There’s no snow day on farms; calving continues on bad days

Duane Dailey

Farmers never get snow days. I stole that wisdom from a Tweet last week.

That applies especially on cattle farms. Cows bred nine months ago are calving now, no matter the weather. Herdsman must stay close in case of need.

At the time I was at home on a “polar vortex day.” MU leaders closed campus on the coldest day in decades. Earlier we took off two days for heavy snow.

I didn’t mind. I write at home as easy as from my campus office. That is I can when the power stays on. Electrical workers and road crews don’t get snow days. In Columbia, 7,000 were without power.

Work didn’t stop at MU Thompson Farm, near Spickard a few miles south of Iowa.

Calving season starts at the research farm in January. That means cows must be watched day and night to help any calving that might turn difficult.

Calving changed a lot since I was a boy on the farm. I helped bring newborn calves to the house to warm and dry behind the wood stove.

Last week when I called Jon Schreffler, MU farm manager, he put me off. “We’re putting heifers that might calve tonight into the barn.” That management wasn’t done in my farm days.

Later, Jon said about one-third of the calves have been born so far. Only one calf lost. That bull calf came backwards, a difficult birth. It couldn’t be pulled before suffocating.

MU Thompson Farm leads the world in research on Fixed-Time Artificial Insemination (FTAI). All females in a group are inseminated in one morning. That gives a known calving day nine months later. MU research also improves calving ease.

Calving ease takes prebreeding exams of heifers and genetic progeny scoring. One of the most popular EPDs (Expected Progeny Differences) is calving ease.

Before this research, high death rates occurred in baby calves and first-calf heifers. Problems ran high as 19 percent. Even with science and care some deaths occur. Mother Nature doesn’t read research journals.

Thompson Farm has an aid that cuts work on checking calving cows. Closed circuit TV shows workers in the farm office what’s happening in the calving barn.

A herdsman must be there to watch. Also, Schreffler checks from home on his tablet. What a concept. Technology comes with Internet coverage. Grand River Mutual, the phone company, helps at calving time.

“We don’t want to give up video,” Schreffler said.

TV in a calving barn isn’t new. Jerry Litton, former beef breeder at Chillicothe, used it decades ago. Jerry led ahead in so much of cattle breeding. He changed the beef industry. His death was terrible loss.

An often overlooked fact: Jerry’s major at MU College of Agriculture wasn’t beef. He was in agricultural journalism, bringing communications to the beef industry. That included on-farm video.

Litton made more fame with his journalism than I did. In public meetings where I covered his talks, he teased me to make that point.

MU Thompson farm still advances ways to better cattle breeding. There are new words to spread in local papers. I have a job.

Snow days aren’t vacation days. I work indoors while herd managers are out with their cows, no matter how deep the snow or cold the winds.

I’ve spent cold days in the “new barn” at Thompson. It’s used both for breeding and calving. AI methods are perfected there.

When I visited Jon on Friday, it was warming but still freezing. “Calves were running and bucking and enjoying the sun,” Jon said.

Calves are born tough. But, Show-Me-Select steers grow up to make some of the tenderest beef. In feedouts, SMS steer groups have graded two-thirds USDA Prime. That’s the best eating. Prime also brings premiums at the packing plant.

Young people looking for careers can find it in the beef industry or in reporting. It’s possible at the MU College of Agriculture.

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