Resources for Artificial Insemination in Beef Cattle

black Angus heifer in pastureEarlier this week, I shared photos of artificial insemination of beef cattle. There are multiple reasons to implement artificial insemination in your beef herd. Two major ones are advancing the quality of your herd and uniformity of the calf crop. Artificial insemination allows ranchers access to high-quality bull semen they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford (i.e. buying the bull for natural service).

Resources

I enjoyed this video as well – also from Oklahoma State – on artificial insemination:

What does artificial insemination look like?

Ever wondered how artificial insemination of beef cattle happens? We bred the Black Angus heifers a couple weeks ago using artificial insemination, and I put together a photo journey of the process. Check back later this week for more information!

The breeding box. Backed up to the head-catch chute, and it worked like a charm.
Breeding box for artificial insemination of beef cattle

The heifers marched right into this black hole, and that bar dropped behind them so they couldn’t back up.
Rear view of the breeding box for artificially inseminating beef cattle.

The semen tank. Precise handling of semen is required to avoid damaging it.
Semen tank

Preparing the semen straw for delivery to its final resting place.
Making sure the semen straw is dry

Aerial view as he works to artificially inseminate this Black Angus heifer.
Palpating a Black Angus heifer in preparation for artificial insemination.

Inserting the semen straw.
Inserting the semen straw.

Breeding cows is fun!
Ranch life is a fun life.

The door is activated by pulling a rope, allowing the heifer to leave the breeding box.
Black Angus heifer leaves the breeding box.

A front view of the breeding box. Someone should have been proactive and taken pictures before we ran the heifers through.
Front view of the breeding box.

View from the Saddle

I can’t imagine loving any other way of life the way that I love cattle ranching.

Rounding up cattle in the canyons

Moving cattle to spring grass, lined out down the tracks

Pack horse grazing up on top of the canyons

Me and Gus after a good day in the hills

No torture. No terrorizing. No single stalls.

“These animals are terrorized, tortured, and in the case of beef, enclosed in a single stall their entire life.”

This was from a comment I saw on an article regarding Safeway’s decision to stop selling lean finely textured beef (dubbed pink slime) in its stores. I’m not a meat scientist so I can’t speak with any type of authority on the pink slime debate. (Here’s a great collection of articles directly addressing the pink slime issue.)

However I am a rancher’s daughter, and I have been involved in the beef cattle industry for a long time. So it is from both personal experience and a lot of observation that I say ranchers do not terrorize or torture their animals, and cattle are not enclosed in a single stall for their entire lives.

A Look at a Cow’s Life
On our cow-calf ranch, the mama cows are kept on pasture year-round. We manage our breeding season so the cows have calves in the spring. Many ranchers do the same, but some calve in the fall. Others leave the bulls in with the cows all the time and have a continuous calving cycle.

During the winter the cowherd is brought in closer to headquarters for more attentive care during the harsh weather and in preparation for calving. Growing up in Iowa, there’s plenty of snow and no grass through the winter months so daily deliveries of hay to the cows are needed. The cold temperatures and nasty weather (usually!) require constant monitoring when the baby calves start hitting the ground. Yep, even in the middle of the night.

All the pairs (mama cows and their baby calves) are turned out on grass pastures for the summer and fall. We turn the bulls out with the cows at this time as well so the mamas can get pregnant again. Depending on the year, the calves are weaned from their mamas around October and brought home.

Some calves are sold straight off the cow, but we have always backgrounded our own calves. We keep them on an acreage and feed grain and hay until the next spring. As yearlings, these calves are sold at the livestock auction, usually to feedlot buyers. The calves are then finished at a feedlot for a few months until ready for slaughter.

Not all calves are sold to a feedlot. We keep the best heifers as replacement mama cows for the cowherd. Sometimes people keep a few head to feed out for private sale or to provide beef for their own families.

There are also grass-fed beef cattle herds, certified organic and purebred herds. How things are done will vary depending on location, equipment, business model, etc.

Terror and torture?
How does it make any sense for a rancher to terrorize and torture the cattle? There is nothing positive that comes from that. Even if a rancher didn’t care about his or her animals – and they do, very much – from a pure business standpoint, mistreating animals is a no-win proposition.

Animals under stress don’t gain weight/maintain condition as well. They are more difficult to handle, damaging to equipment and can be a danger to be around. All those things negatively impact the bottom line of profit.

There are a few bad apples. Cattle ranching is not immune to the shady characters that pop up in every sector of business. If you know of a bad apple, report it immediately to the authorities.

