Intro to Thoughts on Success:
Susan and I's goals are to develop the best Angus Cattle possible and to help make our customers successful. If you, as a customer, are not successful there is a pretty good chance that you will not stay in the cattle business and become a repeat customer of our's. As two retired professional educators we would like to share with you tips and management strategies that have worked for us. No need for you to reinvent the wheel. Hopefully well established operations will also find our topics of interest and who knows, maybe you too will pick up something of value.
As two young people just starting out, with very little money, we made a lot of mistakes. I could write a book on just the mistakes. But no one wants to hear about what not to do.
My wife kiddingly tells people that I have records of my records. I don't believe I have gotten quite that bad, but I do have and keep a lot of records on all aspects of our operation, the cattle in particular.
Like I used to tell my agriculture students, “we cannot tell where we are and where we are going unless we know where we were”. With over 35 years of cattle records I can pretty much tell you where we are and where we came from. Angus Herd Improvement Records (AHIR) are totally indispensable when it comes to our operation. We as breeders need to make management decisions based on facts, not our heart. Our operation started to really move forward the year we enrolled in AHIR and submitted our first set of Birth Weights (BW) and Weaning Weights (WW).
The American Angus Association not only offers AHIR records to all of it's members but also a program for commercial cow / calf operations. Same type of data but a different name. I seriously suggest that we all be on either one or the other.
When people come to visit us and view our cattle the conversation always swings to the importance of a good livestock scale. I feel it is possibility the most important piece of equipment we own. I am always amazed at the number of people that say they are serious about being in the cattle business yet to not own or have access to a cattle scale. We purchased a scale with a former student of ours. It has wheels on it so we can move it between farms. Splitting the cost of it was good for both of our operations.
You Get What You Pay For:
When it comes to starting a herd or improving the one you have, it is so much easier and cheaper, in the long run, to bite the bullet and pay a bit more for better cattle and bulls. What you should be buying when you buy cattle from someone like us is many years of genetic improvement. A few hundred dollars more can often buy you decades of good breeding decisions and improvements.Why not start out where we are now rather than buy animals like we had maybe ten or more years ago?
Susan and I wasted almost three years before we sold our first cattle and got some good ones. The key is to find a breeder that you like, feel comfortable with and trust. Expected Progeny Differences (EPD's) did not exist when we got started. Learn how to use them and be very shy of people who's cattle do not have them. Another thing to ask for is to see their cattle scale. Until something really changes, the name of the game in beef cattle production is the number of pounds you have for sale. Without a scale how can they be making educated selection decisions?
The Importance of the Momma Cow:
Let's talk about momma cows and the importance they have in any cattle operation. Most people know that high quality bulls will improve a herd, as a whole, the fastest because of the shear number of offspring they can produce in a single year. If on scale of 1 to 10, if your cows are 5's and you purchase a bull that is a 9 the resulting calves should be 7's. The key words are “should be”. A jump of 2 points in a single generation is a big improvement. But is that really the way and how it works?
They used to always tell us that the male and female each contribute 50% to the offspring. But now the data suggest otherwise. Those in the know, now tell us that the cow provides 60% and the bull 40%. For years Susan and I have thought that the cow had a much greater impact on the quality of the resulting calf. Now research is backing that observation up.
Here at Hawk Valley Angus our goal has always been to produce the best possible Angus females we can. Females are what will move a cow calf operation into the future the fastest. The bull calves that we produce each year are a by-product of our attempt at improving our cow herd. These bull calves grow up to become great herd-sires for our customers. But if you really want to move you herd forward you need to consider purchasing Hawk Valley females.
Many times our female purchasing customers get back to us and tell us how the calves out of the cows they bought from us, the year before, weaned the best calves for them. Since our bread and butter cattle sales are young herd-sires, we prefer to keep bred cows that have bull calves inside of them. If we have two bred females that are so equal we are having trouble deciding which to sell and which to keep we will often offer the one with the heifer calf in her for sale. Years ago we would have never done that when we were in the expansion phase of developing our herd.
A while back we sold 5 bred females to a young family. We told them they all had heifer calves inside of them. That first spring they had a 10 head herd of females. They purchase their herd bulls from us also. In just five years they had a super uniform 25 head herd to be proud of.
Several super high quality females placed into a herd can really energize it quick. By selecting replacement heifers from those cows you can increase the overall quality of the herd faster than with just the use of good herd bulls. Something to think about.
Pregnancy Checking Your Cows:
I am always amazed by the number of people who do not have their cows pregnancy checked. Many tell me it is too expensive. We always have felt that it did not cost, but paid to have it done. I know you have the farm visit cost along with the cost per animal. Have the vet do it when you have other reasons to have them out to lessen the cost per cow.
