It’s all about Management

(I took this photo yesterday of our ranch, thats it in the middle. We were checking out some new leased land/grass, directly south and across the canyon from our place.)
It takes a lot of management to calve out a herd of cows. The more cattle involved the more management needed. I would like to give you an explanation into some of the day to day management of our cowherd.

Before calving starts, our herd is broken into and fed in 3 groups: pregnant animals, bulls and year-old future mothers. As time creeps closer to calving, we split the pregnant cows two ways, the 1st time mothers and anything that needs more care: underweight mothers or super old cows. The reason for this is to give the young and real old cows their fair share of the feed. When they are with the main cow herd they constantly get pushed away from the feed and overtime do not get enough. It is very costly to try and feed young cows with the main herd because no matter how much feed you give them, it all goes to the fat cows.
On February 1st, our 1st time calvers start calving. We start them two weeks earlier than the main herd to give them extra time to rebreed and also so they calve on the cleanest ground. It also helps when the rancher is fresh! When a calf is born, it is moved out of the pen and depending on the weather, goes into an indoor or outdoor pen. This pen is bedded with clean sawdust or straw. Each calf is closely monitored for the first 6 hours. Making sure it is standing, warm, and has nursed its mom’s colostrum. Sometimes a mothers teats are ‘waxed shut’ and it takes a good ranchers squeeze to get the milk flowing. At about 24 hours old, the calf will get an eartag, and if male will be castrated with a rubber band. When in full swing we are getting 10 to 12 calves per day. The new pairs spend 3 days, close to the barn under supervision, then they are moved out farther and put into groups. These groups are made according to the age of the cow and the age of the calf. We cap the groups between 50 and 75 pairs. It is very important NOT to put day old calves out with month old calves. The day old calves do not have the immunity yet to deal with this. They also can get lost in a big group and then do not get proper nutrition.
I’d like to give you a snap shot into our busiest day of calving:
The day is February 24th. Temperature minus 12 degrees celsius. The last calf born on the 23rd was at midnight. Went to bed after it was in the barn and we saw it was nursing. At 5:00 am the cows must be walked through and checked. There are 2 cows calving and because it is fairly cold out, they must be walked in. Since we are in full swing of calving, 2 newborns must be moved out of the barn and into the corral. Those pens are quickly cleaned, dusted with lime and bedded with new straw. The 2 calving cows are moved into maternity pens, which house a stanchion capable of restraining the cow in the event we need to help her. These babies should be born by around 7 am. We are constantly keeping track of who is calving and when they should be done. At 7 am the cow herd needs to be checked again. The barns are then cleaned and the day old calves are tagged and moved around the corral.
The 3 – 4 day old calves are moved out to the large pens with calf sheds. The object is to keep the corral as clean as possible and to keep calves and cows who need extra attention close by. If a cow has a tough birth and starts looking poor, she may need antibiotics. Now we start to feed yearlings, bulls and cow/calf pairs for the day. Throughout the day, the cows are walked through every two hours and ones that are calving are brought in and looked after. At 3 pm we feed the pregnant cows. We feed the pregnant cows in the late afternoon because we have found this helps them to calve in the daylight hours. By 6 pm we have had 10 newborns that day and are all nursing and doing well. We continue to check every 2 hours until about 11 pm. If all is quiet then, we go to bed. This routine continues for about 2 months on most ranches.
The reason this blog is about management is because it is all a carefully choreographed motion. Every action is carefully planned and has an important reason for doing it. If an daily chore is not done, it can/or will result in a lost calf. Sawdust and straw are stockpiled, soap, tags and vet supplies ready, pens are cleaned, cattle are moved everyday, all to ensure the smooth and safe arrival of the newborns.
At every moment we are watching the animals. We can immediately notice if a cow or calf is in distress or if something is off. You get so good at this, we will be driving down the highway and notice a neighbors cow and the problem!! This is also where ranchers intuition is very strong. Alarm clocks are not always used, sometimes you just wake up when it’s time.
At this moment, April 19th on our ranch, we are feeding 7 separate groups of animals.

Throughout the year, a ranch is continually being micromanaged. Decisions need to be made everyday for the future and the efficient operation of the ranch. Right now our fertilizer and seed has been purchased and our grazing plan is in place (we know where all the cows and calves are going for grazing throughout the year).

