Working Calves

I have this funny situation occur regularly:  If I come back from a long marathon training run with painful, tight calves and I Google anything to do with “calf muscles” I get lots of results on breeding beef cattle for more musculature.  And when I want to know more about how other ranches “work calves”, I get lots of links for exercise websites.  It’s like my two worlds collide via the power of Google.

All that to say, I’m sitting on the couch drinking my nasty electrolyte sports water and nursing my sore calves from a 23 mile morning run, so I thought I should use my rest time to tell you about the other calf work I’ve been doing up at the Hemphill’s ranch.

I’ll say up front that my pictures are not Pioneer Woman quality.  There’s a couple reasons for that:  (a) the purchase of an SLR camera isn’t really a financial priority in my lil’ farm budget, and (b) I’m actually working, so I don’t have a lot of time to  frame the perfect shot.  Also, who are we kidding?  My siblings got all the photo/video genius in my family.  I’m just a farmer with an iPhone.

So, Friday before last, we rounded up about 50 mama cows and their calves that were born fall of 2012.  Carol breeds a total of about 100 cows a year and times it so that half of them calve in the spring (happening right now!) and half of them have their calves in the fall.  The Fall 2012 calves are now about 4 months old and they’re not quite weaned but it’s time for them to receive their vaccinations and wormer and the bull calves will be castrated.

All the cattle are in sacrifice paddocks right now because the pastures need a rest during the winter.  This particular group of cattle hangs out at the top of a hilly pasture.  We bring them hay every day, but that morning we mixed things up a little.

IMG_3454We brought the hay truck up to their paddock and then opened the gates.  The hungry cattle eagerly swarmed around the “breakfast wagon” and then followed it as James drove towards the corrals where we planned to sort and vaccinate them.

Carol and I walked along behind the herd and she directed her Kelpie/McNab dog Lizzy to keep the cows bunched up and moving behind the truck.  The cattle were pretty excited about the green grass all around them after a winter of hay consumption and they kept getting distracted from following the pickup.

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This is ranching in Western Oregon: green grass and dense forests of Douglas Fir trees.  I find it absolutely beautiful!


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It didn’t take long to get the cattle coaxed into the corral.  We had thrown some flakes of grass hay on the ground to give them a little incentive to move into the enclosure and then we shut the gates behind them.  Carol does her best to make always make the corral and squeeze chute experience as stress-free as possible for her cows.  She says that if we can keep the cows and calves from being frightened in the large corrals and chutes, then they typically associate it with a pleasant experience and are willing to be cooperative in the future.  This is even despite the fact that each one experiences a brief “scary” moment of castration or vaccination while in the squeeze chute.   But that is over very quickly and doesn’t seem to cause the calf a great deal of anxiety.

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We spent a few minutes sorting the cows out of the pen so just the calves remained. The mothers bawled for a bit and then assumed their babies were in daycare and wandered off to enjoy the grass.  Carol had a list of bull calves that she was considering saving to sell as bulls instead of castrating. We circled the pen, looking for the numbers on her list and then analyzing each calf for conformation, vigor, size and weight gain.  She narrowed the list down to about five calves that she wanted to save. She would probably want me to point out that those two brownish calves in the above picture are not an example of the quality of her herd. They were twins and are kind of runty, pot-bellied little things.

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Here’s a better picture of the handsome Angus calves we are working with. It was hard to decide which bull calves to keep.  She had a number of very good options to pick from.

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After writing down the calves we were not going to castrate, we set up our equipment at the squeeze chute.  Well, it used to be a squeeze chute a long time ago, but the contraption seems to be about 100 years old so now it’s just a chute.   James hung the Cydectin pour-on wormer from the rail and then set the syringe gun for the correct dosage for a four-month old calf.

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I was put in charge of loading the latex bands and clips onto the EZE Castrator tool.  The bands are very thick and a little hard to stretch onto the tool, but I got the hang of it after a while.  We would send a calf into the squeeze chute and then call out his or her ear tag number to Carol.  She cross-checked the males against her list and if it wasn’t a bull we were keeping, I’d hand the castrator to James and he quickly applied the band.  It didn’t really seem to phase the calves one bit.  Then each calf got a dose of the purple Cydectin wormer applied to the top of its back.  Finally, Carol gave each calf a couple of vaccinations which protect against a number of diseases including leptospirosis, tetanus, Bovine Viral Diarrhea, respiratory diseases and clostridial diseases.

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The vaccinations are given subcutaneously in the neck area, just in front of the calf’s shoulder blade.  It’s the best spot to do it, because on the off-chance the calf develops a reaction to the vaccine it won’t affect an area that would yield a valuable cut of meat.

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Carol had the trickest job.  It is challenging to keep the needle steady and in the correct spot when the calf is jumping around in the chute.  The calf’s head is locked into the head-gate, but he can still move around enough to make the job difficult.  Carol speaks soothingly to the calf as she works, and the ordeal is over in a matter of seconds.  The calf leaps free when we open the head-gate and promptly joins his buddies in browsing oak leaves and grass sprouts.

It only took a few hours to work through all 50+ calves.  The next day, they were all happily eating hay back up in their winter paddock, looking no worse for wear.  They have another month or two with their mothers and then will be weaned and sent out to enjoy getting fat on the lush spring pastures.

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2 Comments

Filed under Farm

2 responses to “Working Calves

  1. Laurie Burke (yo' mamma)

    Thanks for all the interesting details!

  2. You’re welcome. Now you’ll know how to do it, when you retire and come to help me on my ranch. 🙂

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