Just a Snapshot
This is just a quick snapshot of cattle ranching. I could talk for days about all the time, money and effort that goes into caring for a cow-calf herd. Kinda makes this blog post seem a little puny, but I wanted to share the truths of my family’s cattle ranch.

No torture. No terrorizing. No single stalls.

A lot of hard work. A lot of long days. A lot of good times.

Position Counts When Dancing with Cows

In the movies, every cowboy wears big hats, shiny silver spurs and gallops his horse to chase down the cows. It makes for action-packed scenes, but if you work cows all the time like they do in the movies then you’re doing something wrong.

Sure, now and again you do have to light a fire under your horse’s tail. I always go zero to sixty when there’s an opportunity to cut the escape off early before losing the whole bunch back over the 800 acres you just covered. The horse kind of enjoys it. Shoot, so do I.

But if you’re good – and if you’ve got a good horse under you – you don’t have to prove how good you are all that often.

Canyons along the Snake River

A couple months ago, I was riding the canyons in search of strays who hadn’t come in for the winter yet. The two we found hit the trail running and disappeared out of sight while the fence was being fixed. Instead of legging on out for home, those two holed up in a thicket of brush on a steep side hill.

Sneaky. But not sneaky enough. I waited for ’em on the far side, and when they come rustlin’ out they were at a high-headed run with their noses pointed back up the canyon we’d just traveled.

I was tired. I’d been riding a fair piece, and I wasn’t keen on the long ride to retrieve these two old girls if they made it passed me.

I dug my heels into the sides of the roan I straddled. He’s a good-enough type of horse, and he was solid gold that day. Two big leaps down off the steepest part of the hill put us in front of the runaways. They could either stop or dive off the perpendicular edge of the canyon bottom.

They stopped, made one more stab at getting back up the canyon and then turned around for home. I gave the roan a pat on the neck and settled into a walk behind the two cows.

Position is really important in working cattle. Understanding flight zones. Working angles. A good horse and knowing the terrain certainly helps.

You’ll still have some movie-worthy chases. Cows are cows after all. Lots of work at a long trot, but the shuck your long johns, hot after ’em chases? Those can be cut down to a couple quick moves if you’re paying attention to your position when the dancin’ starts.

Training Border Collies to Herd

Have you ever watched a stock dog trainer put his border collie to work herding livestock? One word: amazing!

Border collie puppy, Doc

This was Doc as a border collie puppy. Adorable, but not a herding dog.

I’ve done a lot of reading on how to train border collies. The best ways to corral that natural herding instinct. What to do, and what not to do. So I feel like I had a pretty firm grasp on reality when I took Doc to Norman and Vickie Close at Handhills Border Collies up by the lake.

After 30 minutes with sheep in the round pen, Norman confirmed my original analysis of my border collie. He’s never going to be a great herding dog. In fact, he’s not even going to be a good stock dog.

I could sink a bunch of time and money into my border collie and end up with a handy enough type of pup to have around the ranch. That’s not going to happen. Maybe if I worked cattle every day? No, not even then. If I worked cattle every day, I’d take that money to invest in Doc’s training and put it towards a wickedly talented pup that could really be something amazing.

Mixed Messages
When Doc worked in the round pen with the sheep, we finally got him to circle around behind the sheep and balance them with the handler. It took a lot of work to get him to do that, though, and it never happened completely successfully.

The biggest issue? Doc has been on cattle his entire life. Usually on hundreds and thousands of acres. With me on a horse. I’ve spent two and a half years keeping that border collie with me. Additionally, I never felt comfortable letting him get his paws too wet in working stock that wasn’t mine so I tried to minimize his mistakes. Usually that meant calling him off the cows.

I don’t blame my border collie one stinkin’ bit for not circling around those sheep. I’d describe his actions in the round pen as confused. Sure he doesn’t have the type of skill I saw in Norman’s dogs, but the warring he felt of wanting to work being offset by two and a half years of being called back so many times was apparent.

Stock Dogs at Work
Norman showed me two of his dogs. A 12-month old pup who is going to be quite a dog, I think. He also brought out his older border collie, the sire of the young one. Wow.

We took the sheep out into a huge field so I could see what a trained herding dog could do. Which is just about everything. Norman could place that border collie anywhere he wanted with his whistle. Flanking, circling, lying down, coming back to him, a large outrun, fetching the sheep, driving them back the way they came in any direction Norman desired.

It was the first time I’ve watched a herding dog work stock like that. It was inspiring. It also permanently sealed Doc’s fate of never pursuing herding training.

I learned a lot this weekend, and I can see that if you want a top-notch border collie to work livestock like I saw then you have to start with a dog loaded with potential.

