Calves have reached 6-8 weeks of age and they will be spending the summer on grass with their mothers. There are two main ways we process calves in the spring. The first method is to separate pairs and use a calf table – essentially a small chute that tips sideways where calves are restrained and can be processed by a much smaller crew. The second is the traditional way we call “branding” where calves are roped and pulled backwards to an area where wrestlers restrain the calves and all procedures are done almost simultaneously. This can go very smoothly depending on the experience of the crew, but requires lots of people power.
We use both methods. Last week the calves from the heifers (first time calving) were processed on a calf table with our own crew. Today we are doing a larger group from the cows with the traditional “branding”.
Branding is a full day, we start before dawn heading to the field to gather cows and their calves. Calves are sorted from their mothers, then we are ready to start. Neighbours have come and there are many helping hands.
First, as the title suggests we still use a hot iron brand. Why? First, cattle are an expensive investment and branding is the only permanent identification available. Unfortunately reports of theft still occur. Second, while some of our neighbours rely upon RFID tags for calf identification and no longer brand their calves – they sell their calves in the fall after weaning. These cattle owners will usually brand their replacement females as they enter the cow herd. The reality is tags fall out over time with wear and tear or can be cut out. We retain ownership of our calves and send them to grass the next spring. We grass yearlings with a neighbour (mixing our ~$1200 plus investment with identical ones from someone else) and at the end of the summer these animals are sorted by their brand to know whose animal belongs to who. We place a brand on the left hip of all cattle and a year brand on the left shoulder of heifers so that we know how old they are when they are cows.
Second, they are tagged. All calves in Canada are required to have an RFID tag before leaving the farm of origin. This individual animal number is reported to the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency, and can be accessed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in the event of a disease outbreak or investigation. A birth date and other management information is associated with these specific tag numbers and can be tracked by subsequent owners to find out more about the history of each animal through the Beef Information Exchange System.
Third, for herd health all calves are vaccinated. We use two combination vaccines that cover a variety of diseases (clostridial, bovine respiratory disease, bovine viral diarrhea virus, blackleg, etc.). These serve as the priming shot and they will receive a booster in the fall at weaning time. In the fall, it is somewhat like sending children to school where they mix with everyone else’s germs so they can then bring the new bugs home. But in the meantime they have all summer to build their immunity while they graze with their mothers before the get mixed with other calves in the fall. To ensure that each calf receives both vaccines, the people vaccinating carry different coloured paint sticks and mark each calf as they vaccinate it. In this way the wrestlers know when the calf is done.
Fourth, male calves are castrated, this prevents unwanted reproduction, reduces aggression towards humans and other cattle, and improves meat quality. The Canadian Beef Code of Practise recommends you “Castrate calves as young as practically possible.”
Fifth, we use polled bulls, which is the first line of defence against horns but on the calves that do have horns we disbud. Disbudding involves less tissue trauma as horn development is still at the horn bud stage and there is no attachment of horn to the skull of the animal. Horns can be dangerous for both people handling the cattle but they can also bruise other animals. The Code of Practise recommends that you “Disbud calves as early as practically possible, while horn development is still at the horn bud stage (typically 2-3 months).”
Brand? Check. Tagged? Check. 2 vaccines? Check. If a heifer- a shoulder brand and if a steer- has it been castrated? Check. Check for horns and we are good to go!
Once each group has been completed the calves are reunited with their mothers. We monitor the calves afterwards to ensure that the calves are nursing and eating normally.
Branding is a good day, with good neighbours and at the end good food.
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