Fall cow work is all about reviewing each cow’s overall health – preg testing (palpation) – vaccinating for diseases that might be a problem in our area – and administering parasite control. I never look forward to this working because too many tough decisions have to be made. Ranching is a business and your cows are your employees. They must produce. Most important – the cow must be bred!! Many other factors must be considered in reference to the cow’s overall health to be sure she is in the best possible condition to have the calf and to raise a healthy calf. It is too costly to feed an open cow through the winter.
The vet is scheduled. The cows are brought in and each one must be loaded in the squeeze chute. First, the vet checks to see if the cow is pregnant. We still use a physical examination but there is now ultrasound and a test that depends on blood drawn. A physical examination not only tells us if the cow is pregnant – it gives us an idea of how far along she is. Knowing her delivery date helps us give her the appropriate nutrition for all stages of her pregnancy.
I want you to meet the oldest cow in our herd. Years ago, my Dad had Brahman cattle that he bred to Hereford and Angus bulls. She is a Brahman cow that has produced 18 straight calves for the ranch. She is small – but mighty. Every one of her calves have weaned in the 650 to 700 pound range. Cows don’t get names here at the ranch unless they do something outstanding to grab our attention. She has a name – Empress!! And she continues to pass all her physical examinations.
A physical examination is critical. Udder quality is important to a cow/calf producer since this determines quantity and quality of the milk for the calf – and that determines greater or reduced weaning weights.
Her eyes must be examined. Cows are prone to cancer in their eyes but that was not our problem this year. We actually had one that was totally blind. When the herd was brought in – she seemed confused. We allowed her to stop and drop back. She came in behind the herd – following by scent. She had developed cataracts. You can only imagine the difficulties a blind cow would have in the winter.
A cow’s legs and hooves must be examined. We don’t stop to think about how much ground these cows cover to forage – get water – and carry 1100 pounds. When a cow has an infection in her feet or joints that have been injured – she is prone to lay down – give up – stop getting up to eat. She then becomes weak – sick – does not want to get up. A “downer” can die if she is not discovered and treated in time.
Her teeth are also checked. A cow with no teeth or a “broken mouth” will not be able to eat enough – she will become too thin. Cows are given an overall body score. The score is ranked from one (very thin) to ten (obese). The overall score is important in how she sustains herself and her baby.
Cows are actually graded on docility. Wild cattle can make for great stories – but they produce an enzyme that affects the quality of the beef – an unwanted darker coloration. So snorty cows might get a laugh when they put everyone on the fence – but she won’t get many laughs when she is turned into the “cull” pen.
And that is the final decision – does she stay? Or – does she go? We have a winter forecast for a severely wet cold winter – the ultimate harsh conditions for cows and calves. The cruelest decision is to allow her to be in harm’s way where she is susceptible to predators (coyotes) – or to know that she is not in the best body condition to be a healthy survivor – endanger herself or her baby. We must cull the cows that are not productive. The decisions can be tough but the alternatives are even tougher.