If dairy cows were actual wild animals and hadn’t been domesticated over 10,000 years ago, they would have a calf once a year, similar to deer or elk, or moose. It may surprise you to know that on a dairy farm, a cow also has a calf once a year.
My cow Norma has reached the point in time in her life where she would like to experience the love of another bovine. Actually since Norma calved back in early August she has had 3 instances of these carnal cravings also known as showing a heat.
A cow completes an estrus cycle about every 21 days. These “episodes” feature her “riding” other cows and allowing cows to ride her. When a cow is in heat they don’t care if the animal they are jumping on or being ridden by is devoid of the correct plumbing. These “standing heats” usually last about a day and then she goes back to her normal, “I don’t need your bull” existence. On our farm we don’t keep a bull around to do the business that needs to get done. Bulls can be unpredictable at best and deadly at worst. Instead we use artificial insemination (AI) to breed our cows.
One of the benefits of using AI to breed your cows is that instead of one or two bulls hanging out with the ladies, you can have multiple boyfriends for your cows hanging out in a tank of liquid nitrogen just waiting for the perfect time to be defrosted and make a baby. This allows you to choose a bull that compliments your cow. By compliment I don’t mean that the bull tells her she has a nice “dairy air”, I mean that you can pick a bull that can improve on your cows genetics by either offering a quality that your cow needs improvement on or lending more of something good that your cow already has.
Of course these improvements don’t actually work on the cow, marrying Julia Roberts certainly didn’t make Lyle Lovett hotter. But if they had children at least Julia’s genetics would have given them a chance. The right mate for a cow can make the cow’s offspring even better than the cow and is one major reason the dairy cows of today make more milk and are healthier than the generations before them.
Anyways, Norma came into “heat” the other day, exactly on her son Ned’s 2 month birthday. She had already come into heat twice since he was born and would probably already be pregnant if she was in “nature”. But we don’t want our cows to become pregnant so soon after calving so we wait a couple of months before we breed them again. She had also been checked out by our vet to make sure that she was ready to carry a calf again.
Now being that Norma is the best cow ever you may think that I could use just about any bull on her and the calf would be a rockstar like it’s mother. However the pesky thing about genetics is that it comes from both parents not just one. So I set out on a search to find the perfect bull for Norma. Here is what I knew I wanted in a bullfriend for Norma.
1. I want to use “sexed” semen. Semen is available on some bulls that gives you a 90(ish)% chance to have your cow have a heifer (girl) calf. Because Norma is my favorite and best cow I want her to have a heifer calf to carry on her legacy. On our dairy we sell bull calves because they don’t make milk and we are a dairy not a beef operation.
2. I wanted to use a bull that was polled. A polled bull or cow is an animal that has no horns and can pass that genetic trait on to it’s offspring. I hate dehorning calves and I think polled is the way to go whenever possible. More dairy cattle breeders are concentrating on breeding great polled cattle and the selection of polled bulls has grown a ton over the last 10 years.
3. I always look for calving ease in bulls. What’s calving ease you say? Simple calving ease is a measurment that shows how easy it is going to be for the calf to come out of the cow. I prefer to make it as easy as possible for my cows to calve, bulls with big heads or the tendency to make huge calves need not apply. I bet many mothers of big headed babies can appreciate that.
4. I also want a bull that will compliment Norma’s strengths. She has a lot of awesome going on and I am not about to breed her to a bull that isn’t as awesome. So beyond what I have already mentioned how much more can I really ask out of a bull? Well thankfully the AI industry has really put their thinking caps on and have come up with a large list of very specific traits that are inheritable by a calf. I can choose for milk production, foot and leg conformation, how much butter fat and protein she will produce, udder depth, height, the ability for the daughters of this mating to be able to easily get in calf (DPR), how susceptible to mastitis the cows will be, overall longevity and loads more options.
For Norma I wanted a bull that would compliment her high butter fat and protein levels, would decrease her udder depth slightly and not take away anything in the milk department. I addition to those specific qualities for Norma I like to use bulls on all of my cows that have high longevity scores and aren’t negative on DPR meaning that I would could be breeding a problem with getting pregnant into my cows.
After looking at my options that fit all of my qualifications I picked a Holstein bull, Sellcrest Midas Red-P to breed Norma to. Not only does he match my qualifications pretty well he is also bred by a farm just to the North of our farm. So that adds a little something extra special. Norma will be checked in about 30 days if she doesn’t come into heat before then and we are crossing our fingers that she will have a heifer calf in about 9 months.