Great day for the crew as we shipped our first load of Wagyu X calves yesterday, but one month earlier and 100 lbs. lighter than usual due to current drought conditions. Drier than 2013 with only 6” of rainfall for the season, we’re trying to conserve what grass we have. Today we’re preg-checking their mothers as we begin to reduce the numbers of our cowherd.
We are extremely fortunate to have an excellent crew of neighbors to help us mark our calves. Yesterday was a beautiful day to brand our second bunch of Wagyu X calves, though pretty dusty near the end of the work. Even though the hills are green, the grass is terribly short with only 4.31” of rain on Dry Creek thus far this year with only two months left of our rainy season. Furthermore, the spring forecast https://weatherwest.com/archives/8382 is quite disturbing.
Feeding hay since August, some neighbors have already begun to sell their cows into this down market. Ideally, the cull cows will attain their heaviest weights by mid-April, however most everyone’s cows are now stressed as short feed and growing calves have kept them thin. With little rain and a minimal snowpack, summer irrigation water will be in short supply, which translates to higher water prices in the San Joaquin Valley. Likewise, one can be assured that with fewer cuttings, the price of hay will also be high.
The south slopes have already dried up, offering only a month of green this year. Without any moisture in the next week, the west slopes will follow suit. Not necessarily the amount of rain, but the timing is always the crucial variable for native feed. We carry on as if by some miracle we can keep our cows together, but time is running out for the Southern Sierra foothills.
After about a dozen years of breeding our heifers to Wagyu bulls for Snake River Farms, we have noticed a distinct difference in their behavior as compared to our English calves, predominantly Angus with some Hereford heterosis. The Wagyu cross is more active. They find their legs earlier, within a week or less running and playing together, and within two weeks or so, chasing one another in gangs.
Essentially in our front yard, we have the luxury of watching them in the pasture racing ahead of their mothers in the morning to the water trough, and then in bunches, circling at full speed as their mothers drink—and again in the evenings before their mothers move up the hill to graze. Never the same antics twice, it’s good entertainment with coffee or a cocktail.
With a smaller calf, we opted for the Wagyu bulls so that we could breed our yearling heifers on time. Holding our replacement heifers until they were two before we bred them was almost impossible—always an English bull around looking for more work at a time that their larger calves, if they could have them, would come at the wrong time of year for our country—those heifers out-of-sync with our breeding program.
The Wagyu X calves also seem more secure in bunches, forming large nurseries while their mothers are away. After 2 weeks of bonding in a canyon away from the main bunch, the mother of the twins brought them in on Monday, a feed day, pictured in Friday’s post with 22 other calves using alfalfa for soft bedding until the cows returned to clean-up all the hay.
Another trait that makes it difficult at times to pair a calf with its mother is that the Wagyu X calves are persistent when it comes to stealing milk. Sometimes they wait until a heifer is nursing its own calf, then sneak in, often from behind, to help out. Other times they will badger a heifer until she finally gives up. This usually takes place when the calves get older with bigger appetites.
Even so, maturing from heifers to cows, we are continually amazed and proud of the maternal instincts we see in our first-calf heifers—making our job so much easier.
Robbin reminds me that my last photo of the decapitated heron was not appropriate in these grizzly times of increasing Covid deaths and chaotic politics. I thought it fit the poem, but…
Four days ago, I came upon two heifers that had just calved in a canyon well-apart from the bunch, one heifer with twins and a big coyote lurking within 50 feet, watching the process. Any cow with new twins is especially vulnerable, ultimately unable to protect them both. Fortunately, she had the other heifer nearby. I scattered a little hay. Robbin and I checked on them that evening and all was well.
More often than not, a cow will abandon the weaker calf to take care of the other. I returned first thing Tuesday morning to see two cows and two calves from a distance, but as I approached them, I saw that the heifer with twins was gone, replaced by another heifer with an older calf for protection, I assume. I scattered more hay and checked all around to find no other cattle.
Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning I checked all the first-calf heifers in the bunch, but the cow with twins was not among them. We fed on Thursday, and still the heifer with twins was missing. I assumed she left the area with her two Wagyu X calves, less than a day old, during the night, because of the coyote.
This morning I went looking and finally found her and both calves secreted in the rocks on a steep slope, fine and healthy. It occurs to me that she also needed time to bond with the twins that might have been lost and confused in the nursery of over 20 calves, had she returned to the security of the other mothers. After fifty years living with cows, I continue to be amazed and admire the intelligence of cattle, especially cows.
On my way to town afterwards, I heard Elizabeth Cook on Sirius suggest that we look away from the news and focus locally instead. How right she is! We’ll see how long it takes the heifer with twins to come off the hill, hopefully with both.
It doesn’t seem all that long ago (mid-September), when our first-calf heifers began calving with no real rain until mid-November, and only 3 inches through the end of February, one of the driest starts to our rainy season on record. We fed a lot of hay and fortunately we had some dry feed leftover from the year before, but a tough start for a two-year old, first-time mother and calf.
Thursday morning, these steer and heifer calves leave for Connell, Washington for Agri-Beef’s Snake River Farms’ program to be marketed as American Kobe Beef where they’ll be fed for 400-500 days. This is our second load of Wagyu X calves and typically we take the calves from their mothers, weigh and sort steers from heifers, then load them immediately onto the truck. However, since we’ve increased the number of cows that we breed to the Wagyu bulls, the first-calf heifers are pastured in two different fields two miles away from our loading corrals and scales that requires us to haul the calves. Half of the calves pictured above were weaned Monday, the balance yesterday as they wait for the truck.
Weaning is a stressful time in a calf’s life, and stress can be measured in pounds, and hence in dollars. It can also leave them susceptible to various respiratory problems. For these calves, this is not an ideal scenario, but temperatures are relatively cool and we’ve sprinkled the dust down, hoping for the best as we feed good alfalfa hay morning and night.
The rule of thumb for the time to wean an English calf is a week, but over the years we’ve noticed that after three or four days they’ve forgotten their mothers. Compared to our English calves weaned off mature cows, the Wagyu X calves generally weigh about 200 pounds less, but their mothers at two years old put on another 200-300 pounds while raising their Wagyu X calves. Quite remarkable, when 30 years ago we wouldn’t breed a replacement heifer until she was two to avoid calving problems or stunting her growth—all due to genetic improvements.
Assuming weight is a measure of stress, I don’t believe the calves will lose that much weight. What may be a pricy experiment, we weighed the calves off the trailers to compare to the shipping weights Thursday morning to prove or disprove our hypothesis. We’ll see.
As in past years, we keep our first-calf heifers in two bunches on either side of the road near the house where we can watch them. Bred to Wagyu bulls, these coming two year-olds are due to begin calving tomorrow. First Wagyu X calf arrived yesterday to #2153 below.