7 Questions with Foxhollow Farm’s Head Herdsman, Derek Lawson
This month we sat down with Derek Lawson, Foxhollow Farm’s head herdsman and Edible Louisville’s 2016 “Favorite Farmer,” to talk about Spring at the farm and learn about calving.
What are some basics about calving for those of us who aren’t cattlemen?
Heifers (female calves) become “cows” when they breed and become mothers. Cows gestate for 9 months, just like people. The difference is, these babies are 50-75 pounds at birth. Cows will have their first calf at age 2, and we have some cows that are still breeding at 19 and 20 years old. Currently, our average cow age is 8 years old. As we develop our herd, the cattle will become better and better suited to our ecosystem and be able to breed longer into their late teens.
When is calving season?
Calving season is different for every farm. Some calve year-round, some start the first of the year in January, and some stick to the Fall. For us, we introduce bulls to the group in June and the vet does a pregnancy check in October. Our goal is for the calves to arrive during the Spring, in April and May.
Why calve in the Spring?
When they’re born as the weather gets warmer and we’re heading into greener months, there’s a better chance for them to be healthy. It’s not as cold at night and there’s less of a chance for snow. Calves are born with a summer haircoat, so the warmer it is outside, the less chance they have of getting sick. If we were to wait longer and calve in the summer months, the heat can become too intense. So, spring works for us.
How many calves are you expecting this year?
We’re expecting 113 calves this year. They’ll all be born within a 60-day window. We usually have at least one set of twins.
How do you know when a cow is about to have her calf?
She’ll start to act a little strange and separate herself from the group. They like to have privacy. It’s very rare for a cow to lay down in the middle of the group while in labor. You’ll see them start to wander off on their own.
What do you have to watch out for during this time?
We’ll be paying close attention and checking on the herd 2-3 times a day to spot if anyone is going into labor. If we think there could be a problem, we’ll begin to check on her every hour, keeping an eye on how labor is progressing and making sure everything is normal. If there’s an instance where the calf is turned or stuck, then we can jump in and assist. It’s not ideal for us to intervene, and most of the time the cows know exactly what they’re doing and can take care of themselves. Last year, out of 120 births, we only assisted with 2.
What happens after the calf is born?
The cow will get right up and start licking the calf clean. It’s really important to get that calf cleaned of any fluid left from birth, because especially in May it will attract a lot of flies. By looking at how clean a calf is, we can usually tell when a calf was born and how good a mother the cow will be. Within the first hour, the calf is usually cleaned up, standing, and nursing.
Our first calves were born on March 25th this year, kicking off an exciting time of year at the farm. Happy Spring!