Dairy Truths

It’s all bull

Let’s talk about the bull in the barnyard. We are a bull bred farm, meaning that we let a bull roam with the heifers and cows to breed them.

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 that can breed (he has all his breeding equipment).
  • Steer – Male that has been castrated, most commonly used for beef.

In a perfect rotation a cow would become pregnant about 3 months after she delivered her last calf.  We would then milk her until she is 7 months along in pregnancy.  The last 60 days of her pregnancy we stop milking her and move her to the dry barn, which is housing separate from the milking herd where they receive a different feed ration. Really – our cows have an average of one pregnancy a year.

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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 our bull does his job and when he gets too big or even slightly aggressive we will sell him. We also have a red heeler who despite her inability to herd cattle effectively is very good at identifying the bulls and staying close to us whenever we are in the barn with them. Having a cattle dog has been helpful, good herders can save a life.

We have had a few bulls that were pretty great – Blitz, Sanchez, and Parker.

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.

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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 and our bull is doing his job.

Xo, Nicole

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