Is it hot in here?

In the last post about our pregnancy tests and results, I mentioned that we determined pregnancies, or lack-there-of, by observing heats. It occurred to me that not everyone reading probably knows what a heat means, or might not know what the signs of a heat are. This thought was confirmed by a question from a close friend with no agricultural background. So, I’ll offer my non-technical explanation.

Cows have a reproductive cycle just like people. When a cow is able to get pregnant, we say she is “in heat”. When a cow is coming into heat, she will just generally act different. Often, she will rest her head on another cow, or she might stand away from the rest of the herd mooing about nothing. There are also some subtle signs like a rise in body temperature and a higher activity level. The most noticeable and definite sign of a heat is mounting, or even more-so, being mounted.

I like to think that cows were created with technology like AI in mind. With no males present, females will mount other females that are in heat in the same manor that a bull would mount a cow to breed her. When a cow will stand and allow another cow to mount her for several seconds, we call it “standing heat”. We try to breed the cow 12 hours after we observe standing heat. The cow doing the mounting is not always in heat, but it’s always wise to watch cows that are hanging out together when one is in heat because the other(s) may either also be in heat or be coming into heat soon.

We have a pretty good heat detection rate by just observing our cows because David does the majority of the milking. He also usually takes a few minutes in the morning and afternoon to just watch. In addition, we don’t have so many cows that he has trouble identifying which cows are showing the signs mentioned above. If he does miss actually observing standing heat, he might notice signs on the cows back end while she is milking that indicate she has been mounted many times.

For those that don’t feel that observation is adequate for heat detection, there are other options. There are many products on the market that indicate heats. One type has a colored liquid in it and bursts if/when a cow is mounted leaving the color on her tail head. Another type puts a colored substance on the cow’s tail head that is smeared around if/when she is mounted. Some milk meters (a tool that we do not currently have in our milk barn) take the temperature of the milk and can identify a higher milk temperature as a likely heat, and some farmers use pedometers to observe when a cow takes an unusually high number of steps in a day. There are probably other methods of heat detection that I’m not familiar with (or didn’t think of as I was writing this), but these, I think, are the most common.

This may seem like too much information, but I felt it was worth explaining because heat detection is a huge part of dairy farming. Without accurate heat detection we miss opportunities to get our cows bred. It will be roughly 21 days before we get another opportunity to notice her heat and breed her. The longer it takes to get our cows bred, the slower our herd improvement will be. Also, if we don’t get a cow bred back quickly, her milk production will likely reduce before she is ready to have another calf. A high number of days open (not bred) is costly, so getting cows bred is a top priority for all dairymen, and that starts with heat detection.

We’re going to be busy this fall!!

Over the weekend we had a new experience – drawing blood from tails for pregnancy tests.  Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) is offering a new blood pregnancy test, and it’s really convenient.  The lab sent us supplies to get the samples through FedEx, and we just send them in with our milk hauler, who comes every other day to get our milk anyway.

Until this year, we were determining pregnancies the old fashioned way…we waited.  If a cow didn’t show signs of heat after her most recent breeding, we waited until her calf was big enough to “bump it” or feel it from the outside.  You can first bump a calf at about 6 months, so it was a pretty long wait to be sure.  Many farmers palpate, or preg check, their cows, but this isn’t something we had been doing.  A veterinarian can identify a pregnancy by palpating at 60-90 days, but David didn’t feel comfortable until 4 or 5 months doing it himself, and we don’t have a vet come to the farm regularly. We do have a vet that we call for emergencies and who supplies us with needed medications, but David does the majority of our veterinary work.

These new blood tests claim to determine pregnancies accurately at 28 days – that’s a huge improvement from 6 months.  We drew blood from every animal that we had bred between Jan 1st and Feb 11th that hadn’t shown a heat since her breeding; the total was 26 cows and 3 heifers.  We sent the blood samples with our milk hauler Monday morning, and we got the results emailed to us this afternoon.

Out of 29 tested, 25 were bred!!

One of those that wasn’t bred actually showed signs of heat Monday and has already been rebred.  There were several other animals that had been rebred prior to testing, and some of those tested had been bred twice in that time frame, so 25/29 isn’t our overall conception rate.  We added everything up tonight and looked at several angles.

Our overall conception rate for that 6 weeks was 25 for 40, or about 63%.  Below is a look at pregnancies/attempts for each bull that we use:

AI Company Bull Pregs/Attempt
Genex Abraham 4/6
Sason 2/4
SD Breeders Challenger 0/1
Froggy 2/3
Jocko 2/3
Ryker 3/3
Select Sires Alexander 0/1
Colby 1/3
Maxum 4/7
Planet 2/3
Sanchez 3/4
ABS Geneva 2/2

The jist: we’re going to have 25 calves in a 6 week span this fall, and around here that’s quite a few!  Can’t wait!

