The valley’s cattle ranchers pay close attention to breeding and birthing
(Editor’s note: This is the second in an occasional series of articles about Methow Valley agriculture provided by the Methow Conservancy.)
Calving season is winding down for many of the valley’s ranches.
Most of us understand that beginning in January, ranchers are getting up in the middle of the long, cold night to check on pregnant cows and newborn calves. We understand that when temperatures drop into the single digits, like they did last February, it can be perilous for the newborns. But for most of us, that’s about the extent of our understanding.
A smooth calving season requires attention to detail and a willingness to endure sleepless nights. But a truly successful calving season relies on a rancher’s careful planning throughout the year, and over many years.
For Wayne and Char Umberger, calving season involves the whole family. The Umbergers check on the cows every two hours: Char takes the late shift, staying up until 2 a.m., and Wayne is up at 4 a.m. to take over, before he leaves for his off-farm job.
They make sure that the newborn calves are up and nursing, and that the moms have dried them off. If a calf is still damp or isn’t standing up, Wayne will bring the newborn into his shop, where he can get them warm and strong enough to start nursing.
Cold temperatures are a challenge, but so is unseasonably warm weather. Wayne worries about calves laying down in small puddles, and going hypothermic or catching pneumonia. For Umberger, a dry snow is ideal for calving.
Vic Stokes prepares for calving season by bringing his cows into several paddocks near the farmstead. He plows the snow down to dirt and provides straw, so the pregnant cows can get good footing and have a comfortable place to calf. He makes sure the cows have plenty of good-quality hay and a free-choice mineral and protein supplement.
Craig Boesel’s herd actually calves in the fall — between early October and late November. This means the cows can give birth on grassy, irrigated pastures. Boesel used to calve in January and February, when he and his dad ran the ranch together. But when his dad passed away, it became a struggle to run the night checks all by himself.
By calving in the fall, in milder weather, Boesel can cut back on the frequency of checks. Not many ranches produce fall calves. It’s expensive to provide high-quality feed to nursing mothers, so most ranchers prefer to time calving closer to when fresh grass becomes available.
Sam Thrasher-Soodak has 14 milk cows at Doubletree Farm. Unlike the valley’s cow-calf operations that breed the whole herd at one time of year, Thrasher-Soodak staggers breeding of her Jersey-crosses throughout the whole year. A dairy cow’s milk production peaks eight to 10 weeks after giving birth, and begins to slowly decline up until she is “dried off” at 10 months. In order to provide a steady supply of milk to customers, Thrasher-Soodak aims to have roughly one cow giving birth each month.
For the Lundgrens, calving season starts Jan. 1, and can run all the way into April. Cody Lundgren and his dad, Don, bring expecting cows in the barn, where they are protected from the snow and cold. The Lundgrens use artificial insemination to breed the majority of their herd, which means they can look back at their breeding records and know when each cow is due. Generally, about two weeks before giving birth a cow’s udder will start to swell.
“When a cow is about to give birth, she will usually go off by herself,” says Cody Lundgren. At that point, Cody pays attention to see if heavy contractions have begun, if the water sack is protruding, or if the calf’s feet are showing. Once that happens, it should only be about an hour before the calf is out. If it takes longer, “that’s when you know there’s a problem, and you want to get them help as quickly as possible,” says Cody.
One complication that can occur is a “breech” calf, or a backwards calf. The calf’s back feet come out first, leaving the head stuck inside the uterus when the umbilical cord breaks.
“You don’t have to get frantic,” says Stokes, “but you do need to make sure a backwards calf comes out quickly. They’re not getting any oxygen until they are all the way out.”
Stokes can recognize a breech calf by the angle of the protruding feet, and can help by pulling gently on the back legs.
Complications can also occur when the calf is too large. Stokes generally likes to see birth weights of 80-100 pounds, except for first-time heifers, for which he likes to see birth weights of 70-80 pounds. He carefully selects bulls to achieve the proper birth weights for each group.