I am so lucky to have a five large animal doctor veterinary clinic just seven miles down the road. Most vets can do a pretty good job of palpitation pregnancy checking. It is way better than nothing. The standard charge per cow for palpating has been $3.00 locally.
Seriously consider having your cows pregnancy checked via ultrasound. Two of our vets are excellent at it. We get charged $2.00 more per head to have it done that way. Now let me explain why we feel it is worth it. A good vet with an ultra sound machine can tell you not only if the cow is pregnant or open, but also when it is due and the sex of the calf. Our vets are usually within a day or two of the actual due date. It sure is nice to know when to be watching individual cows for the onset of labor.
Using our vets predicted due dates we have only once had a cow deliver her calf anywhere other than in the calving pen. When we pull a cow and her newborn out, we know who to bring in to take her place.
Knowing the due dates and sex of the calves is used by us to determine which cows we will offer for sale. For us, all things being equal, a bull calf pregnancy is more valuable than a heifer calf pregnancy. The key words in that sentence again are “all things being equal” Most of our customers like to know what sex the calves are inside the cows they are buying or considering buying. A family came to us a few years ago and wanted to start a small Angus operation. They could afford to purchase five cows. With my guidance all five were carrying heifers. By next spring they were the proud owners of 10 Angus females.
Ultra-sound pregnancy checking is also less invasive to the tiny embryo. It can also tell you things that you might not want to know. One is the presence of twins. With that heads up a person will be looking for two of them. Reproductive issues can also be discovered by a good ultra-sound operator. Just this past fall we had one of our top virgin heifers come in open. Not only was she open but both of her ovaries were cystic. She could never become pregnant. Hard to accept, but nice to know.`
We are very proud of our American Angus Association recognized “Pathfinder Cows” Here is a paragraph from the AAA website summing up the “Pathfinder Cow” program.
The Pathfinder Angus program was started in 1978 in an effort to identify superior cows in the breed based on their records of performance from Angus Herd Improvement Records (AHIR). In identifying these superior cows, emphasis was placed on early puberty, breeding and early calving, followed by regularity of calving and above-average performance of the offspring.
I was once told that one Angus cow in 30,000 qualifies for the honor of being named a “Pathfinder Cow”. Once so honored they are forever referred to as a Pathfinder. We are the home of 11 of these very special cows. Just the other day we learned that “Hawk Valley Lesley 239-261” had been named as our most recent recipient of this prestigious honor.
Cows can be honored with Pathfinder recognition multiple times in their lives. Each year it gets harder and harder to be so honored again. Our first “Pathfinder Cow” was “Hawk Valley EXT Ella” She went on to earn the honor eleven times before being retired at age 17. Her genetic influence is very strong in our herd. Several of her granddaughters also became pathfinders. She also sired a Wisconsin State Bull Test winner. We feel so honored to have bred, raised and owned “Ella” as we affectionately called her. A number of our other cows have earned multiple “Pathfinder Cow” honors. Between our 11 “Pathfinder Cows” we have 33 Pathfinder Cow certificates in our farm office.
Bred Heifers verses Bred Cows:
Many customers call or come to us and ask about purchasing bred heifers. When I ask them, “why do you want bred heifers?” the answer seldom varies. Their reply is along the lines of, “bred heifers will give us more calves in the long run and are thus a better value”.
I have several things that I point out to them about that concept. If you are just getting into beef cattle an older cow with a calf or two under her belt is a better idea. She knows what she is doing, and pretty much knows more than you may when it comes to raising her calf. As long as the birth is normal she can do it on her own. A first calf heifer may not even accept the calf or let it nurse. She has never done this before. First calf heifers can always be gamble and often require additional attention.
If your first year or so of being a new cow / calf producer does not go well you may not be in business long enough to reap the additional calves first calf heifers may give you. Another analogy I use is, I liken a cow herd to a professional sports team. Cows from a good herd at least made the team for a minimum of one calving season while bred heifers never even made the team to be a rookie. They may still be great members to add to your cow herd team, but like in a lot of things in life, you cannot beat experience. Cows with at least one successfully raised and weaned calf have got experience. An organization I belong to has the following motto, “Knowledge through Experience”.
First calf heifers also tend to raise smaller calves their first go around. Why is this? One, they themselves are still growing so their body has a higher nutritional requirement. Two, this is the time in their life, like all mammals, that they lose their baby teeth and get their adult teeth. That has to make it harder for them to ingest feed. Three, their first lactation just does not produce as much milk for the calf as they will as they mature. Just ask any dairy farmer about the truth in that statement.