Meet the Kuckelcows

Late last summer Heim and Sons (the dairy’s name under the previous generation’s ownership) was low on cows.  We were only milking 68 and had 13 that needed to be dried off soon.  It wasn’t logical for the dairy to buy cows with the transition of ownership somewhat underway, so David and I were considering maybe buying a dozen or so bred heifers that would calve soon to keep numbers up and get a bigger start on our own herd.  David already had a few cows that he had raised from bred heifers he bought several years ago.  Right around that time, a somewhat rare and unique opportunity presented itself, and we ended up buying a full herd of 38 cows that I like to call: The Kuckelcows.

The milk inspector, who knew of our interest, informed David of a dairyman who lived a couple hours north of here who had “about 30” cows and was ready to retire.  His name is Jody Kuckelman, and he was looking to sell his herd as a whole.  Thirty cows was more than we were looking to buy, but David talked to Jody and thought they sounded like good cows.  He had been AI-ing since he bought the cows in the early 1970s, and there were actually 38 including bred heifers and dry cows.

On Labor Day (2011) we drove two hours north to meet the Kuckelmans and look at their herd.  Jody ran each cow through the gate calling her by number so we could take a look at her.  He was particularly proud of their udders, and rightfully so.  His wife, Lois, told us each of the cows’ names and described its general temperament.  They also gave us a sheet with their latest production numbers and freshening/breeding dates.  Each cow had a barn name, and they explained how they named each of their heifers starting with a specific letter depending on the year she was born.  The oldest cows we have start with “T”, the youngest with “Y”.

Vandit (460), one of my favorite Kuckelcows.

We ended up agreeing on a price that day (somewhat unexpectedly) and hauled the cows home the following weekend.  One of the best things about the Kuckelmans is that they kept good records and shared them all with us.  They actually gave us their calf books going back to the 80s and DHIA records back to Dec 2008 along with milk barn supplies they no longer had a need for.  They told us which cows to watch for kicking and shared several stories about their years dairying.  It made us feel really good to know what great people had raised these cows.  Dairying is a business, but it’s also so much more than that.

As we looked toward the transition of ownership, we wanted to differentiate all of our calves based on herd origin.  The original herd was being numbered counting upward from numbers in the 1100s and denoted with an “H” (we are currently on 1171).  David’s calves were numbered in order as well and denoted with “DH” (we were/are on DH28).  We decided to start numbering Kuckelcalves with 100 and “HD” for Heim Dairy.  Starting January first, all heifer calves have been denoted with “HD”, but the numbering systems have remained seperate.

We also, for sentimental reasons, have tried to keep up the Kuckelmans’ naming system.  The three heifers born in 2011 are named with “Z”: Zorba, Zelda, and Zephyr.

Zorba (HD 100)

And now that it’s 2012, we’re starting our future with the start of the alphabet. That brings me to what prompted this post: Athena!  We had our first Kuckel-heifer-calf of 2012 this week.  Her dam’s (mother’s) name is Venus, and her sire stack (dad x mom’s dad x mom’s mom’s dad) is Planet x Off Road x Mathie.  She’s a few days old and looking great so far!

Athena! Our newest heifer calf (HD 103).

Change Is Underway

What’s the most disgusting sensation you’ve ever experienced? Lots of things may come to mind, but near the top of my list is wet manure on my bare feet.  Why would I be barefoot near manure?  Well, the manure was on the bathroom rug and it was 5 am…yes, the bathroom in our house…

You see, until this week, the only bathroom in our house was also the only bathroom at the farm.  Sure, we had a “take your boots off past the coffee pot” rule, but let’s face it, that never worked unless I was watching.  However, last week the long-awaited bathroom behind the milk barn became operational!!  I, for one, am ecstatic!

Milk Barn BathroomSure, it’s nothing glamorous, but it makes a world of difference for the privacy and cleanliness of our home, and it’s more convenient for the guys.  Yesterday, I put the first coat of paint on the walls, and it should only need one more.  It’s one of many recent improvements we’ve made around the milk barn.

You might notice in the picture that there is also a washing machine in the bathroom.  It is the in the middle of the room, but only because I had just finished painting behind it.  No, I’m not making David do all of his laundry behind the milk barn.  We had been using paper towels to clean off the cows’ teats before putting on the milking machines.  David had been talking about changing this for quite some time, and about two weeks ago we finally started using microfiber towels for this task.  Paper towels were costly and took up a lot of storage space.  The microfiber towels clean better and are reuseable.  Over time they should save us some money, and now we’re producing a lot less trash.

