Monday, February 28, 2011

February Cold

Here are some images from my February 19th and 20th trip home. It was a cold, foggy and snowy weekend, which made for lots of feeding and some great pictures! Have a great Monday!

Friday, February 25, 2011

A family Affair

Our operation, like so many other ranches and farms, is family run. The family element is what makes the vast majority operations across America work. Factory farms don't exist where I'm from, and the reality is that almost every farm and ranch in America is family owned and operated.
Here is my family this past weekend. As you can see, despite the frigid temperatures, we enjoyed our time spent together working our cattle. Our work is our fun, and we feel incredibly blessed to be able to say that!

It's also great that my family has fully embraced the idea behind "Heather's blog," and will randomly grab my camera a take a couple pictures when they have a few seconds.

When we have the vet out for something, or go somewhere else, and as I'm taking pictures here and there, it's pretty common to overhear one of my family members explaining my behavior.
It usually goes something like, "Yeah, Heather has this blog, where she explains what we really do out here, to combat all the misinformation out there about agriculture...Well, I'm not sure how a blog works either...but she uses a lot of pictures and tells about's pretty neat...yeah, I don't keep up with all this technology either.... she has people from all over the
world read the thing."
You have to love family!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Ear Tag

Ear tags are used to individually identify cattle within a herd, and are found across the world. They come in a number of colors and sizes. Some come with numbers already melted and/or colored on them, and others come blank.
We individually identify our cattle for a number of reasons. Having ear tags helps match mother cows to baby calves, can aid in determining how old a cow is, note which animals you need to treat for sickness, and can be used in countless other circumstances where you need to remember an individual animal.
While brands are a permanent form of identification and can also be used to ID cattle, they are sometimes very hard to see and read. Brands are better at determining ownership of one to several head of cattle than helping you separate cow A and cow B, when they're both owned by the same person.

My dad uses green, 3-star (that's the size) Y-Tex tags. They come in bunches of 25, in clear bags, as can be seen on the left. Also included are 25 buttons, which are poked through the animal's ear to secure the ear tag in place. They work a lot like earrings do in humans, and giving a cow an ear tag is done the same way a human's ear is pierced, just with bigger equipment.

We write on our own ear tags, and use a very durable ink. It's important you don't get any of this ink on your mother's/wife's/sisters table, as it will likely be there forever, and she won't be happy.
Hence the spreading of newspapers over the work area. Ink comes in black or white, and we use both from year to year.

This is one of my jobs sometimes, and I'm not the best at it. You want to write big, clear, nice numbers on the tags so they are easy to read once in the cow's ear. The bigger and clearer the number, the better. Sometimes you have to read an ear tag in less than ideal conditions, and it needs to be legible.
We put the year the animal was born at the top of the ear tag. You can see the 1 here, and that stands for 2011. Next year we will put a 2 up there for 2012. Then we record the individual number below that. So, the tag I'm writing on would be read 1 over 4.
Some people put the number representing the year the animal was born at the beginning of the big numbers on the tag. So, for this year they would start at 100 and work up, then next year they would start with number 200 and work up, and the first number always represents the year the animal was born. If we did that, instead of that tag reading 1 over 4, it would say 104. This method only works if you keep under 100 replacement heifers each year, otherwise you would have to duplicate numbers, which causes an awful lot of confusion.
Some producers add more information to tags. For example, registered breeders (those that raise purebred bulls and females) may list pedigree information, birth dates, and more, on their tags.
Having the year the animal was born is useful when determining the animal's age, which is sometimes a critical factor for making management decisions. Lots of people sell cows that are over a certain age, or sort them based on age during different times of the year. Having this information displayed on an ear tag is a matter of efficiency and convenience.
In younger animals, like yearlings, tag numbers are often recorded when looking at potentially sick animals. You will "watch" animals that you aren't sure are sick. For example, it's not uncommon to have a list of ear tag numbers to "look at closely" when you go through your freshly weaned calves.
For a lot of things, ear tags are a faster, more efficient form of identification. The trade-off is they aren't permanent, and can be lost by the animal, or cut out by a human.

Here are the first 25 tags, plus a couple for my brother, sister and I's heifers. My tags are pink, a color my dad picked because from a distance its easily distinguishable from green. Kyle's are the blue tags and Holly's are yellow. All of Holly's tags say Holly, then a number. So that tag reads 1 over Holly1. She insists on her name being on each tag.
Some people make each calf's ear tag number match it's mothers tag number. So, the only difference between the two tag numbers is the year. As with most things, there are a number of "right" ways to do it, and people find the method that works best for them and their circumstances.

