look good. The first place Sholten heifer was confirmed bred to Boliver last month.
The third class was 3-year-old cows. This class was easiest to place from the view shown below. If you’d like to give it a try, place the class in the comments section. Do keep in mind this was only a couple of hours after milking. First place was sired by Pippen and is one of the best looking fresh heifers we’ve had. The fourth cow cracked David’s ribs while he was breeding her and didn’t stick. She’s destined for a trailer ride when her production drops.
The fourth and final class was aged cows. For this class, Mr. Silvers asked the kids to place them and take good notes. He didn’t talk the class so he could have the kids give their reasons in class on Monday. We had a little excitement when one of the aged cows decided to try to jump the gate. She got hung up, but we got her over and she seems perfectly fine. The top rail of the gate didn’t fare as well.
The boys threw in a little bit of a curve ball for this class: a very nice 3-quartered cow. She probably would have been #2 in the class otherwise, but with one dry quarter, she automatically falls to fourth. This cow milks better than many four-quartered cows, but that doesn’t matter in livestock competitions. Some of the students noticed, and others learned a valuable lesson.
We really enjoyed having the students visit the farm. We were able to answer some general dairy questions, and they got to see real milk cows before their first competition. Placing classes isn’t an approach we often take to evaluating our animals, and it was actually really interesting to see how they stacked up. Looking at their eartag numbers on paper, I would have placed the classes very differently than I did looking at the animals isolated side-by-side.
Thanks to the team for coming out, and good luck at the district competition!
It’s been a long, hot summer. We haven’t had much rain, and we haven’t had many calves.
We also hadn’t seen my family for a little too long. My parents came to visit in May, but we haven’t been to Illinois since Christmas. Unfortunately, we still can’t make it to Illinois, but my parents brought my grandma to visit for the holiday weekend. We had a great time and hopefully they did, too, even if the farm kept David and I pretty busy.
Monday really was just the beginning of the fresh cows. We had five more by Friday. Then it got busy: three Saturday, three more Sunday, one Monday and two Tuesday. Of all those calves, 6 were heifers and 9 were bulls, but most importantly we have 15 fresh cows that we’ll be able to introduce into the milk herd over the next few days.
As if baby calves aren’t exciting enough…In the last two weeks, we’ve had over 3″ of rain! That’s a lot for two weeks, especially in a drought. David and I spent much of Sunday morning walking through a pasture and hay field looking for a cow that needed to come home to have her calf (she had it Monday). We found her, but you wouldn’t believe what else we found: GREEN GRASS!! There is actually quite a bit of grass growing in the pastures, and the lawn needs mowed. Tuesday morning, after almost an inch of rain overnight, there were even puddles in dry ponds.
The rain really couldn’t have come at a better time, either. Well, at least not better than much earlier this summer might have been. The moisture should help our soybeans fill in their pods, and last week we planted oats and rye in between rains. We plan to harvest the oats this fall and the rye next spring; both will be used for feed. Hopefully, the rain was just what they needed to get started growing.
Thank you to my family for coming to visit. It was an exciting weekend catching up on the things we’ve been lacking this summer. September is off to a great start!
Those familiar with beef herds are used to hearing about calving seasons, but many dairies, including ours, prefer to keep a consistent number of cows milking and try to calve year-round. A very hot end to summer 2011 meant not very many cows got bred, though, so this spring we actually went two months without a calf. Also, we do limit calving in the worst heat of July or August because calving in the heat is hard on both the cows and calves. It has been a little interesting watching our numbers swing as we continued to dry off cows without adding back equivalent numbers of fresh cows. At the moment, we’re milking fewer than 70 cows, but all that is about to change.
Monday morning number 476, Willow (a Kuckelcow), had a heifer calf out of the bull Shamrock. She was due to calve on September 8th . Calving early is very common, and there is no cause for concern. It wouldn’t really even have been a surprise except there are 7 other cows or heifers actually due before September 8th. In addition to those 8, there are 13 more animals due in September. In fact, the craziness doesn’t stop this month – we expect 17 calves in October and 13 calves in November – that’s 51 total fresh cows in three months. For a herd our size, that’s a bunch.
