The Efficiency of Grazing Cattle

Working on time management skills? You might just learn a thing or two from a cow. In the 1940's Cornell University studied cattle to see how they spent their time each day.  Andre' Voisin's book, Grass Productivity  has the detailed study on the efficiency of grazing cattle.

The university studied cow-calf pairs on pasture. Observers learned that cattle graze for a little less than eight hours per day. No over-time for bovine. They never exceed eight hours of grazing time.

Spend time Wisely

The cattle spent about seven hour per day ruminating (chewing their cud). The time differed slightly depending on the fiber content of the forage. Some ruminating is done lying down and part standing up.

Cattle lie down for slightly less than twelve hours per day. Cows divided these 12 hours into nine rest periods of varying length.

The cattle in the study didn't deviate in their daily routine. When they replicated the study in other countries the cattle showed the same results. In areas with hotter daytime temperatures the cattle spent no more than eight hours grazing, but they did it at night. The slight variances  by breed or heredity weren't much different, they didn't change the study's results.

Quality is Everything

Here's where the efficiency of grazing cattle matters.; If cattle spend eight hours grazing each day quality is everything. If they're grazing poor pastures without nutrient dense forage they're basically spending eight hours eating junk food. Eight hours of quality forage, either pasture or hay, boost the cattle’s health. Feeding quality produces quality results.And how they're grazing matters, too. MIG grazing improves soil quality and prevents erosion.

If you're spending eight hours at something be sure to get the greatest return from those hours. Junk in - junk out. Quality counts. With organic production It's about quality not quantity.

The Efficiency of Grazing Cattle

 

 

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Walking of the Bulls

Forget running with the bulls. A slow ambling stroll through the pasture, to reunite the bulls with the cow herd, is relaxing. They grazed their way through the valley, when they got closer they picked up the pace a little, but they were still moving slowly. There's no sense running the bulls, they have a job to do, they need to conserve their energy. The younger bull will service the heifers, the older one the cows. Given today's date calving should start around May 1, 2015.

Red Angus Bull Foresthillfarm.comBulls

Typically, the bulls get turned out with the cows on the 4th of July. For the bulls, it's celebration day.  This year we're thinking of holding them back for a couple extra weeks to make sure we calve when the grass is growing again. Last winter was too harsh. Spring came so late that some calves were born with snow covering the ground.   We'll have two angry bulls, but the cows will appreciate calving later in the spring when the grass is abundant.

Red Angus Bull Foresthillfarm.com
Noooooo!

 The younger bull will run with the heifers, the older one with the cows. Using this gestation table for cattle breeding we can schedule delivery with the forage cycle of our pasture.  If the bulls service date is July 4, then the calving date is April 12. Heifers sometimes deliver up to ten days early, cows up to ten days late. Our target date for 2015 is May 1. The bulls will have to wait until July 23, Sorry, bulls!

Our boys have been raised with certain expectations. They haven't always willingly followed the rules or program, we've laid out for them, but the consequences have been made clear. Sometimes there's a painful shock to them when they realize they're off track. At one time, one of our son's was cutting corners and not living up to his obligations. He was twelve at the time and earned money helping around the farm. He also had his own farm related side business and was earning a nice income from it. Despite clear guidelines he decided to slack off, thinking we wouldn't notice. We noticed. He was given one warning, didn't heed it, and was fired. Eventually he earned our trust and was re-hired and there hasn't been an issue since. Last week we were asked if we'd take a thirteen year old into our home for the summer to teach him responsibility. I'm not sure I know how to teach responsibility to a teenager. We didn't teach our boys, they learned by example. They've worked side by side with us for seventeen years and twenty years, respectively. They've been given responsibility. When they accomplished the small tasks they were given larger ones. The rewards started small and grew larger, as well. Truth be told, we never believed we were raising four year old boys, fourteen year old boys, or even eighteen year old boys, we were raising men. That was our goal, so that's  how we treated them; like men. Being given instruction, responsibility, and compensation they've gained independence. They're capable of helping friends and neighbors without any concern that they're unprepared for the job. They can earn their own money, set their own goals, and accomplish great things, not because we've taught them, but because we've worked with them. This particular thirteen year old is welcome at the farm. We're willing to work with him, too, but at some time he's going to go back home. If at home there isn't an expectation of responsibility, then the time spent here will have been for nothing. He just won't get it. He'll forever  be an adolescent with no direction and when he's out on his own he'll be in for a shock, a painful jolt of reality. He just won't get it.

“A brat is a child that acts like yours – but belongs to your neighbor.”