Ranches do not survive without a good manager.

~Erika Fossen~

A Game Changer

Our ranch just guaranteed the minimum amount of income we will make this fall. This is revolutionary for the ranching industry and a real game changer!

One of the major downfalls to having cattle, and making your income from selling cattle, is that you are dealing with a very volatile market. Circumstances completely out of your control sets what your product is worth. Throughout the year input costs (expenses) are fixed or rising, i.e. fuel, seed grain, machinery, etc. We could rely on the minimum expenditures, but up until yesterday in British Columbia, we could not rely on an estimated income.

In the last 14 years, we have seen violent swings in the market! In 2003 when a case of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) was discovered in Canada, our market crashed. I remember sitting in the auction market and saw a old mama cow go for a cent/pound! Which made her worth $12!! This spring a similar cow sold for $1500. Because of that catastrophic BSE event, the whole ranching and beef industry was devastated and billions of dollars where lost. It significantly played a part in the price of beef, because of closed borders, but there are many other factors that play a part in the price of beef too. These factors can be:
-The Weather: making a surplus or shortage of cattle feed.
-The US/Canadian $
-The availability of trucks and the weather during shipping.

It may be hard to understand, or appreciate what it feels like when your income is cut in half by nothing that you have or haven’t done. Imagine with your job that you do right now, if at the end of the year: 2/3’s of your pay check was not there! That is how it has been working with the cattle market. We did the work, but did not get paid equally for it. Our calves were born and grew beautifully; we worked the same as any other year to manage them, dealt with all the stresses of drought and expenses, but at the end of the year we made 1/2 of what we needed. To cover for the loss, many ranchers had to go get another job, working it as well as the ranch. This is how it has been for the ranching industry, especially since 2003. Writing this blog has made me very emotional as I try to articulate why this insurance is so important. It has brought up ‘penned-up stress’ of all the years wondering if we were going to be able to make a living.

The arrival of this insurance has made me realize two things, one: how thankful I am that we are now guaranteed a minimum income and two: how much our family was subconsciously stressed by dealing with unknown nature of volatile markets. I can’t tell you how revolutionary this insurance is for all of us.
~Erika Fossen~

An Amazing Creature

Working with cows everyday, I am often struck with amazement at their abilities and instincts. I’d like to share some of these interesting observations.

Sense of Smell – Some of you may not know how often a cow uses her sense of smell. During calving she is able to smell her amniotic fluid, even in a calving ground where hundreds of cows calve. As co-blogger Erika pointed out in ‘Baby’s First Toboggan Ride’, this is why it can sometimes be a pain to move the cow and/or calf. The cow is drawn back to the place where she birthed her calf and dropped her fluid. It is easier to move the cow when she has the scent of the newborn calf to follow. It can be a REAL bear to try and move a cow after her fluid has broken, but the calf is not born yet.
A cow will also use her sense of smell to help her navigate. Last summer it caught my attention when a cow ‘smelt’ her way to the other cows. We were clearing out a pasture and had moved a large group of cows and calves out. We realized we had missed some and went back to get them. I noticed as a cow continually smelt the ground, following the trail of the others and her calf who had been moved out earlier. I would expect this from a dog, but found it very interesting that a cow also uses their sense of smell! We play a game of hide and seek with our cows in the summer when we put salt out on our 50,000 acres of range land. Salt comes in a 50 pound block, which they lick. Each cow will lick through about 10 pounds of salt a year. In this game, we have never had a block that a cow hasn’t found and licked; a very good sense of smell!

Whereabouts – I find it incredible how a cow can consistently recocgnize her own calf and keep track of it’s whereabouts! I guess this must go back to smell! Tonight we were coming up our driveway and a little calf was sleeping in a ditch on the wrong side of the fence. My husband got the baby up and started to bring it up out of the ditch and get it to the correct place. From way up in the field about 200 meter away, the mama came bawling and running down toward us. Even though she could not even see the calf yet, as it was behind a steep bank, she knew we were ‘touching’ her baby! Often a mom will ‘stash’ her newborn baby somewhere safe. It’s like she says, “You go to sleep right here. Do not move. I will come back to get you!” Isn’t it amazing that a cow, in the dark, from a long ways away, can know it is her baby?

