Enduring the grind of calving season

The rolling hills of Bryan Reed’s farm near Albia provided a serene backdrop as cows and calves basked in the spring sun on Friday.

Reed navigated his utility vehicle through the pastures checking the health of calves that were born just days earlier. With the sun shining you could see a spring in Reed’s step as he finished his daily chores. That hasn’t been the case for the majority of his calving season though.

A pasture next to Reed's farm is speckled with cattle during calving season.

A pasture next to Reed's farm is speckled with cattle during calving season.

The calendar says spring but Mother Nature refuses to close the door on winter. Snow, ice and rain have made this calving season especially tricky.

“My coat still shows signs of the challenges earlier this week. I had days where I was rotating coats every few hours while trying to stay dry and warm,” Reed said while looking at a pasture speckled with new calves and their mothers. “The sun makes a difference when you are checking calves and doing chores.”

Reed says that every calving season is different. 

Reed says that every calving season is different. 

Calving season starts in mid-February at Reed's farm and goes through late May. It isn't a surprise that winter is a difficult time to care for livestock, but some winters are more comfortable than others.

"It happens regardless of the weather. It's going to be going on 24/7 whether the weather is cooperating or not. Whether you are sick or not," Reed said.

Reed recalled several years ago when a fight with the flu came during a rush of calves. 

"My wife drove me to the emergency room because I got run down," he said. "They gave me IV fluids and I was back home working with the heifers later that night. You have one chance to keep that calf alive and that is my paycheck for the year."

During a typical spring calving season, Reed expects about 240 calves and another 60 during the fall. But over the years he has discovered that there is nothing ordinary about calving season. 

"Everyday is different and has different issues to deal with," he said. "Some days you are an OB/GYN assisting with difficulties in delivery. Other days you are a vet trying to figure out what's wrong with a calf to help it."

Reed also added nutritionist to the list of his job responsibilities during calving season to make sure that the mothers are getting the nutrients needed to give birth and take care of their calves.

"Sometimes you even have to be a rodeo clown dodging a protective mother while helping a calf," Reed said as he scanned the pasture filled with mothers and babies.

Even though the grind of calving season means work around the clock through challenging weather conditions he wouldn't have it any other way.

"It's what I do and I don't know anything different. When you turn the cows and calves out into the pasture for the summer, you can see how good they are doing. It makes all the challenges of getting them started worthwhile," he said. "To know I'm feeding someone else and that person doesn't have to fight these battles gets me through it. I'll be cold and muddy and worn out if that means someone else can have safe affordable food."

Story and photos by Joseph L. Murphy

Golden rails

A fitting find today while driving home from an assignment in North Iowa. Today I celebrated my dad's birthday although we lost him several years ago. Trains have been in my family for many generations and my father chased trains as a hobby. His hobby of photographing trains led me to my career as a photojournalist. Little signs always make me smile!

The sun illuminates railroad tracks in southern Iowa.

The sun illuminates railroad tracks in southern Iowa.

Waterbeds, ice cream and family — All in a dairy tour!

By Joseph L. Murphy

Participants of the Iowa Grocery Industry Association (IGIA) annual meeting had the opportunity to tour two Dubuque County dairy farms Tuesday and learn more about where their food comes from. The tour, sponsored by the Iowa Food & Family Project along with Midwest Dairy Association, gave 20 visitors the chance to tour milking parlors, touch newborn dairy calves and learn more about milking robots and the future of dairies in Iowa.

A dairy cow watches as visitors tour a dairy near Dubuque, Iowa. (Photo Joseph L. Murphy)

A dairy cow watches as visitors tour a dairy near Dubuque, Iowa. (Photo Joseph L. Murphy)

The first stop on the tour was at the Reuter Dairy near Peosta. The family-owned dairy milks about 850 cows and produces about 2.7 million gallons of milk annually, according to Rick Reuter. The family prides itself on not only producing healthy, high-quality milk, but in making sure that the cows remain comfortable year round.

“We strive to run the dairy in such a way that consumers are confident in the both the product quality and the animal care,” Reuter told the tour group. “We focus on the end result of producing the safest, highest-quality milk for the consumer.”

The IGIA is a partner of the Iowa Food & Family Project and the tour allowed grocery leaders to gain a better understanding of farming.

A farmer describes the milking process to visitors. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

A farmer describes the milking process to visitors. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

Gary Munson, a representative from Kellogg’s USA, jumped at the chance to take the tour after watching a program on Iowa Public Television about a large dairy in Indiana.

“I was more impressed with what I saw today than even my expectations could match,” Munson said. ”For instance, the first place we went to was so clean, I can’t imagine how much time it would take to keep it like that. I was really impressed.”

The second farm the group visited was at the Hoefler Dairy near New Vienna. The family-owned dairy began in 1962 and sets itself apart by using three robotic milkers. The milkers allow the cows to decide when they want to be milked, which is usually three times a day.

“If the cow feels the need to be milked, she just simply walks to the robotic milker,” Joan Hoefler explained.

housed in free stall barns equipped with waterbeds and mattresses for the cows to lie on. The cows also have constant access to food and water.

Heidi Boehme, who grew up on a farm, attended the farm tours with her children to show them how farm families work together.

“Dairy is a big part of our life because my husband works for Wells,” she said. “Getting to see the process of how milk gets to our table interests me. It was also interesting to see that there is more automation today than when I was growing up on a farm. But, even with the automation, you can tell that farmers and their families play an active role.”

The tour ended with participants talking with the dairy farm families while enjoying fresh ice cream.

Originally published for the Iowa Soybean Association. Find more great stories at: www.iasoybeans.com/news