Updated: Jan 17
Every July- if the bulls haven't already freed themselves from their all-male segregation in eager dedication to their annual job- we turn the bulls out to pasture with the cows and let nature take its course. You know, the birds and the bees...
The cattle graze freely all summer long in the 60,000 acres of heavily forested Bighorn National Forest, bulls following groups of cows closely, until snowfall causes us and the herd to retreat to lower elevation and warmer temps.
Come October, the herd is back from their 50 mile odyssey to the mountains and on the home place. Bulls again kept in their own pastures and likewise with the ladies.
By January, enough time has passed that we can easily detect any signs that the birds and the bees may have left behind. So we round up all the cows to determine who came in bred -ie pregnant- and who came in open -ie not pregnant-.
There are several reasons that we preg test the herd and don't leave it a guessing game.
First, it's a preview into the next year's anticipated finances. If you have an idea of your anticipated calf crop, you can better budget for the following year, conserving or spending resources where needed.
Second, fertility is a heritable trait. If you keep your most fertile cows, they will have more fertile calves. Then you can select your best heifer calves to stay in your breeding program and sell the rest. If you're going to make it as a rancher, who lives and operates on a 2% profit margin according to a 2017 Wyoming census, the fertility of your herd could make the difference between paying your electric bill and bankruptcy.
Third, while we ranch because we are nurturers passionate about raising animals, healthy food and working in nature, it is, at the end of the day, a business. It's simply not economical to keep a cow, with all her input costs, if she won't provide a return the next spring. Especially when hay prices are $200/ton and a winter like this one - where the snow came early and deep, covering the grass left for winter grazing - will require about 800 ton of hay to feed the herd. Though, we are a bit soft, you might say, because we don't get rid of a cow the first time she comes in open. We like to give a cow a second chance so we notch her ear-tag. Two notches, or two times of coming in open, and we send her down the road, either to be sold at auction or to become steaks and burger for Truly \ Beef.
Preg testing also provides good general feedback. Was your bull to cow ratio right for your circumstances? How did weather and feed/nutrition effect your herd? Last year we had an 88% breed up and it hurt. So we increased bull power, from 1:25-30 to 1:20-25. (With the summer pastures being heavily forested and as large as 5-10,000 acres, it takes effort on the bulls part to keep track of his ladies as they fracture into little groups and disperse among the trees. Having more bulls helps for a higher breed up.) This year, we had a 94% breed up and the family is pretty pleased with that. We were also in the midst of a relentless drought the year we had 88% breed up and feed conditions weren't the best for supporting an abundance of extra life. We saw unusually low fertility rates in our horses that year as well.
For the heifers (first time mamas) we will bring in the vet and do an ultrasound, but for the cows, the fastest and most cost effective way to preg test is via rectal palpation. To save you from an awkward google search, essentially you can feel the presence of a calf if you're not afraid to go shoulder deep in a cow's rear end. Below is a video of Dana explaining what he looks for when preg testing.
The kerns herd grows
In other news, the Kerns' herd continues to grow in more ways than one. We have a new little human on the way, with the super convenient due date of July 2nd, 2023, the first day of our first cattle drive! Needless to say, we and the entire family are thrilled for the arrival of this new baby. And while the due date wouldn't have been my first choice, we trust that God's timing is perfect and we are blessed with an abundance of family that's willing to step in and take on some ranch duties while we are away.
Blessings to you all! Thanks for reading.
Taylor, Cathryn, Jack & Baby Kerns