I explained dry-off a few weeks ago, but what happens when a cow or heifer has her calf (or “freshens”)? After the cow has cleaned off her calf, we take the calf to keep it safe and healthy. After the next milking shift, we milk the cow separately to collect it’s colostrum. Colostrum is thicker than milk and contains a lot of good stuff meant specifically for her calf. We feed the calf it’s mother’s colostrum for it’s first two feedings. Because the cows are treated before dry-off we milk them 6 times before testing their milk for antibiotics. If the test clears, we “turn them out” with the rest of the milk herd. If for some reason the milk tests positive for antibiotics, we would continue to dump her milk until the antibiotic cleared. I don’t recall this ever being an issue with a fresh cow, but we never return a cow to the herd without testing her.
Heifers are a little bit different. Our heifers, now 1st lactation cows, are not treated prior to calving, so we only milk them 4 times before turning them out with the rest of the herd. We do this to make sure they’ve stopped giving colostrum and started giving milk and to help them adjust to milking. It’s a big change, and keeping them separate enables us to give extra attention to keeping them calm and comfortable as they adjust to their new daily routine.
As we ease into fall, we’re looking forward to fresh faces in the calf huts and fresh udders in the milk barn.
Everyone knows we’re in a drought. It seems like it’s all you hear about, especially if you know any farmers. Everyone also knows that a drought means its dry. Maybe you’ve heard that we’re 10″ behind average precipitation, but maybe you don’t know why it matters for us and our dairy.
Last Sunday we moved some heifers home from a nearby pasture that we rent. The pasture has two water sources – a creek and a pond. The creek has been dry for months (usually is in the summer), and the pond had been dwindling. That Sunday, it was gone. It was 105 degrees, and the calves had no water. There wasn’t much green left for them to eat anyway, so now they’re at the dairy where the cows and calves have access to the same water we drink.
A couple of weeks ago we repaired fence around the “Junkyard Pasture” because “Below Bud’s”, which I would call our primary pasture, was pretty bare. Thankfully the two pastures connect because the Junkyard Pasture also currently has no water, but Below Bud’s has a frost free water. The dry cows and bred heifers can graze the Junkyard Pasture and can come up to Below Bud’s for water. It’s not ideal, but it’s working okay, and so far the fence has effectively kept them in the pasture rather than the corn field.
I rambled on about our corn silage situation last week. We feel fortunate that most of our corn did put some grain on and overall has been better than we expected. Some of the corn (planted the middle of May) laid in the ground a full month until we got a rain and came up around June 15th. That corn is very short and just tasseled this week, so it’s fate is yet-to-be-determined.
David finished chopping corn silage (until the yet-to-be-determined corn is ready) Monday, and the bigger of our two pit silos was full. It took about 40% more acreage to fill the silo than in an average year due to reduced plant size and yields.
I discussed our soybeans’ need for rain in June. Thanks to a timely rain, they came up. However, we haven’t had much moisture since, so they fall under the “yet to be determined” category also. They’re not very tall, but are alive and starting to bloom.
We also raised brome hay that we mowed and baled earlier this summer. Many of our neighbors reported about half as many bales per acre compared with a typical year. Our yield was closer to 75% of average, but it was definitely a noticeable difference.
In addtition to not being able to raise as much feed, prices for the feed we will need to buy are much higher than usual due to the drought. Both corn and soybean prices are approximately 33% higher than last year’s prices, which we considered high at the time. We will likely need to buy some corn because we chopped all that we grew, and our commodity blend typically contains soybean meal. Hay is hard to even find for sale locally, and we’ve been hearing of prices more than double those of an average year.
The drought also affects the quality of feed. There have been many reports of corn crops containing aflatoxin, which could be passed to the milk if we fed corn containing it to the cows. There’s also a risk of our corn silage containing nitrates, which can be deadly to cows. Under drought conditions corn stalks can contain nitrates. If you shell the corn, it doesn’t matter, but when you chop it, it could. We will test our silage before we feed it for this reason.
