A cow great?
What makes It’s the time of year when new lives begin, and the resulting calf can tell you everything you need to know about its mother. WORDS RUTH RENNER
Ilike January. The calves are all growing like topsy, filling out and beginning to demonstrate the potential I anticipated in the mating decisions made over a year before. We mate in January, calve in October.
Being so closely involved in the natural annual cycle is one of the most satisfying things about living on the land for me. The current babies, as I watch them grow, were only hopes this time last year; as I'm moving around in the herd watching these calves, next year's are in the making.
By January the inevitable sadness of calving which occurs in most years will have faded, as those now thriving occupy my life and the farm. As long as there's enough rain, farming is easy in the warmth of summer with grass growing at its best, but that's not the case in all parts of the country. Here, summer is often easier than spring, as far as animal comfort and feeding are concerned.
By now we've weighed the calves at least twice so I have growth-rate data and from that an indication of how good each calf might turn out to be.
They're all grazing now as they will for the rest of their lives, with milk feeds providing the protein top-up they need to grow. The best of them are really blooming, nurtured by mothers with milk in good quantity and quality, the ideal setup for good health over their lifetimes. It gives me enormous pleasure to watch that early progress.
As a cattle breeder, it is the development of calves which provides me with the most information in improving my herd, but what can you tell about a calf right at the start? Very little, in my opinion, other than their sex, that they have the right number of legs which all work properly and they suck at one end and the right stuff comes out the other.
But over time, a calf will tell me a lot about its mother. A cow can get away with producing a poor calf once in her life here, but a repeat moves her to the cull list. It's a bit tricky with first-time heifers, who are theoretically genetically the best of the herd but may not, in their first lactation, produce as much milk as they will for subsequent calves. A couple of years ago, having used the semen of a new bull,
I kept one of his nondescript daughters from such a heifer. By the time the calf was a yearling, she was constantly drawing my attention to her fine physique, despite an uninspiring start. I'd only kept her because the semen was expensive and I wanted to see if she'd become better than she looked at weaning.
Some cows always produce excellent calves, so I watch their daughters with little fear of disappointment. The trick I haven't entirely mastered is detecting which of the first-time heifers will become those great cows. It's a great pleasure to have a cow, several of her daughters and grand-daughters all producing calves in one season. Just keeping track of who is whose aunt, great-niece or cousin is endlessly entertaining.
But having favourites can create some problems: one must resist the temptation to automatically favour their calves if they're not up to par. Keeping a calf just because her mother is tame and lovely isn't enough of a reason if the calf isn't better or at least as good as her mother. Having favourites for which you have to repeatedly make excuses is not a satisfying exercise in the long term.
Because I've been breeding now for many years, conformation isn't a particular issue for selection. Most of the calves will grow up with good feet, good jaw alignment, and if they become breeding cows will have adequate milk and structurally sound udders. Every now and then a calf will show up with an obvious problem, but most issues have been weeded out over time.
Temperament is the third priority, and since conformation is now so sound in my herd, it’s the behaviour of my cattle that has now become of much greater importance when considering which ones become long-term members of the herd.
While excellent production is still required and a quiet temperament doesn't save an animal from the truck if their performance is poor, my safety and that of any helpers trumps earning a few extra dollars each year in superior calf sales.