Fenceline weaning: Take 1

This year we tried something different when it came time to wean the calves.  Weaning typically happens in October or November when the calves are about six months old.  We like to wean before taking the cows to graze cornstalks.  Cornstalks aren't really high quality feed, but they are good enough for a non-lactating cow.  To keep a calf growing usually requires better feed than what cornstalks provide.  The difference this year was the manner in which we separated the cows and calves.  The old way was to bring everything into the corral, sort cows from calves, and keep everything locked in separate pens for a few days.  This year we left everything in the pasture, and used a three-wire electric fence to keep them separate.


It worked pretty well.  There was one cow that crawled in with the calves, and three calves that crawled in with the cows.  That's not a big deal, since we had a portable corral set up to sort them again.

The blue tub on the left side of the fence held a liquid supplement for the calves.  It contained minerals, vitamins, enzymes, and probiotics designed to help the calves manage the stress of being weaned. 

There are several advantages to weaning this way.  The calves get to stay on mostly the same diet as they have had, minus the milk.  Doing it the old way, they would have to eat dry hay or other feed in the corral.  Changing diets causes some stress as they learn to eat something different and their body adjusts to it.  With fenceline weaning, the calves can still be close to their mothers.  The social bond with their mother is broken more slowly and naturally once they realize they aren't getting any more milk from mama.  Keeping the cattle on pasture keeps dust and mud to a minimum and gives the calves room to spread out.  Dust and mud are a bigger problem when calves are already stressed from the weaning process.  Last year when we weaned, I was very concerned about dust due to the drought.  This year we had 3 inches of rain a few days after weaning, so mud would have been a problem had we put everything in the corral.

It was a good learning experience.  I would call it a success and plan to do fenceline weaning again in the future.

Hundred year storm

Originally written October 9, 2013

If you live in the northern Great Plains, you know about the storm last week. If you live elsewhere, you likely have not heard much about it other than through social media.

I don’t know where to begin describing this disaster. Disclaimer: we only had rain and wind at our place, the temp stayed at about 39 F. I have seen pictures and heard second-hand accounts of what happened west of me.

I should start by describing the people. I have the privilege of knowing probably 40 or 50 people who ranch in western South Dakota. You’ve heard of the seven degrees of separation? In West River SD, it is no more than two. To have such a well-networked group of people spread out over such a large geographical area is something you have to experience to really understand. “Networked” is a stupid term to use, because it brings to mind the wrong images. These connections didn’t develop over evening social hours during the Big Convention, or invitations on Linked-In. These families are co-dependent on each other. An example is spring brandings. Spring brandings are social events, and yes there often are drinks involved, but so is a lot of hard work.  Nothing demonstrates teamwork better than brandings.  If you have never been to one, you should.  Everyone has a job, and the whole event grinds to a halt if someone is slacking.  Young and old, male and female, each person has a job.  It’s something to behold.

You see, the West River community is not held together by the same things most of the rest of the country is. Life doesn’t revolve around the local professional sports team. Nobody is keeping up with the Kardashians, and there’s no water cooler to rehash last night’s “Dancing with the Stars” episode. A lot of times there isn’t even cell service to txt their bff’s 2 find out what they r up 2, or to find out what is #trending on #twitter.

They are held together by their livelihood. It takes a stubborn, independent person to raise livestock for a living. You can’t give up easy. You have to work hard. The paradox is, you can’t do it all on your own. As I mentioned earlier, nobody out there brands calves all by themselves. Neighbors are always helping each other when the job requires it. I don’t know of another profession that so closely links neighbors.

If there is a group of people who can get through this, it is them.

So what are they going through? Yes, financial loss is the most obvious. A bred cow is probably worth $1800-2000 right now; her 550 lb calf probably averages $925. Yearlings are worth around $1200. Rancher A loses 30% of his herd of 450 pairs. That’s $381,375. It’s more than just money. It was this fall’s paycheck, next fall’s paycheck (remember the cow was bred), and the calf factory…all gone.

But not really. They are still there…along the fenceline, in the creek, out in the open. Imagine fifty or more 1300 lb dead animals laying in the bottom of a muddy creek. Can’t just leave them there, all the water downstream will be contaminated by their decaying carcasses. How do you get them out? How big of a hole do you need to bury them? Some ranchers are having to find the answer to these problems this week.

And they aren’t just animals. These are the beasts that have been providing a living for their owners. You get to “know” them…which one will eat out of your hand, which one raises a good calf each year, which one crawls fences.

There are some people who, in their infinite ignorance, believe the deaths are due to negligence. How disgustingly disrespectful. As if these ranchers have not dealt with blizzards before. As if they did not care about their animals. As if the cows themselves would have been fine if they had just gotten a little care. I have seen photos of dead cattle laying right next to the hay bales their owners had put out for them, trying to keep them alive. This was not a normal South Dakota blizzard. If it was, I promise you it would not have been much to talk about. Just a couple feet of snow and a stiff breeze is all it would have been, and it is normal to get that. But not right after a couple inches of 36 degree wind-driven rain. Not in October while cattle are on summer pasture without wind protection. Not without their winter hair coat. It was not a typical SD blizzard.

And these aren’t typical people.  Typical people would have the ear of the media, and they would be a political football in DC right now.  Typical people would be waiting for help.  But they aren’t typical.  They are working together, helping each other, moving on.  Proof can be found on the Atlas Blizzard Ranch Relief and Aid facebook page.  Real people helping each other.  These are not do-nothing people. If you would like to help those affected by the storm, a fund has been established by the Black Hills Area Communty Foundation to aid in the recovery.

Most of all, these good people need your prayers and encouragement.  The emotions involved with this ordeal I believe may have a larger impact that anything.  Pray for the marriages and families, they are under enormous stress right now.  Pass along the story of what happened and how those folks are dealing with it.  Thank a farmer or rancher for what they do.  Eat a steak this week and thank God for the family that raised your meal.