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

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Down On The Farm -

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.

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