Thursday, March 3, 2011

Checking Heifers

I've been talking about checking heifers during calving season, and realize this may not make sense to everyone. You may think we stake out in a lawn chair, armed with binoculars, hot buttered rum and a walkie talkie for may not be that far off either.
Checking heifers is one of those things that can mean different things on different ranches. But, the general idea is that ranchers check their heifers regularly during calving season in case they need assistance. By regularly, I mean they set up a schedule that encompasses every 24 hour period of the calving season - there is no time off, be it day or night.
These girls are having their first calf, and they don't have a clue whats going on. When you combine possible bad weather, backwards calves and any number of other issues with a heifer that doesn't have a clue, it results in additional help being necessary from time to time. That additional help is the rancher.
Some people check all of their heifers on a strict schedule, say every three hours, and they do this around the clock. Others will sort off the "heavies," which are those they believe are closest to calving, and only check those around the clock. People also generally contain heifers in a smaller pasture, or lot, during calving season so it's easier to do these checks, and gather and assist the heifer when she needs it.
We put our heifers in a lot, and it's an ideal location because we drive by it all day while we're feeding and doing other tasks. At night we check the heifers at 10:00 p.m., 2:00 a.m., and 5:00 a.m. If a heifer is just starting to calve at 10:00 p.m., you leave a sticky note with her tag number on it on the door for the 2:00 a.m. person. If she's well into calving, the 10:00 pm person is responsible for the safe delivery of that calf, and will stay up until she's delivered. You can see how a few deliveries in one night can result in little or no sleep for the people doing the checking.
When we check ours, we drive through them on our 4-wheeler, which has a mounted spotlight for this task. We also have a flashlight, and binoculars, to aid in our checking. A lot of people also use horses, and some pen their heifers in a corral at night, and just walk out on foot to check them.
What we are checking for are heifers that are going into labor. Once she's started, we keep checking her to make sure all is going well, and she doesn't need help. After she's calved, we may continue checking her to make sure the calf gets up and drinks, especially if it's really cold outside. If, at any time, it is determined she needs additional assistance, it is provided as fast as possible.
When a heifer is calving, we give her every opportunity to do in on her own, and she usually does. We've spent a lot of time refining our genetics, buying low birth weight bulls that have a narrower head and shoulders, in an effort to reduce our calving problems, and its worked great. We rarely have any calving-related issues these days, but we still get them in and watch them just to make sure every one is a success story, if at all possible.
This year we used a new batch of bulls on our heifers, and there has been a lot of ice. Ice is a big issue because if a heifer (or cow) slips on it when she's near her due-date, it can shift the calf and he will be born backwards. When a heifer has a backward calf, she will need assistance more often than when her calf is positioned correctly. These two factors mean we are stepping up our heifer watch program compared to the past few years.
There are countless tricks, ideas and tried and true methods ranchers use during calving season, and no two operations are exactly the same. However, the overall goal is unanimous across all ranches, and that is to get as many live, healthy calves as possible.
This often results in many sleepless nights, and some ranchers hire one or more people just to watch and calve their heifers, so the rancher can get other things done.
Now you know what I'm referring to when I say we're checking heifers.

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