Boesel aims for approximately the same birth weights as Stokes, although his calves can be as large as 120 pounds. In the 1970s, Boesel introduced German Simmental genetics into his Angus herd. In addition to being a large breed, Simmental are known for their calm dispositions, high conception rates, good mothering traits and abundant milk production. Over the last 40 years, Boesel has also selected for cows with a large pelvis, that can accommodate large calves without complication.
When Stokes decides whether or not to keep a cow’s heifer calf for breeding stock, he will evaluate whether the mom has good udder confirmation, whether she is calm around her calf, and whether her temperament is protective, but not overly aggressive towards humans. And like other ranchers, he’s selecting for cows that can calve on their own, without assistance.
For the dairy, Thrasher-Soodak is also looking for cows that are easy calvers and good moms. In most dairies, calves are removed from their mothers after the first 24 hours, so mothering traits are often not a high priority. Thrasher-Soodak, on the other hand, leaves calves on their moms for three to four months.
The Lundgrens, who raise Angus and registered Charolais, are also selecting for good mothering traits. According to Cody, when a calf is born, the mom should start licking and drying the calf right away. This stimulates the calf to start nursing. Cody wants to see a calf nursing within six hours. It’s important that newborn calves consume the colostrum milk, which is rich in antibodies and critical to a calf’s life-long immune system.
Of course, valley ranchers and dairywomen are selecting for more than just good mothering traits. As Boesel puts it, simply: “I breed for an animal that makes me money and keeps me in business.”
Most importantly, a cow needs to be fertile. A cow that doesn’t “breed back” is a big hit, as each calf is worth roughly $1,000. The weanling weight of a calf is another important benchmark. Typically, most ranchers wean and sell their calves in the fall, at roughly 9 months of age. Ranchers earn based on the weights of their calves, so they select for fast-growing calves and keep careful records for each mother cow.
Ranchers are also selecting for qualities that produce a good final product: beef. The Umbergers, who raise Red and Black Angus crossed with Limousin, keep back some of their calves from the fall sale. They produce a lean, grass-fed beef, which they sell by the half-share to locals, as well as clientele in Ellensburg and Seattle.
While most valley ranchers mainly sell calves, rather than finished beef, their success depends on the quality of the final product. Generally, this means animals that produce a high carcass weight and meat that is lean, but well-marbled.
Thrasher-Soodak’s objectives are a bit different. She’s selecting for cows that can produce abundant milk while raising a calf, and still maintain a healthy body condition on her grass-based dairy. Most dairy cows in the United States are fed a “total mixed ration,” a pelletized, high-energy mix of grain, protein meals and forage. It’s hard to find breeding stock that performs well on fresh grass and hay, so Thrasher-Soodak has developed her own unique Jersey-crosses, incorporating genetics from breeds like Normande, Ayrshire and Holstein. This year, Thrasher-Soodak may introduce some genetics into her herd from Jersey bulls originally from New Zealand, where dairies are still largely grass-based.
The Lundgrens, in addition to producing calves for market, also produce registered yearling and 2-year Charolais bulls that they sell to ranches across the Pacific Northwest. Their ranch customers are looking for bulls that can produce calves that grow quickly and efficiently, producing a lean but marbled beef.
Making it work
While the valley’s cattle producers have many objectives in common, each operation makes dozens of unique management decisions to achieve their particular goals.
“Every rancher has to figure out what works best for them. You do your best to use your experience and the resources you have — to control the variables that you can, and to set yourself up for success,” says Stokes.
By March, calving season is winding down, but the cycle is about to begin again. A cow’s gestation cycle is approximately 9 months, so in order to have calves starting in January, a rancher must plan accordingly.
Wayne Umberger, whose family homesteaded here in the 1940s and who grew up raising both apples and cattle in the lower valley, says he’s “proud to be part of an industry that has always provided a meaningful livelihood in the Methow.” He can’t imagine doing anything else, and confesses that there is nothing quite like seeing a calf come into the world.