Daughters, Mothers, Grandmothers – It is very interesting over the course of the calving season to look at the patterns of family members and their calving. Often daughters, mothers, and grandmothers will calve within days of each other. On our ranch we can recognize this because of the way we tag. In this picture there are 3 tags in the middle. The cow #13U, her daughter and her granddaughter all had their babies on the same day. I am not sure why it is. Possibly because of the way their cycles fall in the same pattern or time frame. It happens very often and I think it is interesting!
~Erika Fossen~


Most ranchers hear that word and shudder, but I just love twins. Maybe I am still too young and naïve, but there is something so amazing to me about twins! Yes, they are a pain in the butt and cause extra work during calving season, a time where extra work is not needed, but I can’t help it I love them. Every year it’s different 2 years ago we had 3 sets of twins, last year we had one set and this year so far we’ve only had one set as well. This set was born one afternoon when I was at the ranch all by myself (I swear all disasters happen when I am by myself). I was doing some chores around the barn yard and looked down to the bottom field where all our pregnant cows are and noticed that a cow had calved, I grabbed the calf sled (refer to my last blog post about the calf sled) because it was quite cold that day and still a lot of snow on the ground. I walked down and pulled the one calf up to the barn no problem and resumed doing some other chores. Not an hour later I looked down at the field again and noticed another cow had calved, so I grabbed the sleigh and went to pull up the latest calf. I got down there and noticed this calf was tiny (one clue it might be twins), but I put her in the calf sled to tow her up to the barn. I figured if it was twins, the mom will follow and she can have the second calf in the dry barn. WRONG! That is not what happened at all. I put the calf in the sled and the cow who is older, this was her 4 calf behaved like a heifer, she did not follow the sled and just walked away and layed down. At this point I was positive she was having twins, so I left the first calf in the sled, I thought at least she was up off of the snowy ground and let the mom have the second calf. This plan was going well until I noticed that the second calf was being born right in the amniotic sac. This is scary because the thick skin is covering the calf’s nose and it could suffocate. I decided to sneak up behind the cow and try to break the skin, well the skin was too tough and I couldn’t break it and on top of that I scared the cow, so she stopped pushing and got up. I was pretty nervous at this point that I had messed up and I was worried that the second twin wasn’t going to be alive. I was worried because she had already had the first one quite awhile ago and there is the possibility of umbilical cord breaking on the second twin. I just wanted her to lay down and HAVE THE SECOND BABY. Of course, that is not what happened she just kept wandering around, not pushing meanwhile the second calf’s 2 front legs and nose was out, but still covered in that skin. I am going into definite panic mode at this point, so I decided to run up to our calving shack and grab a rope, I figured my only option at this point was to rope her, dally her to a fence post and pull this poor little guy. So that’s what I ended up doing, of course it took me quite a few shots with the rope, but I finally got her and got the calf out and he was alive! YAY! So that ended up going well thanks goodness. However, now is the part where Rancher’s don’t like twins because there mom’s generally don’t have enough milk to raise two calves. There are two options, you can possibly draft the twin onto another cow who has recently lost her calf or bottle feed both of them. We have been bottle feeding the twins twice a day. Currently, both twins are doing great and we have recently quit bottle feeding them because we are feeding their mom separately really good feed and grain, so she is milking really well and producing enough to feed both calves. 

The red white faced calf is a heifer calf (girl).

 The black white faced calf is a bull calf (boy).

I tried to take a video of bottle feeding the twins, but apparently it didn’t work,  because it was so funny they would get so excited for their bottle and when one calf was sucking the bottle the other would try and push them off of it and latch on themselves.