Doc is my best pal. He has good qualities, and he can work cattle a little. I wouldn’t trade him for anything, but he’s not going to be a herding dog. And I’m okay with that.

Sometimes the best gift we can give our animals – and sometimes ourselves and the people around us – is to wholly accept their strengths and weaknesses, to love them just as they are and not try to make them into something they aren’t.

Temple Grandin Pulls in a Crowd

“I can only fix half of it with equipment. The other half is management.” – Temple Grandin on animal handling

I had the opportunity to hear Temple Grandin speak at Washington State University last night. If my fingers could have moved fast enough, I would have had a lot more quotes from her talk. Truth is, I was pretty wrapped up in listening.

Her speaking style is very direct. There’s no nonsense in her approach to telling things how she sees them. I appreciate that; I think what you see is what you get with Temple Grandin. The world could use a lot more of that.

On Fear
She talked about low-stress animal handling. Socializing animals. The importance of really seeing your animals. Listening to what you see instead of your warped human logic.

She called slaughterhouses by that term and scoffed at the idea of “harvesting facilities”. That falls in line with all the times I’ve heard her advocating for transparency in the livestock industry. She also talked about whether animals know they are going to die and if they are afraid.

You know what Temple Grandin said? That animals are afraid of the dark. Of rapidly moving objects. Of slippery surfaces. They’re afraid of black hats, because they had a bad first experience with someone wearing a black hat.

On Management of Animals
I don’t agree with everything she says, but she is one heck of a lady who has used her abilities to improve countless animal handling facilities and managers. I think she is square on about the management being 50% of the problem.

If you’ve ever tried to think like a cow every single minute you’re working with them? Well, let’s just say if I could accomplish that, then I’d know where the eight head I’m missing are at.

Without a doubt, listening to Temple Grandin speak last night made me think. I’ve handled animals a lot, and throughout her talk I was recalling past situations and wondering what I could have done differently. When a speaker makes you think like that, it’s a good talk.

On a Large Crowd
But hands down, the most exciting thing about hearing Temple Grandin speak last night was the crowd. There were well over 1,000 people, and the extras had to leave due to fire code violations.

You know what that means? It means a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds are interested in hearing about animal handling. It means they are open to having discussions. It means they want information and are willing to go to the source.

Those are doors we need to try and keep open.

Tackling Animal Cruelty

I was drinking coffee when I watched the Mercy For Animals video showing cruel treatment of dairy calves at the E6 Cattle Company operation. (It is painful to watch, so please be advised if you choose to go see it.) The coffee turned to ash in my mouth as I watched it, but the end slogan of “Go vegetarian” caused me to pause. What had been a horrifying depiction of animal cruelty turned into a horrifying depiction of animal cruelty to support an agenda.

I have a problem with animal cruelty. I have a big problem with it, and the majority of ranchers treat their animals with great care. Not only because animals help provide for their families, but because watching an animal suffer, let alone causing an animal to suffer in such a way, is not to be tolerated. It even bothers me when people work their cattle more roughly than necessary, but that’s a different discussion for a different time.

Animal cruelty is bad. It’s not okay. I think the vast majority of people from all walks of life can agree on that point. But what I am questioning today is the undercover video part of this story. I am questioning whether it was edited. I am questioning why this case of animal cruelty was not reported to the proper authorities immediately. I am questioning if the suffering of these animals was used to support an agenda.

The responsibility does not fall solely on the shoulders of those folks performing those horrible cruel acts. Was there anyone at E6 Cattle Company who knew these animals were being treated cruelly, had a problem with it, and didn’t say anything? If so, then this is partly on them. (The owner, Kirt Espenson has stepped forward to handle this situation.) Why did the camera operator not stop the cruel treatment? Or, as some sources have stated, why did the camera operator take part? Was completing a video to support a campaign more important than stopping such cruel treatment of a helpless animal? This is partly on the camera operator and anyone who happened to be watching.

The responsibility also falls to the rest of us working in animal agriculture. We have a responsibility to call out the bad actors among us; being silent is not an option.

So while I appreciate that this case of animal cruelty has been exposed, there must be a better way for efficient and effective management of animal welfare issues. Reporting animal cruelty cases to the proper authorities should be an immediate response, but that doesn’t prevent the cruelty from occurring in the first place.

I am interested in proactive approaches that reduce the number of animal cruelty cases from happening. Inspections? A community watch program? I don’t know what the best solution is, but we can do better than this. We have an obligation to do better than this as ranchers, as animal owners, and as human beings.

