Agriculture

The bull in our barn

Why do cows even need to get pregnant? And isn’t it true they are pregnant all the time? 

Cattle do not produce milk until they have delivered their first calf. Reproduction is pretty darn important in this business…  So, let’s talk about the bull in our barnyard.  We are a bull bred farm, meaning that we let a bull roam with the heifers and cows to breed them.  That guy up there is Atwood!  It might seem like dairy cows are always getting knocked up but that just isn’t the case.  Cattle naturally have a heat cycle every 21 days and the veterinarian tells us when they are healthy to become pregnant.  Pregnancies last 9 months and then you have an adorable four legged love child.  Knowing the correct terminology for the cattle is important, so let’s discuss names.

Heifer – female that has not yet delivered a calf.  Heifers are introduced to the bull at around 14 months of age, give or take based on their size and health.  Once a heifer has her first calf you could call her a cow but to make things a little difficult a lot of farmers will call her a first-lactation heifer.

Cow – female that has delivered a calf. We would generally call her a cow after she delivers her second calf.

Lactation – The cycle of delivering a calf and milking.  A cow that has just delivered her 3rd calf would be a third-lactation cow.

Bull – Male cow that can breed (he has all his goodies).

Steer – Male cow that has been castrated, most commonly used for beef.

In a perfect rotation a cow has one calf a year.  After a cow delivers her calf we have our veterinarian give her a health check, he lets us know if her uterus is doing well and shrinking back to its normal size.  As I mentioned above cows have a natural heat cycle every 21 days and since the bull is in the herd with our cows we allow him to detect the heat and breed when it is time.  Some of our cows catch on the first breeding and others may take a few months, but we continue to check the cows with our veterinarian to make sure they are healthy until we get a confirmed pregnancy.  Cows are pregnant for 9 months and we milk them until they are about 7 months along in the pregnancy.  Two months before her due date we move her to the dry barn, naturally her body is producing less milk so we stop milking her and give her around 60 days to rest.  The day our cows deliver they are moved back into the dairy herd where we collect the colostrum for their calf and we monitor their health to make sure they stay strong.

Farms either breed with a bull or artificially inseminate (AI) their herd; the choice belongs to each individual farm.  We choose to breed with a bull because we don’t currently have the set-up we would like to have to use A.I.  We also choose to breed with a bull because of the cost of hiring a technician to come to the farm on a regular basis.  These choices are what works best for our farm but that doesn’t mean there aren’t dangers to having a bull in the herd.  Bulls are very unpredictable and their behavior can change in an instant.  There is a HUGE risk to the safety of every worker or person on the farm.  Bulls can also get too heavy or lazy when breeding and can injure the heifers or cows.  That being said we try to make sure Atwood does his job and when he gets too big or aggressive we will sell him.  We also have a red heeler, Mia, who despite her inability to herd cattle is very good at identifying the bull and staying close to us whenever we are in the barn with him.

We have had a few bulls that were pretty tame – Blitz, Sanchez, Parker…Atwood does his job but is certainly not trustworthy.

And we have had some bulls that were not so famous – We once had a bull that spent six months with our heifers and only bred 2% of them, which was a big setback to our herd.  We need our cows to become bred so that they continue to give milk.  As cows get older we need younger ones to fill in the herd.  This is an important cycle to dairy farms and an awful lot of things ride on the importance of getting your animals bred and having healthy heifer calves.  While anti-farming activist will use emotional words to convince the public that we are forcing our cows to get pregnant it just isn’t true.  What is true is that a cow getting pregnant and coming into milk will happen naturally and the method of using a bull or A.I. is a choice of convenience for individual farms.  Having a bull in the barnyard works for us right now but switching over to A.I. may be a better option in a few years.  Either way our cows are healthy and are giving us healthy calves, Mr. Atwood is doing his job…and all is well down on the farm.

With love, Nicole

Author: Nicole Wren

Nicole Wren is a wife, mom of three, and dairy farmer from northeastern Michigan. She and her husband milk 60-70 cows and farm 300 acres. Sharing honestly about their first generation dairy farm and motherhood, all the ups and downs that come with is what she is passionate about.

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