Another major change came at the beginning of January.  In addition to the only bathroom, our house had been home to the only coffee pot.  It was right inside the door, but to get water to make coffee, one had to trek most of the way across the kitchen to the sink. As you can imagine, on muddy days in particular, this created quite a mess.  Coffee breaks are much more frequent than bathroom breaks, so it also really impacted our privacy.  Back at the beginning of January, David installed a stainless steel shelf in the tank room to hold the farm coffee pot and the time clock for our milkers.  Really, this was the catalyst for many of these other improvements.

He made room for the shelf by moving things we had stored near the front (including AI supplies) to the back of the room, behind the tank.  It was a huge improvement, but the back of the room was dark.  The ceiling is low and most of the natural light is blocked by the bulk tank.  We wanted more light back there, but didn’t want to install another electrical box.  We had hoped to find a fixture with multiple bulbs, but it was difficult because of the low ceiling.  We ended up with some basic track lighting, and now have three lights from one electrical connection.  It’s amazing how much difference better lighting makes.  And (to come full circle…) the bare bulb that used to occupy that spot has found a home in the new bathroom, a smaller space where it is much more effective.

Tank Room Lights

It’s Going to be a Girl!!!

No, we are not expecting…and actually, we will hopefully have several girls. Confused yet? This week we purchased our first sorted semen! If you’re not as excited as I am about this, perhaps a little background will help.

A big part of our effort to improve our herd genetics is Artificial Insemination (AI). We purchase semen from various companies, each with their own set of bulls they market. We pay close attention to a variety of traits that are predicted for each bull, and for each mating we select a bull based on his proof to improve certain traits in the heifer or cow. For example, if we have a cow with bad feet, we breed her to a bull that should improve the feet of her offspring.

Because we can’t milk bulls, being a heifer (girl) is perhaps the most desireable trait a calf can have. With conventional semen there is only about a 50% chance of a heifer for each pregnancy. Technology is a crazy thing, though, and someone figured out that you can sort the semen so that the likelihood of heifers is much higher (estimated at about 90%). Here is an explanation of how that sorting is done from the only company that currently does this, Sexing Technologies.

Why is this the first time we’ve purchased sexed semen? Number one, it’s more expensive. Sexed semen is approximately twice as expensive as conventional semen. The average conception rate for sorted semen is also lower, so you get fewer cows pregnant for more money. We’ve decided, however, that this risk is worth giving it a try for the reward of more heifer calves. We want to improve our herd, and we want to do so quickly, so the more replacements with improved genetics that we can raise, the better.

Our plan is to use this semen on virgin heifers, as is generally recommended. I don’t know the exact reason for the recommendation, but we generally see higher conception rates with heifers than lactating cows, so we hope that we will still see a reasonably good conception rate with sorted semen. If anyone is curious which bull we purchased, it’s Chase from ABS. You can see his proof here. He’s not the best at any one trait, but he’s got solid numbers for a wide variety of traits and should work well on many of our heifers.

We can’t wait to see how our first trial with sorted semen works out. We’ll be sure to let you know how our conception rate is, and if we have any bull calves. We don’t do any ultrasounds, though, so we won’t know those results until the calves are on the ground.

Introducing: Heim Dairy Farm

This post is a little overdue since we made our debut in January, but better late than never, right? For those of you who may not already know us, you can read a little bit about who we are on the About Us page.

We are Jennifer and David Heim, and we operate a conventional dairy farm in Northeast Kansas (near Kansas City). Today, we milked 91 Holstein cows. The exact number of cows being milked varies somewhat frequently depending on dry-offs, freshening (calving), and other factors. We also keep all of our heifer (female) calves and raise them as replacements, and we raise crops, most of which are used as feed for our cows and calves.

I mentioned that we kicked things off in January, but I should note that cows have been milked here for a long time. David’s grandfather, Harold, bought this farm in 1941 and started milking cows not too long after. More recently the farm was owned and operated by David’s father and uncle, but his uncle had been looking to get out of the dairy, and as of January 1st David and I took over the business officially.

Harold and Martha Heim Home, 1944
This is a picture of a picture of our house as it looked when Harold and Martha purchased it.

Our dairy isn’t new, most of the buildings are old and in need of repairs. The barn at the top of the page is the “White Barn”, built in 1912. Our herd isn’t the latest and greatest in genetics, but we recently bred our first second-generation AI (artificial insemination) heifer. Our house was started in 1883, and added onto several times. It needs as much work as anything, and probably one more addition. That’s what this blog is about. Over the coming months and next several years, we are going to work on all of the above and share our story here. We’re excited for the challenges that lay ahead, and can’t wait to start seeing our hard work pay off.