You can control to a large extend when your calves are born. It is controlled by implementing night feeding. We have very few calves born during the night now. The advantages of day time births are several. More of us, or family members are likely to be up and around to notice that a cow is giving birth and give assistance if needed. There is way more light to work in and it is usually warmer.
Here is how it works. During morning chores make it so the close up cows cannot get to their feed. At first they will not like it, but will get used to the routine pretty fast. With nothing to eat they will get comfortable and lay down to chew their cuds. While all relaxed they are more likely to come into labor, if it is their time.
The last thing I do before going to bed at night is go out to the area the close up cows are in and let them get to their large round bales of grassy hay. I do this close to 10:00 P.M. It takes them several hours to get full, get a drink and lay back down. By then it is only a few hours before sunrise and I am coming down again to check on them.
Night feeding has made our life and lives of many friends so much nicer. If you are at a loss as to how to set up a night feeding system on your place give me a call and I can bounce a few ideas off of you.
We and most of our customers are small operations that either held or hold down off the farm jobs to help pay for our love of raising Black Angus Cattle. It doesn't matter if you have 15 head or 100 head. Each calf is precious, but a dead calf represents almost 7% of your calf crop and potential yearly income from a 15 cow operation. Losing a calf in a bigger operation is still emotionally and economically tough, but represents 1% of your operations annual production if you have 100 cows.
Here at Hawk Valley Angus we do all that we can to assure that all of our calves have a fighting chance of surviving to weaning. With that said we thought we would share with our current and future customers what we do to give our calves the best chance of survival possible.
Breeding calving ease into the cow herd and breeding them to a calving ease bull is a good start. A calf that has an easy birth and stands right up has most of the battle won. Remember, do not confuse calving ease with birth weight.
Scours is possibly the one disease that kills more new borns than anything else. All of our pregnant cows are vaccinated with ScourGuard 4KC prior to calving as per label directions. Wet muddy conditions are a very big cause of calf scours and losses. Do all that you can to provide a clean dry area for your cows to give birth in. Also provide a place for the calves to get out of the wet and wind. We have gone to the extent of installing security cameras that monitor our close up pregnant cows. It sure beats long cold walks down to the herd on cold winter nights.
In-Processing New Born Calves:
Here is what Susan and I do as soon as we realize that the Angus stork has visited us. We make sure that the calf is O-K and breathing on it's own. As long as the cow is mothering it and licking it off we leave them alone for 45 minutes to an hour.
We put our calf sling on it and pick it up like a suit case and carry it out of the large maternity pen with the 4 or 5 other close up cows in it. We learned early not to let cows calf in small pens the hard way. Side walls and corners are just too close. The pen they calve in is 30 feet by 30 feet. No more than six cows in it at one time. When a cow is going through the birthing process the others tend go to one corner to respect her space.
The carry straps on the sling have two D-rings that we hook on a hanging scale which has a rope through a pulley and a handle on the end. We pull the calf up to get an accurate birth weight for our Angus Herd Improvement Records.
The cow calf pair are taken into an adjacent “In-Processing” pen with clean dry wood shavings on the floor. We have a gate that can be used to separate off the momma cow, if she gets to be too helpful. We have large black bath towels that we use to vigorously rub the calf down all over. You don't need to be real gentle. The vigorous rubdown gets the calves blood moving and heart pumping. Towels are always laundered between calves.
Next we give each calf a nibble bottle with 20 ounces of Colostrum Milk. The colostrum comes from a neighboring dairy herd that has excellent herd health. We use 20 ounce sport drink bottles to freeze it in prior to the calving season. Even if the calf has, or is nursing when we find it, we make it drink the 20 ounces. We feel that this is perhaps the most important thing we do to assure calf survival. On cold days you have the additional peace of mind knowing that the calf has at least 20 ounces of warm nutrition and antibodies in it.
A quick true story: A customer of our's was just getting into raising Angus cattle and came to us for animals. We told him about our use of colostrum. He fed it to every calf, except two that first year. Before he was able to turn his small herd out to grass he had two calves die. Yup, the two that he did not give the colostrum to. He is our biggest believer.
While Susan feeds the calf it's bottle I am busy. Using a spray bottle containing the strongest tincture of iodine my veterinarian can get me, I soak down the fresh navel cord. Something like 90% of all calf diseases enter newborn calves through the raw navel cord.
Each calf gets 1 ml. of vitamins A&D injected into the biggest muscle mass it has, the rump. A second 1 mi. injection of MultiMin 90 is injected into the other side of the rump. Next the calf gets a bolus that contains components that promote the calf's gut microflora.
In-Processing is now complete except for moving the new pair to a maternity pen by themselves for a few days. During that time we monitor them to make sure that all is going well and that they are bonding. We want to be sure the calf is nursing, the cow is mothering it, and that she has cleaned. Our maternity pens are 10 feet by 16 feet.
