Hey gang! Today I thought I would give you a little lesson in cow breeding and pregnancy. Since Mut is still a little young to know of such things, this is Muts mom writing this. In order for any mammal to give milk (barring a few exceptions) they first need to give birth. So how do cows get pregnant?
On most farms today cows are bred using artificial insemination (A.I.). This is for a few reasons. One, bulls can be nasty. Some farms will keep a bull around for “cleanup”, or to breed the cows that are having a hard time getting pregnant, but it is done with caution. One day I was feeding calves around dusk and looked up and saw a cow out and standing in the yard. Something caught my eye and I looked down and noticed the “cow” had something else besides an udder and realized it was our bull Carl. The annoyed “how did she get out” feeling quickly turned to terror as Carl was not very nice and my husband was not in screaming distance. Luckily my husband heard his phone when I called him and after much chasing Carl was back in the barn. Why am I telling you this story? Because it could have ended a lot worse for me and/or Carl. Bulls are aggressive and can kill you. Period.
Bulls can also hurt the cows. Not on purpose, but they are a lot bigger than cows and not to be too graphic but if a cow is in heat, they are what’s called “standing”. This pretty much means that if a bull (or another cow) was to ride them they will stand there for it. If a bull is riding a cow all day-they generally aren’t a one and done type kind of guy- that cow could have some pretty sore legs and back by the end of the day, or he could easily injure her.
So that leaves us with artificial insemination. What this is is semen frozen and stored in tanks with liquid nitrogen. When a cow is ready to be bred, a straw of semen is taken from the tank and thawed. It is then placed in a breeding gun, which the whole thing being smaller around than a pea. The farmer will insert one arm into the cows rear, and the breeding gun(a lot smaller than a bulls…you know…) into her vulva. With the arm that’s in the cows rear, the farmer guides the tube into the cows cervix and pushes a plunger that’s on top of the gun, and it deposits the semen into the cow. Voila. No poor cow being ridden for hours, just a few minute wham-bam-thank you ma’am. Quick and easy and painless. Most cows will just stand there and chew their cud during it.
Besides not keeping bulls around, why else do farmers use A.I.? Genetics. You can improve your herd by selecting the right bulls. For example, you have lazy cows that don’t milk. You can choose a bull who is proven to carry genes of high milk production. That’s just an example but what are some genetic traits farmers look for?
* milk, butterfat and protein. These things are how we get paid.
* Reproductive health.
*A cows physical appearance- feet and legs, udder form, etc… all these traits add up to a healthy cow, so you would want to breed to have a healthy, solid cow.
*Polled. This is huge, and will probably just keep getting bigger. Polled means that a cow is naturally born without horns. Why does this matter? People are against farmers dehorning their cows. I have no idea why as we administer pain medicine and it is done quickly and humanely. It is generally done shortly after birth, with a little paste that burns the horn bud and prevents it from growing. Like I said, pain meds are administered and the calf forgets about it within an hour. But it is sooo important, as cows with horns are very dangerous not only to their farmers, but also to their fellow herdmates. Cows like to play, they like to run and butt heads and be silly and it is so easy for a cow to lose an eye or get jabbed by a horn if they stay on. Long story short, if a cow is polled you never have to worry about dehorning or anyone losing an eye.
* A2. This is something you will probably be hearing more about in the coming years. This is something that prominent in colored breeds(I think I read around 80% of jerseys were). Most milk contains the beta-casein proteins A1 and A2. There is a very slight difference between A1 and A2 however, research has found that milk products that contain only the A2 type are easier for people to digest. This would not help someone with a milk allergy but it would help those people who maybe don’t consume too much dairy because it gives them discomfort. Cows either have this trait or they don’t, but it is something you can look for in a bull to pass down to his daughters. A simple genetic test is done to determine if a cows milk is A1 or A2.
So that’s what we breed our cows for. So then a cow either gets pregnant or she doesn’t. We discussed pregnancy checking in a previous blog about our veterinarian but we will do a quick recap. If a cow does not get pregnant she will come in heat again, generally around 21 days. If she is pregnant, she does not come in heat and we can have our vet do an ultrasound around 28 days to confirm. Between 60-70 days give or take our vet can even do an ultra sound to determine the sex of the calf or if there’s twins.
Humans are pregnant around 280 days, any guesses on cows? Exactly the same! Give or take, some breeds are a little longer or a little shorter. Heifers(cows having their first baby) generally tend to calve a lot closer to their due date, older cows are normally a little later. If it’s a bull calf, 99.9999999% chance that calf will be days (sometimes over a week) late. But we all know how that goes. I was 9 days late having my baby. I’m pretty sure they tell you that due date just to make you feel better, when in actuality you could have weeks left.
Cows get dried off two months before they calve. This means they stop getting milked and as we call it “go on vacation”. The next two months are spent in a special area of just dry cows, full of fluffy straw. They get a special diet to give their body all the nutrients it needs the last few months, as well as to prepare them for calving and coming back into milk.
Then it’s time to have a baby! Calves come out front feet first, generally up to their knees and then the muzzle starts coming too. Rest of head and legs, and then once the shoulders are out the rest of the calf glides right out of there. Occasionally you will get something twisted or things aren’t right where a C-section is required and you call in your vet. After the calf is out, the cow will generally get up and start cleaning the calf off, although some are (understandably) lazy moms and choose not to. The placenta comes out after the calf, sometimes right away, sometimes it can take a few hours, just depends on the cow. And I believe that the theory is cows would eat the placenta so animals like wolves and coyotes would not smell the blood and be attracted to the area, because if they did come obviously that new calf would make an easy target. The majority of our cows do not eat it. I would say probably over 90% don’t. I know that’s an in thing for people right now and hey, you do you, but don’t do it because cows do. Because they don’t.
That’s the miracle of life right there folks. You know what’s fun? When you walk into the calving area and see these little hooves sticking out and wiggling at you. Or when the head is out and the calf will wiggle her tongue or blink at you even before the rest of her is out. It is truly a miracle and even if you see it every day, it is still a mind blowing experience to be a part of. I like to be there when the girls are calving, giving them a pep talk and telling them “okay, one more good push”. Some appreciate it, since they know me and trust me, some do not. Some want to be left alone. I can relate to the latter. I didn’t want my husband to make eye contact, let alone talk to me when I was in labor.
You may hear a very nasty term from anti dairy people about us farmers getting our cows pregnant. The truth of the matter is, we do what we do because it’s the best thing for the cows. It would be a lot less work for us and a lot less money to just use bulls instead of us breeding them. But we don’t for a reason. Just like it would save us A LOT of time to leave the calves with their moms forever but we don’t because it’s the best thing for both the cow and the calf. Not us. Them. They are the important ones here. And yes we do get them pregnant so they can have babies and give milk but that’s what cows do. They milk. That’s why God put them on this Earth. Just like He put dogs here to keep us company, or cats to knock things off tables, or spiders to scare the crap out of you, or us farmers to take care of our animals. So don’t let someone make you feel bad about enjoying your ice cream. Cows like getting milked(if you’ve ever breastfed you know oxytocin is a very powerful hormone. If you haven’t, you know that feeling when you’re in a brand new relationship and head over heels and giddy about everything? Thats oxytocin. That’s the hormone that is in charge of milk let down. That’s what cows feel when they get milked.). They are happy animals and are treated with all the love and respect any mother deserves.
It’s been nice chatting! As always, if you have any questions be sure to ask! Oh, and for those of you that follow Mut on the facebooks, that picture is one of Jagr having Jocelyn, who you all helped name. Both are doing great! Until next time!