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The cows are trained to respect the electric fence. The sheep are respectful of it, too. Every now and again we raise a few bottle lambs who aren't loyal to the flock of sheep, instead they bond with the goats who are independent and refuse to follow the grazing plan we've laid out for them. They scoot over, under and through the fence, going wherever they want. They aren't protected by the herd, which makes them vulnerable to predators, so they're kept in a separate pasture and rotated on a more limited basis. The cows get it. The sheep get it. The goats don't, and they never will. I'm talking about our MIG grazing program.

Every now and again we'll have other farmer's cows here for breeding to our bulls. There's always a learning curve with the visiting cows, especially if they have calves at their side. These calves aren't trained to the electric fence and run through before they realize there's a consequence waiting for them; a painful shock. The guest cows follow the herd, learning to wait patiently at the electric fence's gate handle for one of us to move it aside so they can advance into the next paddock. They're moved daily, which makes learning the routine a quick process.

 

Every summer the same few cows return for breeding. As soon as they step out of the trailer they remember the grazing system and follow the herd. They don't challenge the system, they get it, they just get it.

Attitudes are contagious. Is yours worth catching?

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This morning there was a cow off by herself. She wasn't far from the herd, just distant enough to be on her own. She's been on the watch list. Every morning Keith checks the list of cows with their potential calving dates. This morning he said, "Number 105 should have her calf today." 

Our cattle are fed in the evening which means they'll calve during daylight hours.

From a distance we kept an eye on her. After she had her new calf they were moved into the barn where they'll stay for a few days. Then she'll move into a small pasture with the other cows and their calves. They'll have access to the shed, which is bedded down and dry. With luck the pastures will be ready for grazing by mid-April. It's been a long winter.

Life on a farm isn't all sunshine and roses. Sometimes it's tough, but not often, only occasionally. This week we had a heifer who laid on her calf and smothered it. Because she's a heifer with years of healthy calving ahead of her and concern that she'd get mastitis, limiting her milk production or udder health in the future, we decided grafting a calf  was a good option. A neighbor who dairies had a newborn bull calf the same age as the one we'd lost.  Keith cut the hide from the lost calf and tied it onto the new calf.  A cow initially identifies their calf by smell, maintaining the scent of the lost calf greatly aides in the grafting process. The heifer was haltered and tied until the bull calf nursed. This was repeated several times each day for several days. In about one week the heifer accepted the calf as her own and the hide was removed. 

Here are the steps to grafting a calf:

  • Find a calf close in age to the lost calf
  • Let the cow or heifer get a good scent of her calf before removing it from her
  • Skin the lost calf
  • Tie the hide to calf being grafted
  • Drizzle molasses onto the new calf to encourage the cow to lick it. The more you can encourage her to smell and touch the new calf the faster the grafting process.
  • Halter the cow/heifer or if necessary hobble her so she can't kick at the new calf
  • Encourage the calf to nurse safely
  • When the cow/heifer begins to accept the calf, allow at least 3 days, remove the hide
  • The new calf will be accepted, it's just a matter of time. Heifers are easier than a cow, but eventually even a cow will give in.
Grafting a calf
Grafting a calf

 

DSCN1695 (3)Keith brought a sprig of alfalfa into the kitchen. “The cows were pretty happy with their breakfast this morning.”

 “That looks nice. The leaves are still soft and it's not too stemmy.” Keith's very proud of the hay he makes.

 A few heifers are in the barnyard as they get near calving time. Three have calved already. Despite the cold weather the calves still come. The thought process last spring was to put the bull in with the heifers early, never figuring that they would cycle right away, or that the bull would catch them immediately. We were wrong. So, we have a few new calves and the cows are enjoying the best hay from last summer.

 

There are a couple of aging cows on the farm, numbers 049 and 005 are the oldest. Both are in excellent health, there's nothing to worry about, but I worry anyway. The issue is; Can they withstand a harsh winter?

A couple of years ago the winter was severe. One of the cows, 9143 slipped on the ice during a storm that started with freezing rain and ended in fifteen inches of thunder snow. We made a skid to bring her into the barn where she was blanketed, tube fed, and, using a hip hoist lifted onto her feet. Every hour she was raised up for ten – fifteen minutes, then flipped onto the opposite side from the one she'd been laying on for the previous hour. The vet said her age was working against her. In the end she didn't recover.

Garrett joined me on my walk out to the pasture. On the downward slope of the hillside he noticed the slight limp in my gait. “What's up with your leg?”

“It isn't my leg, it's my stupid butt muscle. I pulled it planting bulbs.” Earlier in the day I'd transplanted shrubs, tilled an area in front of the house and planted one hundred-fifty tulip and daffodil bulbs. It was a great effort which was ruined by turkeys, ducks, and dogs digging up the bulbs and scattering them. It will be a great surprise if any make it until springtime.