~Erika Strande~

Baby’s First Toboggan Ride


Depending on the weather, sometimes we have to pull the newborn calves up to barn in our “calf sled”. We do this if the weather is really cold and wet. We have found that calves do a lot better and keep for getting sick if they can stay dry for their first couple of days of life. This past February the entire month was miserable and cold, -20 and colder, and lots of snow, so we tried to calve everything in the calving barns in hopes of preventing the calves from getting sick. However, sometimes the mama cows don’t cooperate and have their baby out in the field in the snow. This is where the calf sled comes into play. If we feel the weather is too cold and too wet for the calf to stay outside we will walk down with the sled, put the calf in the sled and tow him into the barn. Usually this works well because the mom will follow the smell of her calf and follow the sled right into the barn. However, sometimes it does not work out that well, especially if you are dealing with a heifer’s calf. A heifer is a female who has calved for the first time, therefore the whole experience is new and a bit frightening so throwing a calf sled in the mix can really throws things for a loop. The majority of the time the heifer will follow her calf in the sled as well, but occasionally she just runs around looking for the calf and returns to the last place the calf was. This can be frustrating because when this happens it usually turns into quite a chore chasing the heifer around, so she follows her calf. If only we could communicate with them that we are just trying to help….

~Erika Strande~

A Little Girls Paradise!

Lately on our ranch, our three daughters are in ‘baby animal paradise’!
As you know we are in the middle calving. This is when all the mother cows have their young. But to add to the mix, in December we bred our cattle-herding dog ‘Red’. A few days after Valentines Day she had seven puppies. On my farm as a child, our female dog would often have puppies. I have such fond memories of playing with the puppies and wanted my girls to experience the joy too. Then last night, in conjunction with our 4H Club, the girls got 12 baby chicks. They are heritage breeds which will grow up to be laying hens.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie ‘Despicable Me’ but there is a scene in it where the youngest daughter says, “It’s so fluffy, I’m gonna die!!”

That is about where my girls are at! Its like a petting zoo around here and the girls are loving it!
Here are some pictures of the various babies:
~Erika Fossen~

“How’s it going out there?”

Yesterday I left Doug to it, as I headed off for a day of skiing with my daughters and their school. At 6 p.m., when we drove in the yard and asked “How’s it going out there?” we found that Doug and our other daughter had just helped calve a calf that was backwards. They had four other calves in the day. Things had been quite pleasant with the sun shining and all going well, so Doug sent our hired man home early and Grandpa went out to dinner. At 8 pm Doug went out to check the cows again and I turned into bed early. (I was real tired sometimes we go to bed then get up again at 11:00 pm for the last check. This was the case for me last night.) On his check he found there was one more new calf out in the cow pen, looking like it was close to standing. He came back in and went out at 9 pm to see if the new calf was up. It was fine, but he found a cow with two back feet sticking out. This means the calf is backwards and has to be helped out. In a normal presentation, the face of the calf emerges before its umbilical cord breaks, it can take its first breath and all is good. But with a backwards calf, its umbilical cord breaks and its face is still in the womb. If the birth is not fast enough then it can be deprived of oxygen, and suffocate. So to prevent that, the rancher needs to assist and get the calfs face out quickly. If you’ve ever chased a pregnant cow, who really thinks she should calve right where she is, you might chuckle at the thought of a tired rancher wearing insulated coveralls and muck boots, running through eight inches of crusted snow in the dark! As I peacefully rested, he finally won the battle, getting the ole’ girl into the maternity pen and pulled the 2nd backwards calf of the evening. The minute the calf was out of her, that ole’ #567 ran Doug out of the pen saying, “I got this from here Sonny! Leave us alone!” He stomped into the house and work me up getting a bucket of water. In my sleepy stupor, I asked, “How’s it going out there?” He told me he pulled a backwards calf and was just cleaning up. Back to sleep I went, thinking we were good for the night, what more could go on? But at 10:30 pm when Doug walked out to retrieve the Gator (ATV) from out of the field where he had left it when his ‘fight’ with #567 started, he thought he should have one more quick look at the cows. At 11:30 pm I was awoken by the door slamming again and Doug stomping into the house. I asked, “How’s it going out there?” He said, “I just pulled a backwards calf and am cleaning up! I retorted with, “I know you pulled a backwards calf you told me that an hour ago!” It was like DejaVu! But, that was the THIRD backwards calf of the evening!! Very strange! At this point I felt very guilty for going to bed! Doug did finally join me at midnight, after he took one more quick walk out to get the Gator and one more quick look at the cows. Thankfully, all was quiet!
~Erika Fossen~
Here is a diagram of how a backwards calf looks:
Thoughts of days like this pull us through the long, snowy days of calving!