My 1st Time Working in a Temple Grandin System

Though I’ve been working with cattle since I was small, I’ve never had the privilege of running cows through a Temple Grandin alley system and squeeze chute until yesterday. So. Much. Fun. Other chute systems have been ruined for me.

The Temple Grandin set-up works best for a cattle operation that works through one central location – which is why I’ve never used one up to this point. My family’s operation now has two headquarters with anywhere between five and eight pastures scattered across both Taylor and Adams counties. Though the majority of the chute work is done at either of the headquarters, cows are often worked on location. This is similar to all the other cattle operations I’ve had the opportunity to work with. A portable corral and chute system is necessary (or a corral and loading alley on each location).

For a person used to the MacGyver way of doing things, working with a Temple Grandin pen and alley system was like licking gelato off a spoon next to a really attractive, really attentive Italian man after a lifetime of eating $1.89 boxes of off-brand ice cream while standing over the kitchen sink.

Holding pen in a corral system

This is a photo of the holding pen. It isn’t large, and it works best when you bring in a half dozen or so at a time. The gate – at the left of the photo – swings around and can lock at each of the vertical slashes on the curved side of the pen. This is amazing; it allows you to maintain a pen size to match the needs of the animals inside it.

View of alley and chute system

Here is another full shot of the pen and alley system. The holding pen I just showed is at the right. The alley curves around to the chute. The solid sides of the alley benefit the cattle moving through it by blocking out any objects that might spook them. It also creates a tunnel of darkness, guiding them towards the lighter opening of the chute end.

Alley way

I’m standing in the alley way, and that little “gate” poking out in the alley helps prevent the cattle from backing up. It swings forward but not backwards. Once an animal pushes through it, the animal can’t return back down the alley. Unless the animal is the size of my dog who walks right underneath it.

Think of it as video game levels. Moving from the holding pen (Level 1) and moving up through the levels (each little gate they push through), and on up to the highest level, this:

Squeeze chute

This is a Powder River squeeze chute which sounds more ominous than it really is. There is a gate that is pulled open to allow a cow to enter the chute. The head gate is opened – the two front panels part a bit like sliding doors. Once a cow pokes her head through, the gate is shut securely enough so she can’t back out or move forward. If a cow is getting agitated, the sides of the chute can be squeezed tighter to prevent injury to the animal.

We worked replacement heifers yesterday morning. They are just over a year old, and like any young creature, they are more difficult to work with than a herd of old mamas who have done it all countless times.

They worked like a dream. I think they’d been through the chute a time or two before, but they marched right down the alley. I can’t say how they behaved in the chute since I wasn’t on that end, but watching those black furry hind ends disappearing down the alley way like this was a normal day for them was neat to watch. A lot of it was due to the set up of the holding pen and alley.

Is it sad I have alley envy? Probably, but I absolutely do!

Calving: 5 Signs You’re About to Miss Supper

We’re heavy into calving season here in north Idaho. The time of year when normal things like eating supper and being warm are thrown out the window, and when no plans can be made because you’re that person driving around staring like a deranged fool at all your momma cows.

I love it.

But it’s always helpful to know what you’re looking for and to be able to spot the cows that will calve in the next 12 hours versus the ones that will calve in the next 12 days.

5 Signs You’re About To Miss Supper

  1. You see feet. I was going to put this last, but why not start with the most obvious? Feet means labor, labor means a calf is on its way into this world.
  2. A switching tail. When a cow switches her tail, it can be a sign of pending calf-dom. Kicking at her belly, turning in circles, and other signs of discomfort fall into this category too. For those who don’t calve in winter/early spring, a switching tail is also probably related to flies. Just a scientific thought.
  3. Separation from the herd. No one likes to have a kid with all their friends watching, and cows are no exception. Cattle are herd animals, and a single cow off by herself is an indication she may be ready to add to your numbers.
  4. Vulva expanded. When the vulva is expanded, the cow’s body is preparing for calving. I’ve heard it called “springing” as the cow’s vulva will shake, rattle, and roll when she walks – springing up and down. I prefer to call it “loosy-goosy on the back end”, because it’s more fun. Other physical signs include mucus and the ligaments next to the tail head softening.
  5. “Bagging” up. The udder of the cow will enlarge as she gets closer to calving. Some bag up over night; others bag up weeks in advance. How’s that for a window of time to be watching closer? The teats enlarging is an indication as well.

As always in the cattle business, there are no hard and fast rules. Some cows may display one, a few, or all of the above indicators in her own sweet time. Although if she never comes through on number one, then you’ve got a problem! Knowing your herd and the routines of individual cows are a big advantage at this time of year.

What calving signs do you look for?