The single strand of electric fencing was moved aside so the cattle could graze the next paddock in the rotation. “Despite their ages 005 and 049 are moving well. They could give some of the younger cows a good run.”

“Why wouldn't they move as well?” Asked Garrett.

“They're getting old. They'll be fourteen this winter, which is old for a cow.”

“Oh. Hey mom, that reminds me - did you know that of all the kids in my class you're the oldest mom.”

“What!?”

“Yeah, you're the oldest. Me, Brian, and Colten were talking about how old our parents are. You're the oldest.

“It's Brian, Colten and I, by the way. And, your dad's older than I am.”

“Yeah, but he's not the oldest dad, but you're the oldest mom.”

Damn. Throwing Keith's age into the mix didn't help me. “Great. Thanks for sharing, Garrett.”

“The guys like you, they were just surprised that you're so old.”

“Don't you have anything else to do? Maybe you should spend time taking that enormous size fourteen foot out of your mouth.”

“Are you mad?”

“No, I just need muscle cream, aspirin, and Botox along with a good geriatrics program. Then I'll be fine.” Subtle sarcasm is lost on a sixteen year old boy.

“The cows look good, mom. I don't think they'll have a problem this winter. I'm going back to the house, are you coming?”

“No. You run ahead. I'm going around the field then I'll head up the lane.” I didn't want him to see me limping along. These 'old bones' need time to heal before they can kick that sixteen year old's a**.

Parents are the bones on which children sharpen their teeth. - Peter Ustinov

The saving grace for the cows; their calves will be weaned soon and calves can't talk. My son's going to be here for a while, a long, long while. It's a blessing and a curse.

 

Frostbite, named because she was born in February 2007 which was a very cold February, had a mother who wouldn't stop licking her ears. We tried putting a stocking cap on her to protect her ears but the cow kept on licking them. We tried using bitter apple (it prevents animals from licking a wound) on the calf's ears, the cow kept on licking them anyway. As ridiculous as it sounds we tried using a helmet, socks, foam tubing, just about everything we could think of to keep the cow from licking her calves ears. After a couple days the cow stopped licking them but the tips were frostbitten. The calf lost the tips of her ears so we named her Frostbite. Her ear tag number is 711. Our ear tag numbering system is simple; year of birth, birth order in the herd. The dams number goes on the bottom of the tag, the bulls number on the top. Frostbite was the eleventh calf born in 2007. She's easily identifiable in the herd - she's the cow with the short ears.

Frostbite, second from the left
Frostbite, second from the left

 

Last week Keith came in the house and asked if I'd make two doses of vaccine for the new calves. I asked which cows calved Keith was pretty sure that Frostbite had twins. We've never had a set of twin calves before. At first he wasn't sure if Frostbite had twins or if a heifer had left her calf behind. Cows always hide their newborn calves. The cow will walk to an area of tall grass and let her calf know that they're not to leave the area unless she comes for them. Amazingly, the calves obey. They'll stay exactly where they're left, not moving, until the cow comes for them. Frostbite hid her calves in two different patches of grass. As Keith watched he figured out they were both hers. When he started walking into the field she looked toward where each was hidden and then walked in the opposite direction to throw Keith off course. Before a cow tries to lead you away from her calves she'll always glance toward them. If you're observant you'll catch her gaze and figure out where she's hidden them.  Keith waited patiently for her to go to her calves. He watched her from a distance so she wouldn't know he was there.  Eventually she went into the tall grass and nudged one calf to nurse. After a few minutes she left this calf, walked across the pasture to another area, and aroused her second calf. Keith showed me where both calves were. We vaccinated, ear tagged, and briefly examined them. Frostbite had a heifer and a bull calf. The heifer calf is a 'freemartin' meaning she'll be infertile. When a cow has a mixed set of twins the female is born chimeric; she starts out with XX chromosomes but acquires an additional XY chromosome in utero from the male twin. Freemartinism is the normal outcome of mixed-sex twins in cattle. Same sex cattle twins aren't effected by this.

After a few days the cows stop hiding her calves. They'll  join the herd and play with the other calves under the watchful eyes of all the cows.

 

Alice, one of our Jersey cows had a new calf this afternoon.  We bought two Jersey cows last fall.  Now we have even more milk for the pigs.  In a few days I’ll start milking Alice in the morning, she and her calf will be together all day, separated only at night.  I love spring!  Everything is bright, fresh and new.

Nobody can go through an endless chain of farm births and growth and harvest - and be subject to nature’s mysteries, bounty, and sometimes harshness - without developing a philosophy of life.  -J. Brewer Bottorff