Friday, March 15, 2013

Flipping the PSYCHO switch

Greetings from Elkhorn Creek Ranch near the epicenter of the Bakken oil formation!

Calving season is easing into a rhythmic schedule keeping all hands on deck very busy.

Some background information - last June (2012) we spent the entire month AI-ing (artificially inseminating) and ET-ing (embryo transferring) our heifers and cows.  These technologies are available to the beef cattle industry to affordably bring the best possible genetics into our cow herd and offer them to our bull and female customers on an annual basis.  To get those babies which are products of our June 2012 labors to our customers in 2014, we have to get the March born calves into the world alive and healthy.  Some days its pretty easy.  Some days it is more difficult and frustrating.  The two things that can make the day of the 'hands on deck' easy or difficult are: 1) mother nature (the weather in March can go either way) and 2) if the cows are agreeable to becoming a mother the day they deliver (which nearly 100% of the time they are, but once in a while... the PSYCHO switch flips).

This year, we are calving out 60 heifers (first time mothers).  Special consideration goes into breeding them to 'calving ease' bulls.  Those bulls typically sire calves that are light weight, and built long and slender when born to ease the parturition (calving) process for the first time mother.  The remainder of the 250 head in the herd have 'been there, done that' at least once (many, more times than my Grandma Hovet - she had 10 kids) before, making the weather the less predictable variable to calving cows (as opposed to heifers).

So on Monday, Pete was in town at a McKenzie County Grazing Association meeting and I was with a Field Specialist with MVTL (Missouri Valley Testing Laboratory) who was testing and certifying both of the water wells on the ranch prior to the start of oil drilling near them.  I was also on 'heifer duty' at the time.  As I drove back into the yard after meeting with MVTL, I saw that there was a heifer that had just calved in the calving pen.  I also saw that she wasn't doing much to get her calf licked off (a nurturing response that cleans the calf up after birth and also encourages them to stand and nurse for the first time).  She was instead smashing it into the ground with her head and basically trying to kill it by mauling.

This very frustrating 'condition' which I have coined 'flipping the psycho switch' is hormone related and usually after it happens to a heifer (if she doesn't kill her calf first), she becomes an incredibly protective mother that takes very good care of her calf.  The psycho switch flips less than 2% of the time in heifers according to our observations.  We maybe have one of these heifers per year that flips their psycho switch.  They typically don't get to stay in the herd and after their calf is weaned, they are sold (in the event they do it again the next year, or pass it on to their daughters).

So, I mentioned that Pete was in town at a meeting and '1228' was trying to kill her calf.  I grabbed the calf sled, ran out doing the 'monkey dance' with it, scared her off the calf and sledded the little heifer back into the barn.  I then, with the assistance of Pete's dad, Lyle, got the heifer in the calving barn (there was absolutely no way she was going to 'the place' the black sled had disappeared to).  The psycho switch was stilled flipped 'on' and 1228 was NOT gaining points with me.

Once in the calving barn with the pair, I got to use my beloved Mother's Day present from several years back (and I am not being sarcastic).  It is a Vern's Manufacturing Maternity pen and slick as sliced bread.  I LOVE THAT THING!  So, we got the heifer in, got her in the head catch with some hay in front of her and administered 1 cc of oxytocin.  Oxytocin is a hormone which responds 'milk let down' and also in short (not on the label, but observed to be true), 'makes a mom love her kid'.  It is magic and although we seldom have to use it, we keep it on hand because when you need it, you need it NOW.

We got the calf it's first colostrum (which is very important for them to have from their mother and in a timely fashion), which provides them with many natural immunities that will protect their health for the rest of their lives.  Once the calf was full, she went and laid down in the corner of the pen.  I then let the heifer out of the head catch and found that... the PSYCHO switch was still ON.  Leaving the calf in the maternity pen, I let the heifer out into the main part of the calving barn.  She proceeded to go from pen to pen (including the maternity pen where her calf was) in the calving barn trying to get to any calf she could with premeditated intentions of mauling any little black fur ball that she could get to.  Of course she couldn't get any of them though the panels of their pens, but she was still very confused, very angry, and very psycho.

Having a happy and protected calf, I went to the house to record the updates of the day into our 2013 calving records and hope that this crazy heifer straightened out after she 'cleaned' - the process of expelling the placenta after parturition (calving).  This too is hormone related and is typically what flips the PSYCHO switch to the OFF position.

Two hours later, I went out to find that she had cleaned.  I opened the gate to the maternity pen where '1228's' calf was.  She walked into the pen and started loving it immediately.  1228 will not remain in our herd next year for this unforgivable behavior, but it brings to life the ongoing debate of Nature vs. Nurture...  What do you think?

1228 and her heifer calf (under the influence of oxytocin)
Proof that this little heifer calf didn't get the nurturing love to start her life that most calves get from their mothers (she is not licked off and is full of dirt from getting mauled into the ground).  Remember, this seldom happens.  It is a good reminder of how tough and resourceful these babies are... She is less than an hour old in this picture.

Oxytocin, the hormone used for both obstetrics and in milk let-down.  It is always on hand, but seldom used.
1228 prior to 'cleaning' (expelling her placenta) - still 'psychotic', trying to  get to 127's calf.

1 comment:

  1. Geez Louise! I hope this is your one psycho-mama experience for 2013! :)