All of these things indirectly affect our cattle, but the cows are directly affected by the drought’s partner in crime – extreme heat. Our facilities aren’t great for keeping cows cool (yet), and the cows don’t like the heat at all. It affects their appetite, production, and reproduction. Yes, it’s summer in KS, and we do expect it to get hot. However, we had a record number of days over 100 degrees in the month of July, and we started having 100 degree days in June.
As we head into August, we don’t expect the heat to subside. It would help if it were less consistent, though. More than the high high temperatures, the high low temperatures have hurt the cattle. When it doesn’t get below 80 degrees at night, they have more trouble cooling off from the day’s heat. Monday morning it was in the sixties, and I imagine the cows enjoyed it as much as I did.
So Now What?
The drought has been a major challenge, and it’s not over. This something we never could have expected to face in our first year operating the dairy, but it’s also not a new problem. This New York Times graphic shows how drought is and has historically affected our country. Like many generations of farmers before us, we will do the best we can with the hand we’re dealt. Over the next several months, we will manage our resources carefully and hope for much needed improvements in economic and environmental conditions.
Based on the title, I’m sure you’re expecting a post about the drought we’re currently experiencing. We could use some rain, bad, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.
During the afternoon milking on Saturday we dried off 14 cows of the 90 we milked that night. That’s over 15%. While that is a high percentage of cows, it’s not nearly the same percentage of milk. We also should have some cows coming fresh over the next couple of months to offset those we dried up.
Before I go too far, I should probably explain what dry-off means. I’ll start from the beginning. A dairy cow must have a calf before she can produce milk. After she calves, she will produce for several months without having another calf, but it’s important to get her “bred back” (pregnant) quickly because she won’t keep producing forever. The milking period after a calf is born is called a lactation (the first lactation occurs after she has her first calf, and so on).
The exact possible length of a lactation varies depending on the cow and several other variables. If we get a cow bred back quickly she will generally still be producing well, but at approximately 60 days before she’s due, we dry her off. If the cow has had a long lactation we will sometimes dry her off early because her production will drop on its own. DHIA testing has helped us better determine this.
Because of long lactations and also the effects of the summer heat, a few of the cows dried off this time were done early due to low production. All were within 90 days to calving though. There are exceptions to every rule, but in general it’s best for a cow to not be dry too long because the transition back to milking may be more difficult. It’s important for the cow to have a dry period so her energy can go toward her calf and regenerating her udder for continued production.
Drying a cow off involves giving her a couple of shots and injecting a dry-cow treatment into each quarter of her udder. The shots are vaccines that help keep both her and her calf healthy, and the treatments help prevent mastitis for her upcoming lactation.
After dry treating the cows we mark them as dry and haul them to a pasture where they’ll graze until they’re about 3 weeks from calving. At that point they’re moved to a maternity pasture where we can keep an eye on them and transition them back to the milk herd’s ration.
Probably the most exciting part of this particular dry-off was using our new (to us) truck and trailer to haul cattle for the first time!
This post is a little overdue since we made our debut in January, but better late than never, right? For those of you who may not already know us, you can read a little bit about who we are on the About Us page.
We are Jennifer and David Heim, and we operate a conventional dairy farm in Northeast Kansas (near Kansas City). Today, we milked 91 Holstein cows. The exact number of cows being milked varies somewhat frequently depending on dry-offs, freshening (calving), and other factors. We also keep all of our heifer (female) calves and raise them as replacements, and we raise crops, most of which are used as feed for our cows and calves.
I mentioned that we kicked things off in January, but I should note that cows have been milked here for a long time. David’s grandfather, Harold, bought this farm in 1941 and started milking cows not too long after. More recently the farm was owned and operated by David’s father and uncle, but his uncle had been looking to get out of the dairy, and as of January 1st David and I took over the business officially.
Our dairy isn’t new, most of the buildings are old and in need of repairs. The barn at the top of the page is the “White Barn”, built in 1912. Our herd isn’t the latest and greatest in genetics, but we recently bred our first second-generation AI (artificial insemination) heifer. Our house was started in 1883, and added onto several times. It needs as much work as anything, and probably one more addition. That’s what this blog is about. Over the coming months and next several years, we are going to work on all of the above and share our story here. We’re excited for the challenges that lay ahead, and can’t wait to start seeing our hard work pay off.