This is the ear tagger, aka big ear piercing gun. You don't want to lose this, and you want a spare in case you do lose this. Calving season is a time of almost constant sleep deprivation, and something like losing the last set of ear taggers could send a tired parent, sibling or spouse over the edge.
The clip is one thing that helps prevent this. These taggers can be clipped to 4-wheelers, saddles, carharts, and any number of other things. They're also durable, and if you do lose them the chance is they'll be fine if you ever find them again.

The tag and button are secured like so. When you squeeze the gun it pushes the sharp-pointed button through the ear, and through the visible hole of the tag. The design prevents the button from coming back out, and the tag is secure.
This simple, durable and effective design is key. When tagging newborn calves there is always the chance you will find the mother cow less than keen on the idea. Many a rancher has been run under a pickup, over a fence or back to his horse by a seriously angry cow intent on running him over and protecting her baby. You want your taggers to work, work fast, and survive if you have to leave on the ground in your haste to evade the angry cow.
You also want to position the tag properly in the calf's ear. If it's too close to the outer edge of the ear, the weight of the tag can cause the ear to droop, and it can also be ripped out very easily. There are also veins running through the ear that you want to avoid.

Another view. Cattle can be tagged at any stage in life, but lots of people tag calves as soon as they're born, and record their tag number, their sex, and their mother's tag number in a book. Some producers record additional information as well. Some of this information can be quite personal and colorful to the situation at hand, and is designed to help remember notable things about the cow, calf, or both. It may also note if any calving related issues occurred.
We record both the cow and calf's ear tag numbers, if the calf was a bull or a heifer, the color of the cow, the color of the calf, and if there were any calving related difficulties.
We tag our heifer's calves when they're born, but tag our cow's calves when we brand, and don't write down all the information I listed above for cow's calves. We don't need to match (pair) them with their mother's or individually identify them until after branding, and they're usually much better at it than heifers are. We also don't see our cows often during calving. Some people ride through their cows daily throughout calving season, checking for issues and tagging newborn calves.

Most people also put every ear tag in the same ear, every year. We switched years, sometime between 2004 and 2006 based on these cows, to accommodate our feeders chute setup. When feeding we would also put RFID tags in our steers, and sometimes our heifers, and we made sure those were on the side of his chute with the wand to record them.
RFID tags are radio frequency tags that can record and store information. There was a market premium available for having them in your cattle when we were feeding ours. They can also be used for age and source verification. Our feeder would record individual animal weights, and if and when he doctored an animal, and put that information on the RFID tags. This allowed us to figure individual average daily gains, and see if doctoring a calf impacted his performance, among other things.

This is one example of how tags are helpful when dealing with cows and calves. I bet you can guess which calf is hers. Even if everyone was sporting the same colored ear tags, if you had matched each calf to its mother in your book, you could look them up and determine very fast which baby goes with which cow.
Usually they match themselves up, but especially first-calf heifers can be really simple at times, and in those instances it's very handy to know for sure who her baby is. This is especially critical if the calf is having problems. For example, if she lost him and it's really cold outside. You need to find his mother and get him something warm to drink and make sure she is taking adequate care of him.
As calves are weaned, fed, or kept as replacements, ear tags continue to play a major role in quickly individually identifying each animal throughout it's lifetime, and is another example of a management tool rancher's use to keep animals healthy and thriving.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Chasing Birds

My dogs are cheap entertainment. One prime example of this is Pearl's obsession with chasing birds. She is all about it, regardless of weather, geographical or physical obstacles.

See the little elusive buggers out in front of her?
This is a regular site at our house, and accompanied by vigorous barking. Last summer my mom said she could always tell where my dad was spraying weeds, because Pearl went with him and spent the entire time barking and chasing birds.

You will see her go streaking across the yard, first one way, then the other.

After each burst of chase, she will pause, and listen for where the sneaky birds are located.

Then off she goes again, full force.

Kyle says it's like watching a slinky stretch and contract.

If the birds are perched up high, on the tractor or in a tree, Pearl will perch on her hind legs and bark at them.

It's a very serious thing for her.