At one week of age the calf is tagged and the pair is moved into group housing. We do not ear-tag calves right away. A newborn calf's ear is very, very thin. Punching a tag through it disrupts the blood flow to the ear. On cold winter days we do not want to promote frost damaged ears.
If it is really cold out when a calf is born we are also big believers in the use of insulated calf jackets. Susan is a seamstress and has designed wool calf hoods that we can use keep a calf's head, ears, and neck warm. A warm calf is a calf that will grow faster. The faster it gets bigger, the better it can stand up to Mother Nature.
Cows with newborns are not allowed to commingle with cows that have not calved. Group housing has a pen in it that only the calves can enter due to a small opening. They find it very fast and like it. It stays cleaner longer and no adult cow can step or lay on them. Don't worry they know how to come out to nurse.
It may sound like we are a bit overboard when it comes to In-processing our calves, but with only 20 expected each spring, each represents 5% of our annual income. Our track record for not losing calves is exceptionally high. “If it is not broken, don't fix it”, is a motto we live by. Hope you found this informative. Please feel free to use any and all of our proven techniques on your operation.
A number of years ago we had a fellow Angus breeder say the following to us, “you have very nice-looking cattle that are very docile and a few are “Pathfinder Cows”, but I do not believe they can compete in the real world”. The first words out of my mouth were, “what do you mean by not being able to compete in the real world?”. He told us that he did not think that we would do very well if we entered state sanctioned bull tests. All I need is to be told that I, or my family, or my cattle cannot do something to get me making arrangements to prove them wrong.
We entered our first state bull test that very fall. Our bulls did O-K for the next two years as we learned the ropes. The third year we won the Saint Croix Valley Bull Test up at UW-River Falls.
Two years later we won it again. Two years after that we won it a third time. Two years later we entered and won the Iowa Cattlemen's Bull Test run by the University of Iowa. I was told by an official from the Iowa bull test that he thought we might be the first non-Iowa cattle breeder to have won their test. The next year we won all of the marbles again up at SCVBT at UW-RF. Susan and I are very proud of the bull test championship plagues in our home. Hopefully our “boys” will continue to show others that Hawk Valley Angus can indeed compete as we continue to enter bulls every year up at UW-River Falls' Saint Croix Valley Bull Test.
We keep a file on every person that has ever purchased an animal from us. In that file is a copy of the Pedigree and EPD's of all that they have purchased from us. With multiple cow family lines and extensive use of Artificial Insemination we can provide you with herd bulls and females way into the future, without the fear of inbreeding.
We have several repeat bull customers that place their bull order with us and have me select their next bull for them, sight unseen. Using their customer file I ask myself, “which bull would I want to use on these daughters of their past bulls?” My policy is that if I deliver a bull to a customer that he does not like, for any reason, we will shake hands and I will take it home, no questions asked. We have yet to bring a bull home.
Will be delivering a long time customer's newest Hawk Valley Angus herd-sire this spring. It is the 12th one he has bought from us in 24 years. He only set foot on our place the first year when we met. Since then he trust us to bring him the right bull. We have several other customers just like him. That kind of trust and faith in us and our breeding program means so much to Susan and I.
I am very pleased to have been elected to the SCVBT Board of Directors, several three year terms ago. I truly enjoy working with the University of Wisconsin staff, my fellow Board Members and consignors. My goal is to make our bull test the best and fairest it can be. I am currently serving as the Board's secretary.
Several years ago Susan and I were approached by the county Conservation Department and ask if we would host a summer pasture walk. They hoped to showcase our conservation efforts and stewardship of our land while still running an Angus operation. We jumped at the opportunity to explain our philosophy of treating the land correctly as it provided income and enjoyment to us. The “Living Off the Land”, pasture walk was a very rewarding thing for us to have done. We met many self minded individuals who expressed their thanks at sharing our operation's practices.
Recently I was the key note speaker at a very large conference called “Managing Oaks in the Driftless Area”. County Conservation and Forestry Department heads approached us to speak. With little arm twisting I agreed to speak to the crowd. The main thrust of my talk and slide show was the 23 acre total clear cut and management of a mixed oaks and hardwoods section of our woods. As a former Ag. Teacher I still enjoy speaking too and teaching groups. The talk and slide show was very well received by the well attended event.
I also currently sit on our county Soil and Water Conservation advisor committee. It has been a real eye opener to me to see the county as a whole when it comes to important issues such as erosion, land use, pollution, land development, water quality etc. Our county sits in the part of the United States that is referred to as the “Driftless Area”. No glaciers pushed through this area thousands of years ago. Because of this our topography is very steep and rugged. This topography makes farming here more challenging to say the least.