Feedback on Caring for Cattle in Winter

article image
Keep cattle healthy during a long winter on the range.

As a veterinarian in range practice on the northern plains, I was very much interested in the article by T.J. Gilles on wintering range cattle. Our practice covers an area of more than seven thousand square miles, so we’re exposed to many different types of cattle management . . . and maybe some of our observations might be of value to today’s back-to-the-landers.

In our part of the country branding, dehorning, castration, and vaccination of the spring’s calves are all taken care of early in the summer, about the time that most of the young animals are three months old . . . and yes, I do recommend that all these procedures (which any livestock owner can learn to do himself in a short time) be done to your cattle.

BRANDING. Most ranchers of our acquaintance use ear tags . . . but only in addition to the traditional practice of branding because the loss of even the most secure tags is sometimes unavoidable and can really be a problem on pastures with dense brush. Another reason for a brand is that rustlers are still alive and well among us, and it’s not unusual for a large cache of “green” hides to be discovered . . . the identification of these cattle skins would be impossible without the practice of branding.

Brands aren’t really that difficult to acquire, either. Your state livestock board usually has a listing of available designs and the recording fee for the registration of your own mark is minimal. If you have a buddy who is a good welder, you might talk him into making your irons . . . which will then allow you to identify your livestock (very inexpensively) in the time-honored way.

CASTRATION. As I glance through the pages of MOTHER, I get the impression that her impact is not so much on the big-time operators who own tens of thousands of acres of land, but more on you homesteaders who have much smaller spreads . . . and who provide for yourselves from the intensive and careful management of your holdings.

For this reason control of your livestock is vital to the proper use of your own property and the maintenance of good relations with your neighbors. The last thing you need–in other words–is a gang of playful, half-grown bulls touring the community to survey next spring’s prospects. Castration will keep your herd more peaceful, simplify interstate shipments (should you make any), and put money in your pocket in the sale ring. A veterinarian or successful stockman will be more than glad to show you the proper method of carrying out the surgery so that you can perform it yourself.

VACCINATION. Blackleg was once the greatest killer of cattle on the Great Plains, and would still hold that dubious honor today if it weren’t for the almost universal use of a vaccine to prevent the disease. This little item may set you back as much as eight cents per head of your herd . . . but just think of how much of the medicine you can buy for the price of one animal needlessly lost! Check with local stockmen about other diseases (such as anthrax, rednose, vibriosis, etc.) that might be prevalent in your area, because any one of the ailments could cost you your shirt-not to mention your whole herd–and all of them can be prevented.

It’s true enough that many livestock diseases are with us because of overcrowding and improper nutrition, but lots of us find that our cattle have to live with one or both of these conditions. If you find that your animals must be closely confined in pens or corrals, try to convince them to eat from racks and bunks rather than off the ground . . . a soiled pen is a good place for parasites of several varieties to breed. Nothing is more natural than that the animal itself produce the necessary antibodies to fight off these diseases, but there are times when your livestock must be helped with a little preventive medicine.

WINTER FEEDING. Finally, watch the straw you feed to mature, pregnant cows through the winter. It’s always low in vitamin A or the substance–carotene–from which it is produced. Vitamin A deficiencies cause hundreds of bovine abortions yearly in my practice and every last one of them could have been avoided. Mixing the straw with good quality green hay or dehydrated alfalfa pellets will stop the problem. Injections of vitamin A are also available for less than 200 per head . . . and the shots can bail you out if your stock is already in trouble.

And here’s another potential problem: Straw from grains raised under droughty conditions may have excessive levels of nitrate in it, which can cause abortion storms in your herd and effectively put you out of the cattle business. Before feeding your pregnant cattle the straw, submit a sample to your county agent. He can get it tested for you and advise you of its deficiencies.

There will still be plenty of unexpected things that come up to challenge you from time to time if you raise livestock, so don’t be afraid to take all available simple and inexpensive precautions for KNOWN problems. Such action will pay off for both your herd . . . and for you.

P.V. Vorpahl, D.V.M.
Newcastle, Wyo.

I’d like to comment on a few points in T.J. Gilles’ article, “A Wintering Program For Range Cattle”, that I thought were misleading.

T.J. prefers grass hay to alfalfa because there’s no risk of bloat. I personally think that alfalfa makes better hay because: [1] it’s higher in protein content, [2] it’s plentiful–you can harvest three or four cuttings in one growing season–and [3] although green alfalfa can cause bloat, cured alfalfa won’t.

In spite of what Mr. Gilles says, I think that branding, castration, and vaccination are vital to the proper management of any herd, whether you raise cattle commercially or just for consumption on your own self-sufficient homestead. Though all three procedures may cause some pain to the calves, their benefits far outweigh the animals’ temporary discomfort.

I think it’s best to brand calves when they’re only two months or so old . . . the animals are much more difficult to handle when they get bigger. Pick a cool day to brandish the iron so the youngsters won’t become overheated. If done properly, branding isn’t really hard on the animals at all.

From my point of view, castration is one of the most important management tools that a stockman has. Bulls can breed when they’re less than a year old and, if you don’t make sure that only the best males in your herd mate with your females, you’ll soon find yourself unnecessarily raising low-grade and inferior cattle.

Besides that, the meat from bulls is tougher and has less taste than steaks, roasts, etc., taken from their castrated brothers. Steers, in short, make better eating!

Randy Voss
Long Pine, Neb.