Feeding heifers at dusk: reducing animal loss and nighttime births.
From November through May you'll find us out every morning with our teams of horses feeding the bulls, steers, cows, and heifers (except Sundays). Feeding generally takes the entire crew until dinner to complete - which is promptly served at noon. However, come calving season, we switch things up and begin feeding the heifers in the afternoon rather than in the morning.
There are lots of things that cattle ranchers do that don't make sense to me: insist on calling lunch 'dinner', ignore daylight savings time, and many many more. But feeding the heifers in the afternoon, makes scientific sense.
Calving season is a stressful time for ranching families, it's like having a newborn baby...every single March. The heifers (first time moms) are all very inexperienced and have to be watched closely. Someone on the crew must check on them every couple of hours throughout the night to make sure that everything is going smoothly; and oftentimes, you'll find a heifer or a calf in need of a little help. Sometimes a new mom will ditch her calf, occasionally a calf will need to be pulled, and other times she may just need to be helped up (if a mom gets turned around on a hill and can't get up, she can die in minutes).
As you can imagine, helping a heifer out at 2 am in a snowstorm isn't very much fun. In an attempt to limit nighttime births, many ranchers opt to feed their heifers in the evening rather than in the morning. Studies show (graph) that the pressure within the rumen drops before giving birth, and feeding at dusk causes the rumen's pressure to rise throughout the night and drop during the day causing most of the heifers to calve during the day.
Of course, there are still nighttime births, but following the evening feeding schedule is something that we can control to reduce animal mortality.
I have become the feeding truck driver for the boys, so every evening around 5:00, I head over to "the cow palace" to help the boys give the girls their dinner. I have gotten pretty good at getting close enough to the feed racks, but occasionally I manage to run the trailer into one.
Last week, I didn't swing the truck wide enough, and bucked half a freshly stacked load off the trailer. Luckily, there was lots of laughter involved (although I did get a bit of a workout re-loading the bales onto the truck). The boys give me a hard time about my driving techniques, so in return I make sure to hit an extra bump or two on the way home ;).
I am a night owl, so heading out in the middle of the night to spotlight calves is one of the highlights of my week! I have really enjoyed getting more involved this calving season - helping the boys pull a few calves, bottle feed some that lost their mothers, and watch a few be grafted and given to new mothers. It's during calving season that you really see the dedication it takes to care for animals.
I love sharing ranch stories with you, I hope that you enjoy them too! This week I was supposed to head to Sonoma for a bit of work with Chateau Sonoma, but after a photographer backed out, I will instead be staying here on the ranch. You can always follow along on instagram for daily videos and updates!