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Spring is in the air… now?

By Emily Donegan
November 20, 2014
FarmOrganic

I’ve written a little bit before about our farm being a seasonal operation. In practice, this means that our cows all have their calves at the same time of year, and then we dry them off, or give them a break, at the same time before their next calves are born. This also allows us to take a much-needed break – usually two months or so, from milking. We can focus on other tasks around the farm and spend a little more time with family.

One thing I appreciate about the seasonal schedule is that there are different times of the year for everything – it keeps things interesting. The “cow year” starts with calving, followed by breeding, and then with dry-off. This cycle plays out roughly through a 12-month year and then repeats itself, but we’re often tweaking it to fit the different parts of the “cow year” into the unique dictates of the Vermont
seasons.

Time for change
Since we’ve been milking seasonally, calves have usually come some time between February and May. However, we found that that schedule makes for a haying season that is too crazy for us, especially during first cut which occurs between the end of May and beginning of June. So we recently began the move toward late summer/early fall calving. We anticipate it will take a few years for us to
get there, moving our calving window a few weeks each year. This year our calves came at the same time as the first cut of hay, which wasn’t ideal.

Next year, we’re shooting for the end of July. We ultimately think that sometime between the end of July and beginning of September will be the best calving window to balance all the needs of the farm.

Having a calving window in late July makes this time of year breeding season. Breeding success is the most critical aspect of our seasonal operation, and breeding for an organic operation takes a high level of organization and attention to detail. Most dairy cows are bred artificially, rather than with a bull.

Different approaches to breeding
On many non-organic dairy farms, the process works like this: a technician gives a herd of cows a hormone shot to cause them to all come into heat at the same time. The technician will then return to the farm when the cows are in heat, breed them artificially, and hope for the best. The process can be repeated with cows that don’t “settle,” or get pregnant.

Organic farms, however, aren’t allowed to use hormone shots: cows are required to cycle naturally. Many organic cows are still bred using the artificial method, but it means that the technician must make many trips to the farm—arriving to breed each individual cow when the farmer notices her in heat. Not only does this take a lot of attention and organization, but those multiple trips are costly. Breeding with a bull can be a less expensive option for an organic farm, but then the farmer misses out on the myriad of different traits that can be selected when using a breeder who carries semen from a number of different bulls: traits like high milk production, longevity, fertility, udder health, butterfat, etc. Improving milk production and herd health through genetic traits is especially important for organic farmers, who don’t use hormones and antibiotics to improve the functioning of their herds.

It’s also critical to our seasonal operation that our cows are bred as quickly as possible. Cows cycle every 3 weeks, and each time a heat is missed, that means the cow’s calf will come 3 weeks later, and her lactation will be that much shorter, assuming that we dry all the cows off at the same time. How do we balance all of these important aspects of our operation when making breeding decisions?

How we manage organic breeding
Our attempts vary from year to year, but here’s how we are managing our breeding needs with the needs of our seasonal, certified organic operation on this particular year. We are breeding our cows artificially for one cycle (3 weeks) only. We have chosen 15 or so of our best cows to breed with “sexed” semen, a new development in artificial breeding which nearly guarantees a female offspring. The bull we have chosen produces offspring with traits we want our cows to have, like bodies built for
grazing and udders that perform well for many years. The rest of our cows are being bred to less expensive semen from a beef breed that will produce small calves and easy calving. These calves will be sold and raised as beef. After 3 weeks, the cows
that “repeat,” or come into heat again, will be bred by a bull. Bull breeding requires less attention from us, and it’s usually more successful than a visit from the breeder, as timing is critical for conception. After 3 weeks with the bull, most of our cows will hopefully be bred, and all within a 6-week window.

Keeping watch
On the ground, that means a lot of observation time with the cows right now. We’re watching for behaviors that indicate a cow may be in heat, catching up a few cows each day and putting them in a corral on pasture for the breeder’s daily visit, and then returning them to graze with the herd. We have to meet the breeder and make sure that each cow is bred to the right semen each time, and then we continue to watch her – sometimes her behavior indicates that she should be bred again the following day for assurance. We write the heats and breeding times down on the calendar, and after 3 weeks we start watching closely for “repeats.” The bull, who will
arrive at the farm sometime this week, sometimes catches heats that we don’t.

Coordinating all of this makes for a breeding season that is almost as busy as calving season or haying season, but I appreciate that, like all seasons, it has a beginning and an end. And giving each season its due results in an operation that runs smoothly and efficiently.

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