Spring is sprung, and with the advent of robins and crocuses also comes baby cows. Calving season is an active time for Canadian ranchers, and this means labour, long nights, and ultimately tending to the needs of cow and calf.
Has the pandemic changed the ways ranchers breed, birth, and market their herds? Other than the food processing shutdowns in Spring 2020, and the restrictions on live auctions, it’s pretty much business as usual. Right now, that business is calving.
Calving season on the farm
Depending on the operation, calving season can happen at different times. Purebred operations tend to calve earlier– through January and February. However, most of Canada’s ranchers are moving towards an early spring calving season. In the spring, weather conditions are generally more favourable, which can allow for ease in pasture births. Opting for pasture births over stall births can reduce the amount of bacteria that a calf is exposed to in the hours after its birth. With springtime also comes fresh grass growth– this grass growth is essential in providing the mother with key nutrients to enrich the milk that her calf will drink.
Calving season has no shortage of dramas and comedy, as many ranchers well know. More than anything, it is a lot of work– for mother, calf, and producer alike. Before the birth, the producer must monitor calving cows carefully. Some operations, like the Alberta ranch run by the Argent family, share the duties of monitoring among themselves.
“In January, when it’s so cold, you’re checking them every two hours” said Mackenzie Argent who shares the duties of running the ranch of 240 cattle with her family. Other operations are stepping into the future. Model Farm Angus, a 29 head farm run by the Higgins family in New Brunswick, has set up calving cameras in their barns.
“My brother set up calving cameras that run off of a data plan (no WIFI at the barn) a few years ago and that has really been a game changer,” writes Amy Higgins in an email to F2FC. “He and I can monitor animals quickly while still at work. An added benefit is not having to fire up vehicles in the middle of the night to go down to the barn if nothing is happening.”
The wonder of birth, the little ones arrive
When the human or tech monitors pick up signs of labour, it’s time to get suited up, and head to the barn or pasture to assist with the birth. One of these signs is the pregnant cow isolating herself from the herd. She does this instinctively to reduce the risk of interference– essentially, so she can have some peace and quiet. It also helps to promote the chance for bonding with her calf once it is born. Other signs of impending labour include increased mucous discharge and tail elevation. This is considered stage one of parturition (the act of giving birth) and these indications can be easy to miss. Stage Two is what really counts– the water bag appears, and within two to four hours, the calf is born. Most of the time, parturition can happen without human assistance, but in case something goes wrong, it is important to keep a close eye on birthing mothers. One potential setback is an unresponsive calf. If this happens, the producer can rub the calf’s chest or insert a clean straw into its nostril to promote stimulation.
The first hours of a calf’s life are vital to its survival. Within ten minutes of birth, a producer can check the calf’s suckle reflex by tickling the top of its mouth. This will indicate whether the calf will be able to nurse on its own, or whether it will require assistance. Colostrum– the first milk from a mother– is rich in nutrients that are extremely beneficial to a newborn calf. If a calf has a weak suckling reflex, it may not drink its mother’s milk soon enough. If this occurs, the producer will provide the calf with supplemented colostrum.
In the spring, summer and early fall, the calves are pastured with their mothers and begin to grow at a rapid pace. In the fall, the calves are weaned and separated from their mothers, who will have already been rebred, starting the process over again.
Going to Market
Many of the calves will be sold at market, either in person or virtually, and others kept for breeding. Most calves will be sold to a farm that specializes in backgrounding, where they will spend the winter. There, they will receive a nutritious ration to continue their growth before spending another summer and fall on grass.
Rick Wright, the Executive Administrator for Livestock Markets and Auctions, spoke on the market changes due to COVID-19 that are still reverberating throughout the ranching community. He indicated that many livestock auctions are only allowing staff and licensed buyers at livestock auctions. This means that producers cannot accompany their cattle to auction. This affects the ranchers and how their relationship with their calves ends.
“Producers are calving those cows, caring for them,” says Wright. “You want to be there when they sell.”
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.