Emmie isn't as dedicated to bird chasing...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Cows with Tattoos

In my last post I mentioned that we would be bangs vaccinating our replacement heifers Monday. That post also shows the working facilities involved, and you can look at it to see how our replacement heifers were loaded into the chute. We will focus on what happened in the chute, and why, for this post.
Bangs vaccinating replacement females is required by law in Wyoming, and is a means of preventing the disease brucellosis in beef cattle. Once a prevalent problem in U.S. cow herds, today it has been eradicated nationwide thanks to the efforts of ranchers and health officials. This is a great example of why a vaccination program is so vital, and helpful to ranchers, and to the people who consume our product.
The only remaining reservoir of the disease is found in wildlife, most notably the elk and bison herds in and around Yellowstone National Park. The disease can be passed between species, and humans are also susceptible. With Wyoming's infected wildlife population, state efforts to control the disease are more ramped up than in other parts of the country where contact with infected wildlife is much less likely to happen.
The disease can really wreak havoc on ranchers, and causes a lot of frustration for those whose cattle are in almost constant contact with the potentially infected wildlife. The result of Brucellosis is late-term abortions, and the disease is present in, and and transmittable from, the aborted fetus and placenta. It's not a fun thing to deal with, and causes a lot of emotional and financial frustration with producers in areas where infected wildlife are prevalent.
This wildlife contact issue isn't as big of a deal in the eastern part of the state, where I'm from, but we are still required to follow the law. This includes Bangs vaccinating all replacement females prior to them reaching one year of age. While the vaccinate doesn't completely eliminate a cow's susceptibility to the disease, it reduces her chances of contracting it.
A vet must perform the vaccination. Then he gives them a certified Bangs tag, and a tattoo in their ear, in case they lose the tag. The tag and tattoo serve as proof they received the vaccination. Each tag has a number, which the vet matches to the producer who owns the cattle. This is also another way to prove ownership in cattle. The reason for all this is to ensure place of origin can be found if an infected animal ever shows up at a sale barn or packing plant. Health officials use the Brucellosis tag, and/or tattoo to trace that animal back to the producer who originally kept her as a replacement heifer. Knowing this information is very helpful during a disease outbreak, and aids in narrowing down a search for the initial cause of an outbreak.

Here are our replacement heifers prior to getting their new tags and tattoos.

Here is the vet filling his syringe with the vaccine.

And here are the individually numbered tags. They are in the shape of a V, and the bottom of the side you can see here is a point that fits into a small hole on the other end. They're easy to put in, and have a very high retention rate.

Here is the tattoo gun. The little points create a specific number sequence. While I'm not positive on this, I believe it lists the month and year she was vaccinated, and possibly more numbers indicating the producers location. For example, it might list the county number (14 in our case) within Wyoming that the herd is located in.

Here's the setup. No changes from a couple days ago, just more snow. My mom also weighed each of the heifers while she was in the chute so we have her growth information on file.

One a heifer is caught, the first thing the vet does is give her a shot.

Then someone, my dad in this case, mugs (holds her head off to the side) the heifer, so the vet can give her the tattoo and tag.

Here is the tagger (out of focus) Note the V-shape. When he squeezes it, it folds the tag over and pokes the pointy end through the hole on the opposite.
The toothbrush is used to apply the green paint used for the tattoo.

First the vet rubs the inside of the heifer's right ear clean with his glove. Then he rubs a generous supply of green paint over the area with his toothbrush.

Next the tattoo tool is aligned...

And squeezed. Following this step more green paint is rubbed over the tattoo.

Then the bright orange Brucellosis tag is put into place. It's put in the top of the ear because it's much less likely to be lost when the cow is rubbing on stuff, eating out of feeders, or doing any number of other things cows do, when in that location.

Then the heifer is released, and rejoins the rest of the bunch.

Despite a green ear and an orange tag that may be rubbed to silver by the time she's old, the heifers are fine and ready to be fed.

While it's hard to see in this picture, the Brucellosis tags really show up in person.
This is another example of the efforts ranchers go through to eradicate, then prevent future outbreaks, of a disease or health issue, and to further increase the safety of our beef product.
One opinion I have is that the state should have a greater financial responsibility in further controlling Brucellosis. They manage the wildlife who carry the disease and infect cattle, and who are the only remaining known carrier in the nation.
It's a terrible loss for a producer to have his livestock exposed. In addition to the loss of calves, and their mothers, his herd is also quarantined. All of his cattle must tested, and come up negative, prior to him being able to move or market anything. Any infected animals are killed to prevent further spreading of the disease.
I think wildlife should be held to the same standard. If the state wants to maintain these herds of infected wildlife, they should control their movement and contact with livestock to a much greater extent than they do now, and be much more involved in compensating ranchers - not only for the immediate loss of his animals, but also for future production loss - when one of their animals causes him financial and emotional loss.